The Holy Grail for any restaurant is finding that perfect combination of great vibe and fantastic food. There are those that succeed in spite of offering only serviceable food. You often find them perched on the edge of a body of water—the killer view outweighing the food. Then there are the dives where die-hard patrons are willing to overlook the sketchy atmosphere because the food sings. But those are the extremes. The outliers. Most places are battling it out somewhere in the middle.
Honestly, you have to wonder how a restaurant ever achieves that perfect vibe/food combination. There are so many moving parts, so many mitigating factors. Not to say that any place on this outing was in any way “bad.” Not at all. They each have their good qualities. But we were also reminded of how difficult it is for even great restaurants to get everything right. It’s a truth worth always keeping in mind. — M.C. Cronin
This week’s checklist crew: WACSO, M.C. Cronin, James Norton, Peter Hajinian
OTHER EAST LAKE STREET CHECKLIST INSTALLMENTS: Lake Plaza, Gorditas el Gordo to Pineda Tacos, Taqueria Victor Hugo to Safari Restaurant, El Sabor Chuchi to The Rabbit Hole, Midtown Global Market, Miramar to San Miguel Bakery, Mercado Central, Ingebretsen’s to Pasteleria Gama, La Alborada to Quruxlow, Midori’s Floating World to El Nuevo Rodeo, Urban Forage to Himalayan, Blue Moon Coffee Cafe to Merlin’s Rest, Hi Lo Diner to The Bungalow Club
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
The East Lake Checklist is the third Heavy Table illustrated travelogue to explore a major gastronomic thoroughfare in Minneapolis and/or St. Paul. The East Lake Checklist is the Heavy Table’s follow-up to our 55-restaurant survey of independent eateries on Central Avenue and our 72-restaurant series about restaurants on the Green Line. We’ll publish five-restaurant installments biweekly until we’ve documented every nonchain spot on East Lake Street between 35W and the Mississippi River. (We’re estimating 75 spots, but we’ll see how it shakes out.)
This series is made possible by underwriting from Visit Lake Street. Heavy Table retains editorial control of the series — as with Central Avenue and the Green Line, this tour will be warts-and-all.
“From the river to the lakes, visitors and residents can shop local and be social on Lake Street. More information at VisitLakeStreet.com.”
Blue Moon Coffee Cafe
3822 E Lake St, Minneapolis
No surprise, the theme is astronomical. Not as in “big,” but as in stars and moons. The exterior is painted twilight blue. The ceiling is midnight purple and the walls starlight yellow. Star and moon shaped ornaments dangle from a plant on the counter. Twinkle lights wind their way around the coffee bar. A moon terrain poster hangs on one wall.
While theme is astronomical, the aesthetic is lived in. There are a few tables in the front of the shop and an elevated lounge area in the back with a hodgepodge of well-worn, squashy couches and chairs. The enormous bulletin area is bursting with dog eared copies of local lawn mowing service flyers, event announcements, and used cars for sale. This is a community coffee shop through-and-through. An independent. A labor of love. And thoroughly comfortable being exactly what it is. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
You’ve got to hand it to Blue Moon Cafe – they are willing to take it to the wall when it comes to novelty lattes. Their Cabin Weekend ($4.25, 8 oz.) is a honey, vanilla, and turmeric(!) number that has no lack of turmeric, which creates a sort of earthy, thrillingly decomp-y note that underpins an otherwise classic sweetened latte experience.
Our Maple Cold Press ($4.50, 16 oz.) was a more conventional beverage – naturally sweet, quite refreshing, and iced without being overly watery. The coffee faded a bit too much into the background, but on a hot day this is a drink that would absolutely get the job done. — James Norton
Peppers and Fries
3900 E Lake St, Minneapolis
Peppers and Fries inhabits what appears to be an old convenience store space which has been updated by adding three glass-paned garage doors that open to a patio area out front. A chain-link fence surrounds the patio and it’s the first hint at the concept here: sports. Specifically baseball. The chain link is a shout-out to the batting cages and old-school fencing you find around baseball diamonds in community parks all over the country.
