If it isn’t already clear, we’re not just eating our way down University, we’re drinking our way down, too. And with two full-fledged bars on the itinerary — plus one we added on a whim — this outing was definitely more, shall we say, “drink forward” than any so far.
We generally try to order food or a foodlike substance at every establishment. After all, even the scruffiest of watering holes often offers some species of frozen pizza. But in this case, the bar-food options just never panned out. So we stuck to trying specialty mixed drinks and — God help us — ordering rounds of shots.
And the next morning, at least a few of us were stuck with a round of headaches to prove it. — M.C. Cronin
ALL 15 GREEN LINE INSTALLMENTS: 88 Oriental Foods to Thai Cafe, Ha Tien Deli to Hook Fish and Chicken, Family Lao Thai to Cheng Heng, iPho by Saigon to Los Ocampo, SugaRush to PaJai, Pinoy Fusion to The Best Steakhouse, Johnny Baby’s to Ngon Bistro, Flamingo to Trend Bar, Midway Pro Bowl to Big V’s, On’s Kitchen to Tracks Bar and Grill, Caspian Bistro to Playoffs Sports Lounge, Mesa Pizza to Stub and Herb’s, The Dubliner to Ippindo Ramen, Silhouette to Little Szechuan, and T-Rex to Campus Club (the end of the line).
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
The Green Line Checklist is the Heavy Table’s follow-up to our 55-restaurant survey of independent eateries on Central Avenue. We’ll publish five-restaurant installments biweekly until we’ve documented every nonchain spot between the University Avenue and Rice Street intersection in St. Paul and the Green Line terminus on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis. (We’re estimating 75 spots, but we’ll see how it shakes out.)
This series is made possible by underwriting from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative. Heavy Table retains editorial control of the series — as with Central Avenue, this tour will be warts-and-all.
490 N Syndicate St, St. Paul
Hamline Avenue Station
We walked into a quiet, almost empty restaurant. Just one table was occupied, and this by a man eating alone. It was a fairly simple space decorated with African-inspired crafts and knickknacks, woven baskets and fabrics, and bright, colorful paintings.
Our host (and soon to be server) asked if we had a reservation, which seemed a bit odd considering the restaurant had plenty of space and only one diner. But we soon understood her concern. Within 15 minutes the place was packed almost to capacity and brimming with the energy of excited, chattering groups of people.
One of the owners — a woman with deep, soulful eyes and a warm smile — seemed to greet everyone who came through the door with a hug, as if they were her closest friends. We asked her if it was her policy to hug everyone who comes into the restaurant. In response, she proceeded to embrace everyone at our table.
Flamingo is East African Cuisine inspired by the two female owners’ roots. One is from Eritrea. The other is from Ethiopia. The countries have long been in conflict, but these women have become close friends, and they opened this restaurant as a way of healing the divide.
Given our wait after ordering, we developed a sneaking suspicion that there was only one cook preparing meals for the entire place. We also had a sneaking suspicion that the cook had given us a hug earlier. And in a very real way, her food was a warm hug, too. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Counting the 55 places at which we dined for the Central Avenue Checklist, we’re about 90 restaurants deep into our exploration of Twin Cities independent restaurant food. We’ve eaten some truly excellent meals, but the food at Flamingo surely ranks in the top five in terms of stuff that we ate with reckless abandon despite knowing that we had a long evening of dining ahead of us.
Our Beef Sambusas ($6) were some of the best we’ve tried (Indian samosas included). They were profoundly hot and crisp, and delicate without being fragile. Their phyllo dough wrappers were unusual (we’re used to a more standard pastry-crust exterior), but helped add a delicate, super-flaky texture to the dish. The meat filling was mildly seasoned, but once you topped these things with the accompanying ranch-meets-hot-sauce dressing, they became an irresistible combination of crispy, creamy, spicy, and savory.
Evoking our meal at Demera, our main orders (the Vegetarian Combo for $13 and the Meat Combo for $17, above) blended a host of savory mains into a grab-your-injera, grab-a-bite-of-whatever-appeals frenzy of impulsive take-and-chomps. Some highlights:
Both combos included richly colored and deeply flavored orange lentils (Miser) that were tender and perfectly seasoned. We would have happily lined our throats with injera and just poured one-gallon pitchers of these down our gullets. They were bafflingly delicious.
The Doro Wat (chicken stew) was just as we like it: a multilayered spice profile, balanced heat, and tender, flavorful chicken that almost falls off the bone … plus the obligatory, but always welcome hard-boiled egg.
And the cabbage (from the vegetarian plate) won over quite a few fans with its tender, comforting flavor and yielding but not soggy or slimy texture.
