This Checklist outing was an exploration of extremes. We bounced between a tiny, darkened cafe and a huge, bustling buffet. We went from a simple market to an ornate dining room. Oh, and we hit a gas station food counter. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that there’s just no telling what people might like when it comes to their dining experience. In some cases (such as all-you-can-eat buffets), it boggles the mind. That said, we can usually find something to appreciate in every experience. Even if it’s not the food. — M.C. Cronin
This week’s checklist crew: WACSO, M.C. Cronin, James Norton
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.”
1855 E Lake St, Minneapolis
Some places have a warmth that’s hard to explain. La Alborada is one of those places. On the surface, it has a lot in common with other mercados we’ve visited, but something about La Alborada feels less frenetic, more welcoming.
At the heart of the market is a single room with high ceilings and low shelves that allow you to stand on one end and see across the entire place. Colorful star piñatas hang above produce shelves stocked with fresh coconuts and plantains. There are hand-painted murals behind the meat counter. There’s a separate area for baked goods and a room for pharmacy items. It’s well cared for. While we were there, a guy with a tie and a clipboard was diligently counting and turning frontward the drinks in one of the coolers.
The restaurant is set apart from the remainder of the market. There’s a small seating area near the front counter and another room with tables running along the outside windows of the building. With its orange walls, earth-toned tile floors and brick counter, it feels just as warm and welcoming as the rest of the market. All in all, a pleasant place to sit down for a few minutes and devour some tasty antojitos. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
We’ve reviewed and loved La Alborada in the past, and it’s one of our favorite places to stop for a couple of tamales for lunch. It was therefore no surprise that everything we tried was good to excellent.
Our soft drinks were exemplary. The horchata wasn’t overly sweet, and it had a wonderful, understated ricey texture. The Jamaica was kissed with a nice dose of hibiscus astringency, but was neither cloyingly sweet nor overly severe. Both were among the best we’ve tried on East Lake Street.
We tried three Tacos ($1.90 each) — cabeza (beef head), longaniza (spicy sausage), and asada (steak). The asada was excellent, packing an incredible amount of umami-rich, steaky punch into each tender little cube of meat. The cabeza was mellower than the asada, and richer, with a streak of fatty intensity to it. We’d expected the longaniza to be a one-for-one with chorizo, but it was more complicated than that. There was a cinnamonlike, spicy depth to it that was both surprising and enjoyable. All the accoutrements (hot sauces, lime slices, grilled onions) were right, and the tacos rank among the most enjoyable we’ve tried. And we’ve tried … a lot of tacos.
The Huarache with Barbacoa ($8.50) was deeply cheesy, with a surprisingly delicate, crisp tortilla shell. Between the huarache’s nicely seasoned chunks of meat, the intensity of the cheese, and the availability of both red and green hot sauces, the dish was a choose-your-own adventure of flavor and texture, and was voluminous enough to feed two somewhat hungry diners. — James Norton
1532 E Lake St, Minneapolis
The place looked closed from the outside. To say it was dark inside would be an understatement. There were only a couple of chandeliers in the dining room putting out a combined 2.5 candlepower. Normally, we love low light, but this verged on power outage territory.
It was a one-woman show the night we visited. Said woman ran both the kitchen and the front of the house. Not that there was much to run. The dining room has about five booths. And when we arrived there was only one other customer waiting for a to-go order.
The name Abi’s Cafe speaks to something home style, and the layout of the place certainly brings to mind a small Main Street diner. It’s not hard to imagine bright mornings and weekend lunch hours when these booths are abuzz with customers, and plates of food are being shuttled to and from the kitchen. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The frustrating thing about Abi’s Cafe was that a good percentage of the menu was unavailable when we arrived (7 p.m. on a Thursday), so we were not able to pick and choose from a broad range of options.
We were able to score a Pupusa Revuelta ($2.25), and while the pork-and-cheese pupusa itself was gooey and bland, the brightly vinegared housemade slaw that came with it elevated the dish and made it truly compelling. The simplicity of the pupusa (it lacked some of the fattiness and/or exterior crispness we’ve found at other spots) actually played nicely with the slaw, giving it a blank canvas.
Our Pollo Frito ($13) suffered from a skin that was — while extremely crispy — lacking in much flavor or depth. The meat was somewhat dry, although the addition of smoky refried beans and rice made for a pleasant enough experience when eaten atop one of the warm little tortillas provided to us with the dish. — J.N.
El Pollo de Los Santos at Stop and Shop
1700 E Lake St, Minneapolis
The food counter in the back of a gas station convenience store is always a risk. Usually not your first choice — or even your fifteenth — when reeling off dining options. But some gas station cuisine can surprise you. And a Mexican chicken joint is far from the roller-dogs and pump-cheese nachos you usually find in places like this.
There was a constant flow of people coming in after filling up their cars to grab a pack of smokes or a beef sticks. We passed through stacks of wiper fluid and energy drinks and headed directly to the back corner toward El Pollo de Los Santos’s cartoon chicken logo — the mascot of choice at chicken joints. Right away, the cauldron of boiling rice bubbling away on a stove in the background felt out of the ordinary for convenience store food. But it may have set us up to expect something more. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
It’s clear to us that East Lake Street represents not just one of the best stretches in the state for Mexican food, but likely one of the best stretches in the country. We’d put Plaza Mexico or Mercado Central or Taqueria Victor Hugo or La Poblanita against anything anywhere. Therefore, when we say that the Mexican restaurant inside the Stop and Shop gas station may be the weakest food of its type that we’ve tried on Lake Street, it’s not really meant as a dis against El Pollo de Los Santos; it’s more of a tribute to the excellence of its competition.
