Brunson’s Pub (956 Payne Ave, St. Paul) is the newest bar and restaurant on St. Paul’s ever-improving Payne Avenue. The pub is riffing on well-known classics from various traditions (deviled eggs to banh mi), in some cases lifting them to culinary heights, and in others fumbling a bit.
Brunson’s has upgraded the aesthetic of the longtime previous tenant, Schwietz’s Saloon, spiffing up (but not abandoning) the dive-bar feel with beautifully refinished wood floors and gleaming tabletops. It’s dark, yet it will feel instantly welcoming to anyone who has whiled away too many daylight hours in such dark rooms. The servers and bartenders were friendly and seemed genuinely and contagiously happy to be there on all of our visits. Named for one of St. Paul’s original land surveyors, with references to Schweitz’s Saloon on the menu and the walls as well as the photos of old time Payne Avenue, the place is clearly invested in the neighborhood.
Your visit might begin with snacks. The House Popcorn ($1) was freshly popped and dusted in an addictively salty, cheesy powder. It would make an excellent companion to a series of tall cans of Hamm’s. The Deviled Eggs ($8) were good, but exposed some strong opinions on what makes a good deviled egg. We agreed that the picnic standard was undeniably improved by the addition of crumbled bacon, but relish added a crunchy, vegetal element that one taster found off-putting. The eggs were mildly flavored and could have used a little more mustard, or perhaps hot sauce, depending on where you’re coming from.
Try the Braised Beef Sandwich ($11). One of our tasters with knowledge of such things was reminded of a Philly cheese steak. The chewy roll (which they called telera, but we thought was more of a ciabatta) and the hard Swiss cheese mean it is not a Philly, but the well-browned and griddled beef, onions, and mushrooms, along with the zingy red-pepper aioli and slightly bitter arugula made an expertly composed sandwich.
We bring a healthy dose of skepticism when an old favorite is given a new twist. So it was that we couldn’t quite get into the Pulled Bacon BLT ($9). It raised the question: “What is pulled bacon?” Pulled bacon is smoked and shredded pork belly. A better question would be “Why pulled bacon?” The meat tastes bacony, but we’ve been denied bacon’s best characteristic: crispness. In the sandwich’s defense, if it were billed as an egg and avocado sandwich, our expectations might not have undermined our enjoyment.
The Banh Mi ($10) was similarly off the mark. The torpedo roll was all wrong, missing both the crackling crust and soft interior that typifies banh mi’s French-style roll. We wanted more pickled vegetables, and the slab of pork belly, while spiced well, overwhelmed a sandwich that should ideally be more of an ensemble piece. Upscale banh mi are popping up on menus all over town, and this one raises the question of why you would pay more than $3 or $4 for a sandwich that isn’t as good as Ha Tien’s bar-setting version.
Brunson’s does really good burgers, and with the exception of the bean burger, all of them are double patties. The Schwietz Burger ($10.50) is made up of a flavorful sausage patty and a beef patty. The patties are not pressed flat, so with the kraut and fried onions on a pretzel bun, the result is a large and messy endeavor. It wanders just far enough into bratwurst territory that it’s not going to be every burger lover’s thing, but if it is your thing, this is a tasty and well-made burger. The Classic Double burger ($9) received the hearty and spontaneous endorsement of the St. Paul police officers sitting at the next table. We agreed with St. Paul’s finest that this was a great example of an aptly named and upgraded fast-food classic — aside from the presence of a little too much lettuce for our taste.
Burgers and sandwiches come with outstanding house-made potato chips. Thick cut, browned, and crunchy, they go great with their French onion dip ($1 extra). Or for a dollar, you can upgrade to the peppery fries or a generous portion of mixed green salad. We liked the chips best, but it’s heartening to see that in a world of $4 side upgrades, Brunson’s is offering a great value. In fact, the menu is well-priced across the board, especially for chef-driven pub food.
Without a doubt, much thought and skill go into the food at Brunson’s Pub. There is a lot to like on the menu, and we just scratched the surface. On a street with Tongue in Cheek, Ward 6, Cook St. Paul, and Hamburguesas el Gordo (and many others), Brunson’s Pub makes a great addition.
CORRECTION, 4-29-17: A revision of this story corrected the pricing on popcorn ($1 for a single serving) and added a mention of the parking lot.
East Side Pub in Payne-Phalen, St. Paul
956 Payne Ave
St. Paul MN 55130
OWNER / CHEF: Thomas and Molly LaFleche / Torrance Beavers
Mon-Thu 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Fri 11 a.m.-midnight
Sat 10 a.m.-midnight
Sun 10 a.m.-11 p.m.
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $6.50-$12.50
NOISE LEVEL: Amenable din
PARKING: 24-car lot and street parking