PHOTOS BY ZOE PRINDS-FLASH, BERIT JOHNSON, AND COURTESY OF COURT BLOM
This story originally appeared in the July 22, 2022 edition of The Tap newsletter. To get the newsletters and support the Heavy Table team, back us on Patreon.
Going to a restaurant is about more than the food. During lockdown, I missed sitting in comfy chairs, sipping cocktails, and most of all, consulting with the experts: the servers, bartenders, and other staff who curate and cook their establishment’s menu all day, every day. Online ordering platforms can’t tell you which dishes are overrated and which are hidden gems; they can’t offer personal recommendations according to their taste. So I asked workers from a few of my favorite Twin Cities hangouts to tell me which dishes and drinks they rank highly at their workplace.
Berit Johnson @ Meteor
After dinner, a concert, or a late-night shift, there is Meteor: the #oldassbar near the Mississippi River in North Minneapolis. It’s a dive, and it’s excellent, and it’s open until 2 a.m.
“The best thing about Meteor is that no one blinks if you order a house tequila shot and a High Life,” lead bartender Berit Johnson says. “Or you could ask for a really fancy martini, or some crazy drink that no one orders, but we probably know how to make it.”
Meteor is a bartender’s bar, and Johnson knows a thing or two about industry haunts. She started working for Meteor owner Robb Jones after running into him at Nightingale, the late-night hub on Lyndale, one evening in 2017. At the time, Jones was bar managing Gavin Kaysen’s Bellecour and Spoon and Stable, and Johnson had several years of experience as a server and barista. “He asked how I was doing, and I was like, ‘Eh, I don’t love my job,’” Johnson says. “He’s like, ‘Do you want a job?’ I said, ‘You know I don’t bartend, right?’ And he said, ‘That’s fine, I’ll teach you.’”
Five years later, Johnson has aced the craft, and she has followed Jones from Bellecour to Meteor. She also co-operates Ženska Glava, a Minneapolis-based beverage education service, with Sarina Garibović and Sarah Darnall.
Despite all these laurels and the fact that she lives with her also-a-bartender boyfriend, Johnson drinks “shitty whiskey and Hamm’s” at home. But when she’s in the mood for a cocktail, she’s going to go for a classic. She says, “I’m a martini, daiquiri, or sidecar gal: all old classics that are simple, but delicious.”
The daiquiri is her top recommendation for Meteor patrons. “If you can get past thinking about daiquiris in a “blended strawberry daiquiri” way — not to poo-poo those, but you know — this is a perfect cocktail,” she says. “It’s sugar, it’s lime, and then it’s rum — sugarcane product. We have kind of a lot of rum, and there’s so much good rum on the market … You could ask probably anyone on our staff to make their favorite daiquiri, and you’ll get a great daiquiri, and everybody will probably make it different.”
Plus, Meteor offers semi-fancy hot dogs, including vegan versions courtesy of Herbivorous Butcher. The dogs are quick and delicious: a comfort in Minneapolis’s relatively barren late-night dining scene.
Like many industry workers, Johnson says interacting with people is both her favorite and least favorite part of her job. She loves getting to know regulars and building relationships. “[But with] bartending specifically,” she says, “you’re kind of stuck behind the bar … Having to be on when you can’t muster it is difficult.”
For now, Johnson is enjoying her nights at Meteor, practicing her craft and chatting it up. Between the late nights and the repetitive stress injuries, bartending does put tremendous pressure on the body, so she doesn’t want to be behind the bar forever. “But I do love this industry,” she says. “And I’m hopeful for [Ženska Glava] to do big and cool things.”
Meteor, 2027 N 2nd St #2202, Minneapolis, 612.886.2483, Wed-Sat 4pm-2am, Sun-Mon 4pm-12pm, Tue CLOSED
Shawn Nafstad @ Apoy
Until recently, Filipino restaurants were tough to find in the Twin Cities. A couple places gave it a go, including the fantastic Filipino-Mexican spot Mi Casa Su Casa in St. Paul. But to my knowledge, Apoy is the longest-running Filipino restaurant in town, having served traditional dishes such as sisig and chicken adobo since the fall of 2018.
