PHOTOS BY KARIIM CHARLIER / HEAVY TABLE
A version of this story originally appeared in the Churn newsletter (available by subscription via Patreon) on March 25, 2022.
And join us at the North Coast Nosh this Sunday, May 1, at the Food Building (or just pick up a box of samples and go!)
I found myself running late, slamming chemical-tasting 5-Hour Energy in a Speedway parking lot in Roseville. Having fasted most of the day for our food-heavy, late-night adventure, my stomach started a chorus of gurgles as my pulse quickened.
I had gathered a car’s worth of travelers for this late-night journey across the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro. Our goal: eating at six of the 96 locations from the Heavy Table Late Night Dining Guide. (Eat your heart out, New York.) When I told people about this story, I heard a lot of variations of the following: “Late night? In Minneapolis? I didn’t even know things were open that late.”
As Minnesota stretches its proverbial arms from a long winter, It was high time to show that there are exciting things that happen after midnight, you just have to keep your eyes open for them.
THE WRONG SIDE OF THE VELVET ROPE
The first of my intrepid crew pulled up alongside my house right as I parked. My brother, sporting a bass fishing hat and a Busch Light sweater, was our driver for the evening. Shortly thereafter I was joined by our photographer, Kariim Charlier, and his girlfriend. I helped them transfer the pelican cases containing photography lights and lenses to my brother’s trunk before we gathered in my disheveled living room, waiting for our final member, Ben Callow, a coworker and friend.
Small talk drifted across the room while I tried to find a “let’s stay out until the sun rises” outfit in a caffeine haze in my room. I had just begun going over the itinerary when Ben let me know he was here.
A questionably mannered but sweet pitbull named Boogie (she lives downstairs) jumped and barked as Ben walked toward the gate. Ben, glancing at the NFL linebacker-esque dog, looked at me for clearance. “Don’t worry, she’s just saying hello.”
Ten minutes later, after I had finished treating the minor bite wounds on his hand and we had verified that the dog had gotten her shots, we were ready to go. We had an ambitious route planned, with six stops from Burnsville to Columbia Heights, starting at 8:30 and ending at 4 in the morning. As an additional challenge, it was the weekend of daylight savings, so we were losing an hour. We were going to have to hustle.
Our first stop was the Mediterranean Cruise Cafe in Burnsville. This establishment looked wild, with an entire page of their website dedicated to the art of belly dancing, and the option to order a hookah for the table.
Spirits were high in the car, discussing possible shots (if they would let us take pictures) and funny jokes. Kariim, in the back seat with me, asked: “Do you have a reservation?”
“Nah, they shouldn’t be that busy, it’s Burnsville, right?”
Wrong. Rolling up to the Mediterranean Cruise cafe at 8:15 PM, we were stunned to see the block surrounding this strange building looking like a Hollywood movie premiere. Cars circled the tiny parking lot and the dead-end street that led to the establishment, dropping off patrons in wildly different states of dress. The parking lot across the street was also so full that we were forced to park a block and a half down.
The building’s signage featured a glowing font that reminded me of a movie theater, and it was oddly tall for a one-story restaurant. Walking in, there was a jumble of about 15 people waiting to talk to the hostess behind a big counter. A Christopher Meloni look-alike informed us of the 10 dollar cover while I inquired about a table.
“I’m sorry we have absolutely nothing.” I looked over at the bar, which looked to be packed about 3 deep. “Can I get on a waiting list?”
“We aren’t doing a waiting list, it’s too full.” It wasn’t the start to the evening we wanted, but I looked around the place to get a feel before the bouncer got annoyed with 5 people dodging the cover looking at the “atmosphere” of the place. A chandelier hung down from a golden eight-pointed star, and directly underneath it a small wooden stage was set up for belly dancing.
We would learn later that the side dining room was being cleaned out for a salsa band, and that Saturday Night was salsa night, thus the intense traffic. A friend described the collective, 25-foot ceiling affair as having “big cheesecake factory” vibes, and I agreed, not in a bad way though. (I went back the next weekend with a reservation, and the four-course meal for two – $55 – had incredible hummus, and the Gyro Stir-Fry was absolutely to die for.)
Incredulous but not defeated, we regrouped and headed towards our next location, thankful for the time back in our schedule.
