Lyndale Avenue Checklist, Part Four of Five: Northish and Northside

The final stretch of Lyndale featured some rough-around-the-edges spots, and some remarkably polished ones as well – Red Dragon is similar to P.S. Steak in the same way a donkey with dysentery resembles a Lamborghini Huracán Sterrato. And then, the big leap, as we drove for miles on the highway to pick up the last little thread of Lyndale in North Minneapolis, where we discovered a shockingly decent Chinese restaurant, a vegan cafe that may be the best in the metro, and a nightclub-meets-supper club that was one of our favorite stops on the entire street. This installment might be the least consistent – and most exciting – of them all. – James Norton

In this edition, from south to north: Fire and Nice Alehouse, French Meadow/Bluestem, CC Club, Hi Flora!, Nightingale, Bulldog Uptown, Leaning Tower of Pizza, Baba’s Hummus House, Bebe Zito, Red Dragon, The Wedge Coop, Mortimer’s, P.S. Steak, Cardamom, Heal Cafe, Joy Luck, The Camden Social 

ALL FIVE INSTALLMENTS: PART ONE [Bloomington and Richfield] | PART TWO [South of LynLake] | PART THREE [LynLake] | PART FOUR [Northish and Northside] | PART FIVE [Coffee, Tea, and Breakfast]

Only thanks to our subscribers on Patreon were we able to mount this effort; if you’d like to join them, you’ll make future Checklists possible and get at least four culinary newsletters a month packed with original reporting, photography, illustrations, and more. 

Fire and Nice | 2700 Lyndale Ave South | 612.259.8060

EDITOR’S NOTE: Fire and Nice is now closed, to be replaced with Tender Lovin’ Chix.

Take one step into Fire and Nice and there is no doubt about where they’re taking you with the vibe here. They are taking you “Up North.” 

The space is sheathed in timber and raw brick. Wood planks with a burnt finish cover walls and posts. Vintage wooden snowshoes and beer crates are tucked up in the ceiling between hardwood rafters. There’s an undulating wall made from the curved slats from deconstructed wooden barrels. It’s a rugged, North Country vibe as imagined through a meticulous, urban designer’s eye. 

The menu is a vast brick wall covered in wood-framed chalkboards each featuring an lovingly drawn description of a cutely-named pizza. You got your Herbie, your Snoop, your Ms. Richards, and so on. You order from the counter, find a table and wait. 

Unfortunately for us, the wait was substantial. Based on what we saw, one person was in charge of building and cooking the pizzas, and that person appeared to be in no real rush to do so. Still, the wait might have only been mildly irritating, until we took our first bites (more on that in the food notes).

On the surface, there’s plenty to like here. Which makes it all the more frustrating that they didn’t put the same attention to detail they put into the interior design into the primary reason people might come here in the first place. You know, the pizza.  – M.C.

Somehow the Herbie ($10 for a half pizza, including a beer as a Tuesday night special) looked more convincing up on the gorgeously illustrated menu board that dominates the food side of Fire and Nice – by the time we got our (half) pie, we were looking at a scant few ounces of paper-thin, bog standard room temperature pepperoni pizza. The pepperoni was full-flavored and the crust pleasantly chewy, but ultimately this was an underwhelming experience – even the visible char on the pizza provided little flavor to this festival of overpriced understatement.

The Dino Ciccarelli ($16) promised to be a rich play on cacio e pepe on a crust, with its toppings of egg yolk cream sauce, manchego, Parmesan, Romano, and scallions. What we got: a somehow cooler-than-room-temperature pizza that tasted like raw scallions. 

By contrast, the restaurant’s Muffuletta ($12) packed a dense, fully flavored stack of meats and bold tapenades, held together by bulky but satisfying house-made ciabatta. The sandwich’s sweet peppers were aggressive – the package could’ve used more heat and less sweet – but there was a lot to like about this entree.  – J.N.

French Meadow | 2610 Lyndale Ave. South | 612.870.7855 

It pains us to report that French Meadow is feeling long in the tooth. It’s hard to be critical of a restaurant that holds such a revered place in the heart of the local scene. But it is with much love and respect that we say perhaps a refresh is in order.

There’s nothing necessarily off-putting going on with the interior design (the food is another story, see below).

We were seated in the back of the space for dinner. It’s open and simple enough, decorated with birch branches, low-lit chandeliers, earthy tones, and a swath of light blue—dare we say, Tiffany blue—tile across the bar. But the booths are covered in a stain-resistant fabric that feels somehow both modern and outdated. The whole thing gives off “urban contemporary” vibes. [Insert emoji depicting the heebie-jeebies crawling down our spines.]

French Meadow has been kicking since 1985. That is an impressive run, and some amount of patina is to be expected, but it may be time for a bit of a revitalization. Invention is deep in French Meadow’s DNA. After all, they were the first organically certified bakery in the U.S. And, according to WACSO, their St. Paul location is still putting out great food. So hey, we’re rooting for them.  – M.C.

French Meadow’s closest brush with culinary perfection was its Nicoise Salad ($19). The hunk of salmon that was the jewel in this salad’s crown was luscious, moist, and perfectly cooked, and its greens were well-dressed. Were the olives few and far between? Yes. Were the fingerling potatoes simple to the point of being pro forma? Sure. But overall: an acceptable salad.

By contrast: The restaurant’s Green Coconut Curry ($16) was a bizarre specimen, offering little depth beyond the coconut milk, no heat, and a soggy island of rice in the center of the plate, just soaking up curry and getting soggier still. Undercooked cabbage added little to its appeal.

