You can still read the word “taco” on the awning outside Karta Thai. It’s a small detail, but one deeply representative of Central Avenue.
It’s just so very Central for a restaurant to have the ghosts of establishments past hanging around their space. (We’ve already started referring to Central Avenue as “she,” so it seems appropriate to use Central as a state of being, right?)
Places come and go on Central, but each leaves something behind: a bit of history, an indelible mark. When you talk to longtime residents of the surrounding neighborhood — like our guest this round, Peter Hajinian — they will inevitably recount stories of long-gone businesses, as might a Civil War buff detailing the lives of each casualty in some obscure battle.
Central Avenue does seem to be in a period of relative stability. Yes, we encountered shuttered restaurants that by all accounts should have been open. (On this outing, it was Razaaq East African Restaurant, which judging by the weeds and rain-soaked newspapers lying out front, sadly seemed to be permanently closed.) But we also encountered restaurants that were open and probably shouldn’t be.
So it all balances out.
That’s so Central. — M.C. Cronin
This week’s checklist crew: WACSO, M.C. Cronin, James Norton, Becca Dilley, and Peter Hajinian.
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.
2411 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | 1 mile from Broadway Street
Our server was the same, the menu was very much the same, but something about this Karta Thai was magical compared to the Karta Thai location we visited farther north.
It’s difficult to explain why a Thai restaurant just feels more natural in a reclaimed taqueria than in an old Bridgeman’s, but somehow it does.
The space felt more authentic for one thing. Everything is retrofitted to work in the room, not vice-versa. It’s worn in. Well used. Smaller. Cozier. Tables and chairs — possibly reclaimed from the last restaurant in this space — are close together. There are booths that seat only two people. It isn’t pretty or precious or perfect. Which, in its own way, is perfect.
We intentionally ordered differently this time around. To say this turned out to be the right call would be an understatement. At one point, we became enthralled with a green sauce that accompanied one of our appetizers. We asked our server about it, hoping to uncover the secret ingredient. She smiled. “It’s a special sauce,” she said coyly, intent on protecting the formula.
Thankfully, in terms of our experience, the only thing consistent with our earlier visit was the Thai iced tea. It was equally fantastic. — M.C.
It isn’t fair to demand or expect any given restaurant to bat 1,000, but occasionally it happens. We didn’t have a particularly memorable meal during our visit to the northern outpost of Karta Thai. But our time at the original, southern location? Pure magic.
We kicked things off with a Crispy Thai Lobster Roll ($6.50), a remarkably light and crisp egg-roll-like wrapper containing a mixture of cream cheese and small, flavorful bits of shellfish, and accompanied by a slightly sweet cilantro sauce. We found these to be among the best eggroll variants we’ve tasted in the state, surprisingly elegant and restrained.
Karta Thai’s Thai Beef Jerky ($8) was a simple, classic execution of this bedrock Thai dish. The beef itself was difficult to cut but surprisingly chewable, rich in char and flavor, salty without being aggressive. This dish was accompanied by yet another Central Avenue green sauce — it seems as if every restaurant on this street has at least one, and most have several — different from the one that accompanied the lobster roll. This had more depth and garlic, and a harder hit of lime juice, and it was lovely with the funky beef and soft, dense sticky rice.
Our guest for the evening, Peter Hajinian, lives in the neighborhood and swears by the restaurant’s Karta Special Noodle Soup ($9). His endorsement of this meaty dish was spot on, as it possessed a lovely depth of spice, a mellow sweetness, and a gentle lingering heat. The overall impact was light and invigorating.
And our Pumpkin Curry ($13), a seasonal special, was right on the money as well. Much like a rich, creamy massaman (with chunks of squash instead of potatoes), this dish boasted (yet another) perfectly calculated gentle heat and a supporting note of anise that was a lovely accompaniment to the chicken and squash. The fact that it was served in a lovely carved pumpkin was just icing on the cake.
Pound for pound, this unpretentious Thai spot ranks near the top of our list of Central Avenue highlights. — James Norton
2205 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | .8 miles from Broadway Street
When you eat at an Ecuadorean or Colombian restaurant you have to accept one fact: You will at some point become entranced by a telenovela. You will watch men and women dressed in shiny gold lamé engaging in heated arguments that suddenly and inexplicably turn into heated bouts of love making. And you will be unable to turn away.
In La Colonia, you will have two opportunities to become spellbound. Because there are two rooms. Each with its own TV tuned to a telenovela.
But enough about that. Now, back to our regularly scheduled visit.
The booths at La Colonia seem to be pulled straight out of an upscale restaurant from the 1980s. Cushy maroon leatherette seats with tall, puffy, cream-colored backs: You can almost see Emilio Estevez and Ali Sheedy ogling each other in these booths while Psychedelic Furs plays in the background.
But other than that, there’s not much atmosphere. Things are fairly plain and simple: blond wood tables and eggshell walls, a couple of paintings, the aforementioned TVs. The restaurant offers a total of four beers, and only one, Bud Light, is domestic. There was an empty buffet island tucked away in a corner, ready for lunch service the next day.