Overall, we entered this meal intending to nibble, and we pounced like ravenous beasts. Flamingo is putting out some monumentally enjoyable food (and it’s available via BiteSquad in case you want to order it at home … which we’ve already done.) — James Norton
1183 University Ave W, St. Paul
Lexington Parkway Station
Arnellia’s was not in our plan for this installment, but when we’d passed by earlier, we noticed they were selling tacos in the parking lot. If you know anything about the checklist crew, you know eating tacos in a parking lot is impossible for us to pass up. We walked by to check it out.
The tacos were gone, but a man outside the front door of Arnellia’s told us we could order some inside. Like any good carnival barker, he was dapper and charming, and damn persuasive. When he invited us in, we couldn’t resist.
We stepped inside. There was a large rectangular bar with stools scattered around the perimeter. In the center of the room, facing the stage, was a sunken lounge bordered by a bar railing and elevated seating. Off to the side was what looked to be a small dance floor surrounded by mirrored walls. Crystal chandeliers dangled from the drop ceiling.
A party was breaking out. Our carnival barker turned out to be the house DJ. He dropped bass-heavy jams while the band set up. People flowed in, each more decked out than the last. They greeted one another with hugs and laughter, and bounced instinctively to the beat while they chatted and sipped from highball glasses. It was the very definition of a scene. A place to both see and be seen.
The band took the stage. The singer, donning dark shades and abundant stage presence, greeted the audience through the fog of a smoke machine. “Hello, Arnellia’s!” And with that, the party went into overdrive. The band launched into two Stevie Wonder songs back to back. And it was clear why: The singer was a vocal dead-ringer for Stevie. Even his mannerisms were reminiscent.
We found the kitchen tucked in the back corner. It was hard to imagine how anyone could work there. But this was clearly chef Big L’s domain. And he ruled with a firm yet friendly hand. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
We were impressed with Big L’s Soul Food setup at Arnellia’s. Despite the restaurant-within-a-club’s location in a glorified coatroom, there seemed to be an awful lot of equipment and flair packed into that tiny space.
Our half rack of smoked ribs was thoroughly enjoyed by everyone at our table. The ribs had real char and a light touch of smoke, and they weren’t gristly or tough. Neither were they gelatinous or slimy. They were firm and full of flavor. Their sauce was sweet and tangy without overshadowing the flavor of the meat. In short, these things had real balance, and that was a very good thing. If you’re curious about the cost, we don’t have a receipt, and a lot of money was flying around between cover charges and drinks. $12 to $15, maybe? It seemed fair, both at the time and in retrospect.
We also dug the baked beans that accompanied the ribs. They were enriched with bits of green peppers and tidbits of meat (we’re guessing ground beef, but it was hard to be certain with the rich, thick sauce that covered them). Beans can be all sugar and no flavor, but these were made with care and thought.
Our jerk tacos ($5) were less impressive but not at all bad. They were overstuffed to the point of resembling burritos, and the combination of shredded American cheese and greens plus exceedingly tender, almost perfectly mild chicken made them closer to a well-made cafeteria taco salad than jerk anything. We missed the smoke and tangy flavor that we were expecting. On the plus side, it was clear from the char that the meat had in fact been in contact with a grill. — J.N.
1105 University Ave W, St. Paul
Lexington Parkway Station
Beige-brown seemed to be the central theme of the decor. Which, unfortunately, means Hoa Bien didn’t rate high on memorability.
It was a large space with all the newer, non-offensive interior design touches, fixtures, and accouterments you might expect to buy off the shelf at a big-box home store. Brown laminate wood floors. Taupe tables. Beige paint. Standard black booths. The only pop of color was provided by the bright bottles of Asian sauces in the center of each table.
That said, it was clean, and our host-slash-server was friendly enough.
There were only a few other patrons the night we visited, which made it feel a bit sleepy. Although to be fair, any place might feel sleepy to someone who just left the party at Arnellia’s. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Hoa Bien’s menu item #107 ($15) arrived at the table like a punch to the gut. The menu’s promise — shrimp and beef “grilled at your table” — conjured up the zany hijinks of our meal at Mai Village, when we got to cook our own beef on burner-heated iron helmets before wrapping said meat in rice paper along with herbs and vegetables. We were looking forward to putting Hoa Bien’s version up against the Mai Village incarnation. And then #107 arrived — a plate of shrimp and beef, already fully grilled. No burner, no ceremony, no comparison to the pomp and circumstance and panicked cooking snafus we so enjoyed at Mai Village.
We recovered from our shock and disappointment long enough to make a rice paper roll with the proffered meats, and lo and behold, it was nicely charred and pretty good — thanks particularly to the massive, almost embarrassingly bountiful plate of herbs and greens that graced our table.