Worse, somehow, was the Signature Mac and Cheese ($16). Remarkably little cheesy flavor – we debated whether maybe the cheese had been forgotten – was exacerbated by a radical lack of seasoning and pasta that had been cooked to the point of falling apart. One of the worst mac and cheeses we’ve had anywhere, managing to fall below the low but acceptable floor of “Kraft Mac and Cheese” while charging a relative fortune for the privilege. – J.N.

CC Club | 2600 Lyndale Ave. South | 612.874.7226

What is a proper dive bar? 

A proper dive bar will have sticky floors, a decent juke box, and plenty of dark corners to settle into. It will have industrial-grade barstools, tables, chairs and vinyl-clad booths built to survive a zombie apocalypse or a rowdy Friday night. It will have wood paneled walls encrusted with a random assortment of neon beer signs and booze posters. And it will have a couple of ragged, sticker-covered, coin-op pool tables in the back. 

Generally speaking, a proper dive bar will have a restroom that feels more like a last resort than a real option.


n a proper dive bar it will feel like midnight at two in the afternoon. The bartenders will be bartenders, not mixologists. They won’t dabble in “crafted” cocktails. They specialize in pouring you a stiff drink, quickly. And they will eye you suspiciously if you ask for anything more. Your server will have worked here since before you could say the words “Jack” and “Coke.” She’ll look like your sweet, old grandmother, if your sweet, old grandmother could wrestle a sailor to the ground.

A proper dive bar has rules. There will be an unspoken code of conduct governed by regulars who occupy the same stools every day and who do not suffer fools. Roughly outlined, the code of conduct shall be as follows: Get as trashed as you like, but be a professional about it. Step out of line and you’ll find yourself picking yourself up off the corner of Lyndale and 26th with a boot print on the ass pocket of your jeans.

By all these standards, CC Club is a proper dive bar. It comes by the label honestly and wears it with pride. As well it should. – M.C.

If bar food is this week’s theme, then the CC Club is the king of the bars we visited – a ton of history, and a reputation of having no apologies or fucks to give whatsoever. In that regard, the bar’s food is mostly right on the money – satisfying without being showy or trying too hard, with a couple of our picks not actually bothering to try at all. Is that rock-n-roll? It is. Is it what we’re looking for in bar food? Not generally.

Other than a surplus of mustard that partially swamped the dogs other qualities, the CC Club’s Chicago Dog ($11) was actually decent – nice snap, decent balance of peppers and relish, and an appealing presentation.

Is it a blessing or a curse that the CC Burger ($15) tastes overwhelmingly of the chewy, tasty, smoky bacon that covers it like a down comforter? Depends on your feelings about bacon. The non-bacon qualities of this burger (the cheese, the bun, the unremarkable but adequate patty itself) really get lost in the mix but after a couple beers this salty umami rocket could definitely hit the spot.

There’s exactly one remarkable thing about the CC Club’s straight-outta-the-freezer-bag Cheese Curds – they cost $13. Yes, prices are up all over. No, even that can’t account for this lousy value prospect.

We ordered the club’s Egg Rolls ($10) on the assumption that they were some quirky, interesting outlier that demanded exploration. They were not. They were kind of overfried and bland.  – J.N.

Hi Flora! | 2558 Lyndale Avenue South | 612.222.1868

As you might expect from a plant-based restaurant named Hi Flora!, there’s a botanical theme. But it’s certainly not overdone. There’s a striking landscape mural on one wall, a few potted plants scattered about, and a stenciled floral design adorning the awning, walls, and menu. And that’s about it.

Until…you notice the nondescript amber eyedropper bottles tucked inside the low glass-fronted coolers behind the bar. These bottles, filled with tinctures of THC and CBD, lend an air of mystique and intrigue. As a way to stock a temperance bar—with no spirits to display—it works well. But is it too subtle? Why not have some fun? Push the shelves behind the bar to full Hogwarts potions room levels. Fill them with all manner of odd-shaped, colored glass containers—mysterious vapors burbling over their brims.

Probably to their credit, Hi Flora! does not give in to our baser instincts. The emphasis was not on the novelty of the THC tinctures. Yes, they are there. But there’s also obvious care placed into ensuring each drink and dish on the menu stands on its own.

Our server was kind and explained the menu with patience and care and without the snobbishness that can so often pervade at fine dining restaurants. There were clearly some issues with technology and perhaps lack of staff, but she dealt with them as gracefully as she could. There was only a whiff of a panicky vibe and inconsistent timings on our various courses to alert us that something was off. – M.C.

Hi Flora is one of those restaurants we’ll likely be rooting for while rarely if ever returning to. “Rooting for,” because its menu is fearless about rare, bold flavors, and it offers up some truly new and refreshing ideas in terms of food and beverage concepts. (See below.) “Rarely returning to” because the customer fully bears the expense of all that experimentation, and service – while warm and well-intentioned – was an inefficient, and at times confused mess during our visit.

Drinks first: Hi Flora has become locally famous for its n/a drink + THC tincture menu, which means you’ll buy two drinks to get one that packs a THC punch. We got a small (5mg) smokey tincture for $8.88 and added it to the $16 non-alcoholic but highly caffeinated Livener Bubbles, which offered some tart earthy brightness plus a touch of smoke from the THC liquid. The result? A $25 cocktail with enough punch to get a certain percentage of people somewhat high. Whether that’s a reasonable outlay is your call. 

