One of us lost an ID, another got a black eye, and at one point, we were all staring down the barrel of a cop’s gun. It was our first day out, and already we knew we were onto something. But let’s go back to the beginning.
There’s something special going on along Central Avenue. From the moment it bends north near Broadway until it passes under 694 (about 5 miles later), Central Avenue travels through a mind-boggling hodgepodge of cultures: Indian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, African, Thai, German, Chinese, Colombian, Vietnamese, Ecuadorean. Ethnic restaurants, cafes, bakeries, and markets dot the entire stretch — six or seven to a block in some spots. Hand-lettered signs in windows advertise exotic foods whose names we couldn’t pronounce. And even if we could, we’d have no idea what we were asking for.
Many of the establishments on Central are known quantities. We’re comfortable visiting them because we’re familiar with them. They’ve been vetted by food critics and trusted friends alike. But that’s the trouble. On Central, you could easily pass ten places you’ve never been, on your way to the one you know. Sure some of these places would be a stretch to try out even for the most adventurous eater, but still, what might we be missing?
Then it came to us. What if we mapped out every place between Broadway and 694 that offered some kind of prepared food and challenged ourselves to hit them all, documenting our experience along the way? And what if we invited anyone else adventurous enough to join in? After all, isn’t that what WACSO is all about — Walkin’ Around Checkin’ Stuff Out? Noticing places that too easily go unnoticed. Recognizing not just the bricks but the unsung mortar in the city’s bricks-and-mortar. Because that’s the stuff that holds everything together.
So the Central Avenue Checklist was born.
That first day out was meant to be a simple scouting mission to compile our checklist and get a sense of just what we were getting ourselves into. And Central Avenue made an impression right away. To be clear, none of our initial mishaps were Central Avenue’s fault. The lost ID simply slipped out of a back pocket. The black eye was the result of a klutz deciding to test the pliability of a car door with his face. And that peace officer seemed pretty certain the guy casually strolling down the street had stolen the bag of Funyuns he was munching on; so really, who could blame him for drawing his gun, with us innocent bystanders in the line of fire?
Regardless, these events did somehow feel like omens. And rather than deterring us, they actually got us more intrigued. So strap in, Central Avenue here we come.
How it Will Work
Our approach is simple: we’ll take a group of four to eight people out to Central Avenue every couple of weeks. We’ll eat at five different spots, working our way from 694 down to Broadway, eventually covering the 52 or so spots that we scouted on our first day out. Our team will include writers, photographers and assorted guests, and we’ll approach every spot with an open mind.
We invite you to follow along on our Central Avenue Checklist journey and start checking off places yourself. Post about your experiences on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or here in the comments, and tag them #CentralAvenueChecklist.
We’ll link out to some of our favorites as we go, so please keep us in the loop as you explore along with us.
Now, to Central Avenue.
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.
Central Avenue Checklist, Part 1: From Paradise Biryani to Flameburger
We started at I-694 and headed south. Overall, this part of Central Avenue feels like a no-man’s land between the suburbs and the city. Chains like Super Target, Menards, Sonic, White Castle, and Tires Plus share the landscape with places like Jerusalem Halal Market, Hooka Kingdom and the Starlite Motel.
Each restaurant we visited was influenced in some way by this suburban-urban identity crisis, whether it occupied a former fast-food chain space (Asia Chow Mein), or was itself a small chain (La Casita, Paradise Biryani Pointe), or had been a chain at some point in its past (Flameburger), or was trying to give the impression that it could be a chain (Basha).
We knew when we started this that it was going to be a challenge. And we were right. We consciously held back, taking only small bites of the dishes we ordered. But after five restaurants, at least one of us had seriously contemplated a visit to the ER.
This week’s checklist crew: WACSO, M.C. Cronin, James Norton, Becca Dilley, Sarah McGee.
Paradise Biryani Pointe
765 53rd Ave NE, Minneapolis | 4.6 miles from Broadway Street
We were seated at a large, round table in the back of the room. Empty maroon-and-cream vinyl booths loomed around us. Crystal chandeliers dangled from the drop ceiling above. It was early for dinner, and we felt awkward about being the only people in the restaurant. So we hid behind the menu.
The Special Chicken 65 Biryani immediately caught our eye. We asked our server, “why ‘65?’” She had trouble explaining it. Or we had trouble understanding her. Either way it was clear from her expression that we had to order it. And we were glad we did. (More about the dish and its name below.) We also tried the dosa, which was enormous — Flintstones T-rex ribeye enormous.
It’s as though the restaurant was playing some kind of joke on us. But it didn’t taste like a joke. It tasted seriously good.
