The Weekend Starts Now taped its fourth show at the Chef Shack Ranch on Monday, August 17.
This weekly podcast is a joint project of the Heavy Table and Secrets of the City, and it covers art, music, food, drink, culture, and more in the Upper Midwest.
Our podcast is brought to you by Annie B’s Popcorn and Caramels. Annie B’s has been handcrafting caramels and popcorn in small batches since 1978. Their products are all-natural, gluten-free, and made in Minnesota. Get a onetime discount of 20 percent off any order at anniebs.com with the promocode “Weekend.” Offer expires 8/31/15.
Hear the whole episode here … (We’re no longer breaking the show out into individual segment files, but we’ll keep listing them so you can preview what’s on tap.)
SEGMENT 1: INTRODUCTION
Taylor and James talk summer vacations and the joys of Maine.
SEGMENT 2: JOSH MOHR FROM FLANNEL ATHLETICS
SEGMENT 3: JULIE HAYS OF URBAN GROWLER
Bartender Julie Hays talks beer (and more) as Urban Growler turns 1.
SEGMENT 4: WHAT’S IT ABOUT
The new subject quiz show that’s sweeping the nation.
SEGMENT 5: YOUR WEEKEND PLANS
4ontheFloor, a washi Tape exhibit, and more.
When attempting to visit so many disparate and unfamiliar restaurants in a limited amount of time, deciding what to order can be a tricky process that can squander valuable minutes. We’ve found it useful to have a set of guidelines to help steer our group’s decisions. And we thought you, too, might find them useful. So we present to you now our …
Foolproof Guide to Ordering (When You Don’t Know What to Order):
1. If a restaurant advertises itself as “The Home of” something, order that thing.
2. If a menu item bears the name of the restaurant (or vice-versa), order it.
3. (or 2a.) If a menu item bears the name of the founder / owner, member of the staff, or regular patron of the restaurant, order it.
4. If the restaurant claims to be the originator of a particular dish, order it (e.g. the “Jucy Lucy” at Matt’s. See also, the “Juicy Lucy” at 5-8 Club).
5. If when asked for a recommendation, the server begins listing menu items willy-nilly, you may safely ignore them. If they emphatically blurt out a specific item, order it.
6. Ask the server what dish they like best, what dish is most popular, and what dish the restaurant is known for. If all three questions yield the same response, order it.
7. If you’re at an ethnic restaurant, order the dish that is most representative of the culture. Never order from any section of the menu that also contains burgers or chicken nuggets.
8. If a menu item is called out as a specialty, favorite, or signature dish, order it. If it’s labelled new or just added, avoid it.
While many of these guidelines have been developed over the course of our Central Avenue Checklist journey, they can be applied to almost any dining situation. They are by no means comprehensive. Nor are they meant to be strictly followed. Use your judgement. And if you think of any guidelines we’ve missed, add them in the comments below. — M.C. Cronin
Read the other installments of the Central Avenue Checklist here: Paradise Biryani Pointe to Flameburger, Dong Yang to Big Marina, New York Gyro to Jimmy’s Pro Billiards, El Tequila to The Heights Theater, The Chilean Corner to El Taco Riendo, the Bakery Edition, Hill Valley Cafe to Ideal Diner, and Al Amir Bakery to Fair State.
Pico de Gallo Mexican Grill
2416 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis | 1 mile from Broadway Street
You’d think it would be hard to miss a place with its name emblazoned across a diamond-plate chrome sign. Something like that would be conspicuous in just about any other location, but at Central and Lowry, Pico de Gallo gets swallowed up in the profusion of awnings, window graphics, and curb signs surrounding it.
As you enter the space, a mural on the wall depicts downtown Minneapolis at night. A Pico de Gallo sign painted into the scene makes it appear as if the restaurant sits right in the heart of downtown, rather than a few miles away. We’ll call it artistic license. But there’s something about this detail (along with the diamond-plate marquee) that speaks to a desire to stand out. It’s as though this little place — squeezed between Sen Yai Sen Lek and Durango Bakery on one side and El Taco Riendo on the other — is crying out to be noticed.