GODZILLA-SIZED CERVEZAS AND PERFECT SPAGHETTI
La Costa Mexican Sports Bar in St. Paul had a fresh, local feeling to it. The night was just warming up as we sat down, with a DJ preparing lights and a soundboard in the corner. Pockets of people were laughing and having a good time as we put in our order, and our first drink. A decent paloma and a beer of extravagant size arrived while we waited for our food. The Camarones Zarandeados ($18) and Tampiqueña ($19) were large enough for our whole crew to get bites off and feel satisfied. I give points to the Tampiquena for style, with a mole sauce over shredded chicken, but the butterflied shrimp really took the cake with an incredible zing, cooked in a tangy, spicy lime sauce and cooked so the flesh was tender, without being overcooked.
As we were gearing up to leave, La Costa was gearing up for the evening. More people were meandering in, and I am sure we could have happily spent the whole night taking down godzilla-sized cervezas if we wanted, but our next stop was the fanciest on the list, and one I was most excited about.
Like clowns preparing for a commute, we folded ourselves back into the small Chevrolet four-door, and as we cruised from south Saint Paul to downtown Minneapolis, the first booze fresh on our tongue, a light karaoke broke out.
The reputation of Spoon and Stable preceded itself. As we walked into the weird warehouse chic of the North Loop’s shopping district, I was struck by our group’s hodgepodge appearance. Ben, dressed in all black, had a utility look that would get him in the door. Kariim and his partner were dressed quite well and would have fit in at the bar. My brother and I, though – not quite. I had a disheveled Silicon Valley coder look about me, and while I figured my charisma could ride high on that look, no amount of hand-waving would change my brother’s Busch Light sweater. So, we elected to keep some coats on as we haunted the bar, eventually snagging a standing room table in the restaurant’s lounge area.
The venue was as gorgeous as promised. For those of you that have been, you know. For those who haven’t, imagine the refurbished-barn home chic perfected. They have a beautiful floor-to-ceiling wine room, and an open kitchen for everyone’s favorite activity, chef watching. We all got cozy with a drink that cost more than the hourly wage I made in college and tried to blend in while we browsed the menu.
We landed on Spaghetti Nero ($21 for a half order), Crispy Chicken Wings ($12), Duck Meatloaf Sliders ($10), and Bread (Free?). The Spaghetti Nero was recommended by our bartender and was worth the price of admission. The pasta itself was rich and earthy, which paired well with the tangy zing and bite of the Fra Diavolo sauce. The noodles were perfectly al dente. The octopus, mussels, and prawn provided a variety of texture in the sauce.
The crispy chicken wings were merely OK. For the price point, I was not impressed with the amount of meat on each wing, and while they were crispy, their slightly spicy szechuan rub got lost amid our crowded table.
Duck Meatloaf sliders were similarly so-so. The fat of the duck should have been the main draw here, but next to the firecracker flavor of the Fra Diavolo sauce, I felt like it needed a bit more kick. Truly the real star of our smorgasbord was bread, baked to look like offsetting leaves on a plant, with whipped butter served on a stone serving platter. The tangy sourdough created a smooth pairing with the rich whipped butter. The crumb of the bread was delightfully moist and spongy while the outside had a nice audible crunch.
As our motley group was picking over the food, my brother, coat off, walked to the bathroom. Much to my horror, we spotted some friends from the city who were trying to have a romantic evening. As we finished, and the clock read close to midnight, our proverbial carriage was ready to go back to a pumpkin as we grabbed a few photos outside, thanked our server, and got ready to shoot pool.
‘THE SENSATION OF BEING HIT ON THE BACK OF THE HEAD WITH A RUBBER CLUB’
Jimmy’s Pro Billiards has been called the city’s finest pool hall, and as someone who prefers darts, I had to admit I had a romantic image in my mind. Sitting with a belly full of some of Minneapolis’ finest cooking, I spent the 15 minute drive fantasizing about a cigarette hanging from my lip, a pitcher of cheap beer keeping my rail whiskey company while the dim lights made me look mysterious. I wanted to get hustled, to get challenged, or at least dig into something greasy while watching these things happen.
It turns out, Jimmy’s had none of these things to give us. The outside of Jimmy’s is a giant painted mural of billiards and a chef, proclaiming their food and their activity quite clearly. The inside of the hall, though, was a far cry from my imagination.