It was just fine. In many ways, the simple, no-frills ambiance was a harbinger of our meal to come. — M.C.
We ordered the Bandeja Paisa ($17.50) at La Colonia so we could do some apples-to-apples comparison with the excellent version at El Tequila, and we were surprised at how similar the plates were — both groaning with hearty, well-prepared ingredients including a large sausage, plantains, a nicely seasoned pounded steak, and a massive pork crackling.
And either would be sufficient to sate a cowboy who had burned off 2,500 calories on the trail before heading home for a well-deserved supper. Forced to choose between the two, we’d probably call it even and eat both of them, presuming there were 12 of us, and we’d been working out all day.
We also got a plate of Llapingachos ($6) which we preferred even to the delicious version offered at Chimborazo. These were soft and yielding to the point of being downright creamy, and a lightly salty cheese flavor permeated them completely. Despite the fact that this was a side dish, it came with side dishes of its own: a little salad loaded with cilantro and onion, and an egg over hard.
La Colonia’s food was simple and no frills, but therein was much of the charm — this stuff was well-prepared classic comfort on a plate. — J.N.
The Mill Northeast
1851 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | .6 miles from Broadway Street
The Mill occupies a newly constructed building that originally housed the Minneapolis outpost of the now-defunct St. Paul institution, Porky’s. It’s a gray concrete-and-glass wedge that stands out like a sore thumb on this section of Central.
The mid-century modern design made sense for an updated drive-in and diner, but it feels somewhat at odds with The Mill, a cozy, upscale restaurant and bar. They’ve done all they can to compensate by adding warm fabrics, flowing window coverings, dark wood, and vintage drop lamps. But The Mill still feels a bit out of place in this building.
Not that it matters much. If at all.
On the night we visited, the patio was thriving, alive with the happy chatter of satisfied patrons. Inside, it was quieter, but there was still a fine crowd for a Wednesday night. And from what we hear, they do a big brunch business, too.
When we ask about the veggie burger — which was vaunted on the menu — our server told us people drive for miles to get it. We were sold immediately.
Then we noticed the Jell-O shot on the specials board. Apparently, dreaming up different varieties of these wobbly concoctions is something of a passion for one of the bartenders here. But beware; these are not the Jell-O shots your college roommate threw together in Dixie cups with packets of orange Jell-O and whatever high-octane alcohol was on special at the corner liquor store. They’re something else entirely. — M.C.
We know, we know: The Mill Northeast is famous for its brunch food, not its dinner menu. But as we make our way through more than 50 restaurants between 694 and Broadway Street, time is not always our servant — so we arrived at night, anxious about what we might find.
There was no way we were going to pass up The Mill NE’s Jell-O shot, the Paloma Fuega — the chalkboard depicted it with gouts of yellow flame emerging from the glass, and we’d never had flaming Jell-O before. Alas, the fire was merely metaphorical. The paloma was a spicy-hot grapefruit tequila cocktail served in a glass with a spoon and suspended in clear gelatin, surprisingly mature and austere. Four of us ordered it, and we all had differing opinions.
If the Paloma divided us, the rest of The Mill’s food brought us together. We thought the Borscht ($4 for a cup) was excellent — creamy but not overly so, brightly vegetal but not one-note, with tender sauteed cabbage and a hefty, pliable beet slice at the bottom of the bowl.
The Fernet Branca Pork Ribs ($17) didn’t come cheap, but they tasted appropriately royal, the meat tender and lightly charred, enhanced by the lovely, gently sweet anise flavor of the titular liqueur.
The Mill’s menu goes to great lengths to talk up Mandy’s Veggie Burger ($10), and the restaurant will even sell them to you frozen, in a six-pack for $9. It’s likely we’ll be back for one of those six-packs – the burger was (in the best possible way) like a burrito on a bun, rich with black bean and garlic flavor, accented by sharp cheese and a Parmesan crisp that brought a lovely, salty, crunchy presence to the overall package. Good veggie burgers are hard to find, but we think this one outdoes even the outstanding version sold at Fitger’s in Duluth.
The lack of renown of the dinner menu notwithstanding, The Mill has a lot to offer those in search of upscale bar fare while cruising Central Avenue. — J.N.
1840 Central Ave, NE, Minneapolis | .6 miles to Broadway Street
In the back half of Maya there is an indoor courtyard complete with a small burbling fountain and a faux-stone vinyl floor. It’s always nighttime in this courtyard (the ceiling is painted black), and you can dine under twinkling stars (string lights). Or if the weather turns bad indoors, you can sit under the protection of a terra cotta tile overhang, in one of the homey patios that surround the courtyard.
You have to hand it to Maya for running with the theme.
The front of the restaurant is dominated by a long, glass-protected food counter. This is where the action happens. You order and pay. Then you follow your dish down the line as various meats and beans and veggies and cheese and sauces are added to your liking. You call it as you want it.