That is no easy task for a Mexican grill on this part of Central. But Pico de Gallo does have a not-so-secret weapon to set itself apart: juice.
Appropriately, the juice bar is a focus of the interior design. A decorative fence of real pineapples pokes up around the perimeter of it, surrounding limes, cucumbers, watermelons, carrots, mangoes, celery, apples, and beets, all awaiting their fate.
We ordered a couple of drinks from the menu and then watched as they were prepared. Whole chunks of fruits and vegetables were lopped off with a menacing knife. These raw pieces were unceremoniously shoved through a machine that chewed them up effortlessly and spat out unique concoctions that were vivid in both color and flavor. It was a brutal, unvarnished process that was somehow beautiful to witness.
And while it was easy to be enamored of the juices (and agua frescas), a massive collection of salsas and pepper sauces on the counter served as a reminder that Pico de Gallo also offers a full menu of authentic Mexican food that we were eager to try. — M.C.
One of the menu’s specialties was a cheese-meets-meat item known as a “carniqueso” ($9). We ordered ours with steak, and the result was something akin to a Philly cheesesteak: small, tender bits of meat that just about melted into the cheese sauce surrounding them — plus warm, slightly charred bits of cactus. This, to us, was exotic comfort food, something we’ve never had before that made us feel right at home. If we pull together a “Top Ten Dishes of Central Avenue” list, the carniqueso may well be on it.
Our small, onion- and cilantro-bedecked tacos were all good, if not remarkable: our lengua (tongue) taco was funky and tender, our al pastor soothing and simple, and our chicken tinga taco laid back and mellow. — J.N.
Sen Yai Sen Lek Thai Rice & Noodles
2422 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis | 1 mile from Broadway Street
Some of the places we’ve visited on this journey are what you could easily call undiscovered gems. Sen Yai Sen Lek, is not one of them. Not because it’s not a gem — which it certainly is — but because it is clearly not undiscovered, as evidenced by the hordes of patrons at every table and the T-shirts for sale by the register.
The atmosphere at Sen Yai Sen Lek is warm and inviting. Brightly colored walls are dotted with paintings and photos of Thailand. The wooden chairs, tables, and floors have been worn by use down to their most comfortable form. Everyone here seems to know one another — or acts as if they do.
Sen Yai Sen Lek has the heart, soul, and energy of a friendly neighborhood bar. Except that instead of burgers, fries, and beer, they serve Po Pia Sod, Pad Kee Mao, and yes, beer.
The city council member for the ward, Kevin Reich, joined us. He told us he’d spent some time in Thailand. While there, he went on a quest to find what he called “the hot dish of Thailand”: the dish people would make for family dinners, rather than the standard fare you might find at a Thai restaurant. Eventually, he was invited into a home to try Pad Bai Gra Pow. He told us that until Sen Yai Sen Lek, he’d been unable to find the dish in any Thai restaurant. And now he’s a regular.
Reich also introduced us to Joe Hatch-Surisook, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Holly. He is a soft spoken and gracious man who talks with genuine affection about the neighborhood. And it’s clear the restaurant has taken on the personality of the owner. — M.C.
The Pad Bai Gra Pow ($12) came highly recommended for a reason. This bright, healthy mashup of greens, garlic, chilis, and peppers was blessed with a liberal dose of Thai basil and a fried egg, and it was, somehow, far more than the sum of its parts. It felt both hearty and sophisticated, comforting yet far from dull. It makes perfect sense that it’s regarded as warm, homey soul food — there’s a lot going on beyond the dish’s humble exterior.
We also really enjoyed our Pad See Iew Gai ($11.50), a mellow, properly seasoned take on the classic noodle dish with egg, soy sauce, and broccoli. Our soft pillowy noodles were thoroughly cooked but not overdone or falling apart, and noodle texture is absolutely key to making this dish more than just a mushy pile of salt. — J.N.
