A pair of Middle Eastern places, a V.F.W. / Italian food joint, a taco truck and a pool hall? All in a single four-hour span? Yes, please. This is exactly the kind of craziness the Central Avenue Checklist is about.
On our third outing we were joined by our friends Jeni Flaa from Jeni Eats and Kate N.G. Sommers from Flock of Broads. And fortunately, it turned out to be one of our most solid outings so far. Whether it was the night or the new blood, we’ll never know. But there was something to surprise us at every stop.
This week’s checklist crew: WACSO, M.C. Cronin, James Norton, Becca Dilley, Jeni Flaa, Kate N.G. Sommers.
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.
New York Gyro
4621 Central Ave NE, Columbia Heights | 3.7 miles from Broadway Street
You can’t miss it. Just follow the gleam of the orange and green building.
It’s called New York Gyro and bills itself as Middle Eastern, Pakistani, and Indian food, so of course they offer a Philly cheesesteak, which we promptly ordered. (Don’t worry; we got gyros, too.)
Countertop signs next to the register advertised something called Sweet Paan. The woman taking our order made a valiant attempt to explain what it was, though her expression told us she claimed no responsibility for the accuracy of her description or the likelihood of our enjoying the item. So we decided to pass. A Wikipedia search revealed paan to be a betel leaf, areca nut, and tobacco chew known for its stimulant and psychoactive effects. Which made us somewhat regret not ordering it. But with four restaurants ahead of us, we probably should’ve counted ourselves lucky.
The restaurant serves gyros Subway-style. You pick from an array of toppings and sauces; they throw them on and present you with a paper boat overflowing with meat and veggie goodness.
We ate on the side patio. A regular customer seated nearby offered his unconditional recommendation of the place both through his words and through his recent induction into the clean paper-boat club. He lamented that we were unable to try the freshly-baked naan and roti due to an oven malfunction. Next time.
That guy wasn’t kidding. If you’re looking to satisfy an itch for gyro, you could do much worse than this place. And that Philly cheesesteak? Downright craveable. It almost made us wish New York Gyro had late-night hours so we could try one after bar close. — M.C. Cronin
NY Gyro generates low expectations: it has a generic, fast-casual interior and a name that suggests the owners and customers might rather be eating in a different state altogether.
But then it delivers something a cut above the ordinary: food made with obvious care. Our lamb gyro ($5.50) featured bits of nicely charred, broken-up pieces of lamb kebab topped with a fresh-tasting pile of veggies and yogurt sauce.
And while we’re fairly sure the falafel in our falafel gyro ($5) was factory-made, it was clearly a factory that cares about its product — the pieces had a smoky, satisfying finish and were crunchy without being tooth-breakingly stale.
Best of all was our Philly cheesesteak ($6), which — like all good Philly cheesesteaks — featured finely diced meat that almost melted into the accompanying cheese sauce and soft bread. The onion flavor was bold and insistent, but both the onions and green peppers in this sandwich melded seamlessly with the whole, so delicately were they chopped. This is not a fancy or fussy sandwich, but it’s one we’d eat again.
And the house baklava ($2) was big and crisp, with a cinnamon kick that we appreciated. It wasn’t subtle stuff, but neither was it a horrible glop of low-grade honey, so we were grateful for that. — James Norton
With our smartphones and cameras waving about, we tend to get sideways glances wherever we go. But here at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 230, there was a moment when it felt as though we might get tossed out the door by the scruffs of our necks. After all, this place wasn’t meant to be a clever backdrop for a Instagram selfie. It’s a working V.F.W. hall, complete with a podium in the corner from which the post commander runs meetings. And it’s a real bar, serving hard drinks at ridiculously low prices to hardworking regulars.
The bartender didn’t actually ask, “You’re not from around here, are you?” but he may as well have. We ordered drinks and explained why we dropped in. That’s when his demeanor changed completely.
He told us he’d gotten wind of this whole Central Avenue Checklist thing, and that he was genuinely glad we had stopped by. Any intimidation we had felt was gone.
Eddie swung by our table. He’s the face of Marino’s, which is the outfit running the food at this VFW (and the American Legion up the road in Fridley). He told us he doesn’t usually fly solo, but that evening there was no server, so we were stuck with him. That turned out to be our good fortune. Eddie was affable, with an honest charm.
As for the food, it came on paper plates, no frills. All the frills were put directly into the food. It was classic, red-sauce, Italian-American grub. Think spicy meatball sandwiches and handmade ravioli with a plump Italian sausage presented in all its glory in the center of the plate. Not your typical bar food.