The Hazelenut Horchata was in fact pretty delicious, with nutty depth, aggressive but balanced spicing and sweetness aplenty without being syrupy. But it was $16; at $10-11, it would’ve been a fair value, and a treat at less than that.

Ancient Cacao ($11) differed from a high-end chocolate milk by offering more dark cocoa depth and a little bit of lingering heat. We dug it.

The restaurant’s Quesadilla (with hazelnut cheese and coconut sour cream, $11) was really pretty delicious, with a thin, crispy, delicate tortilla and absolutely terrific guacamole with a ton of ripe avocado punch. It missed a little of the melty, salty intensity of real cheese, and it was a few small mouthfuls for the price, but it was balanced and it worked.

By contrast, the restaurant’s Wild Rice Burger ($17) was a total mystery. Dry, woefully underseasoned, lacking any fat or richness, this is a throwback to late 1970s coop veggie burgers, tasting of monastic self-denial and masochistic suffering. It did shoot out a bunch of beet juice “blood” when we bit into it, which was neat but culinarily inconsequential. 

The success of the mushroom-based Lion’s Mane Steak depends a little on your own value prospect. It’s $33 for a vegan steak and potatoes and broccolini. But that said: Wow. The chew and umami of this mushroom steak is shockingly close to the real thing – lighter, for sure, and obviously a different animal (or fungus, sure), but not at all unpleasant in its vision. Well-seasoned, riding on a thick wave of tasty potatoes, this is a big, bold, satisfying main that could be split (with an appetizer or two, maybe) between two diners. It’s a dish we’ll be talking about for a long time, for its swagger, its creativity, and its impact. – J.N.

Nightingale | 2551 Lyndale Ave. South | 612.354.7060

As the name implies, the theme here is “night,” and the decor has fun with the concept without being overly clever about it. The tufted booths are midnight-blue dotted with shiny gold buttons—evoking a night sky. String lights twinkle like stars around the room. Large wooden orb chandeliers hover overhead like planets. Okay, now I’m being overly clever, but you get the point. 

The vibe is laid back and the service is pleasant. Wood floors add warmth. Brick walls add character. The bar is prominent. It occupies a large portion of the overall space and offers plenty of cushy barstools with comfy backrests. We could easily see ourselves leaning back and settling in for a long night here.

And Nightingale is happy to oblige. The place is open until 1am and the kitchen doesn’t shut down until midnight. While that may be well past prime dining hours for some of us, it offers night owls a truly legitimate dining option (read: better than your average greasy pub grub) delivered on the nocturnal schedule they prefer. Creatures of the night, slide into a booth and tuck in for the evening.  – M.C.

When we tried Nightingale’s Steamed Mussels ($18) months ago, during the planning phase of this crawl, we were blown away by the balance of the dish, the depth of the coconut milk green curry, and the quality of the seafood. This time around, the curry was overloaded with lime juice – a subtle shift, but enough to change the impact of the dish. Maintaining consistency is a hellish challenge for any restaurant and the shift here was just from “great” to “good,” but it was a notable change regardless.

The restaurant’s Chicken Liver Pate ($10) brings together the richness of liver with an apple-inflected sweetness that balances the dish. The fact that it’s served on ravishingly good charred bread with an accompanying sweet bacon marmalade is just a big bonus. Pates can easily get too rich, too gritty, or too funky, but this one is a carefully calibrated winner.

Grilled Octopus ($15) can go a lot of ways, but the Nightingale version (served with pineapple and black garlic purée) was really pleasant – firm, lightly charred, and mellow overall. It scores points on presentation, too, from the dark, dramatic arc of the puree to the stacking of the tentacles.

Nightingale’s Scallops ($19) are simple and gorgeous – perfectly cooked, and served with the unexpected but ideally balanced duo of sweet green grapes and nutty almond relish. We’ve never tried a dish quite like this before, and other restaurants could learn from this method of reinvigorating a familiar taste. – J.N.

Bulldog Uptown | 2549 Lyndale Ave South | 612.872.8893 

The sign may say “The Bulldog Restaurant,” but make no mistake, this is, first and foremost, a bar. Sure, there’s a small sunken dining room in the front of the place and a side patio where you can order food and drinks, but the moment you walk through the door, you’ll be confronted by the bar at the heart of the Bulldog. 

The bar itself is a classic dark, hardwood number nestled under a low, wood beam ceiling. This main room is accented by wood paneling, brick walls, touches of stained glass and an assortment of images of foreign pubs. The night we visited, things were fairly subdued with only a few patrons bellied up to the bar, but it wouldn’t take many more to make the room feel crowded. Ignoring the dart machines flashing obnoxiously in the back of the place, you could almost get a cozy, European vibe here.

The rest of the place is a fairly straight-forward  drinking establishment. Which, in some ways, makes the Bulldog feel like a distant European cousin of CC Club. It’s perhaps slightly—and only slightly—more sophisticated, and it’s missing the layers of history (read: random grunge) CC has built up over the years, but any real drinker would be as comfortable here as at CC Club. They just might need to trade out their Marlboro Reds for Dunhill’s. – M.C.

With a name like Hawaiian Volcano ($15), you’d expect a massive, messy, bold flavor bomb. But instead we got a surprisingly neat and tidy burger that absolutely begged for salt and seasoning. Grilled pineapple and double smoked bacon should be big flavors but somehow the underpowered hamburger meat managed to outshine the low-wattage toppings toted by this dud of a dish.