More obvious clues to the baseball theme can be found inside. There’s a oversized outfield score board painted on one wall. The bar in the back is labelled the “Bleacher Bar”. The walls are littered with pictures of ballparks, neon beer signs with Twins logos, flatscreen TV’s playing sports and posters with sayings like “No Pepper”. In short, if you’re looking for a baseball themed sports bar, this one seems to have all the bases covered. (See what we did there?) — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Peppers and Fries is a place that is pulse-poundingly rammed with personality. The menu, built as it is around the two pillars of burgers and burritos, gets weird in a hurry. You very quickly get the feeling that the proprietors aren’t afraid to play around with interesting flavor combinations, and they’re not afraid to commit.
Take, for example, the PB&J Fries ($8.75). It’s an order of hot, crispy French fries smothered in peanut butter and spicy jelly evocative of the kind of sauce you’d dip cream cheese wontons into at a reliable neighborhood Thai restaurant. As strange as a peanut butter-and-jelly French fries dish might seem, it’s actually fairly close in flavor to a chicken satay dish, and quite enjoyable as a result.
The Lake and Marshall Bridge burger ($14) looked simple enough on the menu – two 1/4 pound patties, American cheese, lettuce, onions, pickles and special sauce on a three-tier bun. Got it – kind of a play on a Big Mac. But no: The thing is a burger TOWER. It leans crazily over the plate, and it intimidates the riff-raff. The bun is pleasingly eggy, the sauce on point, the toppings in balance, and – this can’t be over-emphasized – the seasoning on the meat absolutely perfect, salty in a savory and encouraging way with plenty of pepper for balance. We destroyed this thing.
We ordered our Pepper’s Classic burrito ($12) with chicken tinga, but someone forgot to add the chicken tinga, and what we got was a reasonably decent if massive rice-and-beans vegetarian burrito. The restaurant took 50% off the tab for the item, so we were ultimately pretty happy about how it worked out.
Our Pickle Martini (Tanqueray gin, dry vermouth, pickle juice, and a pickle garnish, $8) was simple, clean, easy drinking and pleasant. We thought the pickle and pickle juice would kick hard, but they integrated smoothly into the cocktail, and we downed it with pleasure. — J.N.
International Cuisine Bar & Grill
3508 E Lake St, Minneapolis
The name makes it sound like some generic eatery you’d find tucked away in some global hotel chain. Turns out the name is a bit of a misnomer (more below).
As for the space, it’s pretty straightforward. Black corrugated metal covers the walls. A long bar runs down one side of the main room and a row of booths run along the other. An adjacent room has additional tables.
A few pictures hang here and there, but there’s very little else to look at. It’s basic, simple, clean. In short, it’s nothing too surprising or remarkable.
And then the food hits the table.
That old thing about not judging a book by its cover? Yeah, there’s a reason that’s a thing. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The international cuisine of International Cuisine is pretty focused on Ecuadorian (and a bit of Argentinian and Peruvian) cuisine, but that’s OK with us. The menu is surprisingly cohesive, and when we put all of the food that we ordered into circulation, we found that the numerous components of all of our dishes worked beautifully well together.
Our Tamale Peruvano ($8) was moist and wrapped in a banana leaf; the quick pickled red onions on the side were an ideal foil for the pork, olives, and masa packed inside of the tamale’s generous confines. Bright acid meets earthy, warm meat and corn – love at first bite.
The Plato Bandeja Paisa ($18) contained everything we’ve come to love about this crowd-pleaser of a dish – an aggressively charred steak pounded down to about a micron of thickness, a soft-cooked egg, an avocado, beans, rice, a roasted plantain, and a fatty slice of pork belly. The beans require specific explanation: they were stewed in a deeply spiced, curry-like sauce, cooked perfectly, and surprisingly light and delicate. With the accompanying rice and just about any other item on the plate, they were fantastic. The plantain also deserves a citation for being so fully roasted and charred.
The sausage that came with our Llapingachos ($8) upstaged the llapingacho itself – it was snappy, firm, meaty, and nicely grilled, while the fried potato cake was a bit underflavored, though pleasurable with hot sauce or other more brightly flavored sides. — J.N.
