Uptown Cafeteria and Support Group
Over the past several weeks, Uptown Minneapolis beheld the establishment of yet another imposing commercial monolith on the intersection of W Lake St and Hennepin Ave. Now shimmering against the blaze of summer, with its facade given a sense of urgency by the army of LA Fitness treadmillers in the upstairs windows, is the Uptown Cafeteria and Support Group, the newest outpost of the Edina-based Parasole Restaurant Holdings empire.
According to the Parasole press release, the Uptown Cafeteria is supposed to be a restaurant without a concept, making it an oddity among the company’s archetype-dominated portfolio. A quote attributed to Parasole CEO Phil Roberts sums up their approach: “There was one requirement for a place on our menu: Is the food delicious? … The only logic that ties [the menu] together is your appetite.”
The Uptown Cafeteria’s design is just as conglomerated as its menu. It’s a tripartite establishment: the “Cafeteria” is the restaurant proper; “Support Group” refers to the bar; and the rooftop patio is called the “Sky Bar.” Its decor ranges from retro carpeted wall panels and off-salmon-colored tabletops to Modernist plastic lounge furniture to clean, corporate lighting. On the night we dined here, the magazines available at the bar included Esquire, Seventeen (!!!), and Baltimore.
Roberts absolves the restaurant of the obligations of coherency, letting that burden fall on the shoulders of the patron. Consequently, its extensive menu traverses time and space in its quest to satisfy the vagaries of the Everyman’s gut instinct. Kansas City Bao Buns share menu space with Seared Ahi Tuna, sliders, Chinese Shrimp Fried Rice, and Hot Italian Beef sandwiches. The tables are overloaded with “just in case” condiments, including Mrs. Butterworth, Sriracha hot sauce, green chili salsa, and La Choy soy sauce.
To begin our meal, we ordered cocktails and items from the happy hour menu, which actually seems to be available for approximately 55 hours a week. The food items are comprised of a well-seasoned Mini Bacon Burger; a tepid, overly garlic-salted Fried Egg Sandwich; and Disco Fries (all $3). As it turns out, “disco” isn’t just a genre of dance music — it’s also a mixture of gravy and melted cream cheese! The fries were both addictive and an object of shame for the members of our dining party, who couldn’t help but sneak reluctant bites of them until the plate was taken away from the table. As one of our number commented, “It’s like 1975 in my mouth.” Regarding the other two items, a neighboring diner put it best: “Well, it’s cheap.”
The cocktails we tried were the Redrum ($10), the Whiskey Business ($9), and the Oh Yeah!! ($10). The Oh Yeah!! was served in a grape Pixy Stix-laced martini glass with the word “CAFETERIA” printed on its sides; so when you drink the martini, you’re constantly reminded of where you are (in case you forgot).
One diner noted that the Whiskey Business, a mixture of Southern Comfort, ginger beer, and lime juice, tasted very much like “floor cleaner.” We also ordered three shots of Happiness, which were small shooters of juice mixed with vodka. They were polished off quickly and didn’t make much of an impression. However, the Redrum, which comes off as a tamer version of Red Dragon’s Wondrous Punch, was actually quite refreshing and tasty.
Choosing among the Cafeteria’s schizophrenic menu items was a little overwhelming, but we finally decided to surrender to Roberts’ vision and order a diverse spread. We began with the bao buns ($7) and the Walleye and Sweet Corn Fritters ($9). The fritters were bland and mushy in the middle, though the presentation was devastatingly cute. (Or maybe I just have a soft spot for tiny metal buckets.)
On the other end, the meat in the buns, Kansas City-style pulled barbeque beef, was really well-sauced. If Cafeteria tweaks the dough to make it sweeter and less clunky, the dish could be a great one. The accompanying garnish, a light napa cabbage slaw, was so good that we wished it had more prominence in the dish.
The Big Hippie Salad ($13) was lightly dressed with a hemp seed vinaigrette and featured romaine lettuce, blanched asparagus, roasted beets, quinoa, red and green peppers, a heap of alfalfa sprouts, red onion, cucumber, and avocado. It was a great infusion of vegetation in a mostly meat-and-potatoes menu, but it definitely needs further tweaking. A few frustrating missteps were undercooked quinoa, nearly raw beets, and a too-small serving bowl, which made eating the salad rather complicated.
Playing it safe, we also went with a grilled chicken and brie sandwich ($10), which served its function well. The chicken was cooked perfectly, so props to the kitchen for that. The Hungarian beef goulash ($17) was also nondescript in taste, with its generic presentation making it seem more like a Wikipedia article of the dish rather than something genuine.
The Cafeteria’s menu also includes a “Slider” subcategory, with meatloaf, Elvis, and veggie options served on tall dinner rolls ($8-$9). (Surprisingly, the restaurant only offers one burger — “The Burger” — which comes in either “Pink” or “Not Pink,” in the Burger Jones style.) We went with the Southwest Veggie, a black bean burger that became a little cumin bomb in our mouths. Can we please issue a moratorium on cumin? I think we need to step back and take a little break for a second here.
Our final dish was Inga Svensson’s Rice Pudding ($3), which was served in an ice cream sundae glass with a dollop of lingonberry sauce and a tiny Swedish flag on top. When questioned, our poor server admitted that she had no idea who Inga Svensson was. In pursuit of the truth, we Googled the name and found nothing conclusive. It would have been a nice touch to have a real Swedish matron’s rice pudding on the menu, and perhaps our eagerness to seek out her identity spoke to our need to find something sincere. Regardless, the rice was crunchy and the pudding was unpalatably thick.
Overall, our server worked gallantly, weathering our hail of questions and recommendation requests well. The awesomely friendly bussers are also a bright spot.
What can one make of this restaurant, this Cafeteria that’s not actually a cafeteria? Its design is defiantly postmodern, and it operates without a definite center. Many of the menu items seem to be poor photocopies of the foods that lurk at the corners of the average twenty- or thirty-something Minnesotan’s frame of reference: “ethnic” takeout, Kobe beef, sugary cereal, and Nordic classics. On top of that, reading the cocktail menu is like wading through a thick pop culture miasma.
Though the Cafeteria’s philosophy of simply serving everything “delicious” seems straightforward, it seems as though the restaurant was experiencing a lot of difficulty with that one criterion. Without good food to back it up, the Cafeteria is just Applebee’s with a crasser sense of humor.
Parasole restaurants can be great, or at least competent — Muffuletta and Manny’s Steakhouse are good examples of that. The bottom line is this: Generally speaking, the Cafeteria does not serve reliably good, or even competent, food, and that aspect of the restaurant overshadows everything else it tries to bring to the table.
One last observation: The uniforms for the front-of-house staff were black T-shirts with a lunch tray logo on their fronts. Each logo featured a single verb in large print: WORK, SERVE, or POUR. As we found out, the words corresponded to the functions of each person; while the latter two were obvious, we figured out that the WORKers were the ones bussing tables. Call me crazy, but seeing working class people symbolically distilled into functions is kind of unnerving.
3001 Hennepin Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55408
OWNER / CHEF: Parasole Restaurant Holdings / Jeff Anderson
BAR: Beer, Wine, & Liquor
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / Yes for Weekends
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Scarcely
ENTREE RANGE: $8-30