Weirdly, the Korean BBQ Wings (six for $11) were an almost perfect mirror image of the burger – big, bold, full of flavor and complexity, and so salty we actually dipped our burger into their sauce to try to salvage it. (It sort of worked.) Plunged into the accompanying ranch, these wings weren’t a total loss, but with half as much salt they would’ve been downright delectable.

The Bulldog’s Berliner ($12) could have been snappier from a texture perspective, but, otherwise, this Deutschland Meats bratwurst with kraut and mustard was pretty damn tasty and perfectly presented.  – J.N.

Leaning Tower of Pizza | 2324 Lyndale Ave South | 612.377.3532

Prior to this visit, we had a generally fond recollection of Leaning Tower as a legendary, scruffy-but-comfy neighborhood pizza and beer joint. It has held down this corner of Lyndale and 24th for as long as we can remember (turns out they go back 70 years, though not always on this corner). So we entered expecting to be bathed in a warm glow of nostalgia. 

We were wrong. What we found was that they had updated the place. Apparently with an eye toward removing any trace of backstory or character. 

Okay, that might be too harsh. They do have a cheeky mural of the “Last Supper” with the disciples hungrily eyeing the last slice of pizza on the plate. And there’s a parody of Michelangelo’s “Creation” with God manifesting a slice of pizza from his mighty fingertip.

But aside from a few colorful pops of pop art, there’s little in the way of personality here. White laminate tables and white walls dominate. To be fair, if this were any other pizza joint, the place probably wouldn’t register as such a bummer with us. But when you have so much history to draw from and embrace, why wouldn’t you try to retain it through the years? – M.C.

If you define the tantalizing flavor of Thailand as “a 50/50 mix of cilantro and peanuts,” you’ll be thrilled by the authenticity of the Leaning Tower of Pizza’s Tower of Thai Pizza ($17). We were not thrilled – to us, this tasted like depressingly workmanlike pizza with a light sheen of peanut butter smeared across it.

The restaurant’s Italian Stallion ($17) was better – the array of pepperoni, green olives, salami, onions, and banana peppers is at least traditionally proven – but it was still a letdown on a plate, with low energy, muddy flavors drowned by mediocre cheese. The crust on this pizza (and the Thai one) tasted straight-outta-the-bag, with no real stretch, depth, char or character whatsoever.

The restaurant’s Mac and Cheese Bites ($10) combined all the excitement of Kraft Mac and Cheese with the emotional impact of thin, crunchy, slightly salty fried coating. All this drama divided our group – some of us found them boring, others, acceptable.

I would like to say that the restaurant’s Meatball Hoagie ($12) represents a come-from-behind surprise win for the restaurant, but it doesn’t. Exceedingly bland meatballs lightly slathered with essentially flavorless cheese and overcooked marinara and thick bread do not a great grinder make.  – J.N.

Baba’s Hummus House | 2220 Lyndale Ave South | 612.254.8884

Baba’s treats Middle Eastern cuisine like art. Take for instance, their hummus. They display multiple varieties behind a glass counter in sunken white containers. With their rich colors and creamy textures, you could easily be fooled into believing you’re ogling artisan ice cream. But it’s hummus, and it’s gorgeous.

The space is clean and airy—all bright white with pops of light blue and pink and yellow. Blonde woods, wicker lampshades and fawn upholstery provide warmth and texture. Friendly neon “Ya Salam” and “Yallah Habibi” signs welcome you in. We took a seat on some comfy low couches and happily plucked delicacies off a shared tray between us, soaking it all in, and scraping every last spec of that delicious, creamy hummus off the tray.

This is modern middle eastern elevated for the Instagram set. And it all works. Because it feels authentic, inviting, and communal. Based on the elevated experience and clear vision (not to mention the prominent merch area), we wouldn’t be surprised if Baba’s aspires for multiple locations. More power to them. – M.C.

It wasn’t lost on us that the Palestinian Plate at Baba’s cost the same as the horrific mac and cheese at French Meadow and the  princely-priced horchata at Hi Flora: $16. For that same pile of ducats, you get: falafel (crispy exterior, yielding interior, perfect seasoning, delicious), hummus (creamy, rich, unimpeachable), olives (plenty of them, and good), pickles, labneh (light, elegant), fried Arabi cheese (rich, creamy, lovely fry), pickled eggplant… I mean, it’s impressive. Oh, yeah, tomatoes. It’s not a disgusting quantity of food, it’s just a lovely assortment of well-executed Middle Eastern favorites for a great price. Oh and you get little warm delicious pita puffs, too! They might have been the best thing!

We also dug the Za’atar Flatbread ($9), which was delicate, chewy, and fully flavored without being acrid or aggressive. 

Our Mint Tea ($4) was big, balanced and practically unsweetened – shockingly, since I’ve gotten mint tea in the West Bank on a few occasions and I remember it as being 40-50% sugar. It was quite nice.

The Arabi Cardamom Coffee ($4), by contrast, didn’t have much flavor whatsoever beyond the bitterness of the coffee – not cardamom, and not sweetness, which would have been a welcome contrast. – J.N.

Bebe Zito Ice Cream and Burgers | 704 W. 22nd Street | 612.315.5180

Bebe Zito is a malt shop on acid. A new-school 50’s soda fountain for the pop body art generation. An ice cream and burger joint happily living in fluid times.

Don’t think peanut butter and soy sauce go together? Think again. Can’t blow torch ice cream? Wrong. Sweet pickles on a burger? Why not? Celebrating differences is the center of the Bebe Zito ethos and it comes through loud and clear. From their menu to how they approach their design.