Shawn Nafstad co-runs Apoy with his brother, Sherwin Resurreccion, using recipes and advice from their family members. They previously ran a food truck called Funfare, and when they upgraded to a brick-and-mortar restaurant, they decided to serve a Filipino menu. Nafstad cooks most of the food, working six days a week to keep up.
If the restaurant is open, he’s almost certainly in the kitchen, so he can’t waltz in on his day off. But if he could order a three-course meal, he knows where he’d start. “I for sure would get lumpia — the egg rolls,” he says. “That’s very, very much a staple of the cuisine. They’re delicious. They have a more of a nostalgic value to me, as well. I’ve been eating them since I was a kid.”
“For the entree, my favorite’s the bistek,” Nafstad says. “That’s because I’m more partial to sour flavors — I really like citrus. We slowly braise some beef, and then it’s in soy sauce and lime juice, and a little bit of garlic and some onions. It’s really not that complicated at all. You just cook that on some low heat, get everything nice and soft in that broth, and get it over some rice, and that’s it. Good stuff.” (Apoy has since pulled bistek off the menu, but Nafstad promises it’ll be back “now and then” as a special.)
For dessert, he recommends the leche flan, a steamed or baked custard born out of Spanish colonialism in the Philippines. Flan is difficult to master, and Nafstad says it took him a while to get it right. Don’t miss the opportunity to try it.
Opening Apoy across the street from Revival and the Lowbrow in Kingfield, Nafstad worried about attracting a sustainable number of diners. “We didn’t know how [neighborhood residents] would receive our menu.” But between their great food and Saturday night karaoke, Apoy has found their audience, Nafstad says, and attendance is back up to pre-pandemic numbers.
Apoy, 4301 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis, 612.824.4719, Wed-Sun 5-10pm, Mon-Tue CLOSED
Court Blom @ Mucci’s
Court Blom cannot say enough good things about her boss. That’s unusual, especially in the restaurant industry, and she knows it. But that’s the one huge reason why she has stayed at Tim Niver’s St. Paul restaurant Mucci’s for six years: “Having a great working environment and a boss that actually cares about you and asks you about your life, tells you they love you, and expresses how much you mean to them on a daily basis so you never have to question it, makes it a million times better showing up every day and wanting to be your best so that you can be the best for them.”
My experiences have made me wary of bosses in general, but even I’m swept up in Blom’s enthusiasm for her workplace. And having heard her describe her relationships with her co-workers and the many Mucci’s regulars, I’m guessing I’m not the only one.
Blom is a support staffer at Mucci’s, where she plays many roles including host, wait assist (someone who clears and resets place settings and refills water), and expo (someone who tracks dishes’ progress through the kitchen and to the dining room). “We are really focused on doing a mock-fine dining experience,” she says. “So with that, we’re resetting tables, clearing between courses, and all that, but we’re still a laid-back atmosphere.”
The atmosphere is approachable, but the food must meet high standards. One of Blom’s favorite dishes from over the years is the original rigatoni carbonara with guanciale. And she rhapsodizes about the chili aioli: “Everybody at work knows how obsessed I am with it. Every holiday, birthday, or whatever, they always just give me a quart container of the chili aioli.”
If she were to order off today’s menu, she would go with her namesake pizza, the Court: “a garlic butter base, a little bit of mozzarella, a house ricotta cheese, arugula, saba — which is the first [step of making] balsamic vinegar, so it’s a little bit thinner — and then prosciutto and a little bit of Locatelli cheese. It’s so good.”
Only a few people have namesake pizzas at Mucci’s, but between Blom’s six years of service and her zeal for the restaurant, she seems like a prime honoree. “I know it might sound silly, but I really think that I have my dream job,” she says. “It’s hard for me, because all of my close friends are getting their graduate degrees and getting these huge jobs at these huge corporations. And — not that they say anything, but because I don’t have a desk job or a salary, I feel less than. I’m trying to work on the fact that if my job gives me enough freedom to live my life, then that’s the best I can ever ask for. And I truly feel like that, working at Mucci’s, and I’m incredibly lucky to feel that way.”
Mucci’s Italian, 786 Randolph Ave, St. Paul, 651.330.2245, Tue-Thu 5-9pm,
Fri-Sat 5-10pm, Sun 5-9pm, Mon CLOSED