Dark, Moody, Smokey, and Mysterious were some of the words floating around in my mind. Some of the new ones that popped up when I walked through the door were Bright, Warehouse, and Empty. We walked up to the bar in the back, where we were informed that the kitchen was closed, and that there were no taps or booze, only bottles and cans. In Jimmy’s defense, I have heard fantastic things about their food, I just was not able to get my hands on it.
The pool hall itself was sparse. Groups hovered in threes or fours around the blue rectangles of light but overall it didn’t really feel like anything at all. I am a darts man myself, but I couldn’t help but feel the spirit of the game wasn’t there that night. There were a couple of gentlemen playing in sleeveless T’s, and a Big Buck Hunter pinball machine that weakly threw its noise into the void, but besides that it almost felt like the hall was sleeping.
So we decided, after a few beers and some pretty poorly played games, that we would go somewhere that is notoriously unrestful: The Red Dragon.
The Red Dragon has a reputation, to say the least. It’s a place where you’re allowed to cut loose and let out your wild side (or your dragon, if you will). And after a sleepy lager with a sleepier game of pool, we were ready to just do that.
We approached the white and black wall, and rounded the dirty red-bricked corner, following the urgent pulse of late 90s/early 2000’s R&B tracks, and entered the Red Dragon. The Red Dragon is refreshing in the way that it is a bar that knows what it is. There are no frills or distractions, you have walked in the door and agreed upon the contract which was laid out upon first glance. The kitchen here was also closed, but Red Dragon has been a Minneaplis stalwart on Lyndale for many decades, and no restaurant stays around without some food clout.
This was my first time in the Red Dragon, and as our last bar before close, we needed to do some damage. And the Red Dragon was happy to oblige. The bar area felt like someone had shrunk down a Mortal Kombat fight set, with curved, shingled red roofs. The floor felt like it was trying to steal your shoes, and based on the color of it, probably had a proof after all the drinks spilled and dried on it.
The jukebox (Touchtunes, or whatever brand of electronic thing they chose) was cued up, tucked in a busy corner, dance partners with the ATM, both standing sentry to a bathroom that made me decide I could probably hold it. We started off with a round of tequila shots, to get us in the mood, and bopped along with the music.
As we filled up at the end of the bar, Kariim bonded with a gentleman over New York, while his friend bonded with me over Minneapolis. “This is our town, this is our spot!” he said, swaying to the music, and introducing me to his brother from Grand Forks. In the grand tradition of Minnesotans since the dawn of time, I engaged him about the weather. “Pretty cold up there, eh?” He nodded. “We play a lot of pool. Good bar scene.” Sounds like he would have appreciated Jimmy’s.
After the weather had been thoroughly covered and we briefly glossed over politics, police brutality, and white flight in so many words, he swirled a goblet of pink liquid at me. “This is what this place is known for! You’ve gotta try one.”
The “Wonderous Punch” ($14 for a 20oz chalice) is a well-known player at the Red Dragon, and comes with a certain mythology of perfecting the art of fucking up a large portion of those that dance with that particular devil. So I bought one.
“One will get you right! Two will end your night!” laughed my new friend. I brought my treasure back to our table, each of us looking at the liquid as if it might kill us. We weren’t far off.
I have described many drinks in many different ways, and in my younger days I have taken shots of grain alcohol. George Orwell may have described the feeling of this drink best with his depiction of Victory Gin in 1984: “The Victory Gin was like nitric acid, and moreover, in swallowing it one had the sensation of being hit on the back of the head with a rubber club.”
Perhaps it wasn’t quite as bad as that, but our friends across the bar had described it right. I don’t know what the ingredients are supposed to be, but if it was anything besides booze and food coloring, I would be shocked. It certainly got us a little loser as everyone (but the driver) passed the concoction around the table, making their own flavor of sour face as they sucked on the straw.
THE BEST NON-TRADITIONAL SLICE OF PIZZA IN MINNEAPOLIS
Emboldened by the warmth of a hangover starting to form, we were shooed from the bar as the clock was closing in on 2am, which meant it was about to be 3am, and we had only 15 minutes to make it to our next stop, Marsu Pizzeria + Taqueria on Lake Street.