Their mascot is a backward baseball cap wearing baby wielding ice cream cone and a full-body tat. A kind of modernized, devilish twin to the old Big Boy restaurant mascot. 

And yet even with all the ways they refused to be pinned down, in the end, Bebe Zito offers a simple premise: damn tasty burgers and over-the-top ice cream flavors served up in a funhouse atmosphere (we love that they call their triple scoop “America”). 

The trick that Bebe Zito has been able to pull off is creating something feels truly unique and authentically themselves while also making it something that immediately feels iconic and ready to take on the world.  – M.C.

It’s hard to extract the culinary qualities of Bebe Zito from its bustling, intensely fun atmosphere, but then again, why bother? If the vitality of a place makes the food taste better, that’s absolutely fair play, and the noisy, crowded, goofily happy vibe that dominates Bebe Zito deserves some credit along with the cooks and ice cream makers.

It’s hard to know whether the sweet or savory component side of our meal won out – both were terrific. We got a dish of the shop’s Salted Caramel Flan Brûlée ($7) because it’s impossible to watch someone blowtorching a dish of ice cream without wanting to try it. This proved to be a wise move, because the torching imparted a big, beautifully charred flavor note and left a crispy texture atop the creamy, rich caramel-forward ice cream beneath.

Also excellent was the shop’s Havana Heat ($7), which brought together mango, guava, and habanero peppers along with chunks of gluten-free cassava shortbread. Tropical notes dominated this dish, while the habaneros played an entertaining game of peek-a-boo, popping up to kick in some intense fruity heat in the middle of each bite of ice cream but then fading back surprisingly quickly. 

By now the Bebe Burger ($8) is a bit of a known quantity, and we’ve said this before, but we need to say it again: this is a damned tasty hamburger. Seemingly drenched in melted cheese without being overly cheesy, dominated by rich tasty beef without being unbalanced, manageably small without being under-sized or unsatisfying, this easily ranks among the area’s best burgers, full stop, no qualifications necessary.

Our love for the burger made it surprisingly that we were almost equally happy with the restaurant’s Honey Butter Chicken Sammie ($12), which manages to put heat, sweetness, and crispy texture on an even footing to create a remarkably craveable sandwich.

Bebe Zito’s Cheese Curds ($4) are like nothing we’ve ever had before – they’re so sweet they’re almost like little chunks of French toast, and they’ve got a ricey/mochi-like chewiness to their batter that is (to our knowledge) unique for curds. In total: this humble little shop is crushing it on the food side of things, and the general public seems to be fully aware of the fact. – J.N.

Red Dragon | 2116 Lyndale Avenue South | 612.874.8877

After visiting CC Club, we waxed on about what makes a proper dive bar. After visiting Red Dragon…well…we’ll paraphrase a quip from the 1988 Vice Presidential debate: “Senator, we’ve been served at dive bars. We know dive bars. Dive bars are a friend of ours. Senator, Red Dragon is no dive bar.”

If anything, Red Dragon proves there is a limit to how low a dive bar can sink before it implodes on itself.

One of the essential features of a dive is that no matter how beaten down it’s gotten over the years, the scars and bruises actually make the place feel more interesting and alive. 

Sure, there were hints of the Red Dragon’s past, the bones of an old-school American Chinese restaurant are still here, but they’re broken and brittle. They don’t make the place more interesting, they just made it feel like the lifeless husk of a thing that had once existed years ago.

Every sign (both literal and figurative) at Red Dragon was telling us to just turn and run for the exit. The cocktail menu had a prominent note telling patrons that they would not be allowed to get a refund on a drink for any reason. There were empty 5-gallon “duck sauce” buckets catching some unknown substance oozing from the ceiling. A sign on the juke box warned, “Play at your own risk.”

These things were like the chilling voices in a horror movie warning us to “GEEEET OOOOOUT.” And we did as soon as we could. – M.C.

So far as we know, no bar in town other than Red Dragon prominently brands their drink menus with language informing guests that under no circumstances can a cocktail be returned for a refund. Naturally, we were morbidly intrigued, and we ordered a cocktail – in fact, the biggest, boldest, most top-of-the-menu cocktail of them all.

Red Dragon’s Wondrous Punch ($15) promised to be the sort of high-octane, low-grade, fruit juice, sour mix, and rail liquor booze grenade that tales of regret are made out of. But – and this is astounding, because we were braced for a really brutal beverage – the Wondrous Punch plunged through our quality floor and ended up in the Sub-basement of Utter Undrinkability. We identified tasting notes including “aftershave,” “floor cleaner,” and mysterious, threatening boozy flavors that suggested rocket fuel or industrial by-products. By popular acclimation, this was the worst cocktail any of us had ever tasted. This was not merely a cocktail we weren’t eager to finish, but a cocktail that we would not drink if paid to do so. 

The food at the Red Dragon was surprisingly good, in relative terms. Wanting to test the deep end of the swimming pool, we ordered the Pressed Duck ($17), and were collectively nonplussed to receive a plate full of nearly flavorless brown, SPAM-like cubes of shredded, reconstituted and deep fried duck meat. They were not good, but they were certainly interesting, and they led us to discover that this sort of thing used to be on Chinese-American and “Polynesian”-themed restaurant menus all around the country about 50 or 60 years ago. 

A seemingly much safer bet was the Pork Egg Foo Young ($12), which turned out to be even less appetizing than the duck. Gummy, nearly flavorless, and criminally undersalted, these gloppy egg cakes were drowned in a brown sauce with less charm and character than Rudy Giuliani on an eggnog bender.

