Grand Cafe’s Instagram page is amazing — curated by chef/owner Jamie Malone and her crew, the feed features quirky, often hilarious clips urging followers to get to the Grand. Sometimes, it’s just a PSA: our favorite, a llama poking its head out a car window, saying only, “We are closed today. You will have to take your llama on a dinner date elsewhere.” Many of the clips come from a file Malone amassed over a period of years, awaiting the day her own restaurant could, well, speak for itself. Dogs shake cocktails, Joan Rivers messes with meatheads, and a barely velvet-clad Grace Jones wields a champagne glass, with nary a damn to spare. As Malone might say, the Grand Cafe has personality.
Talking with her, it’s clear that she is bringing her eclectic and carefully detailed vision to the service, menu, music, branding, and atmosphere into the art and soul of her thriving restaurant (including a majestic portrait of her winsome Italian greyhounds). Grand Cafe is the vision.
In 2016, Malone began to implement her vision as the chef of the old Grand Cafe, then owned by Mary and Dan Hunter. When the Hunters decided to sell in 2017, Malone and fellow chef Erik Anderson became the eager buyers. Since then, co-owner Anderson has left to helm the kitchen at Michelin-starred Coi in San Francisco, and Malone has continued to transform the new Grand Cafe into one of the best restaurants in Minnesota. Glowing reviews have been pouring in.
Recently, we sat down with Malone and chef de cuisine Alan Hlebaen.
HEAVY TABLE: How are things going with the restaurant so far?
JAMIE MALONE: We just hit six months. I think we’re really finally coming into who I want us to be. The idea has been the same from the beginning. But we’re finally starting to see all of these things … come to fruition. And it’s awesome.
HEAVY TABLE: What is the idea?
MALONE: So, you have these culminations through your whole cooking career, of these things that you want to make yours. And then certain parts change, as your tastes change. But there’s always those cores that are really important — what matters. And I started to become really interested in food that wasn’t new — food that was really old and just more genuine. I think it means more if you take a recipe that has been created by a culture that’s had hundreds of years to either refine it or change it out of necessity. To me, that’s so much more meaningful than putting five different flavors on the plate with five different techniques. So that had been in my brain in the last few years. I’ve also been interested in different regions of France and different regions of French food and getting into craftsmanship — the producers behind the food.
HEAVY TABLE: What do you do with the old recipes?
MALONE: I pragmatically look at the part of it that we love. I try to distill what’s great about it and then update the things that can be updated. If you take the pike [quenelle in crayfish sauce] — if we cooked that straight recipe, it probably would be kind of disgusting [laughs]. Like a pike mousse. So, we find ways to add depth of flavor and lighten it and make it ours. We’re taking these things that have been around for a while and just making it kind of exciting, fun.
HEAVY TABLE: Is there a thread connecting the food to everything else, like service and atmosphere?
MALONE: For me, the connecting thread is “Where do I want to go? What do I want to eat? What’s my dream experience?” Service has always been super important to me. If people are coming to your restaurant and they’re spending money, I consider that a pretty big honor. It’s like, “Don’t fuck it up.” Eating out, for me, is like a sacred thing; it’s really, really important in my life. And so when people choose to come and eat at our restaurant, I want to deliver.
HEAVY TABLE: What about the style of service?
MALONE: Our steps of service are very outlined. When you come here, I want your service to be the same all the time. There has to be some warmth to it, obviously. So we try to take away the rigidness. [When I dine out] I don’t always want someone in my space. When people are here, they’re having intimate experiences. … So, you’re getting taken care of in this detailed way, but it’s not look at me service. It’s like, we got you, but we’re going to let you have your space. We’ll keep getting better and better at it, but we just — the devil is in the details.
HEAVY TABLE: You mentioned taking inspiration from different regions of France. Is all of the food French-inspired?
MALONE: Mostly. We try to either have French or historical context in some way on everything on the menu. One little variant we allow ourselves is some Japanese stuff, which makes sense to us and has been in the concept from the very beginning. So, we take a little liberty.