With our newly acquired impairment, we walked into Taco Taxi (and has some killer Mexican cuisine, by the way) first, and then made our way to Marsu. At first glance, some limp slices sat under head lamps, and I was not excited about what Marsu had to offer. We ordered the recommended slices of Carne Asada pizza, Pastor pizza, and Lengua pizza ($4.75 a slice) and sat down to watch what wildlife that Lake Street had to offer outside while we waited. At one point a man walked in with a Lego Star Wars box that looked open, and I was pretty sure it was filled with something that was for ages way more than 6 and above. I couldn’t help but hope he was hawking street Legos. He was not.
Now I say this next piece of information with the caveat that I was drunk, it was 3 AM, and I’m a sucker for a slice after midnight. I will also state that I am fairly knowledgeable about pizza, so take this as you will, and know I do not say this lightly:
Marsu Pizzeria+Taqueria has the best non-traditional slice of pizza in Minneapolis.
I’ll say it again.
Marsu Pizzeria+Taqueria has the best non-traditional slice of pizza in Minneapolis.
This slice was fresh from the oven, (I had the Asada) and between the incredibly soft, warm, flavorful crust that was I would have eaten dry, and the incredible chipotle sauce that had almost a chimichurri-style flavor, and the tangy, crispy asada meat playing with the bit of the white onion and cilantro, I was stunned. If we didn’t have one stop left, I would have ordered an entire pie right then and there. We heaped compliments on the kitchen staff, who gave us the universal “Ha, drunk people” look, and journeyed to our last stop, Los Ocampo.
I know what you’re thinking. “4 am? It must have been empty.” WRONG. Imagine a bar close in your college years, or early 20s, or highschool years, I don’t judge. The atmosphere of Los Ocampo was that utopian state where the corners of the darkest bars, clubs, and hangs regurgitate their patrons on the street, and as the latest option open, and incredible melting pot of drunks, insomniacs, weirdos, and personalities enjoy the lingering effects of whatever they are on, together.
Needless to say it was packed. The menu is incredibly large, but they narrowed it down for the late-night crowd. The ladies behind the counter aggressively pointed at the next in line, chattering in Spanish and demanding to know what they were making next. It was a well-oiled machine. We waited in line for 30 minutes, that is just how many people were there.
We saw all stages of an evening out. Some that were here for a hangover that was setting in early, some with queso blanco tracing a line down the corner of their mouth as they got a headstart on recovery sleep, some yelling like they were still trying to flag down a bartender, and some spending some private time with a chosen companion in a corner or in a booth. It was joyful chaos. It reminded me of the scene in Ian’s Pizza at bar close in Madison, or Pizza Di Roma, or Mesa in Dinkytown.
I decided for the final meal of the evening, I was getting the Alambre ($13) which is essentially a landing pad of tortillas, cheese, meat, and vegies, meant to be attacked with as little dignity as possible, which fit me just fine. Around the table we had Queso Blanco ($7), Lengua Birria Tacos ($14) and some Churros ($2 each).
I have had lots of late-night food, and this was high-quality. I was buzzing pretty good at this point, Wondrous Punch doing its magical work, but for the average sobriety of the clientele, the food was higher quality than we perhaps deserved. The Queso Blanco and chips stood out especially to me, with the Queso not having a canned aftertaste of sitting in a warmer forever, but expressing the spice and deep flavor that sauteed vegetables and creamy cheese are meant to. My Alambre was very good, although I don’t want to give it a rating as I was just mostly shoving the inner contents of the tortillas into my mouth, as I was quite full.
As we finished our meal, the booths seemed to empty as quickly as they had been filled and replaced earlier, and the cashier let us know that the magic was over by waving at us with a spray bottle of disinfectant in one hand and exclaiming “Goodbye! Goodnight!”
My brother drove us to my house, about 10 blocks away, where we split. (Kariim was also only about one drink deep and could drive home). Ben caught a ride home from my brother, as I clomped up my stairs to a very confused dog. I hungrily gulped water for the next half hour, reflecting on some favorites from the evening, before planting face-first in bed until 3PM the next afternoon.
So for whoever says that Minneapolis doesn’t have a nightlife, or complains that there is no food open late, you can tell them where to stick it. All it takes is a little sense of adventure.