We’re in the home stretch now. We’ve crossed under Hiawatha Avenue and passed through downtown Longfellow heading east toward the Mississippi River — our end point. There has been a clear change to the landscape: slightly lighter density of businesses, slightly longer stretches between restaurants, slightly more diversity of cuisines (spoiler alert: We will encounter far fewer taquerias and East African eateries from here on out). Also, it’s taking us longer to get through our allotted five visits on each outing. Could it be that we’re subconsciously dragging our feet to push off the inevitable post-checklist letdown? Perhaps. — 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.”
Urban Forage Winery and Cider House
3016 E Lake St, Minneapolis
With its long, narrow space, wood floors, and works from local artists hanging on the walls, Urban Forage could easily be mistaken for an independent neighborhood coffee shop. Tables run the length of the room. There’s couch seating by the front door. The knotty, wood-topped bar in the back of the room has a brick wall behind it and reclaimed doors hanging above it, giving it a rustic charm. All in all, this would be a fine space to meet a few friends and chill over some hard cider.
Urban Forage’s name is also its mission. The idea of a cider and fruit wine producer dedicated — at least partially — to gathering ingredients from neighborhood trees and gardens is certainly unique. Now you know whom to call when your apple tree starts bearing fruit and you get sick of eating apple crumble. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
When at a new taproom/cocktail room/cidery, ordering a tasting flight is always a strong opening move. For $11 at Urban Forage, we got a flight of ciders including dry, black currant, gin botanical, and semisweet varieties.
Some flights encompass a wide, cleanly defined range of flavors; some are random scatterplots; and some, like the flight at Urban Forage, offer a surprisingly tight grouping of flavors. Urban Forage’s dry cider was in fact quite dry, clean, and restrained, but the semisweet wasn’t much juicier or sweeter — it certainly would pass as dry at many other cideries. The black currant cider had a bold, bright color that suggested a wave of bright, earthy berry flavor, but the product itself was restrained — a bit of funkiness and fruitiness surrounding a fairly neat, clean cider product. Likewise, the gin botanical cider had an opportunity to get a bit nuts with flavors of citrus, juniper, anise (etc., etc.), but it was restrained and focused, with an earthy edge that added interest without going too far astray from the cider base. — James Norton
2927 E Lake St, Minneapolis
The little pink building with ice cream cones on the sign caught our eye as we were walking by on our way to another spot. Given the unseasonably cold weather, ice cream wouldn’t have been our first choice for a stop, but our job is not to question, it is to just go in. This is the checklist, after all.
It turns out the sign was a bit of a misdirect. The cafe actually specializes in rolled ice cream rather than the traditional scoops in a cone depicted on the sign. Here, you get these tightly curled, cigar shaped rolls of ice cream served in the white paper carryout containers you often get at Asian joints.
The space was sparse, with a few tables and a small counter where you can watch the fascinating process of making rolled ice cream. The freehand chalk menu on the wall offered a few special mixes, or you can create your own from a hodgepodge of goodies like Oreos, M&M’s, strawberries, and caramel sauce.
On one of the tables there was a board game handmade using cardboard and a Sharpie. The young man who served us happily showed us how to play. It turned out to be a game called Ludo, which is a form of the Indian game Pachisi, which was appropriated by Parker Brothers and marketed as Parcheesi. But there’s something much more gratifying about using coins as game pieces on a handmade game board. Take that, all you fat cats running the Board Game Industrial Complex. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
We’ve tried Thai rolled ice cream only a few times, but we’re starting to get a feel for it. The basic product (the base liquid that freezes on contact with the anti-griddle and is scraped off into chewy curls of ice cream) seems pretty consistent in terms of its quality and properties, but the toppings can vary quite a bit.
We tried a couple of rolled ice creams at Amandi Cafe with varying results. The Coffee Delight ($6) worked as an ice cream (with all the mildly sweet, surprisingly chewy qualities we’ve come to expect from the genre), but the blast of hyper-sweet, one-dimensional caramel sauce that covered it did the dish no favors.