2402 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis | 0.9 miles from Broadway Street
Simplicity is difficult to achieve. So difficult in fact, that many in the restaurant business don’t even attempt it. Instead, they aim to please as many people as possible. Menus fill multiple pages with an exhaustive list of choices. Coffee shop chalkboards become obscure word labyrinths with handwriting contorted to fill every square inch of space.
Not at Anelace.
The menu here is no bigger than an oversized postcard, with legible type and white space to spare. They’ve culled the typical coffee shop menu down to a few refined essentials. And by offering only a few items, they’ve been able to concentrate on delivering the best: a few specially sourced coffees, a few organic teas, a few house-made flavored syrups, and a few local bakery items.
There’s nothing missing and nothing superfluous on the menu.
The space follows the same philosophy. The service counter and shelves are black; the coffee bar is stainless; the tile work, walls, and ceilings are white. Tall wooden benches run parallel to the coffee bar along a brick wall. There’s little ornamentation, and what there is feels essential. It somehow manages to be sparse and uncluttered without being uncomfortable, cold, or pretentious.
In a world overflowing with choices, Anelace is a welcome reminder of the beauty of simplicity. — M.C.
Our espresso was strong, clean, and clear in flavor. Our cortado? Rich, mellow, and smooth. Our cup of Guatemalan coffee was bright but not raw, and needed no sugar or milk — it was lovely just as it was poured. But best of all was our latte with cardamom syrup, which had the perfect, gentle amount of sweetness and an audible whisper of cardamom flavor. This was so smooth, so sophisticated, and so beautifully balanced that one of our tasters was moved to utter profanity. We are eagerly awaiting the advent of cooler weather so we can make this lovely beverage our weekly treat. — J.N.
Crescent Moon Bakery & Restaurant
2339 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis | 0.9 miles from Broadway Street
In many ways, Crescent Moon is the opposite of simple. It is at once a Middle Eastern bakery, a restaurant, a coffee shop, a grocery, an ice-cream parlor, and a pizza joint.
In contrast to the sparse feel of Anelace, the interior is a cacophony for the senses. Sponge-painted walls and arches, brick counter-surrounds, ceramic tile floors, industrial wire racks and coolers, copper ceilings and copper-framed mirrors, ornate glass drop lamps and chandeliers, baskets filled with plastic plants and flowers.
Yet, somehow in this mishmash, there’s an underlying humanity and authenticity. You can rest assured, there is no corporate machine behind this place.
And while there is an abundance of choices, Crescent Moon does have one particular specialty. You can’t miss it. It’s advertised on a giant banner in an outside window, featured on the menu, and bouncing across flatscreen monitors throughout the space. Crescent Moon is “The Home of the Football Pizza.”
So according to the first rule of our Foolproof Guide to Ordering, it was immediately clear what we should order, although we did order a few other items for good measure.
The booths here, by the way, are ridiculously big. Take the booth you’re imagining and double or triple it. Are you picturing it? Good. Now take two of those and put them together. That’s how big the booths are. They’re designed for a culture where large extended families share meals together. And while we were there, that’s exactly what we saw.
To be clear, the Football Pizza isn’t a football-themed pizza. The name is a reference to the shape. Crescent Moon also offers a traditional, round pie, but really, who would want to order round at “The Home of the Football Pizza”?
And if there was any question of how serious Crescent Moon is about owning the market on Football Pizzas, it was immediately answered when the owner gave us a sneak preview of his new logo.
The whole thing is centered around a familiar, oval-shaped illustration. “Do you see?” he said, eager to make us understand, “It’s half pizza, half football.” Then he paused, unsure we were really getting it. “Or if you prefer, half football, half pizza.”
Crescent Moon’s Football Pizza ($14 for a large meat-lover’s pie) is, as far as we’re concerned, one of the signature food experiences of Minneapolis. Part of it is that, yes, the soft, yielding, flavorful characteristics of Afghan flatbread make for a beautiful pizza. And part of it is that whether you’re ordering a chicken pizza, or a gyro pizza, or whatever you end up with, the sauce / cheese / onion / topping / crust interplay is just lovely. But it’s mostly about the green sauce: the bright, flavorful, tangy sauce that elevates the football pizza from “pretty good” to “legendary.” If Papa John’s and Domino’s were on their game, they’d start throwing this stuff in with every pie they delivered — it’s transformative.
