Call this outing “Adventures in Acoustic Annoyances.” Four of the five restaurants we visited were plagued by some kind of sonic quirk. For whatever reason — maddening repetition, crappy speakers, excessive volume — the background music forced its way front and center.
That aside, this outing was notable for another reason. This may have been one of the only checklist installments where we visited five places, each of which offered the cuisine of a different country. In this case, Japanese, Somali, Ethiopian, Indian, and Mexican. Not a bad accomplishment for “Downtown Longfellow.” — M.C. Cronin
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.”
Midori’s Floating World Cafe
2629 E Lake St, Minneapolis
In terms of atmosphere, Midori’s Floating World Cafe has all the hallmarks of a better-than-average Japanese dining experience. The decor is considered. Colorful oil-paper umbrellas line the ceiling. A row of tall, leafy plants adds a touch of life. The bright-blue walls are decorated with watercolors and patterned artwork. The counters and sushi bar and shelving are dotted with Asian tchotchkes: lucky cat figurines, tissue paper crafts, origami, and floating candles.
It’s comfortable, but not too comfortable. If Goldilocks was in the mood for Japanese, Midori’s would suit her well. Although, in this hypothetical scenario, she might ask them to turn down the tin-can speakers pumping out J-pop. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Properly done tempura is both fairly rare and a real joy — light, crispy, and delicate — and Midori’s knows how to handle its tempura. Aria’s Tempura Rice Balls ($6) came out crisp and piping hot, and while a bit of acid or spicy heat would have rounded them out, they were a mellow, crispy, well-formed treat.
Our Tokyo Ramen ($12.25) was simple, soft-spoken, and neat as a pin, each component (wheat noodles, hard boiled egg slices, fish cake, sliced pork) carefully placed and properly cooked. The whole dish was beautifully composed and thoughtfully seasoned.
The Vegetable Tempura Rolls ($4 at happy hour) came together nicely: the rice well-seasoned and tender, the overall flavor profile mild, the textures complementary, and the overall experience simple but pleasurable. We’ve found that rice is both the key to good sushi and one of the most-overlooked elements at mediocre Japanese restaurants; Midori’s knows its rice, and that shows.
We also enjoyed the Red Jasmine Art Tea ($5), a lightly flavored beverage powered by the gorgeous, unfolding botanical element within. — James Norton
2700 E Lake St, Minneapolis
It’s a simple setup. You order at the counter and wait at your table for your food to arrive. The night we visited, the person behind the counter was happy to help us come up with a few things to try. He even offered a taste of the tamarind juice before we committed to ordering three large glasses of the stuff.
The space is also fairly simple. Maroon and gold drapes border large windows. There are terrazzo floors and earth-toned walls, high ceilings with exposed ductwork, colored glass chandeliers and sconces. In person, it feels more utilitarian than it probably sounds on paper. It’s more cafe than fine dining room.
Thankfully, African Paradise has the distinction of being the only restaurant on on this outing that didn’t overwhelm us aurally. If they were playing music, it was properly pulled back into the ambiance. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The Mediterranean Sampler Platter ($13) at African Paradise is just another name for the dish we’ve come to know and love from Lake Street’s many East African restaurants: the sport platter. It came loaded down with a few different meats, including strips of gyro meat (oversalted, otherwise unremarkable), kofta (light, gently seasoned, and tender), and seared strips of beef (a bit tough but pleasantly savory).
Our drinks — mango juice and tamarind juice — were bright, full-flavored, and thinner than the ones we usually encounter, but not unpleasantly so.
The Hummus at African Paradise (the bulk of the hummus, tomato, and cucumber Appetizer Platter, $4) was delicious. Like the stuff at Halwo Kismayo, it was remarkably light, delicate, and well-balanced.
Our Chicken Steak ($14) was squarely in the realm of fajita meat, cut into small strips and fully seasoned, but served not in tortillas but instead atop a bed of surprisingly spicy spaghetti. — J.N.
2713 E Lake St, Minneapolis
It feels like more of a bar, music venue, and disco that just happens to have a restaurant attached. The bar sits directly in the center of the space. There’s a roped-off VIP area with low, comfortable couch seating on one side of the room and a stage in the back. The sound system, if cranked, could shake St. Paul. The place appears ready to party on any given weekend night.
Addis Ababa is the capital of Ethiopia, and the decor reflects the culture. Walls are decorated with black-and-white pencil portraits of Ethiopian people. Columns are painted in giraffe-esque geometric patterns. TVs throughout the place played Ethiopian pop music videos.
The similarity of rhythms and repetitive nature of the songs, which would work well in a nightclub at midnight, didn’t work quite as well on a Thursday evening. Eventually, we started to wonder if we were caught in some kind of time-space loop, listening to the same song over and over. Then strangely, the music videos morphed into a promo for a wedding videographer. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The best thing we can say about the meal at Addis Ababa is that the food (Special Tibs Fitfit, $15, and the Vegetarian Platter, $17, above) was deeply spiced with assertive heat. Unfortunately its texture and overdoneness suggested that it had been held for some time before service.