Eddie gave us the short history of Marino’s, including how it all started with his grandma, in 1969, in a little shop on Central Avenue. The shop is no longer there, otherwise we would have looked forward to visiting it on a future outing. — M.C.
When we walked into VFW Post 230 (which advertises an on-site concession from the Marino’s Deli mini-empire), we were hoping for old-school Italian-American soul food. That’s what we got, complete with a plate of bread accompanied by little packets of whipped butter and plastic ramekins of hot pepper flakes and Parmesan.
The restaurant’s chicken sandwich ($7) was as simple as they come: a big round of sauteed onion atop a piece of sauteed chicken on a toasted bun with lettuce. Accompanying mayo and Portuguese-style churrasco (a smoky pepper sauce) gave this simple dish a depth of flavor and a welcome richness, and we were pleased at how surprisingly good the crinkle cut fries tasted when we dipped them in one (or both) of the sauces.
An order of homemade ravioli ($8) was a bit underseasoned and overcooked, but the sausage that sat boldly amid them was a winner — real fennel depth of flavor and a kicky heat that made it instantly popular.
And our meatball sandwich ($7) had character: meatballs with some heat and spice and substance to them, and not too much sauce, so that the sandwich could be picked up and handled. After a couple of beers, this guy would be hard to put down. Honestly, as it was, it was hard to put down.
4301 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | 3.3 miles to Broadway Street
There’s a small curtained-off prayer room in the corner of the restaurant. So there’s no question of authenticity at Filfillah. And two giant spits of succulent looking shawarma spin slowly behind the counter, in case you’re still in doubt.
Our server brought over menus listing an endless range of Turkish and Mediterranean dishes. The descriptions alone were enough to make our mouths water, even after we had already stuffed said mouths at two restaurants.
An appetizer platter of hummus, baba ghanoush, falafel, dolma, tabbouleh, olives, and feta served with tahini and cucumber sauces was so brilliant on every level that it made us wonder if we shouldn’t stop right there. Surely, there was nowhere for the food to go but downhill?
This is how it played out: most everything we ordered was good. Above average even. But the room was hot, excessively so. And we had ordered Turkish coffee, but it was taking forever to come. And we were three restaurants in and starting to wane. Crabbiness was setting in.
And then … baklava.
Luscious baklava. So good we had to order more to be sure we were not imagining things. Perhaps the heat was going to our heads? But no, it was real.
The Turkish coffee finally arrived in an unassumingly dainty cup. It was caffeinated sludge, that stained your teeth, with flavor that was more of a punch in the face than the subtler Arabic coffee we had had at Basha. But that was okay. It gave us what we needed to go on. — M.C.
We’ve long been fans of Filfillah, but we haven’t had a chance to come back over the past couple of years, so this trip was both a reunion and a chance to update our files.
Happily, things are humming along nicely in the food department. Our mezze platter ($11) was made with evident love and care. The hummus was rich and smooth, the tabbouleh bright and lively, the falafel light and deeply flavored (and clearly made by hand), and the dolmades reasonably fresh and tasty, if a bit short of the world-beating version served up at Basha. As a “welcome to your meal” experience, Filfillah’s mezze can’t be topped.
Our Iskender ($13) was novel (to us) and tasty — think of a salad composed of schwarma, tomato sauce, and bread cubes, served with a healthy glob of yogurt and rice on the side. The yogurt and rice moderated and lightened the dish, creating a classic tangy-carby-meaty-charred kind of harmony.
The restaurant’s zaatar pie ($5) was as simple as it comes, a piece of flatbread topped with a thick slurry of spices and salt and sliced into long thin pieces. By itself, the flavor (particularly the salt) could overwhelm, but it was just brilliant when topped with yogurt and / or tabbouleh.
And saving the best for last, our baklava ($2) was the best that we’ve had. From the crisp, light, profoundly buttery phyllo dough to the serious cinnamon kick to the overall sense of lightly honey-kissed balance, this is baklava that can hold its head high anywhere in the world. — J.N.
El Taco Loco
4220 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | 3.5 miles to Broadway Street
We ordered beef tongue tacos from a trailer hitched to a pickup truck in the parking lot of a one-story, brick Colonial-style commercial building. Other than that, nothing about El Taco Loco seemed in the least loco. It was refreshingly simple and honest, actually. No splashy graphics advertising organic, locally sourced ingredients. Just a handwritten menu, taped to the order window, offering a small selection tacos (as promised) along with nachos, tortas, burritos, and quesadillas.