Minnesota is a haven for more than just hyper-local beer. The state has also caught the eye of emerging regional brands including Bell’s Brewery of Michigan and Great Lakes Brewing Company of Ohio. Even national craft breweries like Colorado’s Odell Brewing Company and Brooklyn Brewery opted to be a part of the Minnesota scene early on. Clown Shoes Beer of Massachusetts brewed a Minnesota-exclusive bottle, Itasca Loonidragon, as a gift for fans, as Minnesota was one of its biggest markets.
At the same time, there are neighboring states with coveted beers that simply don’t cross state lines. New Glarus Brewing Company of Wisconsin is famous for getting smuggled into Minnesota bars on occasion, and Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. of Decorah, Iowa, became available to Twin Cities drinkers only recently.
In December, Madison’s Ale Asylum, Wisconsin’s third-largest craft brewery, began to distribute five of its top beers to a few liquor stores here. The brewery is known for its hop-forward offerings, and these can now be found in many liquor stores and a handful of bars throughout Minnesota. Heavy Table spoke about the recent expansion with Otto Dilba, Ale Asylum’s co-founder and vice president.
HEAVY TABLE: With so many markets to choose from, why Minnesota?
OTTO DILBA: Minnesota is a natural extension of our hardworking, Midwestern ethos. While we all may sit on opposite sides of the aisle when football Sunday rolls around, we have deep similarities regarding the importance of family, hard work, and dedication to the people and things we love.
HEAVY TABLE: How is the Minnesota market is different from your local one?
DILBA: The market shares much of the same enthusiasm for craft beer — with an emphasis on the craft part. Like Wisconsin [beer enthusiasts], our friends in Minnesota have a keen eye for quality-focused, consistent beer driven by the pursuit of the perfect pint instead of a marketing budget. In this sense, similarities far outweigh the differences between the two markets. And we like to celebrate those similarities rather than prey upon the differences.
HEAVY TABLE: With ever-expanding choices on liquor store shelves, how will Ale Asylum stand out?
DILBA: Ale Asylum is quite unique in that we only use the four ingredients traditional to the brewing process: water, malt, hops, and yeast. Adherence to this philosophy stems from the German Purity Law of 1516 called “Reinheitsgebot,” and we believe that with these four ingredients wonderful, limitless flavor and aroma are possible across the spectrum of craft beer styles. Because of this all-natural approach, all of our beers are vegan. [Editor’s note: Products derived from fish are often used to clarify beer.] If there are more than a handful of breweries in the U.S. that strictly adhere to this philosophy, it’s news to us.
Additionally, Ale Asylum creates unique brand images for every beer it distributes rather than a “template.”… This branding (along with all things Ale Asylum) is created in house. Our branding must pass the “tattoo test.” Every logo is built to be something that would look good as a tattoo. Go ahead, check out our logos and see for yourself! We think this lends a little more fun and a whole lotta love to each and every brand we produce.
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From our communication, it was clear that Dilba is also proud of his brewmaster, Dean Coffey, who has a 25-year history of making beer. He helped build Ale Asylum into the brand that it is today.
The Hopalicious American pale ale is one example of Coffey’s attention to ingredients and intensity of flavor. Eleven separate hop additions are made to capitalize on the aroma, flavor, and bitterness offered by the Cascade hop. The aroma is bright tangerine and resin, and the moderate bitterness doesn’t overwhelm the faint toasted-bread notes of the malt bill. Hopalicious is an ideal all-season beer, perfect for showcasing Ale Asylum to new fans.
Somewhat less successful was the Velveteen Habit IPA. Though the hop intensity was appropriate in terms of a bitter finish, the flavor came off with a generic, earthy bitterness that lacked other supporting notes on the palate. The aroma was mildewlike and faint overall. For an IPA described as juicy, it tasted almost old, but it wasn’t sweet or otherwise indicative of a brewing process problem. We found this surprising given the brewery’s track record as a consistent, reliable brand.