While we were at Crescent Moon, greedily devouring a massive Football Pizza, we also tried the restaurant’s kourma ($10), which was lovely. It boasted a rich carrot-and-raisin sweetness, a real depth of spice, and exceedingly tender meat; the beef version, in particular, was velvet soft without disintegrating.
920 Lowry Ave. NE, Minneapolis | 1 mile from Broadway Street
We stepped into a dubiously rickety elevator with carpeted walls. The carpet, we could only assume, was put there as a safety measure to cushion the blow when the original elevator cable inevitably gives way. Immediately, we began to question our judgement.
We’d committed to trying every independent restaurant on Central Avenue, but did that really include a pancake breakfast on the second floor of a Masonic hall? Steeling our nerves, we dedicated ourselves to the task.
The elevator arrived safely, and we walked down a narrow corridor toward the main hall, where a cheerful gentleman with a cash box awaited our payment.
There were tables scattered around the room, and only a few other diners. It felt as if we had walked in on a family breakfast. But rather than being treated as outsiders, we were received politely.
The men running the show — all members of the Arcana Lodge — were welcoming and friendly. They told us the breakfast is as much a fundraiser for building repairs as it is a community outreach program, and that they were glad to have us.
Through an open kitchen window, we watched our food being prepared at two archaic steel griddles, each a flat slab the size of a large door, with a line of bone-colored ceramic knobs running along the edge. They looked like something Dr. Frankenstein might have fashioned to prepare his breakfast sausage links.
We were told by one of the volunteer cooks that the griddles were custom made from locomotive plates that were donated to the lodge by a railroad company many years ago. The railroad may or may not have known about the donation, he added with a wink.
He used a stainless pancake dispenser to drop perfect circles of batter onto the griddle. Plop. Plop. Plop. We asked if the pancakes were made from a secret family recipe. “Yep,” he said. “You open the bag and add water.”
A man, who was apparently next to preside over the lodge, offered to give us a tour of the rest of the hall. We were happy to take him up on it.
He took us to the meeting room — a rectangular space with raised seats lining the perimeter and an altar in the middle. It was a time capsule of reverence and ceremony, and we couldn’t help but feel somewhat strange being here, as if we had wandered into a secret place. There’s even a peep hatch in the entrance door.
But our guide assured us that the Arcana Lodge wants to dispel the myth that the Masons are a secret society. They want to open up to the community. And what better way to start than a pancake breakfast? — M.C.
At $8, the value of the Arcana pancake breakfast really can’t be beat. The meal includes eggs, bacon, coffee, OJ, and the titular disks themselves. The bacon was nothing fancy, but it was crisp, and the eggs (we tried ours scrambled) were fine fuel for the day. The pancakes were better than most we’ve had in restaurants — light, fluffy, chewy, and unpretentious. We’re no fans of the plate-sized, inch-thick, bready abominations that seem to be the norm in a lot of eating establishments, so every time we get back-to-basics flapjacks like the ones at Arcana, we thank our lucky stars. — J.N.
This post is underwritten by Nordic Ware.
Every so often, we like to take a sampling of bakery-made pies in the Upper Midwest to see how piemaking, one of the most delightfully Midwestern of food arts, is faring. Based on our most recent sampling, which angled at premium pies with a summery theme, the state of piemaking is reasonably strong. As per usual, our pies were drawn from a range of businesses that aspire to baking excellence, and as per usual, we couldn’t get a pie from every business within the metro area that might put forth a decent contender — this group of 15 will have to do as a cross-section of the industry at the moment.
Our judges were Becca Dilley, Maja Ingeman, Varsha Koneru, and Amy Rea.
LoAnn Mockler hosted us at the Nordic Ware Factory Outlet Store, and James Norton organized the event, removing labels and packaging and numerically flagging all the pies so that we were tasting blind.
