Sometimes you get exactly what you expect. Other times, not so much. We got a little of each this time around. Starting in this case with calling an unexpected audible.
We had originally intended to give Pizza Man a try but discovered they don’t offer inside dining. As tempted as we were to try a slice while sitting on the curb in front of Napa Auto Parts (really), the only slices available were a couple of hours old. So Pizza Man didn’t work out.
But if there’s a philosophy that has held true in our lives, it’s that nature seeks balance. So while we lost Pizza Man, we found ourselves drawn to a place we had no intention of visiting.
As our companion for this round, Alex Lodner from Eater Minneapolis, found out, that’s the way the #CentralAvenueChecklist goes. What Central taketh away, Central giveth in unexpected ways.
This week’s checklist crew: WACSO, M.C. Cronin, James Norton, Becca Dilley, and Alex Lodner.
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.
El Tequila Mexican Grill & Bar
4005 Central Ave NE, Columbia Heights | 3 miles from Broadway Street
The sign above the door says Mexican Grill & Bar, but a small white marquee near the corner of the building begs to differ. In black block letters it proclaims the place is an “Ecuadorian & Mexican Restaurant.” This sign has its priorities straight. The Ecuadorean food easily won out here.
Inside, it’s straight out of a Latin-restaurant design book. Two rows of booths are topped with wood awnings to provide the illusion of an outdoor plaza.
The bar fills the center of the restaurant. And it’s built for a party. Drink machines bubble with brightly colored liquid. Blenders stand at the ready. Bar stools on both sides await patrons. Much of the light is supplied by entertainment devices like a pull tab machine, an an Internet juke box, a crane game, and the flat-screen TVs you find at every bar.
The far end of the restaurant is a black abyss. It was not until we walked there and our eyes adjusted that we realized the area held a stage for live bands and a dance floor complete with a spinning mirror ball. This rang a bell.
We asked our server if this used to be the Starbar? He nodded. He told us it’s been several other things, too. He counted them off, struggling at points to get the timeline straight. How did he know so much about the history? Because he’s been here through most of it. Seven owners, in fact.
Maybe this one will stick. Our server has a good feeling about it. If not, we’re pretty sure he’ll be around for the next one. “I come with the woodwork,” he said. — M.C. Cronin
A lot of restaurants have a menu that is generally accessible and a second — call it “hidden” or “insider” — menu aimed at those willing to dine more ambitiously. At El Tequila, the Mexican side of the menu, with its tacos and nachos and fajitas and burritos, is there because it’s expected and widely understood. But the Ecuadorean side is there because that’s where the passion is.
Bandeja Paisa ($17) isn’t a dish as much as it is an experience. This platter comes out groaning with smoky beans, properly cooked rice, a flattened and savory piece of steak, crackling pork, a sweet, caramelized plantain, a rich egg, and chorizo. Enough food to feed two people to the brim or highly amuse a group of four, the Bandeja Paisa is a big, proud, bull of a dish with a multitude of thoughts to share.
Our appetizer of Tostocarnitas ($7) seemed simple enough: big, crispy green plantain chips topped with mounds of slow-roasted pork and sour cream. But the textural and flavor contrasts of the dish were bold and numerous, making these delicious starters irresistible.
Along with our totally pro forma margaritas, our taco combo ($10) reinforced the sense that the Ecuadorean side of the menu is El Tequila’s reason for being. These competent tacos weren’t off-putting or poorly made, but they were bland and forgettable.
When we return (and we will), we’ll do a hundred percent Ecuadorean visit and relish each bite. — James Norton
Great Moon Buffet
4029 Central Ave NE, Columbia Heights | 3 miles from Broadway Street
Nothing makes you feel more like a gluttonous consumer than paying a toll to enter a restaurant. But if you don’t pay, you don’t get in. That’s just how it works at Great Moon Buffet.
But we couldn’t justify paying for six full buffets when we were planning on trying only a smattering of items. So a couple of us paid to play while the others stayed behind at El Tequila.
The place is a shrine to the buffet-style restaurant, complete with an ornate crystal chandelier in the center of the room. The back third of the restaurant is devoted to a massive archipelago of steaming buffet islands. We grabbed our plates and began to troll. In the process, we managed to pull a few decent items from beneath the glass. But there were a few duds.