Look for Ale Asylum in six-pack cans ($10) and on draft.
We’ve seen our share of oddities on our checklist outings. Of course, that’s to be expected when you’re visiting smaller, often family-run businesses that live a little off the radar. But occasionally you see things that are so strange you just can’t seem to shake them. The mental image haunts you, popping up at the most random moments, forcing you to smile and shake your head in wonder all over again.
In the case of this outing, we were gifted with two such images. One was a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe containing a handmade crucifix where the body of Jesus was fashioned out of forks, complete with a ribcage represented by meticulously rolled metal tines. The other was a diorama featuring a life-sized Santa Claus mannequin sitting upon a throne surrounded by fluffy cotton snow and wrapped presents. Given the season, this would have been totally fine — quaint, even — except the entire scene was cordoned off with yellow caution tape as if Santa were the central figure in a crime scene investigation.
We won’t tell you exactly where we saw these things. That would be too easy. Instead, we’ll leave you to find them. Just follow in our footsteps. Even if you never actually find fork Jesus, we promise, the journey will be worth it. — M.C. Cronin
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
The East Lake Checklist is the third Heavy Table illustrated travelogue to explore a major gastronomic thoroughfare in Minneapolis and/or St. Paul. The East Lake Checklist is the Heavy Table’s follow-up to our 55-restaurant survey of independent eateries on Central Avenue and our 72-restaurant series about restaurants on the Green Line. We’ll publish five-restaurant installments biweekly until we’ve documented every nonchain spot on East Lake Street between 35W and the Mississippi River. (We’re estimating 75 spots, but we’ll see how it shakes out.)
This series is made possible by underwriting from Visit Lake Street. Heavy Table retains editorial control of the series — as with Central Avenue and the Green Line, this tour will be warts-and-all.
“From the river to the lakes, visitors and residents can shop local and be social on Lake Street. More information at VisitLakeStreet.com.”
1202 E Lake St, Minneapolis
A younger man told us to sit anywhere. There were a few tables scattered about, but we squeezed into one of the smaller booths. A moment later, an older man appeared, wiped off a slightly larger booth, and insisted we take it. He was gregarious, with a charming smile and a fatherly presence that told us he wouldn’t be denied. So we acquiesced.
There was no menu. Instead, the younger man offered us something called a Sport Plate. We went with it. There’s something kind of nice about being told what you’re going to eat every once in a while. And to be honest, the more exotic the cuisine, the more inclined we are to let those with more experience take the lead.
A few men were gathered at other tables. They hung out, eating and chatting and tapping at their cell phones. It felt like a ritual. A post-work stress reliever. A parallel world to a group of dudes gathering for a brewski at the sports bar after work. The primary difference being that here the TVs weren’t tuned to a bunch of knuckleheads yammering on about fantasy sports. They were tuned to a bunch of knuckleheads analyzing the news of the day on CNN.
As it turned out, the older man and the younger man were father and son — and owners of the restaurant. The father came out carrying our Sport Plate. He stopped about five feet from our table, showed off the plate to us, and in his best dramatic voice said, “You want some real fire?” He was proud to bring this food to our table.
When a restaurant owner approaches patrons with that potent a mix of confidence, humility, and humor, the food doesn’t even need to be that great to make the experience memorable. Fortunately, the food delivered. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
We always do our best to explain the cost of food at various restaurants, but when it comes to the East African-focused Ibrahim Restaurant, here’s what we’ve got, via our receipt: “Manual Transaction: $32.” There are no menus, and no prices posted on the wall. Ordering is less about selecting items and more about talking with your waiter about what you want while you slurp the unexpected but excellent chicken, corn, and onion soup spritzed with a bit of juice from a sliced lime.
For $32, our party of four had a feast. First, the soup. Then, hot tea with milk and spices, one of the better chai-like beverages we’ve had. Then, an appetizer plate: a spongy sweet bread that was eerily similar to Swedish pancakes, a soft roll with the eggy sweetness of a Hawaiian bun and the texture of a beignet, and a sambusa.
