When attempting to visit so many disparate and unfamiliar restaurants in a limited amount of time, deciding what to order can be a tricky process that can squander valuable minutes. We’ve found it useful to have a set of guidelines to help steer our group’s decisions. And we thought you, too, might find them useful. So we present to you now our …
Foolproof Guide to Ordering (When You Don’t Know What to Order):
1. If a restaurant advertises itself as “The Home of” something, order that thing.
2. If a menu item bears the name of the restaurant (or vice-versa), order it.
3. (or 2a.) If a menu item bears the name of the founder / owner, member of the staff, or regular patron of the restaurant, order it.
4. If the restaurant claims to be the originator of a particular dish, order it (e.g. the “Jucy Lucy” at Matt’s. See also, the “Juicy Lucy” at 5-8 Club).
5. If when asked for a recommendation, the server begins listing menu items willy-nilly, you may safely ignore them. If they emphatically blurt out a specific item, order it.
6. Ask the server what dish they like best, what dish is most popular, and what dish the restaurant is known for. If all three questions yield the same response, order it.
7. If you’re at an ethnic restaurant, order the dish that is most representative of the culture. Never order from any section of the menu that also contains burgers or chicken nuggets.
8. If a menu item is called out as a specialty, favorite, or signature dish, order it. If it’s labelled new or just added, avoid it.
While many of these guidelines have been developed over the course of our Central Avenue Checklist journey, they can be applied to almost any dining situation. They are by no means comprehensive. Nor are they meant to be strictly followed. Use your judgement. And if you think of any guidelines we’ve missed, add them in the comments below. — M.C. Cronin
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.
Pico de Gallo Mexican Grill
2416 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis | 1 mile from Broadway Street
You’d think it would be hard to miss a place with its name emblazoned across a diamond-plate chrome sign. Something like that would be conspicuous in just about any other location, but at Central and Lowry, Pico de Gallo gets swallowed up in the profusion of awnings, window graphics, and curb signs surrounding it.
As you enter the space, a mural on the wall depicts downtown Minneapolis at night. A Pico de Gallo sign painted into the scene makes it appear as if the restaurant sits right in the heart of downtown, rather than a few miles away. We’ll call it artistic license. But there’s something about this detail (along with the diamond-plate marquee) that speaks to a desire to stand out. It’s as though this little place — squeezed between Sen Yai Sen Lek and Durango Bakery on one side and El Taco Riendo on the other — is crying out to be noticed.
That is no easy task for a Mexican grill on this part of Central. But Pico de Gallo does have a not-so-secret weapon to set itself apart: juice.
Appropriately, the juice bar is a focus of the interior design. A decorative fence of real pineapples pokes up around the perimeter of it, surrounding limes, cucumbers, watermelons, carrots, mangoes, celery, apples, and beets, all awaiting their fate.
We ordered a couple of drinks from the menu and then watched as they were prepared. Whole chunks of fruits and vegetables were lopped off with a menacing knife. These raw pieces were unceremoniously shoved through a machine that chewed them up effortlessly and spat out unique concoctions that were vivid in both color and flavor. It was a brutal, unvarnished process that was somehow beautiful to witness.
And while it was easy to be enamored of the juices (and agua frescas), a massive collection of salsas and pepper sauces on the counter served as a reminder that Pico de Gallo also offers a full menu of authentic Mexican food that we were eager to try. — M.C.
In theory, it’s difficult to get all that excited about fruit juice, but in practice the stuff can be transfixingly good when prepared with care from fresh ingredients. The beet-carrot-grapefruit juice we tried at Pico de Gallo was a game changer — it was pure, strong, and bright. The cucumber and lime aqua fresca was equally nice, a blast of refreshing internal refrigeration on a warm day.
One of the menu’s specialties was a cheese-meets-meat item known as a “carniqueso” ($9). We ordered ours with steak, and the result was something akin to a Philly cheesesteak: small, tender bits of meat that just about melted into the cheese sauce surrounding them — plus warm, slightly charred bits of cactus. This, to us, was exotic comfort food, something we’ve never had before that made us feel right at home. If we pull together a “Top Ten Dishes of Central Avenue” list, the carniqueso may well be on it.
Our small, onion- and cilantro-bedecked tacos were all good, if not remarkable: our lengua (tongue) taco was funky and tender, our al pastor soothing and simple, and our chicken tinga taco laid back and mellow. — J.N.
Sen Yai Sen Lek Thai Rice & Noodles
2422 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis | 1 mile from Broadway Street
Some of the places we’ve visited on this journey are what you could easily call undiscovered gems. Sen Yai Sen Lek, is not one of them. Not because it’s not a gem — which it certainly is — but because it is clearly not undiscovered, as evidenced by the hordes of patrons at every table and the T-shirts for sale by the register.