A porch running the length of the building held a few chairs and tables (these topped with dispensers full of the napkins you’ll inevitably need). There’s a small Mexican candy store (Dulceria La Central) right there, too, in case you want something sweet to soothe the sting of El Taco Loco’s actually-hot hot sauce.
We ate our tacos the way nature intended: standing up and serenaded by salsa music.
The music was emanating from the basement. A hand-lettered fluorescent green sign by the door leading downstairs read “Club Rosa Saludable.”
Our lack of even the most basic Spanish had us imagining some wild, sweaty, underground salsa club, but a quick reconnaissance revealed the truth: a handful of people participating in a Zumba-style fitness class.
It seemed to us that walking by a taco truck and a candy store upon leaving a fitness class would be a particularly cruel form of torture.
But hanging out on that porch at dusk eating those tacos wasn’t torture at all. — M.C.
We tried a few different tacos ($2) at El Taco Loco and would describe them as “classic” — two small corn tortillas filled with finely diced meat, onions, and cilantro. Both the steak and chorizo tacos were fine-if-typical specimens, but the tongue taco was a cut above the norm. The meat was earthy and tender, and was neither fatty nor dry — two common failings.
The salsas that accompanied the tacos were bright and bold — the green sauce was a blast of cilantro flavor, and the red was extremely kicky and hot, and not overly vinegar-flavored, as is sometimes the case. For two bucks a pop, the tacos of El Taco Loco were a solid value, something we expect to see carried over into their soon-to-open restaurant, which will be located near where their truck currently parks. — J.N.
Jimmy’s Pro Billiards
4040 Central Ave NE, Columbia Heights | 3.2 miles to Broadway Street
We tend to picture pool halls as intimidating places. Dark, mysterious rooms illuminated by the occasional pyramid of yellow light over a swath of green felt. Big money games being played at every table by peculiar characters who seem calm on the surface, but might just break a pool cue over their knees at any moment.
So we weren’t sure what we were getting ourselves into at Jimmy’s.
We grabbed a hightop near the back of the room by the bar. The Steve Miller Band’s The Joker was playing on the jukebox, which seemed about right.
The sign outside promised 22 pool tables, 22 burgers, and 22 beers. So it was only a matter of which burgers and beers to order.
Our server, Mia, turned out to be our bartender and our burger chef, too. It takes a special personality to pull off all these jobs well. And whatever that personality might be, Mia had it.
While we waited for our burgers, we checked out pictures and articles featuring proprietor Jimmy “The Kid” Wetch that were scattered on the wall. And we spied on a couple of guys shooting pool. One of them asked what we were up to. We told him about our plan to eat at every place on Central Avenue and write about it. He cracked a smile, “So it’s not a diet article then?”
A pool hall could probably get away with standard, freezer burgers and be just fine. But clearly, Jimmy “The Kid” Wetch wasn’t satisfied with just fine. You don’t get ranked among the top ten in the world of pro billiards for being just fine. Every burger we tried was a cut above, especially the Bleu Burger, which Mia rightly recommended.
We came into Jimmy’s expecting a pool hall, and we got one. But we got much more.
Don’t be intimidated. Order a beer and a burger and grab a cue. You don’t have to play for money. But you do have to ask Mia about burger number 23. It’s not on the menu. — M.C.
The hamburgers at Jimmy’s Billiards hail from a particular corner of the burger world — they’re relatively thin, they wear a wreath of grill char, and they’re as much about the quality of bun and toppings as they are about the meat itself. They’re strictly old-school: not fussy, $15 steakhouse baseballs or churned-out-from-a-factory fast food monstrosities.
And they’re excellent, starting with the tender-but-durable, buttery buns and top-notch, hand-cut fries that come on the side. We tried three, and — despite being on our fifth restaurant of the evening — finished almost every bite.
The Jimmy’s Burger ($8.50) is served on buttery, thick-cut toasted bread, with a classic topping of lettuce, cheese, onion, and tomato. You don’t get much simpler, or better, than this (and if you’ve been to New Haven’s famous Louis’ Lunch, this’ll remind you a bit of the experience).
The Grinder ($10) comes with bacon, diced onions, lettuce, shredded cheddar, and a bold Thousand Island dressing, and the combination suggests a soulful California burger that has seen a lot of hard living and come out all the better for it.
The Blue Burger ($10, and recommended highly by our waitress) was a stone-cold killer of a meal; rich, tangy blue-cheese dressing kissed every bite of burger. The presence of bacon was a welcome one, and the whole thing held together beautifully from start to finish. This is a burger we’ll drive across town for. — J.N.