As if those choices weren’t enough, there’s also a brightly-tiled condiment bar stocked with more tear-coaxing onions, mouth-puckering limes and tongue-torturing peppers, and hot sauces than it would ever be advisable to try in one sitting. Unless, of course, you’re a masochist. In which case, you’ve found your nirvana. Enjoy! — M.C.
Maya Cuisine is, along with Chimborazo, one of the hands-down cult favorites on Central Avenue. Part of it must be the food, which is admirably composed and rich in flavor, but another part — perhaps the greater part — must be the restaurant’s salsa bar, which is adorned with a rainbow of choices of varying heat levels, creaminess, and flavors.
We were particularly impressed with the medium-hot creamy salsa that swamped our Taco Salad ($8). The salad’s large, house-made tortilla bowl was crispy (not greasy!), and while the contents (ground beef, lettuce, chorizo) sound ordinary enough, the application of salsa meant that every bite we took was followed by a good four to eight minutes of satisfying, lingering burn.
We also ordered a Maya Plate ($8) consisting of a barbacoa tostada (featuring tender, powerfully flavored, savory meat), a tasty taco al pastor, and a lengua (tongue) taco that was satisfying and mellow.
Both of our tamales (roja and verde, $2.50 each) were satisfactory, but a bit too mild in flavor and smooth in texture. That said, the tamales at Valerie’s Carniceria may have forever ruined us for anything else. — J.N.
1620 Central Ave NE, Suite 150, The Thorp Building, Minneapolis | .5 miles from Broadway Street
Tattersall made it on the list at the last minute, when someone in the group noticed that its address is on Central Avenue. But if you try finding an entrance to Tattersall on Central Avenue, you’re in for a frustrating experience.
A quick look at Google Maps told us Tattersall was walkable from where we were. But after a longer than expected walk down a dark side street, we began to wonder if Google was pranking us.
We were temporarily reassured by a sign for Tattersall at the end of a long warehouse building … until we noticed that the sign was pointing us down a dirt alley running between the warehouse and a dark, creepy, wood-lined railroad track. At night, walking here, we’d be lying if visions of Jason Voorhees didn’t flash before our eyes.
Then, there it was. A dimly-lit patio. Relaxed people sitting back, clutching cool glasses of hard alcohol. The low hum of a generator emanated from a food truck parked in front. It felt like stumbling onto a secret party.
Inside, Tattersall was pure warehouse. Endless concrete floors and towering, exposed ceilings. A bar. A long, communal bar table. Tufted leather sofas and chairs scattered throughout.
Light glinted off the copper stills visible behind expansive panes of glass. It felt as if we were actually sitting in the distillery.
With the high ceilings and all the glass, metal, and concrete, Tattersall could have felt cold. But it didn’t. Not at all. It was warm and comfortable. The kind of place where you could easily imagine yourself tying one on while waiting out a winter storm, watching the falling flakes through frosted rectangles of glass. Then taking an Uber home, of course.
Tattersall isn’t an easy find. You have to work for it. But that’s what makes it special. Like so many things in life. — M.C.
With all the suave, industrial urbanity of the Tattersall space, we would have been disappointed had the drinks been anything less than remarkable. We weren’t disappointed — after a tour of the menu, we emerged with mostly indisputable hits.
The Paradisi ($7.50) is one of the bar’s four on-tap cocktails, and we found this cucumber-infused gin, grapefruit, and pink peppercorn tonic beverage to be agreeably smooth and gentle, with a delicately sweet-and-spiky finish.
Our Gimlet ($8) led with a serious gin punch, but the rooibos-lime cordial and rhubarb bitters helped it transition to a rounded, mellow finish that possessed a real depth of flavor.
My favorite cocktail — and the rest of the group didn’t agree with this finding, at least not 100 percent — was the Umeboshi Sour ($9), a sassy, Asian-inflected twist on a bourbon Old Fashioned. Mixing sour cherry liqueur, lemon, simple syrup, black walnut bitters, and umeboshi (pickled plum) vinegar with bourbon, the drink created a sweet-sour seesaw, finishing with a distinct sour plum aftertaste. It’s a lot of drama in one glass, and you’re likely to love it … or not.
The Phil Collins (aquavit, lemon, simple syrup, mint, soda; $8) was, appropriately enough, the smoothest thing we tasted: fizzy, light, ephemeral, and a perfect fit for summer.
And our Old Fashioned ($9) was a bit raw and aggressive up front (it might be the bitters plus sour cherry liqueur, plus orange peel) but it mellowed as time went by. By the end of the glass it was as agreeable as an old friend hanging out by the fire on a cool autumnal evening. — J.N.
Porky’s a St Paul institution? That’s a stretch. Porky’s started in south Minneapolis and had three locations there. The original at 58th and Lyndale plus the east and west (later Nora’s) Lake St locations.
Comments are closed.