The Cookie Monster ($6) worked much more smoothly. Crumbled bits of Oreo cookies introduced a good textural counterpoint to the dish’s cookies-and-cream ice cream — it was a chewy-meets-crunchy sort of thing, and that works. The chocolate sauce that it was blasted with wasn’t terrific, but neither did it spoil the fun. — J.N.
Town Talk Diner & Gastropub
2707 E Lake St, Minneapolis
Town Talk Diner has one of the most iconic signs in the Twin Cities. It’s the kind of marquee that grabs your attention and predisposes you to liking the place. So any restaurant that occupies this space has big expectations to fill from the jump.
The old side of this place — the part underneath the marquee — is where the original diner used to be. It’s a distinctive space with hints of its past. It’s long and narrow with brick walls, terrazzo floors, and chrome and stainless surfaces. The formerly Formica lunch counter (we’re just guessing here, but come on, it had to be Formica, right?) has been replaced with a long marble bar. Flattop griddles no longer sizzle behind the counter either. Instead there’s an open kitchen at the far end of the room.
The “newer” side of the place — which you get to through an opening in the original foot-and-a-half-thick brick wall — is where you’ll find the main dining room. This side is pleasant enough, with wood bench seating, drop lights, reclaimed wood plank floors and tabletops. But, frankly, we prefer the old side.
Admittedly, we’re probably biased. There’s something we find inherently interesting about an old diner space. You can almost feel the spirits of regulars past haunting the wobbly counter stools, sipping black coffee, reading a quarter-folded copy of the Minneapolis Star, and grumbling about the weather. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
We’ve long ago lost track of the exact number and nature of the incarnations of the Town Talk Diner, but we can remember a few: the lively old Tim Niver / Nick Kosevich place, the watered down Theros-owned version that got sunk in part by an embezzlement scandal, and Le Town Talk, the ambitious, French-inflected reboot that never quite found its way.
The current version is an odd candidate for the gentrifying, but still largely working class Longfellow neighborhood — it’s ambitiously farm-to-table, wide-ranging in its flavors and influences, and assertively priced.
Our Old Fashioned would have been good for $7, but it was priced at $11. The shovel-full of ice chips that filled the glass created instant and overwhelming dilution, mostly swamping the impact of the otherwise well-crafted drink.
The restaurant’s take on savory potato pierogies would send the vast majority of Polish grandmothers into a tirade about kids these days. Twelve dollars gets you four relatively small dumplings floating elegantly on a bed of Napa cabbage slaw with cider gastrique. The ones we sampled were perfectly browned and crispy, but disarmingly sweet and aggressively salty. All things considered, we’d rather pay $8 for eight big, artless-but-soulful old-fashioned versions of this old-school dish.
The flip side of the pierogies was the set of three meatballs on a red “Sunday sauce” which couldn’t have been tastier. They were remarkably rich without being greasy, perfectly crisped yet pleasingly rare at the core, and swimming in a shallow layer of full-flavored, well-composed tomato sauce. $12 is a lot for three meatballs, but these guys were worth the money.
For our entree, we chose the Cioppino ($22). It’s a dish that we really enjoyed at Cafe Biaggio on University Avenue and a legitimate test for a chef. The various shellfish elements were perfectly cooked; getting scallops, shrimp, and mussels all thoroughly cooked but agreeably tender is no small feat. Unfortunately, all that effort was undone by the dish’s sauce, which tasted something like a hyper-concentrated liquid chorizo sausage complete with a palate-scalding dose of salt. Good seafood whispers its quality, and this stuff got thoroughly shouted down by the seasoning that surrounded it. — J.N.
Lake Coffee House
3223 E Lake St, Minneapolis
Lake Coffee House sits at the end of a tiny strip mall buffered from Lake Street by a small parking lot. Inside there are a couple of comfy seating areas with couches and armchairs along with a few tables and chairs. Although some of the books and CDs and art are for sale, don’t be tempted by the stacks of older books covered with knick-knacks and dried flowers, which appear to be for decoration only.