This sambusa was one of the best we’ve had. Full stop. Exterior: chewy and crunchy. Filling-to-crust ratio: perfect. Filling: deeply spiced, nicely minced, with a lingering, balanced heat.
The main course included a starch platter (we got a 50/50 mix of elegantly cooked fragrant rice and lightly vinegared spaghetti) and a meat platter with three meats. We chose the barbecue (chicken), the chicken steak (aka chicken cutlet), and the goat.
The dishes came with an optional ranch dressing (for the salad and barbecue), and two house sauces: a green herbal sauce and a pasty red hot sauce that is one of the strangest things we’ve ever tried. For a full fifteen seconds after you eat it, it has an almost jellylike sweetness. And then, the burn. It’s the slowest delay on a hot sauce that we’ve ever experienced, and it’s a total kick.
We liked all of our meats. The barbecue was flavorful but dry, but easily awakened by any of the sauces. The goat was perfectly done — not gamy, and not sinewy, but tender and earthy. And the chicken steak was tender and beautifully spiced, the crown jewel on the plate.
Plus, of course, bananas. To say that this meal was a good value for $32 is a radical understatement. It was a feast, and the warm hospitality sealed the deal. — James Norton
Que Chula es Puebla
Food Truck (generally around 1116 E Lake St, Minneapolis)
We stamped our feet and warmed our hands with our breath and waited for our food. It was a cold night. The woman and man running the place wore down vests and stocking caps. Their coordinated jockeying in the small space of the food truck was clearly earned with practice. Spend enough time cooped up together and you learn to anticipate each other’s moves.
As food trucks go, Que Chula es Puebla has plenty of charm. It’s painted a bright shade of avocado green. The logo on the front door is made up of a flat, almost South-Park-esque, illustration of a woman standing in front of a snowcapped volcanic mountain with the words “Authentic Cuisine of Puebla” just below her. They advertise “We Catering” on the side of the truck with a phone number just below it — just enough of a grammatical slip to underscore the authenticity, in case you doubted it.
Slinging street food on a sub-freezing night in Minnesota takes dedication. It’s a testament to how far our food-truck scene has come. It wasn’t long ago that we didn’t even have these trucks. Heck, it wasn’t long ago that various styles of Mexican food were lumped together as generic “Mexican.” Now we have semi-permanent food trucks serving up regional Mexican cuisines deep into the winter months. If we could just get the feeling back in our fingers. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The thing to get at the Que Chula es Puebla food truck is the Cemita ($8.50), a sandwich of flat-pounded meat and lettuce served on a massive, round sesame-seed roll. We got ours with a breaded beef cutlet that was roughly the size of a Frisbee but tasted considerably better. There’s not a ton of nuance to the sandwich, but there’s something about a comforting slap of carb (roll) on carb (breading) on protein (beef) that is perfect for standing around outside in 10-degree weather on a Thursday night on East Lake Street.
We also tried a couple of the tacos ($2) — asada and carnitas — and they were standard issue for Lake Street, tender and mild, ready foils for lime wedges, chopped onions, and hot sauces. — J.N.
Super Mercado Morelia
1417 E Lake St, Minneapolis
We’ll get to the deli in a moment, but first, let’s talk about the market. This place is amazing. The meat case alone is worth the visit.
There are mounds upon mounds of bulk carne asada and al pastor just sitting there ready to feed a party of 500 to 1,000 people. Then, there’s the surprisingly long pepper aisle. (It’s the aisle that’s surprisingly long, not the peppers. Though there are more than a few long peppers.) And don’t forget about bulk bins filled with tamarind pods and dry beans. Need a six-foot-tall stalk of raw sugar cane? Yeah, they’ve got that.
The deli area is sectioned off in a back corner of the market. There’s a small case and counter along with a smattering of tables and a large wooden hutch. Staring down from the wall is an iconic mural depicting Our Lady of Guadalupe that seems copied directly from the side of a tall, glass devotional candle.