The atmosphere at Sen Yai Sen Lek is warm and inviting. Brightly colored walls are dotted with paintings and photos of Thailand. The wooden chairs, tables, and floors have been worn by use down to their most comfortable form. Everyone here seems to know one another — or acts as if they do.
Sen Yai Sen Lek has the heart, soul, and energy of a friendly neighborhood bar. Except that instead of burgers, fries, and beer, they serve Po Pia Sod, Pad Kee Mao, and yes, beer.
The city council member for the ward, Kevin Reich, joined us. He told us he’d spent some time in Thailand. While there, he went on a quest to find what he called “the hot dish of Thailand”: the dish people would make for family dinners, rather than the standard fare you might find at a Thai restaurant. Eventually, he was invited into a home to try Pad Bai Gra Pow. He told us that until Sen Yai Sen Lek, he’d been unable to find the dish in any Thai restaurant. And now he’s a regular.
Reich also introduced us to Joe Hatch-Surisook, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Holly. He is a soft spoken and gracious man who talks with genuine affection about the neighborhood. And it’s clear the restaurant has taken on the personality of the owner. — M.C.
The Pad Bai Gra Pow ($12) came highly recommended for a reason. This bright, healthy mashup of greens, garlic, chilis, and peppers was blessed with a liberal dose of Thai basil and a fried egg, and it was, somehow, far more than the sum of its parts. It felt both hearty and sophisticated, comforting yet far from dull. It makes perfect sense that it’s regarded as warm, homey soul food — there’s a lot going on beyond the dish’s humble exterior.
We also really enjoyed our Pad See Iew Gai ($11.50), a mellow, properly seasoned take on the classic noodle dish with egg, soy sauce, and broccoli. Our soft pillowy noodles were thoroughly cooked but not overdone or falling apart, and noodle texture is absolutely key to making this dish more than just a mushy pile of salt. — J.N.
2402 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis | 0.9 miles from Broadway Street
Simplicity is difficult to achieve. So difficult in fact, that many in the restaurant business don’t even attempt it. Instead, they aim to please as many people as possible. Menus fill multiple pages with an exhaustive list of choices. Coffee shop chalkboards become obscure word labyrinths with handwriting contorted to fill every square inch of space.
Not at Anelace.
The menu here is no bigger than an oversized postcard, with legible type and white space to spare. They’ve culled the typical coffee shop menu down to a few refined essentials. And by offering only a few items, they’ve been able to concentrate on delivering the best: a few specially sourced coffees, a few organic teas, a few house-made flavored syrups, and a few local bakery items.
There’s nothing missing and nothing superfluous on the menu.
The space follows the same philosophy. The service counter and shelves are black; the coffee bar is stainless; the tile work, walls, and ceilings are white. Tall wooden benches run parallel to the coffee bar along a brick wall. There’s little ornamentation, and what there is feels essential. It somehow manages to be sparse and uncluttered without being uncomfortable, cold, or pretentious.
In a world overflowing with choices, Anelace is a welcome reminder of the beauty of simplicity. — M.C.
Our espresso was strong, clean, and clear in flavor. Our cortado? Rich, mellow, and smooth. Our cup of Guatemalan coffee was bright but not raw, and needed no sugar or milk — it was lovely just as it was poured. But best of all was our latte with cardamom syrup, which had the perfect, gentle amount of sweetness and an audible whisper of cardamom flavor. This was so smooth, so sophisticated, and so beautifully balanced that one of our tasters was moved to utter profanity. We are eagerly awaiting the advent of cooler weather so we can make this lovely beverage our weekly treat. — J.N.
Crescent Moon Bakery & Restaurant
2339 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis | 0.9 miles from Broadway Street
In many ways, Crescent Moon is the opposite of simple. It is at once a Middle Eastern bakery, a restaurant, a coffee shop, a grocery, an ice-cream parlor, and a pizza joint.
In contrast to the sparse feel of Anelace, the interior is a cacophony for the senses. Sponge-painted walls and arches, brick counter-surrounds, ceramic tile floors, industrial wire racks and coolers, copper ceilings and copper-framed mirrors, ornate glass drop lamps and chandeliers, baskets filled with plastic plants and flowers.
Yet, somehow in this mishmash, there’s an underlying humanity and authenticity. You can rest assured, there is no corporate machine behind this place.
And while there is an abundance of choices, Crescent Moon does have one particular specialty. You can’t miss it. It’s advertised on a giant banner in an outside window, featured on the menu, and bouncing across flatscreen monitors throughout the space. Crescent Moon is “The Home of the Football Pizza.”