3300 E Lake St, Minneapolis
Sonora Grill has all the requisite touches you’d expect in a place named for a southwestern desert region and Mexican State: sun bleached animal skulls and antlers, a hunk of driftwood on the wall, paintings that evoke a desert sunset. The bar is not just a bar, it’s a Tequila Bar. The floors are terra cotta tile. The table tops are plank wood. A weathered wood arbor wraps around the front of the building.
But it was the simplest thing that distracted us. The overhead recessed lights, in addition to being turned up too bright, were an inexplicable mix of warm and cool color-temperature bulbs. Yes, we’re being picky, but Sonora clearly cares about details. Simply dimming the lights and ditching those cool color-temp bulbs would be an instant improvement. “Cool white” LED’s are a just another version of fluorescent tubes. And no one wants to see their food and/or dining partners bathed in bluish-green light. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
When it comes to our meal at Sonora Grill, we are going to tackle the elephant in the room straight away. The Paella ($24) is, in fact, a combination of rice, shrimp, fish, and sausage. But it is not, in any way that we would normally recognize, anything like a familiar (mixed, or preparación barroca) paella. It might be that the chimmichurri-like green sauce stirred into the rice is an unexpected move. It might be that the fish is underflavored, and raises the question of where the more expected shellfish (mussels and clams, typically) might have gotten to. And it is most certainly that the sausage in the dish, rather than being something spicy and earthy along the lines of chorizo, is actually much closer to miniature breakfast sausages than anything we were expecting.
All of that said: the dish’s sauteed shrimp, twisted and charred by high heat into unexpected shapes, were absolutely stellar. This is a dish that could be successfully re-imagined and sold as a seafood rice bowl, but framing it as “paella” conjures up too many unfulfilled expectations.
We weren’t wild about the Sonora Hot Dog ($10), as it came topped with a gritty ground meat that tasted a bit like dehydrated chili, and it sported what tasted like a fairly generic low-grade hot dog (albeit one beautifully wrapped in bacon.)
But we were happy to wash both our mains down with the Sonora Margarita ($10.50) which is everything we want in a drink like this: it’s simple, it’s tart, and the high quality tequila speaks clearly and with confidence. This may be one of the best margaritas in town. — J.N.
3601 E Lake St, Minneapolis
The place is dripping with British Isles pub culture. There’s the properly nicked-up wood bar, the cozy, tufted burgundy booths, the wood-paneled walls and shelves crammed with brit-flavored trinkets and knickknacks: photographs of footballers, coats-of-arms, sea charts, distillery maps, used books, vintage beer posters and pewter mugs. It’s as if the goal was to fill every available space with some pub artifact. The night we visited there was even a band singing acoustic, fiddle-tinged shanties.
Yet somehow, littered with these archetypes, Merlin’s Rest avoids coming off like a some twee imitation of an English pub. Perhaps the authenticity is due to its hodgepodge-y-ness and working-class vibe, both in terms of decor and clientele. You have tattooed hipsters rubbing elbows with baseball-capped students. Cubicle dwellers sharing bar corners with warehouse managers. You have groups of 20-something friends playing Settlers of Catan and 50-something friends tossing dice.
It’s the kind of bar you’d hope to randomly stumble into while trying to escape the rain on some scruffy London side-street. Only, no airfare is required. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Fish and Chips ($10.50) seemed like the right thing to order at one of the state’s most legitimate and upstanding British Isles pubs, and we weren’t disappointed with what arrived. We got the default preparation (fries and fish heavily doused in malt vinegar) and while we thought the breading on the fish was a bit tough and chewy, the maltiness and brightness from the vinegar was a nice complement to the fish, which was fully flavored and savory.
Our Pie of the Week ($8.50) was Australian-inspired, which meant Vegemite and sausage, and we couldn’t have been more pleased with it. The overall effect of the meat, the onions, and the earthy Vegemite was something along the lines of a classic sloppy Joe baked into a delicate, flaky, buttery crust, and it was ravishingly good alongside our beers.
There is no better Pimm’s Cup in America than the one at Merlin’s Rest ($8), and we’re sticking with that until someone proves otherwise. The stuff sliced up and presented within this classic cocktail is jaw-dropping – strawberries, cucumbers, mint leaves, and more – and the beautiful presentation is well-suited to the smooth, seductive, refreshing cocktail within. — J.N.