An older woman brought out our food and then proceeded to open a drawer in the hutch and pull out silverware for our meal. At that moment it was hard not to feel as though we’d been transported to our grandma’s house. And the theme continued with the food. You don’t have to know the name of the dish you’re eating, to know when you’re eating a home-cooked meal.
The best detail, though, was the tablecloths, which were printed with a repeating pattern of coffee imagery (beans, grinders, mugs) along with the word “Coffee.” But barely noticeable, and also printed in a repeating pattern, was the phrase “sample text.” These cloths were clearly purchased because they were a bargain.
For every chef-driven restaurant with every detail down — every tablecloth perfectly matched, every candle thought out, every napkin placed just so — there are grandma-driven places that exist simply to make home-cooked meals for friends and neighbors. Whether it’s being served on Main Street USA or the back of a super mercado, you know soul food when you taste it. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Super Mercado Morelia is, like other grocery store restaurants we’ve tried on East Lake Street, sort of an enigma. There’s a window from a small, improvised dining room into a little kitchen, there are various dishes kept warm in chafing dishes, and navigating from square one, to food on the table, to check paid takes a bit of effort and whatever Spanish you can muster.
With some difficulty, we managed to order just one dish of chicken (not four) from the team working the market restaurant, and it was as homespun as you can possibly imagine, right down to the abuela serving it up — rice, beans, tortillas, and a tender roast chicken with vegetables, all with a nice salt and heat to it, as comforting as it gets. Ten dollars for the plate seemed perfectly reasonable to us.
The flan we grabbed from the rotating case ($3) wasn’t bad, but we can’t help but think of the perfect specimen we had at Homi back on University Avenue. This version was a bit too gelatinized and a bit underflavored but was better than some of the straight-from-a-mix versions we’ve tasted at other spots. — J.N.
1511 E Lake St, Minneapolis
How would you imagine a place called Taco Taxi to look and feel? Yep, that’s pretty much it. Yellow. And lots of it. With a few Checker cab patterns sprinkled about.
Going along with the taxi theme, the space is functional and built for service. It’s long and narrow with a few tables. You order at the front counter and you get to watch as they prep and cook your food to your liking. They chop meat and sling tortillas around the grill like pros.
And like any great cab driver, they quickly take you to your chosen destination. Which in this case happens to be the corner of Tasty Taco Lane and Big Burrito Avenue. The person behind the counter was confident that we’d be happy with our meal. And as it turned out, his confidence wasn’t just for show. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Taco Taxi knows tacos. You’d hope as much, but they really do. The tortillas, for starters, are some of the tastiest we’ve tried on East Lake Street, which is saying something. They had an almost buttery richness and a pleasant, supple texture.
All three of the varieties we ordered — asada, al pastor, and lengua ($2 each) — were satisfactory. The lengua’s mellow earthiness may have made it our favorite. The asada was a mild, salty treat, and the al pastor had a smoky onion thing going on.
The Mexican Asada Burrito ($7.75) is the second-best burrito we’ve tried on this crawl. It’s the “steakiest” steak burrito we’ve ever sampled, with a cranked-up umami that made it craveable. The only thing we missed — and the reason Taqueria Victor Hugo is our number one burrito stop — is a core of crunchy vegetables and sour cream to balance out the meat and rice that dominate this dish.
Our tacos and burrito came with an unusual watery, speckled salsa that might best be described as “umami” — a real blast of richness evoking roasted onions that enhanced the already smoky/salty thing going on with most of our dishes. — J.N.
1507 E Lake St, Minneapolis
The walls are littered with fishing nets and wooden captain’s wheels and fish sculptures and images of seaside villages. There’s an aquarium and a humongous mural of an equally humongous cruise ship. As with Taco Taxi, there’s no beating around the bush when it comes to the theme. In this case, it is clearly seafood. After all, the place is named for a common Caribbean fish.