Red Dragon is, in its own way, a magnificent restaurant. – J.N.

The Wedge Community Co-op | 2105 Lyndale Ave South | 612-871-3993

There’s only so much you can say about the Wedge. It’s an institution. It’s the OC (Original Co-op). You can feel the history and the roots running deep under the foundation of the building into the surrounding neighborhood. The name itself says “we belong here.” It’s a fantastic co-op with a beautiful ethos (and a tight parking lot).

But there’s also only so much you can say about an open-air, self-serve deli bar. What do you expect from a sneeze-guard covered casket lined with stainless tubs filled with steaming heaps of food that have been sitting there for hours? Put this thing in the Ritz Paris and tell us it was prepared by a Michelin star chef, and we’d approach it with the same level of suspicion. And rightfully so. – M.C.

The love we here at Heavy Table have for cooperative grocery stores is nearly boundless. But the feelings we have for their hot bars and salad bars are more complicated. They often go through periods of ambitious renewal – local purveyors, world flavors, fresh hot food – only to inevitably slump back into a “just get it done” level of buffet-like adequateness.

The Wedge seems to have settled into a “just get it done” holding pattern. Our Chicken Tortilla Soup ($4 for 8 oz.) tasted of underseasoned diced tomatoes to the exclusion of anything else. 

Our experience with the coop’s Hot Food and Salad Bars ($11/pound) was similarly uninspiring. On the better end of things: ancho black beans with a bit of kick and adequate seasoning, and a simple but elegantly executed beet salad. On the lower end of things: grilled chicken dry as desert sand and equally tender, mac and cheese with little flavor beyond a touch of butter, and utterly bog standard sloppy joe filling.

Is it impossible to run a buffet-style food program at a grocery store that legitimately inspires and tantalizes? It may or may not be, but it clearly isn’t a walk in the park in terms of difficulty. – J.N.

Mortimer’s | 2001 Lyndale Avenue South | 612.872.1688 

In a business where the focus is so often on trying to out-concept, out-cool and outspend the next joint, Mortimer’s is an old, black t-shirt of a bar. Basic. Uncomplicated. Comfortable anytime.

Throw a solid wood bar in the middle of the room. Put a few standard-issue barstools around it. Add some booths and high-top tables. Line up a few pinball machines. Keep the lighting low. It’s not rocket science, but it works.

Simplicity can be difficult to pull off because there’s nothing to hide behind. Making it work requires one key ingredient: You must give a crap. If you don’t, people will sense it immediately (see also, Red Dragon).

Mortimer’s gives a crap. The cook gives a crap. He presented our food with the kind of pride you might not expect from a bar kitchen. The bartender gives a crap. She never stopped moving around the bar, keeping things tidy like a true professional.

The person who installed the sound system gives a crap. The TouchTunes had proper thunder to it (a good omen for a place offering live music).

You may not be dazzled by the concept at Mortimer’s, but that’s the point. Sometimes you just need to slip into an old, black t-shirt and drink a Hamm’s in a can.  – M.C.

For some reason, we had Mortimer’s and Red Dragon filed nearby one another in our mental catalog of “vaguely sketchy spots on Lyndale Avenue that we somewhat know.” But while Red Dragon has gotten weirder and further out to sea over the past several years, Mortimer’s has experienced something of a revival. When the bar’s cook brought our food to the table his eyes glowed with obvious pride, and when we tasted that food, we found that his feelings weren’t misplaced – he was slinging some seriously tasty bar fare.

It was Taco Tuesday at Mortimer’s when we visited, which meant that Tacos were a mere $3. The steak taco was an ideal blend of evenly chopped bits of steak and finely minced onions with a generous lather of fatty/spicy mayo-based sauce to cover all sins and tie everything together. It was a satisfying taco; its counterpart, a snappy shrimp-based number, was remarkably similar in terms of preparation and also a thoroughly enjoyable snack.

The bar’s Hawaiian Pizza ($12 for an 8″ pizza) was a surprisingly good value for the money – it was thick with substantial cheese that had been nicely browned, the toppings were plentiful but not overboard, and the pizza’s mix of meaty, spicy, fruity, and cheesy flavors was well-calibrated. Its crust was robust and chewy, and did yeoman-grade work in terms of supporting the mountain of cheese that it carried. 

The French Dip Sandwich ($12) at Mortimer’s is basic to the point of perfection – thinly sliced roast beef, horseradish, caramelized onions a plenty, and a chewy, substantial roll that can contain its contents even after a dip in the au jus.  – J.N.

P.S. Steak | 510 Groveland Avenue | 612.886.1620

Forgive us our trespasses, but we’ve always thought P.S. Steak was a horrible name. It rings of a dumb suburban chain concept rather than a posh, urban steakhouse. So, we had to ask our server about it. Apparently, the name is a reference to the restaurant being the “Post Script” to the story of La Belle Vie thanks to the chef’s long tenure with that venerable former occupant of this space. We still think it’s a dumb name, but at least now we understand it.

Much as it was at La Belle Vie, all the action is at the bar. Yet due to the quirk of this being an old historic building, the dining room is an entirely separate experience that can only be accessed down a winding hallway. We dutifully followed our host but couldn’t help looking back longingly at the lounge, wondering what we might be missing as the din of frivolity gave way to the deafening silence of the main dining room.

Had we been shushed by a librarian, on our way in, it would not have surprised us. And the lack of occupied tables at prime time on a Friday night only compounded the noiselessness.