When we left, after just one plate each, the cashier at the front furrowed her brow in concern. “You’re full?” At the buffet, satisfaction isn’t judged by the quality of the food, but by the quantity you consume. To reinforce this notion, Great Moon offers a takeout option. You pay by the pound. — M.C.
A single $12 fee gives you access to the sprawling Chinese-American buffet that is Great Moon, but — like so many places of this ilk — once you’re past the gate you need to choose your food wisely. Letting food sit around is a sure-fire path to mediocrity and disaster, with the possible exceptions of curries, soups, and stews. Therefore, navigating the typical buffet is like picking your way through a gastronomic mine field strewn so thickly with explosives that a hopscotch-like approach is the only route to safety.
We thought Great Moon’s steamed dumplings were quite good — tender, not overly salty, and filled with meat that was savory and almost creamy in texture. A sesame-coated mochi square was similarly appealing, offering a nice chewy texture and a bold sesame kick. And the chicken meatballs we sampled were passably tasty.
After that, well, welcome to the mine field. Orange chicken that was sweeter than Mountain Dew, “sushi” that was a rubbery outrage, desultory fried this and fried that, and maltreated seafood that even culinary commandos are within their rights to dodge. — J.N.
4022 Central Ave NE, Columbia Heights | 3 miles from Broadway Street
So, fruit and vegetable carving is a thing. The owner of Royal Orchid is an active practitioner of the art. There are pictures of his work on a table just inside the entryway … along with an offer of lessons, if you’re interested.
There are also laminated reviews of the restaurant, including a couple from 1988, when they opened on Nicollet Avenue in South Minneapolis, and one from 2006, when they moved to Roseville. Our server told us they even tried a Skyway location in downtown Minneapolis before settling in Columbia Heights.
It’s purple. Purple walls, purple tabletops, purple chair cushions. Flashbacks of singing dinosaurs come to mind. But there’s something charming about it. It feels as though the place has been decorated by the hands of the owners and their family. As if someone said, “Hey, orchids are purple, right?” and they ran with it. In an age in which so many restaurants focus on creating “experiences,” the simplicity and authenticity represented by Royal Orchid’s purple walls is refreshing.
So is the food. From the explosion of flavors in the lettuce wraps to the delicate taste of the mango sticky rice, everything was both refreshing and authentic. It’s enough to make you question whether the Thai you’ve come to think of as authentic actually is.
Over the last 25-odd years, Royal Orchid has had many houses. Hopefully, they’ve found a home here in Columbia Heights. But if not, we expect they won’t disappear. They’ll simply find another location, invest in a few more gallons of purple paint, and keep the delicious Pahd Thai coming. — M.C.
At first glance, there was little to indicate that Royal Orchid’s Thai offerings would differ from the standard fare. But when you dig more deeply into the menu, interesting things float to the surface.
For example, although Mieng Kham ($5) is billed as a lettuce wrap, it’s like no other lettuce wrap we’ve tried. Rather than a stewlike mix of chicken bits and brightly flavored veggies united by a gravylike sauce, Royal Orchid’s wraps are composed from a palette of incredibly bold little flavor boosters — and nothing else. Chunks of ginger, atomic-hot pepper bits, dried shrimp, small pieces of lime (with skin left on to amp up the kick still further), coconut chips, and chopped onions are inserted into a lettuce leaf and then dressed with sweet palm syrup. The result is something like a flavor brawl taking place in your mouth — first bright citrus, then withering heat, then sharp onion, and so forth.
Royal Orchid’s chicken Pahd Thai ($11) is a big, comforting hug. It leads with a sweet, eggy flavor and lacks some of the heat, acid, and textural contrast that can make this dish really sing. But its noodles were properly cooked (not overcooked — no small feat), and the whole dish had a clear, beneficent point of view.
Royal Orchid’s Red Tom Yum ($6) is a departure from the standard local version of the dish, and, as our waiter told it, a step toward what might be considered typical in much of Thailand. The soup was defined by a bright sweet-heat interplay undergirded by warming layers of spices, the assorted flavors bright enough and bold enough to make the typically tame vegetables that swam in our bowl profoundly interesting to eat. — J.N.