Nordic Ware, now in its 69th year, is a family-owned, American manufacturer of quality cookware, bakeware, microwave and barbecue products, and specialty kitchenware distributed worldwide. The Nordic Ware Factory Store is frequented by home cooks, chefs, and restaurant owners and hosts twice-monthly evening classes. 4925 Highway 7, St. Louis Park, 952.924.9672, www.nordicware.com.
The pies below (with the exception of our overall winner) are presented in order of price per square inch, our standard measure of pie value.
PIE MAKER | PRICE OF PIE | DIAMETER | PRICE PER SQUARE INCH | FLAVOR
A Baker’s Wife | $14 | 10″ | 18 cents | Cherry
There wasn’t much about this pie that tasters liked — one called it “an abomination,” saying its aggressively sweet and seemingly cocktail-ready cherries would taste better “added to some bourbon for an over-the-top sweet Manhattan.” “Needs some tart [flavor],” wrote another, milder-mannered judge. “Less sugar, more tart cherry,” concluded the fourth.
Lunds & Byerlys | $13 | 9″ | 20 cents | Strawberry-Rhubarb
The crust? “Overcooked, too sugary.” The filling? “Gelatinous, pectin-filled, too sweet,” and “syrupy.” Overall? “A sad fate for rhubarb.” Sometimes a good price doesn’t make for a good value.
Surdyk’s | $17 | 10″ | 22 cents | Blueberry-Blackberry
“Not too sweet” with an “almost astringent tartness,” the Surdyk’s pie pleased our tasters with a filling generally lauded as “balanced” and “fruit-forward.” The crust was deemed “too chewy,” and “soggy,” but the filling saved the day, on balance.
AWARD — BEST VALUE: We’re used to Surdyk’s charging a premium (and delivering value for that price), but the Surdyk’s pie was ultimately one of the least expensive we purchased, while still offering some noteworthy pleasant flavor sensations. — James Norton
AWARD — BEST WRAPPED: The Surdyk’s pie came to us wrapped in about 50 layers of plastic, enough to protect the pastry from an accidental fall or a direct hit from a Hellfire air-to-surface missile. Spectacular. — J.N.
Cocoa & Fig | $23 | 10″ | 29 cents| Strawberry-Rhubarb
This pie was our overall runner-up, lauded for a “not too sugary” crust that was “fine and structurally adequate,” and a filling that erred on the sweet side, but was ultimately “in balance.” “Would eat again 10 times over,” wrote one judge; another noted “too sweet, but not horrendously so.”
AWARD — MOST EVOCATIVE OF SUMMER: The small pieces of strawberry and rhubarb in this light, bright pie held their shape and texture and packed tart flavor that was nicely balanced with the sweetness of the dish overall. This is the pie that we’d choose to eat on the deck, while savoring the last of the August sun. — J.N.
AWARD — BEST PRESENTATION: We also liked Cocoa & Fig’s pie on a “judge a book by its cover basis.” Its thin, competently cut lattice crust offered regular windows into the cheerful fruit contained within. — J.N.
Sarah Jane’s | $14.75 | 8″ | 30 cents | Peach
The “puzzling” and “weird” sour cream in this peach pie left most of the judges confused … and about half of them pleased. Although it was “not summery,” it was lauded for being tart. “I think it works,” wrote one judge. “Really interesting pie — I like the mix of texture and tartness,” wrote another.
AWARD — MOST UNEXPECTED FLAVOR COMBINATION: Although, overall, the flavor divided the judges, everyone agreed that putting sour cream in a pie with peaches was creative and a worthy experiment, an unusual alternative to using something sweeter, like ice cream. — Amy Rea
No Coast Pie Co. | $20 | 9″ | 31 cents | Lemon-Raspberry Chess
Newcomers No Coast wowed a couple of tasters with its high-octane, super sweet, super lemony flavor bomb of a pie. Critics noted “you shouldn’t need a steak knife to cut the crust,” and “starts tart, then hella sweet — leaves an aromatic finish.”
AWARD — BOLDEST PIE: This lemon bomb was a startling flavor revelation, yelling defiantly where most of our pies chatted or whispered or just sang sweet, syrupy nothings. It’s always fun to see a cook or baker go for broke, so we had a blast with this pie. — J.N.