But, seriously, come on — doesn’t the sacred promise “grilled at your table” mean anything anymore? Particularly on a Friday night?
Our grilled chicken rice plate ($8) was priced right, but the meat was fairly dry and underflavored.
And we were excited about the unfamiliar-looking and waiter-recommended yellow rice cake, but found it bland and bean-sprout dominated to the point of being dull. A spritz of sriracha improved it, but it still pales beside (for example) the seafood pancake at Dong Yang in Northeast.
One saving grace for this otherwise fine but underwhelming spot: Our Vietnamese iced and hot coffees (with sweetened condensed milk) were rich, silken, and lovely. — J.N.
Town House Bar
1415 University Ave W, St. Paul
Hamline Avenue Station
The front of the house is dominated by a long bar on one side of the room. Across from it there is a dance floor bordered by cocktail tables and a railing. There’s an elevated area at the back of the room with two pool tables and a set of doors leading to a smaller, karaoke-focused lounge.
Walking through these rear doors, you enter a piano bar complete with moody lights, floral wallpaper, and a mirror-lined stage. Being back here, cut off from the rest of the Town House, with no windows and low lighting, you could easily imagine getting lost in drink and song and forgetting the time. In this room, it is always midnight, whether it’s three in the morning or three in the afternoon.
This is an old-school bar, where the drinks are strong, the lights are low, and the patrons are having a good time. It also happens to be the oldest LGBTQ bar in St. Paul.
We partook of a few cocktails and karaoke and made sure to return later for the Drag King show. The show was not to be missed, though difficult to describe. Let’s just say that at one point we found ourselves entranced by a performer wearing a 1960s-era Batman-TV-show Robin costume writhing and slinking around the dance floor while lip syncing an Eminem song.
We’ll leave the rest to your imagination. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Our Lemon Drop cocktail was a shocking turn of events at a bar that offered no pretense at gastronomic excellence. We’re used to lemon drops being syrupy, oversweet glasses of liquid waste, but this one was crisp, clean, and light on its feet. We always hope that Lemon Drops will be refreshing and neat, and this one actually was.
More in line with our expectations was a Regal Apple ($4), a shot poured from a refrigerated, logo-wrapped box with two inverted bottles of Crown Royal atop it. In all seriousness, with no poetic license whatsoever, it tasted like a store-brand nighttime cold remedy.
The Saddle Back shot ($2), a blend of butterscotch liqueur and Bailey’s, was every bit as pleasant as the Regal Apple was noxious. Overly sweet? Absolutely, but the cream smoothed everything out, and it went down like silk. — J.N.
1537 University Ave W, St. Paul
Snelling Avenue Station
Encountering a name like Trend Bar, you might expect a space brimming with modern interior design flourishes and mustachioed bartenders serving craft cocktails. You’d be wrong. This is a traditional, hard drinking establishment. The kind of saloon that not long ago would have had swinging doors at the entrance to more easily allow ruffians to get thrown out by the scruff of the neck.
Not surprisingly, this was the second bar on University where we were wanded before entering. The bouncer — a dude wearing a bandana, a denim vest, and a weathered face — checked our I.D.s and jokingly warned us against starting any trouble. Playing along, we told him that’s exactly why we were there. He peered at us and promised a serious ass-kicking if we tried anything. We’re pretty sure he was still joking, but his eyes told us he wouldn’t have any qualms about following through on that promise; he might even enjoy it.
We ordered from the whiskey-voiced woman behind the bar and drank in the atmosphere, which consisted mostly of a pool table in the back, a juke box playing hair metal, wood paneling, neon beer signs, and handwritten signs behind the bar, like “V is barred out forever,” and “Itchy Al is out. He can’t come in here anymore,” and “House rules: Respect, Pull up your pants, Buy or fly.” (Punctuation added for clarity.) So now you know what you’re in for. Don’t come to the Trend Bar unless you enjoy cheap, hard drinks served with a side of attitude and the impending threat of a bar fight breaking out. You’ve been warned. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
To be brutally honest, we don’t have a great deal to report vis-a-vis the culinary offerings of the Trend Bar. Warned of a possible hour-long wait on the Gourmet brand frozen pizza that comprised the food side of the menu, we instead tried a beer and the shot of the month.
The Pucker-liqueur-based Sweet Tart shot of the month ($3) did, in fact, taste a lot like bottom-of-the-barrel candy smashed up and poured into a glass. The ice didn’t help. We’re guessing this thing was based on Berry Fusion Pucker, but speculation seems mostly pointless.
Our Grain Belt Premium ($3) was cold and served in a bottle. — J.N.