It’s a dimly lit room dense with dark woods, rich tufted leathers, burgundy upholstery, crystal chandeliers, and gray-brown walls dotted with ornately framed mirrors, paintings and vintage knick-knack miscellany. There are glass fronted cases displaying a selection of fine wines and marbled hunks of raw meat. In all these respects, P.S. Steak serves up a right-over-the-plate steakhouse ambiance. Had we not been pining for the action in the bar, we would have probably been perfectly satisfied. – M.C.

Cocktails are no joke at P.S. Steak. The Black RumHattan ($15, rum, vermouth, amaro, cacao) offered a tart depth that played with herbal bitterness and the earthy sweetness of molasses. By contrast, the House Manhattan ($15) was bright and bold, balanced and comforting.

P.S. Steak’s Steamed Mussels ($16) were an interesting variant on the simple garlic and broth or Thai curry mussels that we keep running into all over town (including at Nightingale, our planning venue for this crawl way back when we kicked it off a year and a half ago.) These were really big, and really rich – really, really rich – thanks to brandy cream, saffron, and pancetta. 

For us, the gold standard – the liftetime, un-toppable, unimpeachable gold standard – of shrimp cocktail is the ridiculous meaty wild-caught shrimp cocktail at Meritage. The P.S. Shrimp Cocktail ($21) offered large-ish shrimp that tasted fresh and sweet, and the cocktail sauce packed a tremendous horseradish kick, which we loved. Good, for certain. Meritage good? No shame in falling short of perfection.

We wouldn’t be taking our job seriously if we didn’t swing for the fences when it comes to steak at P.S. Steak. Thus: the 32 Oz. Bone-In Ribeye ($135), a beautiful bludgeon of meat that came with a flavor-rich carbon-kissed crust and a tender interior. It’s difficult to assess value at a steakhouse – how much is two pounds of delicious beef worth in a steakhouse setting? For what it’s worth, with some sides it was plenty to feed the four of us.

It’s not exactly clear what goes into the Aligot Potatoes ($14), but it seems that the list probably goes like this: cheese, butter, butter, cheese, butter, and cheese. And butter. And additional butter. Anyhow, they’re more like a gel than a solid and they’re plenty rich. We liked them.

The restaurant’s Roasted Rainbow Carrots ($15) may have been its only miss, and not by much – the carrots themselves were tender, sweet, and irresistible, but also covered in a mishmash of an overly rich raita and smoked granola. The meal in front of us was complex enough that simple roasted carrots would have been a lovely complement – instead they were sort of a church basement mayo salad concoction unto themselves, albeit a classy and high-falutin one.

The Caramel Baked Alaska ($24) at P.S. Steak was the highlight of our meal. No surprise, right? Ignited tableside and a triumph of dimpled, crook-peaked design thanks to its flammable meringue jacket, Baked Alaska is a dinosaur of a dessert that is unlikely to ever go extinct due to its formidable marriage of form and function.

But this thing was different. Smarter. Better. The salted caramel ice cream offered more depth and complexity than a standard vanilla, but the really clever twist was the liquid used to ignite the confection: green chartreuse, which imparted a grassy, biting, beautifully sour sort of top note to the dish that made it irresistibly compelling. A fiery way to end a very long and rewarding journey.   – J.N.

Cardamom | 725 Vineland Place | 612.375.7542

Cardamom occupies a vast expanse of the lower southwest corner of the Walker Art Center. It’s perfectly positioned so that if you hit it at the right time of day, you can bask in the last golden rays of sunset pouring through the floor to ceiling windows surrounding the space. We hit it at the right time.

The sun threw the long, sparkling shadows of our water glasses across the table. We had to keep our shades on part of the time. Wide fronds from palm plants dotted our view. It was as if we were dining on an open patio in some tropical locale. OK, that requires a massive suspension of disbelief, but if you’re looking for a connection to the Mediterranean theme of the menu, that might be all you get.

Why? Because, in a somewhat unlikely turn of events, the interior design is all modern Scandinavian—clean lines, blond woods, natural Ratan, neutral white walls. Sparse, simple, open.  It’s a space perfectly suited for a modern art museum, yet noticeably devoid of any actual modern art and missing any obvious connection to Mediterranean style.

But you know what? That’s fine, because somehow the cool simplicity and warm Mediterranean inspired flavors blend into a relaxed, elegant cocktail we would come back for time and again. – M.C.

Sixteen bucks seemed like a lot for a fairly shallow dish of Hummus, but the Cardamom version really is pretty lovely – creamy, tahini-forward, a bit heavy but flavorful and balanced. The restaurant is either making its own flatbread or sourcing it carefully – it tasted light, fresh, and delicious when paired with the hummus.

The restaurant’s Moroccan Cigars ($13) were completely unexpected, resembling delicate shrimp-filled lumpia more than anything we’d associate with the Mediterranean. They were also terrific, the shrimp tasting light and fresh, and the crispy exterior of the wrappers delicately going to pieces with just a gentle bite.

I’m a big fan of Pulled Lamb Shawarma ($34) as a general concept, and now, as executed specifically by Cardamom – the meat was richly spiced, tender, and beautifully compelling when served on flatbread. I’ve been playing with pulled lamb at home, and it’s a slow process that yields lovely results when it’s executed well and Cardamom does in fact execute quite skillfully indeed.

By contrast, the Falafel ($14) was nothing noteworthy– exceptionally crispy (to a fault, the crust was almost tough) without much of an interior to enjoy. For four small hockey pucks, $14 felt pretty dear.