Our Chicken Sambusas ($8 for four) had good chewy/crispy fried wrappers filled with spiced ground chicken with a texture not unlike laab, but lacking much depth or punch. The situation was not improved by the straight-from-the-neighborhood-Chinese-joint duck sauce served on the side. — J.N.
3009 27th Ave, Minneapolis
We’re going to chalk this visit to Gandhi Mahal up as a one-off anomaly. But, wow, what an anomaly.
Honestly, if you’d told us afterward that we’d actually interrupted a robbery and a masked crew of criminals was holding the chef hostage in the kitchen the entire time we were there, we would’ve believed you. There was palpable tension in the air. The staff seemed uninterested in interacting with the customers, and they interacted as minimally as possibly with each other. It was as if all joy had disappeared from the room.
This was odd, because beyond the weirdness in the air that evening, Gandhi Mahal gives the impression of a place that cares. After all, a restaurant doesn’t have a basement aquaponics system if they aren’t really, truly trying. The decor is soothing and comfortable, full of warm colors and textures. On a good night you’d expect nothing less than a peaceful, calming vibe.
Adding to our off-kilter feeling, about halfway through the visit we figured out that the overhead music was actually a series of pop songs covered in traditional Indian style. The sitar and tabla cover of Alanis Morissette’s Ironic put the nail in the coffin. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Context is important for reviews, and unlike most spots on Lake Street, Gandhi Mahal is a restaurant we’ve gotten to know quite well over the years. We’ve probably dined in or ordered out from the spot 30 or 40 times, with generally good to excellent results. Consistency has wavered, and we’ve never been able to get our mango lassis reliably delivered, but we’ve generally been happy to recommend the place.
This is to say our visit two Sundays ago felt like either a negative outlier or a herald of the end times. Our Samosas ($5) arrived at the table surprisingly dark in color, and the dough was partially raw in the interior, suggesting that they had been cooked in improperly heated oil.
Our Chicken Biryani ($13) was, in a word, “muddy.” The flavors of the dish’s traditional spices were unpleasantly hard to discern, the texture gluey, and the chicken dry. We’ve had good biryani before (see our visit to Paradise Biryani Pointe), and it works best when it is light, delicate, and fresh. This dish was none of those things.
Finally, we were excited to try the Bangla Tilapia ($15), which seemed like a match made in heaven between a neutral, clean-tasting fish and a deeply spiced gravy. Unfortunately, the tilapia in our entree had a distinctly fishy odor and flavor that cut through the sauce like a blowtorch through naan.
Speaking of naan, the two we tried (regular and peshwari) were excellent, warm, pliable, and slightly crispy. — J.N.
El Nuevo Rodeo
2709 E Lake St, Minneapolis
Hand it to El Nuevo Rodeo for sticking with the western theme. There’s a rope lassoing their name on one wall. Horse collars and other tack are displayed around the room. Virtually every chair in the place has a bucking bronco logo designed into it. Don’t get us wrong, this isn’t a “theme” restaurant, but you wouldn’t be out of place wearing a pair of Tony Lama’s and a snap-front western shirt.
At its heart, El Nuevo Rodeo is just a well-appointed Mexican restaurant with honey-toned wood floors, warm yellow walls, and ceilings painted terra cotta. There’s even the requisite bar with signs advertising tequilas, margaritas, and cervezas.
The night we visited, a group of about fifteen was gathered eating family-style from platters of food set down at intervals along their table. Despite the fact that a DJ was blasting loud banda music perfect for two-stepping, no one was actually dancing, nor did they appear interested in doing so. Between the aggressive accordion and the brass attack, it felt like a circus could break out any minute. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
We’re always pleased when a menu has a “specialties of the house” section because it suggests a pride of ownership that almost always results in a tasty meal. This was the case at El Nuevo Rodeo, where we tried and truly enjoyed the Cochinita Pibil (slow-roasted pork in a achiote-citrus paste, $18). The meat itself was tender and initially almost caramel-sweet, tapering off to a mild but substantial spicy finish that played nicely with the accompanying black beans and perfectly roasted plantains.
We’re suckers for Chicken Fajitas ($16 at El Nuevo Rodeo), and the house version was solid. The chicken was tender and nicely cooked, although (like the onions) it could have used a more aggressive char. The fixings (sour cream, guac, pico de gallo) were on point, and the choice of flour or corn tortillas was appreciated.
We tried a couple of margaritas, and they were definitely in the “large/fun” camp as opposed to the “hardcore/old-school” camp of the beverage. The Margarita Rodeo ($8.25) was sweeter and more fruit-punch-forward than we like them, but the Margarita Cadillac ($8.75) had a true tequila backbone that we appreciated. — J.N.