Our night started in a small room in the back of a Korean market at the far end of a strip mall on the southern edge of the tiny town of Hilltop, Minnesota (bordered on the east by Central Avenue). This was the first on our schedule of five restaurants, of which four were in the same Hilltop strip mall. But before we tell you about our experience, we need to acknowledge something:
We do read the comments, and we know people are passionate about the places they love. For good reason. Restaurants have a soul that transcends any one experience on any one visit. It’s the sum of many things — the food, the atmosphere, the staff, the patrons — steeped over the course of weeks, years, even decades. Familiarity leads to fondness — fondness leads to love. And love can’t be rationalized.
So this is a reminder of our humble goal. The Central Avenue Checklist isn’t about discouraging people from going places; it’s about challenging people to go someplace they may never have gone before. Our experience is just that, ours. Another night, another server, another dish, and your experience might be completely different.
We say this because for every peak, there must be a valley, and there will be both on the Central Avenue Checklist. We’re not here to judge. We’re here to tell you about our journey. Don’t forget to tell us about yours: #CentralAvenueChecklist.
This week’s checklist crew: WACSO, M.C. Cronin, James Norton, Becca Dilley, Ted Held.
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, Al Amir Bakery to Fair State, Pico de Gallo to Arcana Lodge, Karta Thai to Tattersall Distilling, Little India to 612 Brew, and Narobi to the End of the Line.
725 45th Ave NE, Hilltop | 3.9 miles from Broadway Street
The woman behind the counter looked us over and said, “You like spicy?” We hesitated, fearful that our idea of spicy and hers wouldn’t be in the same vicinity. Unfazed, she rattled off a series of numbers, “Number two, number four, number eight, number 11,” which seemed to correspond to the pictures of food above us.
Sensing our apprehension, an older customer in a “Purple Heart Combat Wounded Veteran” cap offered up a few of his favorites, too. “Number four, number two, number nine, or number 10.” He reassured us that he’d been to Korea many a time (having adopted three Korean children), and in his estimation, this was the genuine article.
Tucked into the back corner of a well-stocked Korean grocery store (with the largest containers of Sambal we’d ever seen, incidentally), Dong Yang was the high point of our outing in the Hilltop section of Central Avenue. You order at the counter, and when your food is ready, they call out to you, and you come get it. There is no ceremony or pretense, just top-notch Korean food.
We started with Pork Dumplings ($6), which were puffy and steaming hot, and had a fresh onion flavor. It was a solid appetizer, if not remarkable, and though we did not know it at the time, these would be the best dumplings of the night.
Dol Sot Bibimbap (stone bowl rice, $10) is always an impressive dish. It comes in a stone bowl that has been heated to a flesh-searingly high temperature. The rice rests at the bottom and vegetables, beef, and an over-easy egg are piled on top. You add a (non-Sriracha) red sauce made of vinegar, miso, sesame, sweetener, etc. and mix everything together into a delicious combination of tastes and textures. The bowl keeps cooking the food, so if you do not disturb the contents, your patience will be rewarded with a lining of brown, crispy rice. There aren’t tons of places in town to get Dol Sot, so Dong Yang’s excellent version is definitely worth checking out.
The BBQ Beef ($13) was sliced thin, cooked with chopped onion in a sweet and nutty sauce, and sprinkled with sesame seeds. A caramelized flavor added complexity, and there was nary a gristly bite to be found.
The highlight was the Spicy Pork Stir Fry ($11). Carrots, scallions, rough cut cabbage, and sliced jalapeno were cooked with bits of pork in a wonderful sauce that was glowing with red pepper and shimmering with what was at least partly sesame oil. The dish was vibrant and had an incredible depth of flavor, and the vegetables were cooked quickly, so they retained their color and crispness. It was a spicy dish, but not as punishingly so as the color of the sauce threatened.
All of the entrees were served with tiny dishes of kimchi and other excellent pickled vegetables. We were struck by the friendliness of the staff and other patrons. We received advice both on what we should order, and then on how to eat the Dol Sot Bibimbap. This contributed to the fun atmosphere of the modest dining room. It has been four years since Heavy Table reviewed Dong Yang, but it won’t be that long before we go back again. — Ted Held
Jalsa Indian Fast Food
Central Plaza, 855 45th Ave NE, Hilltop | 3.9 miles from Broadway Street
Our second restaurant of the night was also attached to a market, this one an Indian establishment named Pooja Grocers.
For Jalsa Indian Fast Food, “fast food” seemed to be more a motto than something they actually put into practice — it took twenty minutes for our food to arrive.
When it came, the theme was neon orange and yellow. The mango lassi was an oddly vivid orange and resembled a melted push-up pop. The momo dumplings, when cut into, spewed an iridescent yellow liquid that was especially vibrant against the white foam backdrop of the containers in which our food was served.
