Chino Latino’s Menu Refresh

Mike Mommsen / Heavy Table
Mike Mommsen / Heavy Table

When a restaurant becomes a neighborhood mainstay, the challenge is no longer how to bring people in the door but how to keep them coming in — giving them what they love, but still exciting them. At a place like Chino Latino in Uptown, the challenge is even greater because the menu itself is focused on experimentation, which creates high expectations.

Amid the ever-changing cast of Uptown restaurants, the sometimes-incendiary establishment has carved out a firm identity for itself. But that hasn’t stopped executive chef Tyge Nelson, executive consulting chef Tim McKee, and their team from revamping the menu in an attempt to maintain some of that intrigue — and in doing so, making the biggest menu adjustment in the 15 years the restaurant has been open, according to the parent company Parasole’s website.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Twenty new dishes have been added to the menu thus far, and despite the media hype, our waitress could not confirm which dishes were new but only that the menu had been changed recently. Ever-popular tiki drinks were added, and new food items include different kinds of meats and additional toppings for Tio Pepe’s Taco Hole. And while we knew it only for its novelty, Cuy (guinea pig) is no longer on the menu, leaving a hole in the “72 Hour Notice” section.

While there are more new offerings to come, the current results are uneven, largely because the restaurant’s forte, happy hour, was mostly forgotten in the update. Chino’s happy hour has been a perennial late-night destination for suburban high schoolers (who enjoy scarfing cheap eats in a clublike environment) and bachelorettes fueling up on their way to or from Williams Pub and Peanut Bar.

Chino’s after-work happy hour starts earlier and goes later than most (4:30 to 7 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; 4:30-midnight, Sunday and Monday). The same deals are available during an additional late-night happy hour (Thursday through Saturday 10 p.m.-midnight). Deals include classic cocktails, local craft beers (now with Sociable Cider Werks for $5), and a smattering of sushi and other “Hot Zone” items at good prices. The happy hour shows the hard-working skill of the bartenders and wait staff, as they hustle to cover the lounge and bar area.

“Bar Food” at Burch Steakhouse and Pizza Bar

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

As compensation for brutal winters, Minnesotans are blessed with endless enviable summer activities. Deciding which outdoor movie, block party, or food fest to attend can be daunting. Now we’re adding one more item to your summer activity “to do” list. Unlike many of the others, this one isn’t free. It’s not even cheap. But it’s sure worth it. So here’s the plan:

1. Go to Burch at 5pm on a sunny day. You may need to leave work early, but this step is critical. Arriving at opening ensures an hour or two of peaceful eating and chatting before dinner service ramps up.

2. Sit at the bar. The staff is friendly, knowledgeable, and professional. And the bar! It’s beautiful, long, and wide enough for amassing plates and glasses, and the high-backed chairs are super comfy. Most importantly, the sun shines through the floor-to-ceiling windows, basking the bar in a warm summer glow.

3. Order a drink and sample the “bar food.” Technically, Burch doesn’t do bar food, but its small plates are absolutely worth a leery look from your coworker when you breeze out early. Our current favorite combo:

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Lamb Tartare ($13): Featuring extremely fresh, lean lamb from Niman Ranch, this cool dish is a summer treat. Whole mustard seeds, roasted fresno peppers, flake salt, and mint combine for serious flavor, mellowed skillfully by sheep’s milk yogurt. Our only critique (and it’s a very small one) is that the lamb flavor gets a bit lost among the other, strong components.

Leisure Hour at Cafe Maude at Loring Park

Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table
Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

Happy hour always sounds like a good idea. A few drinks. A few nibbles. Unwind a little after work. But then comes the wave of regret that tastes distinctly of cheap beer and fryer grease. Your ears are ringing with bad bar music, you board the bus tipsy, and you’ve ruined your dinner.

Maybe it’s a matter of expectations. Maybe “happy” is just too much to shoot for. Maybe we should aim for a few moments of leisure instead? And you know who has the leisure formula down pat? Cafe Maude at Loring Park. The downtown sister of the Southwest Minneapolis favorite (of the same name) serves up one of our very favorite happy — or, rather, “leisure” — hours.

Inside Cafe Maude, the booths and bar are rich and comfortably luxe (the sort of place that makes you want to say “lezh-yoor” instead of the pedestrian “lee-zher”). But, if you sit outside you get the full Loring Park experience, even if you are staring at the trees and the footbridge past the parking lot and a bored valet.

The menu is ideal for a light meal at the end of the day — a few tiny bites to keep the drinks flowing, like spiced popcorn and hummus, along with enough heartier choices to keep you lingering at the table.

Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table
Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

Speaking of hearty, the cheese curds — the Faribault Dairy Caveman Curds ($6) — stopped us in our tracks. It was one of those moments when your companion casually takes a bite of food, then stops dead still, lets her eyes grow wide, and motions urgently that you must. try. this. now. — even before she finishes chewing. The crust was tempura-light and perfectly crispy, even when the curds cooled (and how on Earth did we even let them cool?), flecked with paprika and a hint of the North African spices that set Cafe Maude’s global comfort food apart. Dipped in the sweet and complex tomato coulis, they were perfect. Perfect.

Alongside those high-brow / low-brow curds, we had a distinctly high-brow Smoked Fish Plate ($7). There’s nothing more leisurely than holding a triangle of buttery toast between two fingers and topping it with creme fraiche; smoky, tender, slow-cooked salmon; and salmon caviar — the kind that’s salty and sweet and pops just right in your mouth. The languid assembly slows down the moment and stretches out the conversation.

Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table
Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

Those are the absolute high points at Cafe Maude’s leisure hour, the ones that keep us coming back. We also highly recommend the slightly spicy lamb slider ($3), served with the same tomato coulis, and the thin-crust deep-dish pizza ($6.50). What makes the contradiction work is a papadum-like crackly crust cradling a spoonable layer of tomato sauce and gooey fresh mozzarella.

And the icing on our classic Loring Park cake? Just after our food arrived, Scott Seekins strolled past, a canvas under his arm. The artist, known for practically taking up residence in the Loring Cafe when that boho-luxe hangout was the place to be, seems to have found Cafe Maude to be a worthy successor. He paused a beat, surveyed the bounty on our table, and looked as if he might, in fact, invite himself to take a seat and share a moment of leisure with us. Regrettably, he strolled on.

We enjoyed our leisure without him. And, yes, we did ruin our dinner. And we didn’t regret it one bit.

Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

Cafe Maude at Loring Park
Bar and restaurant in Loring Park

1612 Harmon Place
Minneapolis, MN 55401
OWNER / CHEF: Kevin Sheehy / Matt Kempf
HOURS: Leisure hour Tue-Fri 4-6pm, Sat-Sun 2-6pm
BAR: Full
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / Not for Leisure Hour

Honey Night at Golden Fig and September 19 Tweet Rodeo

The latest from Twitter: The @fultonbeer brewers stop by @AZCanteen, @clairemiye calls the @Bradstreet601 happy hour one of her favorites, and tonight is Honey Night @goldenfig.

Another Stop for the Bacon Bandwagon and August 6 Tweet Rodeo

@MetroMixTC recommends Lucia’s happy hour, @BullRunCoffee shows off its new coffee cart, @BlackDogStPaul schedules a busy night tonight, @WFMStPaul slashes the price of Humboldt Fog goat cheese for the weekend, and @TheSaltyTart sells maple bacon caramel rolls — yum!

July 31 Tweet Rodeo

According to @MetroMixTC, Kenwood now boasts a farm, @Aebleskiver suggests gardening with the pros as part of a “Backyard CSA” (apparently it’s all the rage), @CommonRoots invites you to an art opening on Sunday at the café (Why should you go? Art, free snacks, and happy hour), @MPR comments on Obama’s choice of beer, and @CrispinCider’s delicious new Honey Crisp Cider is coming soon to a liquor store near you!

Lucia’s Adds Afternoon Happy Hour for Uptown Art Fair

Lucia’s is adding an afternoon happy hour during the Uptown Art Fair. On August 7-9, stop by from 2:30-4:30pm for an extended bar menu, discounted wine and cocktails, and $3 tap beers. [Hat tip to dedicated reader Laura.]

June 22 Tweet Rodeo

@MplsFarmMarket needs your vote to win $5,000, @AsherBMiller of 20.21 comments on the irony of a line of port-a-potties outside the Walker for Rock the Garden, @TownTalkDiner links to a discussion of happy hour with master bartender Nick Kosevich, @TCFoodies reports recent taco truck sightings and recommends watching the new film “Food, Inc.,” and @NgonBistro now serves Surly 16 Grit on tap.

Happy Hour Returns to W.A. Frost

W.A. Frost has announced a decent happy hour deal: Seven days a week, 4-6pm and 9-11pm. Drinks for $4 (regional tap beer, select wines, and cocktails), and food for $5 that currently includes the likes of Crispy Calamari with charmoula aioli, Asian BBQ Chicken Wings with lime yogurt and scallions, or Shrimp and Chorizo Croquettes with dill cream and frisee.

Ngon Vietnamese Bistro in Frogtown

Lori Writer / Heavy Table
Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Ngon Vietnamese Bistro (pronounced “Nong”) is charming and bright, with lacy curtains and blonde hardwood floors.  Offering contemporary and fusion Vietnamese cuisine, Ngon Vietnamese Bistro uses locally-produced ingredients wherever possible, including Thousand Hills Cattle Company’s grass-fed beef, Singer House Farms rabbit, and Fischer Farms pork.  They source seafood from Coastal Seafoods and (in season) produce from St. Paul Farmers’ Market vendors. Dinner entrees include contemporary takes on classic Vietnamese dishes from cơm tấm broken rice dishes to phở rice noodle soups, as well as fusion dishes, such as elk medallions or aniseed and fennel encrusted pheasant breast.

Ngon Vietnamese Bistro is more polished than the other Vietnamese restaurants along University Avenue, such as Saigon, or along Eat Street in Minneapolis, such as Pho Tau Bay, and emphasizes local sourcing and creating contemporary inspirations of classic dishes, over authenticity.

BEST BET: The duck confit appetizer, featuring Wild Acres duck breast with coconut curry sauce is always outstanding, and the phở tái ribeye, with tender slices of rare ribeye steak in a flavorful, fragrant broth is a lovely, though unique, rendition of the classic dish.  Save room for dessert, especially the ginger crème brulee or either the vanilla or chocolate mung bean cheesecake.

Ngon Vietnamese Bistro

Vietnamese Bistro in Frogtown, St. Paul
799 University Ave
St. Paul, MN 55104
OWNER/CHEF: Hai Trong and Jessica Ainsworth-Trong
Sun-Thu 11am-9pm
Fri-Sat 11am-10pm
Happy hour Mon-Fri 3-6pm and Sat-Sun 11am-5pm
BAR: Many beers on tap; exclusively Minnesotan.  Organic and sustainable wine by the glass and bottle.
RESERVATIONS/RECOMMENDED?: Yes and Yes for Weekend dinner.
VEGETARIAN/VEGAN: Yes/No, but they do have vegan wines available
ENTREE RANGE: Lunch ($8-11); Dinner ($8-20)