3970 Central Ave NE, Columbia Heights | 3 miles from Broadway Street
Given the nature of our mission to visit every restaurant on Central Avenue, nothing could dissuade us from trying Dragon House. Not even the “Now Hiring: Cook, Experienced” sign in the window.
Dragon House is an authentic American Chinese restaurant (not to be confused with authentic Chinese). The owner made sure we were aware that they were more Nankin Cafe than Little Szechuan. And that was just fine by us.
All the traditional American Chinese flourishes were there: each place setting outfitted with a Chinese Zodiac placemat and silverware (not chopsticks) rolled in napkins, red-tasseled lanterns dangling here and there, an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, and Chop Suey on the menu.
The restaurant is old school in the best sense of the phrase. Their business office is a table in the main dining room. There’s even a pile of cheaters for patrons who left their eyeglasses home and need help viewing the menu. Clearly, they know their clientele. They’ve been serving the neighborhood for 43 years, after all.
For a bit of added interest, we ordered dishes comparable to those we tried at Asia Chow Mien during our first installment. There was no comparison — Dragon House was far better. But we acknowledge that attempting to compare American Chinese restaurants is a shaky proposition. Everyone has a favorite, and trying to convince them otherwise is a losing battle. — M.C.
Having already experienced disappointing egg foo yung and chicken subgum chow mein on Central Avenue, we steeled ourselves for a repeat performance at Dragon House. And then — blast the trumpets, and part the clouds — we received simple, lovely, classic renditions of both.
Our No. 3 Combination Plate ($8.75) featured a light, bright, salty but savory take on chicken subgum chow mein, crunchy as the dickens from the fried rice noodles and cashews that danced among the ground chicken, mushrooms, peppers, and celery. And while the egg foo yung was drenched in the traditional dark brown jacket of gravy that the stuff habitually wears, the egg patty was disarmingly light and fluffy, almost whipped in texture.
We were tipped off that the batter-coated, fried chicken wings ($5.50) were worth a try, and so they were. They had a light, crisp, crunchy exterior and a simple but juicy interior, and while they lacked much flavor or seasoning, the accompanying sweet and sour sauce and “extra hot” house mustard brought both elements to the dish.
We found the Lo Mein ($10.50) salty but palatable, boosted by noodles that were perfectly cooked and enchantingly tender. Nothing fancy going on here, but absolutely comfort food, as advertised.
For dessert: The Dragon-House-made chocolate items that piqued our interest on the way in ranged from strange but harmless chocolate-dipped marshmallows to a tasty, chocolate-dipped Rice Krispies and peanut confection that was like nothing we’ve had before. — J.N.
The Heights Theater
3951 Central Ave NE, Columbia Heights | 2.9 miles from Broadway Street
We hadn’t planned on stopping at The Heights Theater, but its impressive, flashing marquee drew us in. Like moths to a flame, we crossed Central to take a look. Maybe they’d have an interesting food offering at the snack bar?
With a movie in progress, the outside doors were locked. But a young lady working there saw us and cracked the door open. Nothing on the snack bar menu looked out of the ordinary, so we asked about the popcorn. Was it special in some way?
The answer was immediately clear. Her eyes rolled back in her head, and a she let out a low guttural sound. “Oooooooh. Best popcorn ever. We use real butter.” She smiled — baring her braces — and threw the door open for us.
The popcorn was delicious, but the real treat was the theater itself, restored to its original 1920s magnificence by a person possessed of a clear vision. Apparently the owner doesn’t just live for this theater, he lives in it. Right upstairs. Near the projector room. Talk about dedication.
Beautiful stenciled wood floors. Art Nouveau glass wall sconces. Copper ceiling. Grand piano. Mammoth antique theater projector. With this much attention to detail in the lobby, we wish we could’ve seen the theater itself. We’ll just look forward to coming back another time. — M.C.
We tried a regular-sized order of Heights Theater popcorn ($4.25), and quite liked the stuff. It was properly salted, had a buttery flavor to it, and wasn’t over-steamed or otherwise botched. Just the thing for munching while watching Vertigo in elegantly rehabbed surroundings. — J.N.