The side sauces for our samosas arrived in Dixie cups, which could have been seen as alarming. But in this case, the sauces were so good, they could’ve been served in a cupped hand, and we’d have eaten them. The point is, the food was fantastic. And judging by the diverse crowd that had started to gather by the time we left, others agree. — M.C. Cronin
The Food: Things got off to an auspicious start with Gobi Manchurian ($9.50). This breaded, fried, and lightly sauced cauliflower dish had a lovely depth of flavor and a crispy-chewy texture evocative of first-rate American Chinese food. Its level of heat was gentle — present, but not insistent. The restaurant’s samosas ($4) were a bit heavy on the cinnamon, but otherwise respectable and mellow representatives of their genre.
When it came to beverages, the yogurt-based Salt Lassi stuck to its guns. It dropped a pound of salt flavor on us as we started to sip it, but ended with a mysterious and pleasing wash of tanginess and cilantro.
The Special Chicken 65 Boneless Biryani ($14) is so named because the chicken in question has, purportedly, lived for 65 days before meeting its maker — something said to guarantee a perfect texture. And while there was a lot to like about this hot-but-balanced rice and chicken comfort dish, some of our crew bit into rather tough bits of poultry, scientific timing notwithstanding.
Our Masala Dosa ($9) was a treat for both the eye and the palate. It clocked in at a solid two-plus feet in length and boasted a creamy, mellow potato-y filling that played wonderfully with the accompanying sauces and soup. While it looked huge, it was actually quite a manageable portion for one and would make for a delightful dinner. — James Norton
5085 Central Ave NE, Columbia Heights | 4.4 miles from Broadway Street
There were the standard Mexican touches: tiled arches, terra cotta, and old black and white photos of famous Mexicans. Sadly it was hard to imagine that any of the people depicted in the portraits would relate in any way to the food being served here. When describing her favorite menu item, the server said: “It has a lot of zip, but not really a lot of zip.” That just about sums this place up.
La Casita is part of a regional chain that started in 1982 and has survived by catering to a particular crowd: people who like their tortilla chips free, their salsa mild, and their margaritas cheap. Make no mistake, this is a Mexican restaurant for people who don’t really want Mexican food. — M.C.
The Food: La Casita is the portrait hidden in the attic of an eternally young Chi Chi’s. It offers a hyper-Anglo take on Mexican food that has otherwise gone extinct outside of small towns. Its menu consists of loosely Mexican-inspired dishes that have been shorn of spice, freshness, and depth of flavor. Across the board, we got a sense that the kitchen had surrendered to the lowest cost, easiest prep answer for every possible problem.
The best thing that we tried, a blanco chicken chimichanga ($12), could most generously be described as a tortilla hotdish. Lacking any crunch, depth of spice, heat, or other relief from the sea of congealing, low-grade, cream-of-mushroom-like cheese sauce covering pieces of shredded chicken, it could still be considered comforting to those who grew up eating similar casseroles during their vulnerable childhood years.
The tamale ($3.75) was dry, riddled with off flavors, and covered in a salty sauce that did little to conceal its wretchedness.
And a carnitas plate ($12, above) was little better, with runny, overly salty refried beans and underflavored chunks of meat. The accompanying watery avocado sauce added insult to injury.
The most uncannily remarkable thing that we ate was the carnitas plate’s avocado slices. They looked ripe. Their texture was soft. They tasted, absolutely and 100 percent, totally not ready for consumption.
And our group universally detested the gritty, “sawdusty” fried ice cream, down to the bizarrely gamy maraschino cherry that ended up spat out into a napkin. — J.N.
Basha Mediterranean Wood Grill
4920 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | 4.5 miles from Broadway Street
It was clear from the moment we walked in that the owner has a vision. He wants Basha to go big. There’s a stone waterfall surrounding an electric fireplace along the back wall. Recessed purple and red lighting accents the bar. The brick oven is encrusted with iridescent tiles. Unprompted, the owner invited us back to see the seven-foot-long charcoal grill in the kitchen. Skewers filled with meats and vegetables criss-crossed over coals glowing orange. The char smell permeated the restaurant.
As the owner talked about the place, he exuded a quiet pride. And while it has translated into decor that’s a bit of a Vegas nightmare, his passion shines through in the food. At his suggestion, we got the quail kabobs and didn’t regret it. Fresh baked bread arrived from the wood oven still puffed with hot air. Our server was charming and oddly exuberant. We suspected he was amped up on the Arabic coffee that we promptly ordered, as well, hoping it would provide us with the energy we needed for the last two restaurants of the night.
On an earlier tour, we spotted an interesting looking dessert and asked the owner about it. He told us it translated loosely as “Lebanese Night.” With a name like that, we figured “what the heck, it’s worth a try.” That turned out to be an understatement. — M.C.