Key’s Cafe | $20 | 9″ | 31 cents | Strawberry-Rhubarb
The mounded oatmeal crumble atop this pie made a real visual statement, but it was universally disliked for its amplitude: “waaay too much,” wrote one taster, while another noted “too much crumble, which given my love for all thing crisp- and crumble-related, I never thought I would say.” The “earthy effervescence” of the rhubarb won over a couple of tasters.
Birchwood Cafe | $25 | 10″ | 32 cents | Blueberry-Raspberry-Strawberry
Something went haywire in the baking of this pie, which was “undercooked in spots,” with a “weird flavor.” On the whole the pie was “very tart,” “so bitter,” and runny, save for a thick, grainy ball of what was, as best we could determine, some kind of thickener like corn starch.
France 44 | $23.70 | 9″ | 37 cents | Strawberry
“Don’t be so stingy with the lattice crust!” wrote one taster; another wrote “fresh strawberry flavor, and I enjoyed this pie overall, but no one aspect had a wow factor.” The “real strawberry flavor” seemed to be the pie’s strong point.
AWARD — MOST TRUE TO FRUIT: This pie’s underpowered crust didn’t bring much to the table, but (mostly) no matter: the vibrant strawberry filling was easily the star of the show. We liked the still-present snap to the berries and light-handed sweetness: this one almost reminded us of the kind of lightly sugared, quartered strawberries one spoons atop shortcake. If you’re looking for real strawberry flavor — or really, a pie that legitimately tastes like the sum of its (fruity) parts, this one may be right up your alley. — Maja Ingeman
Seward Co-op | $19 | 8″ | 38 cents | Cherry
“The crust has a terrible aftertaste and is too thick on one edge,” wrote a not-very-charmed judge about this cherry pie that was filled with what another judge characterized as “gross cherry jam.” Still another taster wrote: “Terrible … six sips of coffee later, and it’s still haunting my tastebuds.”
Sun Street Breads | $20 | 8″ | 40 cents | Peach-Ginger
This pie’s crust was beloved (“firm but still tender!”), and while the filling was seen as “a touch too sweet” and underpowered vis-a-vis the ginger, the overall verdict was quite positive. “Delightful flavor” in the crust, wrote one judge, who also faulted the pie for a “weird” aftertaste that might have come from “old powdered ginger.”
AWARD — BEST CRUST: Before we took even a bite of this pie’s crust, we figured it would be good: a light tap of the fork yielded an audible flaky-crunch sound. The crust yielded easily to the fork, yet provided a crisp counterpoint to the texturally wimpy peach filling contained within. Flaky, buttery, and beautifully golden brown, this pie deftly outmaneuvered its competitors, avoiding the gelatinous goo and the tough-as-a-rock exterior we found in other pies. — M.I.
Rustica | $32 | 10″ | 41 cents | Fruit Tart
This fruit tart looked like a nightmare, its soft, custardy interior splatted around the box as though it had been hit by a tiny, localized tornado. But it tasted like a dream: “SO GOOD,” wrote one judge, with a “custard that has gorgeous vanilla flecks — creamy and wholesome.” “Not too sweet, with a great shortbread crust — buttery,” noted another taster. Expensive? Yes. But, we concluded, worth the price.
AWARD — FAVORITE NON-PIE: One of the favorites of the night was Rustica’s “pie” that wasn’t a pie at all. We were skeptical that a fruit custard tart would be able to capture the fruit-forward, summery feel we were expecting (and it certainly didn’t win us over with its looks). But the custard was silky, filled with black specks of vanilla bean (so you know they used the good stuff), and paired perfectly with the buttery shortbread and the freshness of the strawberries. With 13 pies ahead of us, we were told to pace ourselves, but all four judges couldn’t help cleaning their plates. — Varsha Koneru
Salty Tart | $30 | 9″ | 47 cents | Triple Berry
Topped with a crumble described as a “sweet, thick, mealy goo,” this pie struck out with our tasters, who thought the fruit had a “weird,” but not “unbearable” aftertaste. Comments including “mushy,” “overcooked,” and “a non-starter for me,” mark this pie as the weakest value of the evening.