Our two-piece Chicken Plate ($8, with rice, beans, hot sauce, and tortillas) suffered from being held too long behind the counter. The chicken was somehow both a bit soggy and a bit dry. Still, assembled as a chicken taco, it was OK — certainly among the best gas station food in Minnesota, while still dragging down the average for Mexican food on East Lake.
Our Elote Preparada ($2) was basic in the extreme — a little bit of mayo and the bare minimum of chili powder clung to the exterior of the ear of corn, which was overcooked. Not great. But not bad. — J.N.
2216 E Lake St, Minneapolis
At an all-you-can-eat buffet, value is the central equation. It feels like people are just trolling buffet islands scheming how to game the system. On the way in, we asked the cashier what we should get. He told us to go for the high-buck items like steak and lobster. One patron who’d already loaded two plates with meat and seafood summed up his buffet strategy like this: “Well, I’m not here for noodles.”
It’s the same way some people walk into a casino with a wad of cash convinced that they have somehow discovered a foolproof strategy to win, certain that they know something the casino doesn’t. But with all-you-can-eat buffets as with casinos, the house always wins. No matter how many steaks and lobsters you try to stomach, you walk out a little poorer, wondering if it was worth it.
That said, there is an undeniable buzz here. The patrons seem genuinely happy. Families and friends are truly enjoying themselves. It feels like a night out. The server who escorted us to our table was bubbly and joyful. People wander around with wide smiles. Kids throw themselves into the ice cream freezers.
To paraphrase a sentiment we recently read somewhere, we didn’t enjoy it, but we enjoyed watching other people enjoy it. And that’s something. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
It’s difficult to present a thoughtful evaluation of the dozens — likely hundreds — of items available at the Teppanyaki Grill ($15 a person, all you care to eat). We’ll sort of broadly discuss it, category by category, using selected examples.
The word “sushi” refers to the rice in the dish, and it is rice around which the dish is built. So when we write that the rice in Teppanyaki grill’s sushi was so gummy and underseasoned that it seemed to be haunted by an evil spirit, we are condemning the category of Teppanyaki Grill sushi in its entirety. Steer clear of the sushi.
We wanted to give the seafood a try because there’s a lot of it. The whole crab featured meat that was dried out and nearly flavorless. When we cracked open a shell-on crayfish, we found an interior that was oddly grayish-brown, and not odd as in “interesting” odd, more like odd in an “under no circumstances are we eating that” odd. The (imitation) crab meat was just fine, perhaps a bit oversweet, but ultimately palatable. Still, probably safe to say that you should steer clear of the seafood.
The actual teppanyaki grill part of Teppanyaki Grill was fairly straightforward — pick a protein (steak!), add some noodles and sauce and seasoning, and let the grill-jacks go to work with a sizzle here and a theatrical toss there. The remarkably chewy steak came back as oily as a service station rag, with a heavy dose of burnt carbon from the grill serving as the major flavor component. Steer clear of the teppanyaki grill.
The Americanized food — a cup of butterscotch pudding that tasted like melted circus peanuts, onion rings that were the worst kind of “pulverized onions fried and then frozen and then re-heated,” pizza that looked so hapless that we skipped it entirely — was not really a saving grace. Steer clear of the Americanized food.
There are three things and three things only available for dipping in the “Adults Only” chocolate fountain. There are bananas cut into sections (greenish peel still on), fairly dried out chunks of pineapple, and marshmallows. The chocolate in the fountain, to its credit, was liquid and running smoothly through the mechanism, although it tasted far more of sugar than chocolate per se. Steer clear of the chocolate fountain.
The one piece of classic Chinese-American fare we sampled was a crab rangoon. It wasn’t at all crabby (which may, we suppose, make it a cream cheese wonton), and it was remarkably soft and chewy, as opposed to crunchy. This might be too small a sample to draw any conclusions from, but if we had to hazard a conclusion, it would be that you might want to steer clear of the Chinese-American food, too. — J.N.
1414 E Lake St, Minneapolis
Every surface is treated as an opportunity to use a different decorative material, veneer, covering, or trim. There’s shimmery gold, glinting glass, ornate tile work and reflective metallic wallpaper. Even the acoustic tile ceiling panels are imbued with sparkling gold flecks.
Faux is taken to an art form. The tables have a faux marble surface. A ceiling section is painted to look like blue sky. There’s a wall-sized picture of an ocean beach at sunset. It takes a minute to realize that the aquariums running the length of the room contain no water. The fish inside are cardboard cutouts placed at varying heights and depths around rocks and plants.
Quruxlow went for elegance. They achieved “elegance.” But for sheer impact, it works. In terms of presentation, it rises above many of the East African places we’ve visited. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Before we started this journey, we didn’t really have opinions about East African food on East Lake Street, and now they’ve become remarkably detailed and sharply defined. Quruxlow is no Ibrahim or O-City, but it’s not at the bottom of our (still generally tasty) pile, either.
We found its chicken cutlets — crunchily breaded with a KFC-evocative spicy crust — to be the most Americanized of the ones we’ve tried, and the heavily sauced spaghetti similarly familiar (and not in a good way, although there was nothing particularly off-putting about the dish, either).
But the marinated Suqaar Beef (tender little bits of deeply flavored meat) was quite good, and the rice it rode in upon was similarly excellent, with a surprising amount of deeply spiced flavor. The Sport Platter (rice, spaghetti, suqaar, chicken cutlet) was $24, and it had enough food for three people, possibly four.
Our milky tea was delicious (it’s something every East African place seems to do, and do well). Quruxlow’s tea packed a remarkable ginger and cardamom punch that gives it a subtle-but-addictive flavor burn after each sip. — J.N.