The space is a bit of a throwback to the era 20 years ago when the first independent coffee shops started showing up in neighborhoods. It’s kind of an extension-of-your-living-room vibe. Thus, the name coffee house.
A massive collection of half-filled pump-top bottles of flavored syrup was scattered around the coffee prep area, and the guy behind the counter worked them like some kind of mad scientist out to invent just the right wacky mix of sugary additives to blow the lid off the coffee house industry. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The philosophy of Lake Coffee House’s specialty drinks isn’t really first-, second-, or third-wave per se; it’s another wave entirely, a wave in which pumped Monin syrups are the flavor drivers to the exclusion of the rest of the coffee experience. We tried a Lavender Blackberry White Mocha Latte ($4.25) and received a blast of lavender flavor so strong that it could have knocked the hooves off a large, healthy horse.
By contrast, our Maple Spice Latte ($4.25) was surprisingly restrained and clean. The coffee flavor was understated, and the foam was pronounced.
We also tried some of the house-made hummus ($4). It lacked the ethereal lightness of the stuff we’ve recently enjoyed at Halwo Kismayo and African Paradise, but it packed a lovely, colossal natural garlic punch. A little went a long way. — J.N.
2910 E Lake St, Minneapolis
The poster of a wild-eyed Gene Wilder from Young Frankenstein reminding visitors to buy restaurant gift cards was so random, yet such a perfect segue from our mad scientist at the Lake Coffee house, that it kind of worked. We’re still not quite sure how Young Frankenstein connects to Nepalese, Indian, and Tibetan cuisine, but hey, we’re writing about it so perhaps the promotion worked.
Himalayan Restaurant occupies a stand-alone building with its own parking lot, which was packed on the Friday night we visited. True, you’d expect a vibrant scene at a restaurant on Friday night, but this felt like a regular occurrence.
The restaurant’s appearance, too, hints that it’s consistently busy. The overall design is simple exposed ceilings painted black and walls decorated with art and photography of Tibetan and Nepalese culture.
We stood in the small entry area doing the Wait-List Boogie: that shuffle back and forth to avoid people coming and going, paying their checks, grabbing to-go orders, and leaving with doggy bags. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The Sampler Platter at the Himalayan is only $10.50, but it’s overloaded with options: four fried pyaazi (onion and vegetable fritters), two vegetable momos (tender little Tibetan dumplings), two meat kothe (fried momos), and one large samosa. The momos were excellent, substantial but still delicate in texture, with a pleasantly herbed vegetable filling. The kothe wasn’t bad at all, but we prefer our momos un-fried, as it turned out. We thought the pyaazi were good when dipped into any of the three sauces that accompanied our platter, but the standout dish was the samosa stuffed with spiced potatoes and peas. With its surprisingly delicate exterior and its fragrant and masterfully spiced interior, this was truly a king among its doughy peoples.
Masu (lamb curry, $17) is billed on the menu as boneless lamb pieces swimming in a light tomato sauce, but there’s nothing light about this dish. It’s earthy, comforting, and deeply flavored, akin to a Tibetan-inflected winter stew. Piled atop rice and eaten on a snowy evening, it really can’t be beat.
What makes a great biryani? Trying the Chicken Biryani ($13) at the Himalayan reminded us of the lovely specimen we tasted all the way back at Paradise Biryani Pointe, two checklists and about 200 restaurants ago. The dish: tender but well-defined rice, assertive but balanced depth of spice, a pleasing mix of dainty bits of chicken and dried fruit small enough to float among the grains of rice without calling too much attention to themselves. The Himalayan’s rendition also included a raita (yogurt sauce) with a distinct and pleasingly spiced (and mildly spicy) flavor all its own. Sprinkled on top of the rice, it created something magical. — J.N.