So according to the first rule of our Foolproof Guide to Ordering, it was immediately clear what we should order, although we did order a few other items for good measure.
The booths here, by the way, are ridiculously big. Take the booth you’re imagining and double or triple it. Are you picturing it? Good. Now take two of those and put them together. That’s how big the booths are. They’re designed for a culture where large extended families share meals together. And while we were there, that’s exactly what we saw.
To be clear, the Football Pizza isn’t a football-themed pizza. The name is a reference to the shape. Crescent Moon also offers a traditional, round pie, but really, who would want to order round at “The Home of the Football Pizza”?
And if there was any question of how serious Crescent Moon is about owning the market on Football Pizzas, it was immediately answered when the owner gave us a sneak preview of his new logo.
The whole thing is centered around a familiar, oval-shaped illustration. “Do you see?” he said, eager to make us understand, “It’s half pizza, half football.” Then he paused, unsure we were really getting it. “Or if you prefer, half football, half pizza.”
Crescent Moon’s Football Pizza ($14 for a large meat-lover’s pie) is, as far as we’re concerned, one of the signature food experiences of Minneapolis. Part of it is that, yes, the soft, yielding, flavorful characteristics of Afghan flatbread make for a beautiful pizza. And part of it is that whether you’re ordering a chicken pizza, or a gyro pizza, or whatever you end up with, the sauce / cheese / onion / topping / crust interplay is just lovely. But it’s mostly about the green sauce: the bright, flavorful, tangy sauce that elevates the football pizza from “pretty good” to “legendary.” If Papa John’s and Domino’s were on their game, they’d start throwing this stuff in with every pie they delivered — it’s transformative.
While we were at Crescent Moon, greedily devouring a massive Football Pizza, we also tried the restaurant’s kourma ($10), which was lovely. It boasted a rich carrot-and-raisin sweetness, a real depth of spice, and exceedingly tender meat; the beef version, in particular, was velvet soft without disintegrating.
We stepped into a dubiously rickety elevator with carpeted walls. The carpet, we could only assume, was put there as a safety measure to cushion the blow when the original elevator cable inevitably gives way. Immediately, we began to question our judgement.
We’d committed to trying every independent restaurant on Central Avenue, but did that really include a pancake breakfast on the second floor of a Masonic hall? Steeling our nerves, we dedicated ourselves to the task.
The elevator arrived safely, and we walked down a narrow corridor toward the main hall, where a cheerful gentleman with a cash box awaited our payment.
There were tables scattered around the room, and only a few other diners. It felt as if we had walked in on a family breakfast. But rather than being treated as outsiders, we were received politely.
The men running the show — all members of the Arcana Lodge — were welcoming and friendly. They told us the breakfast is as much a fundraiser for building repairs as it is a community outreach program, and that they were glad to have us.
Through an open kitchen window, we watched our food being prepared at two archaic steel griddles, each a flat slab the size of a large door, with a line of bone-colored ceramic knobs running along the edge. They looked like something Dr. Frankenstein might have fashioned to prepare his breakfast sausage links.
We were told by one of the volunteer cooks that the griddles were custom made from locomotive plates that were donated to the lodge by a railroad company many years ago. The railroad may or may not have known about the donation, he added with a wink.
He used a stainless pancake dispenser to drop perfect circles of batter onto the griddle. Plop. Plop. Plop. We asked if the pancakes were made from a secret family recipe. “Yep,” he said. “You open the bag and add water.”
A man, who was apparently next to preside over the lodge, offered to give us a tour of the rest of the hall. We were happy to take him up on it.
He took us to the meeting room — a rectangular space with raised seats lining the perimeter and an altar in the middle. It was a time capsule of reverence and ceremony, and we couldn’t help but feel somewhat strange being here, as if we had wandered into a secret place. There’s even a peep hatch in the entrance door.
But our guide assured us that the Arcana Lodge wants to dispel the myth that the Masons are a secret society. They want to open up to the community. And what better way to start than a pancake breakfast? — M.C.
At $8, the value of the Arcana pancake breakfast really can’t be beat. The meal includes eggs, bacon, coffee, OJ, and the titular disks themselves. The bacon was nothing fancy, but it was crisp, and the eggs (we tried ours scrambled) were fine fuel for the day. The pancakes were better than most we’ve had in restaurants — light, fluffy, chewy, and unpretentious. We’re no fans of the plate-sized, inch-thick, bready abominations that seem to be the norm in a lot of eating establishments, so every time we get back-to-basics flapjacks like the ones at Arcana, we thank our lucky stars. — J.N.