In many ways, Jalsa felt as if it had ambition to be more than a one-off — a kind of Chipotle for Indian food — but it couldn’t seem to escape the unrefined quirkiness of a small restaurant. — M.C.
Our visit to Jalsa started on a literally and figuratively bright note. Our mango lassis — bizarrely orange — were the right mix of sweet and tart. They refreshed us while we hung out, did a bit of shopping in the adjacent grocery store, and stared expectantly at the food window.
The first thing to hit our table was an order of Chicken Momos ($10). Those of us who know the spot-on momos from Gorkha Palace found these to be disappointing by comparison, oozing an off-putting yellowish oil and having a suspiciously uniform appearance. The latter is either a credit to a meticulous chef or thanks to the work of an unknown factory. That said, they had a depth of spice that was pleasant, and they were numerous enough to make the price tag seem reasonable.
Jalsa’s Dabeli Burger ($4.45) is an intriguing cultural artifact, a head-on collision between vegetarian Indian food and the Big Mac. A sweet, sesame-seed bun conceals a spicy-hot potato patty, overly aggressive raw onions, ketchup, peanuts, and tiny, crispy fried noodles that look unpleasantly larval. It’s one of the most interesting things we’ve eaten in years, and is really good food for thought. Not so much for the eating, but definitely for the thinking.
We’ve had many, many renditions of Chicken Tikka Masala ($10) over the years, and often make our own perfectly competent version at home. Therefore, with a bit of authority, we can declare the Jalsa version to be a real disappointment — a small portion of profoundly salty, otherwise underflavored sauce and ungrilled chicken chunks that appeared dyed a pinkish red, served in a depressing plastic foam bowl. Few of us got past the first bite.
An order of Gobi Manchurian ($7) paled before the glorious stuff we enjoyed at Paradise Biryani Pointe. Compared to the chewy-crispy, brightly flavored, lively gobi at Biryani Pointe, the Jalsa gobi were soggy, greasy, and seemingly flattened into an almost paste-like pile.
We had high expectations for Jalsa; we had hoped to find a place that had a simplified menu of a few food-truck-like smash hits (think Hot Indian Foods) and a polished approach to rapid service. The sense of novelty was fantastic, but the food didn’t compel another visit. — James Norton
Central Plaza, 875 45th Ave NE, Hilltop | 3.9 miles from Broadway Street
On paper, this was a genuine “Nordeast” bar. It was Tuesday night, so there was bingo in the bar area. Wednesdays, there’s a meat raffle. They had pull tabs, complete with a no-nonsense pull-tab booth attendant.
But it was also a pizza joint. And it was in a strip mall. And it was recently remodeled. And a World War II aviation theme ran through the place (even into the men’s restroom).
After bringing us a round of Apple Bombs (see below), our server sat down with us to take our order. It felt appropriate to get the Nordeaster pizza with sauerkraut, onions, polish sausage, and cheddar cheese.
While some of those telltale Nordeast edges had been sanded down a bit, the service was good, the patrons seemed happy, and the salad bar did offer three kinds of pudding: vanilla, chocolate, and butterscotch. Pleasant enough. Or maybe it was just the apple bombs talking. — M.C.
Signage in Tasty Pizza touts the restaurant’s famous apple bombs, Everclear-spirit-based apple shots that are $2 apiece, or $1 when the Vikings put points on the board. We’ve been known to make apple pie redeye at home (spiced apple cider concentrate cut with Everclear to create a 40- to 60-proof schnapps), so this stuff intrigued us. The actual shots did not disappoint. They arrived in frosted glasses and went down absurdly smoothly. It’s all too easy to imagine ordering these mellow libations again — and again.
Our Tasty Pizza itself was, in fact, reasonably tasty. We tried the Nordeaster ($12.40 for a small), which came topped with sauerkraut, onions, and Polish sausage. We were a bit bummed that the ultra-thin crust wasn’t crisper and crunchier, but the overall effect — smoky, slightly crunchy cheese bread — was enjoyable.
If you’ve had Iowa’s famous Maid Rite loose meat sandwiches (they’re delicious!), you’ll find the Tasty Pizza version ($7, or $9 for two) to be a school-lunch-evocative letdown: too slippery in texture and bland in flavor to count for much of anything.
And the restaurant’s so-called meatball sandwich ($9) is really more of a Hot Dago, with an Italian-sausagesque flavor to the meatballs, and melted cheese splashed across the top. A par-baked roll that was never actually fully baked was a disappointing touch, but the whole package was reasonably good.
Next time we find ourselves in Northeast, the game plan may well include pizza, copious apple bombs, and a designated driver. — J.N.