The Food: You can smell Basha’s wood grill as you walk through the parking lot, and the restaurant’s menu of kebabs and pizza-like dishes take full advantage of the charring power of wood and charcoal.
The rice-and-garlic-stuffed grape leaves ($6, above) that we started with were transportive. Dolmades are a dish that can often taste bitter or rubbery due to over-preservation of the grape leaves, but these dolmades tasted fresh and tender, and rank among the best we’ve had in the Cities.
All of the skewers and roasted meats we sampled were simply prepared, earnest, and delicious, complemented by charred onions, grilled tomatoes, and spiced rice. The lamb, ground lamb, and chicken skewers from our mixed grill ($16) all boasted a bit of char and deep flavor, and were cooked thoroughly without being overcooked; the quail ($17, above) may have been the savory highlight of our entire evening: crisp on the outside, and tender and luscious on the inside.
We never quite got the actual name of our dessert, but the restaurant’s owner told us that it translates to “Lebanese Night.” It’s a sort of Mediterranean trifle: sweet bread married with a milk pudding and herbally infused syrup, sprinkled with pistachios. The texture was divinely creamy, the flavor surprisingly light and fresh, kissed with rosewater. Something about the sweetness and syrup gave the dish a pecan-pie-like sense of indulgence, but there was also a lightness and balance to it that no pecan pie will ever possess. We will dream of this dessert often, and happily. — J.N.
Asia Chow Mein
4905 Central Ave NE, Columbia Heights | 4.1 miles from Broadway Street
This place seems to occupy a former fast-food restaurant. Our bets were on either Arby’s or Arthur Treacher’s. The decor could loosely be described as “Fifty Shades of Beige.” But ambience is not really the point of Asia Chow Mein. This place is all about the carry-out. They specialize in serving large quantities of Americanized Chinese food favorites.
And that’s what the patrons come in for. No one comes here looking for Fine Asian Fusion Cuisine. They want piles of brown stuff served with white rice, and fried egg rolls on the side. They want to shuffle in, grab their plastic bag full of takeout boxes, and go home to eat dinner in front of prime-time TV. Not to suggest that’s a bad thing. Comfort food is comfort food. And sometimes you just need to eat Chinese food out of a white takeout container. It’s an unwritten law. — M.C.
The Food: The blast of disinfectant that assaulted our nostrils as we walked into Asia Chow Mein would normally have been enough to have caused us to reverse direction and drive away, but the Central Avenue Checklist is all about cultivating a fearless sense of focus.
High point: Vegetable Egg Foo Young ($6.75, above). Serviceable industrial gravy covering a veggie-studded omelet doesn’t exactly qualify as fine cuisine, but it offered a certain amount of comfort.
Low point: The egg rolls ($4.65). Fried, salty, and little else. They did come in an adorable egg roll rowboat with a sauce well in the prow, however.
The titular chow mein (we tried the Chicken Subgum, $7.25) was undistinguished, tasting largely of salty celery. — J.N.
4800 Central Ave NE, Columbia Heights | 4.2 miles from Broadway Street
It’s the offspring of a greasy spoon diner and a fast-food hamburger chain. There’s a counter with stools and a few laminate tables. As promised by the name, there are burgers on the menu and flames dancing on the grill in the corner. There’s a deep sense of history here. Not just from the yellowing Norman Rockwell posters on the wall and the layers of grease build up on the grill hood.
The place was founded in 1955, around the same time McDonald’s was starting to spread its arches, and according to our server, there were at least a few Flameburgers around town at one point. But the masses favored McDonald’s, and now there’s just this one location. It’s open 24 hours, and something told us this place would get even more interesting after bar close. They probably sell a lot of Flameburger hoodies around 3 in the morning. — M.C.
The Food: Flameburger is proud of its old-school roots. Founded in 1955, and open 24 hours a day, it promises a hamburger joint in the oldest sense of the phrase — rough around the edges and honest, illuminated by licks of flame dancing on the grill. That is largely what we encountered. The menu is simple, short, and comforting (other than the $40 “Ultimate Mega,” with three pounds of beef and 12 slices of cheese, plus 12 slices of bacon).
Our burgers ($6-$7) weren’t great. And they weren’t terrible. They had a real char to them, and the grilling process was entertaining to watch. There wasn’t a great deal of flavor in the patty, however, and the buns were standard-issue.
Our fries ($2) weren’t great. And they weren’t terrible. They’re classic, honest, low-rent crinkle cut fries.
Despite the adorable metal cup, we should’ve skipped the milkshake — low-quality ice cream doomed it. — J.N.