Patisserie 46 | $28 | 8″ | 56 cents | Raspberry Tart
The “great generosity” of raspberries atop this tart made for a charming appearance (“I perceive a mound of raspberries like this as value,” wrote one judge) and a nice fruit-forward taste. The tart’s custard was “eggy,” and “well-set,” but “a little gritty.” “Crackerlike crust — but I liked it!” noted another, who described the tart, the most expensive of the evening, as “good, but not great.”
Turtle Bread | $23 | 11″ | 24 cents | Strawberry-Rhubarb
“The rhubarb is delicious and the texture great,” wrote one judge of this pie, which another taster hailed for its “good balance of sweet and tart” and yet another liked for its “great taste overall.” While our tasters didn’t like the chunky bits of sugar atop the crust, the rest of the pie won plaudits.
AWARD — BEST OVERALL: Turtle Bread accomplished what several other bakeries couldn’t: they managed to keep the filling from being too mushy, and they highlighted the sweet and tart aspects of the strawberries and rhubarb to great effect, without toppling over into sugar insanity. With less sugar on the crust, this would be the perfect summer pie. — A.R.
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.
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.
If you head west from the west metro on Highway 7, after an hour or so you’ll find yourself in the town of Hutchinson, surrounded by miles of farm fields, the South Fork of the Crow River, and Campbell and Otter Lakes. It’s a thriving town that’s home to both industry and agriculture, and it has its share of chain eateries and fast-food joints. Fortunately, it also has Zella’s.
Zella’s is located in the center of Hutchinson’s main street, appropriate for a place that is firmly rooted in its community. The interior is upscale, yet warm and inviting, and service is friendly and efficient. Best of all, the food is beautifully prepared, with a lot of thought, taste, and heart.
The local farm community plays a major role in what Zella’s serves, and Zella’s baked goods and homemade granola make regular appearances at the Hutchinson Farmers Market. The restaurant uses locally grown, organic produce and meat whenever possible — and treats them well. Take the Pork Tacos ($13). The pork shoulder comes from Hutchinson’s Legacy Lane Farm. It’s braised until it melts, combined with a zesty topping of apples, carrots, and red peppers, and served with a side of jalapeño-cabbage slaw. The result isn’t spicy, but wildly flavorful, with lots of satisfying crunchiness balancing out the tender meat.
The Mushroom Brie Flatbread ($12) features a heaping portion of sauteed mushroom finished in sherry and a more-than-generous portion of Brie. It’s a luxuriant dish, but the delicate, crisp flatbread keeps it from crossing into over-the-top richness.
Perhaps the most surprising dish was an order of sweet potato fries ($6) — these don’t tend to be that exciting (it’s a fry! But it’s nutritious!), but here they’re treated as if the nutritional aspect didn’t matter. Instead, you get a perfectly crispy-on-the-outside, melty-on-the-inside stack of fries, generously salted immediately after frying. They’re served with sides of chipotle ranch dressing and brown sugar mustard, but they’re pretty addictive on their own.
Ending the meal was a delight, with the two desserts ($6-$8) available during our visit. The first, Earl Grey Lavender Creme Brulee, boasted a heavily caramelized top that produced a satisfying crack as we broke into it. A thin layer of smooth creme, eggy and pleasantly scented with the combination of Earl Grey tea and lavender, stayed with us as we moved on to the next dessert, Raspberry White Chocolate Layer Cake. While many layer cakes are too cake-heavy or too filling-filled to be truly satisfying, this one reminded us of the best version of wedding cake, with several layers of cake, whipped cream, and a lightly-sweetened raspberry filling. This cake lover was sold.
Katie Cannon contributed to this review.
Farm-focused cafe in Hutchinson
14 Main St S
Hutchinson, MN 55350
Mon-Wed 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Thu 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Ask
ENTREE RANGE: $8-$22
PARKING: Plenty of free street parking