Central Plaza, 835 45th Ave NE, Hilltop | 3.9 miles from Broadway Street
The only sounds were the heavy sighs of our server. She had, in fact, managed to turn sighing into an art form. And her eye-rolls were equally impressive. Perhaps she was tired. It was getting to within an hour of closing, and we were the last party in the place.
As we walked out, we heard the lock click behind us. It was still half an hour before closing. — M.C.
That we were able to enjoy our meal at Shalimar despite the crushing silence and post-apocalyptic vibe says encouraging things about the food.
Keema Naan ($4) is usually made with lamb, but Shalimar was out of that protein when we dined there on a Tuesday night, and they made it with bits of chicken instead. We missed the earthier flavor of lamb in the bread, but overall, we liked it — it was toothsome and pleasant.
Our Vegetable Pakoras ($4) split the table: some found them a bit too floury and batter forward, others appreciated their crisp exteriors and mellow, lightly spiced flavor.
The restaurant’s Chicken Biryani ($10) was less celebratory than the stuff we tried at Paradise Biryani Pointe; it was simpler, and mushier in texture. But accented by the tangy kick of raita, it was satisfying and packed an insistent, but not overwhelming level of spicy heat.
Palak Paneer ($11) was the star of the show at Shalimar. This spinach and soft cheese dish can taste of vinegar, or jam up your mouth with stringy bits of vegetation; we found this incarnation to be creamy and evenly textured, with a mellow, almost sweet vegetal flavor that complemented the tender blocks of dairy. It’s a winner of a dish, and worth taking out if you happen to be in the neighborhood. — J.N.
Big Marina Grill and Deli
4755 Central Ave NE, Columbia Heights | 4.1 miles from Broadway Street
After four restaurants, we finally left the confines of that strip mall in Hilltop, beckoned by the blinking lights and flashing signs in the windows of Big Marina.
As we approached the front door, a pair of cops came out, toothpicks wedged in the corners of their mouths. If cops hang out there, you know at the very least that it’s going to be interesting, right?
Inside, the space was dominated by three massive buffet islands packed with steaming dishes ranging from leg of lamb, to falafel, to mac-and-cheese. There was even an enormous case filled with desserts.
At this point in the night, after four restaurants, ordering an all-you-can-eat buffet made no sense at all. So we did. (Well, one of us did anyway.) This, after all, seemed to be what people were here for. We also ordered some dishes to share.
Nothing at the buffet was great, and there was a particularly scary moment with a piece of fish, but buffets are designed with two goals: choice and quantity. Unfortunately, quality tends to take a back seat under the bright lights of the sneeze guard. — M.C.
It was pushing 9 p.m. when we walked into Big Marina Grill and Deli. The buffet was fully stocked and the restaurant was moderately crowded. They were still seating people (Big Marina is open till 10), but they were also rolling up the carpets and mopping the floors. Beneath the mop water, there was a smell that indicated some cooked sea creatures had been resting too long in their serving dishes.
Nobody was up for the buffet, but in the interest of the common good, one poor sucker was chosen to walk the gauntlet. For everyone else, we ordered a Falafel Sandwich ($5), a Gyro Sandwich ($6.50), and a Greek Salad ($5) from the menu.
From the buffet ($13), we tried the macaroni and cheese (the sign says Greek, Mediterranean, and American). It was creamy, but the macaroni was hours past al dente (casualty number one of the buffet process). The hummus and tabbouleh were both very good but the quartered pita was hard as a rock (casualty number two). The kofta kebab and gyro meat were delicious, but the falafel was cold, dry, and flavorless (casualty number three). There were more meats than any single person could eat in one sitting, so we passed up the quarter chickens, lamb shanks, and mussels (for fear that we’d discovered the source of the off fish-smell) and opted for a small piece of breaded, fried fish filet, and a whole fish, fried with the skin on. The breaded filet was dry, bland and inoffensive. But the whole fish was truly vile and ended up spit into a napkin.
The Greek Salad was mostly a pile of pale iceberg lettuce with a few large chunks of pale tomato, pale cucumber, and a few olives. It was a large, but sad-looking salad, though reasonably priced at $5.
We suspect that the gyro meat was from a pre-made food service gyro cone and not made in house, but it really didn’t make any difference. It was the best part of the sandwich, and we picked it out of the pita from among the lettuce and onions. The falafel, on the other hand, wasn’t much of an improvement over the food at the buffet. It tasted like it was made with too much flour and not enough chickpeas and herbs.
The restaurant is bright and festive with a familial atmosphere that reminded us of restaurants in East Jerusalem or Jaffa, and though we couldn’t find much to recommend on the buffet or the menu, the gyro and kofta kebab saved Big Marina from being a total disaster. — T.H.