The space itself feels like it’s built for events. It has an almost arcade-shop vibe. There’s a large central hall with high ceilings and a stage at one end. (The night we visited, a few kids were rehearsing their dance moves.) Off to the side is a large curving bar bathed in bluish nightclub lighting. There are multiple connected rooms that look as though they could be divided up into separate event spaces using partition walls. There was a karaoke setup, too.
If we’d visited on a Saturday night, something tells us, the place would be packed. But the night we visited, there wasn’t much happening. So we had plenty of time to try to follow the plot of the steamy Telenovela playing on the TVs. It seemed to revolve around every main character engaging in a torrid affair with every other main character. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Our waiter at Las Mojarras complimented our choice of the Piña Rellena de Mariscos ($18), half a pineapple carved out and filled with a warm mixture of cream cheese, shrimp, crab, and calamari. We were heartened by his endorsement, because frankly, the dish looked eccentric, but it had the “grab life by the ho-jos!” sort of enthusiasm that can lead to great things. But the finished product — a warmish soup of white sauce covering mildly flavored lumps of semi-identifiable seafood — was in the realm of the Crazy Curry Noodles of King Thai. Too much dairy, too much salt and garlic powder, not a great deal of anything else. And the actual pineapple, which might have brought a welcome zing of acid and sweetness, was utterly missing in action.
We also got a Mojarra Frita ($10 per pound), a dish that we figured was a lock. It’s fried. It’s priced by the pound. It’s highlighted in red at the top of the appetizer section of the menu. It’s THE NAME OF THE RESTAURANT. And it wasn’t too bad — an aggressively cooked fish with a decent level of salt, a bit dry, but for all the flash of the whole-fish presentation, far less challenging than its pineapple-based neighbor on the table.
Our margaritas (we tried lime and strawberry, and our non-itemized receipt doesn’t say how much they were, but we’re guessing about $6) were good for their ilk, which is to say they were not terribly alcoholic, powered by sour mix as opposed to tequila, and made to be slurped down rather than sipped carefully. They weren’t overly sweet and didn’t have any of the aggressive chemical flavors that often kill this variety of margarita, so they were OK in our book. — J.N.
One of the side benefits of writing about food is that people send you tips. Via Twitter, email, Facebook, and even Instagram, they trickle in and catch your eye. And while there’s always the occasional shill or unaccountably enthusiastic diner, most tips are right on. And they’re spotlights on corners of the food world that are easy to miss when you’re chasing the story-of-the-moment.
One such tip from a reader’s email, is the Tavial Grill in St. Paul. Open since 2014, Tavial looks like just another independent, family-owned Mexican restaurant — which is to say, one of the most reliably enjoyable types of restaurants in the region.
Tavial trades in pure comfort. Our Asada Burrito ($8) was like a hug in a tortilla: the rice and beans and steak in equal proportions, with a net of melted cheese to bring it together, and house salsas to wake the dish up and make it sing. Without the salsas, it would be a pleasant snooze of a dish, but with them it’s a compelling meal unto itself.
Similarly enjoyable was the steak Alambre ($11), a plate overloaded with green peppers, onions, steak, bacon, and cheese — a complete package of bright, smoky, salty, earthy, and meaty flavors made to be spooned into tortillas.
We also gave the Pork Tamale ($3.50) a shot, and we dug it. The salt level is on point, and while the heat seems mild at first, it builds and sneaks up on you in a pleasant way. Chase it with a sip of horchata ($3), which is clean, balanced, and sweet (but not sickeningly so, as is sometimes the case).
There’s no pretense at Tavial. The humble, “must’ve-been-a-Hardee’s” decor and seating is as casual as it comes, and there’s counter (or drive-up-window) service only. But that suits the food, which is mellow, kind, and approachable, perfect for the neighborhood and worth a stop if you’re driving by on West 7th.
Casual Mexican in West Seventh, St. Paul
1199 7th St W
St. Paul, MN 55102
OWNERS: Victor and Tanis Alquicira
Mon-Sat 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No (ask about lard; see reader comment)
ENTREE RANGE: $8-$12
NOISE LEVEL: Quiet
PARKING: Small lot, street parking