Dilution is key to a good martini – you want something that you can sip and enjoy, not a glass of straight booze. Cardamom’s Martini ($13) was pleasant enough in flavor but diluted to a fault, weak where it should have been punchy. – J.N.

Heal Cafe | 4171 Lyndale Avenue North 

Our first time by this section of Lyndale, Heal Cafe was locked-up tight and looked well and truly out of business. So, it wasn’t even on our agenda for the evening, but driving by, we happened to spot the lights on and made the snap decision to stop. 

That turned out to be a fateful decision.

Heal Cafe is tucked into the first floor of an old bank building with a classic white column bank entrance. As promised by the name, it’s a cafe with a fairly standard setup. You’ve got your counter service, some stools, a few tables…the usual. But that’s where things get unusual. 

Heal stands for “Herbs. Eats. All Love,” and healing is indeed the predominant theme. Whether through their herbal medicinals, through their plant-based food and juice menu, through the simple idea of community, or through more spiritual means, Heal is on a mission to lift people up. You literally can’t turn around without reading another inspirational saying.  

Everything about the place feels personal. Potted plants add life to the space. Hand painted murals brighten the room and give it a human touch. Our server— who also turned out to be our chef—was friendly and warm. The meal felt prepared with care, as if made by family. As with anything handmade, nothing here is perfect. And that’s what’s so perfect about it. — M.C.

Here’s where most of the world’s vegan food goes wrong: It’s so focused on what it’s keeping out or replacing that it loses sight of being delicious for the sake of being delicious. This is not a problem at Heal Café, where the vegan fare is spicy, fiery, complex, popping with texture, rich with sauces, and generally a real firecracker on the plate.


The restaurant’s Jerk Philly Sandwich ($8.88) leans (hard) into the parallels between rich, chewy, umami-forward steak and rich, chewy, umami-forward mushrooms. It succeeds on those terms, creating a sandwich that bumped out huge flavors with onions, sport peppers, habaneros, and banana peppers. We picked this thing down to its component atoms, compelled by the big heat and rich sauces that breathed so much life into this meatless hero.

On a similar front, the Holistic Bae Bowl ($12.12) leaned into bold, fiery jerk stewed chickpeas, mango habanero sauce, and ridiculously luscious and flavorful plantains topped with avocado crema. Seasoned cabbage, wilted greens, tomatoes, and onions rounded this dish out into something surprisingly complex and remarkably bold.

The restaurant’s drinks were equally noteworthy. The Lavender Butterfly Pea Flower Lemonade ($5.55) started with a strong base: strong, perfectly balanced lemonade with a real citrus kick, followed by a gentle, complex curl of lavender at the end of each sip. Pineapple Skin Tea ($5.55) – which is in fact made by steeping pineapple peels – resembled apple cider with a gentle pineapple twist, plus a finishing dash of cinnamon and cloves. – J.N.

Joy Luck | 4201 Webber Parkway | 612.287.0005

While waiting for our food in the truly dismal atmosphere of Joy Luck’s “dining room,” we’d already begun crafting a snarky writeup. It’d be along the lines of the one-word description we published for China One on our Greenline Checklist. (“Bleak.”) In this case:


“We experienced neither joy nor luck at Joy Luck.”

Fortunately for us, that finely crafted wisecrack was premature. Yes, the atmosphere was dreadful, but that’s not the point here. Joy Luck is a take-out joint first and a sit-down restaurant far, far, far, far, far second. And when it comes to take out, the atmosphere of the place only matters for as long as you can snatch your bag and run for the hills.

No, it’s the food that matters at a take-out joint. And while this wasn’t exactly fine cuisine, it was proof that you can’t judge a book by its tattered, musty, possibly even non-existent, cover. – M.C.

I’m a mu shu pork fiend. I’ll order the middling but thoroughly serviceable stuff from Bill’s Garden in South Minneapolis, make my own po ping pancakes from scratch, and savor the marriage of adequate pork and cabbage to freshly cooked chewy homemade crepes. It’s easy to do worse than Bill’s (and I certainly have) and based on the shambolic-bordering on post-apocalyptic décor at Joy Luck, I was expecting to do much worse indeed. Instead – no, Joy Luck’s Mu Shu Pork ($10.45) stands among the best I’ve had in town. Lots of tender pork, cabbage chopped as we watched just before stir frying, a good but not overwhelming level of moisture and salt – just really substantial, tasty stuff.

We’ve become reasonably proficient interpreters of Chicken Fried Rice ($6.25) over the years, tasting everything from the sublime to the inedible. We came into Joy Luck expecting the worst – a salty grease bomb, more than likely – but received instead a surprisingly light, balanced, and chicken-forward version of the dish. Not sublime, but really not bad at all – with a little soy sauce, quite tasty indeed.

The Vegetable Egg Foo Young ($9.05) at Joy Luck tasted, like the other dishes we tried, surprisingly light and freshly made, actually bordering on elegant in terms of how much fresh vegetable flavor asserted itself even above and beyond the seasoned eggs and gravy.

Appearances can be deceiving – and in the case of Joy Luck, they can be deceiving to the advantage of the diner. The first fortune cookie we opened after our meal read: “You’re in for a pleasant surprise” was right on the money. – J.N.

The Camden Social | 4601 Lyndale Avenue North | 612.489.8073 

The word “social” gets thrown around a lot these days. Mostly, to describe the hellscape of digital platforms that seem almost intentionally designed to divide and isolate us rather than to bring us closer together.  But “social” is the perfect word to describe what’s happening at The Camden Social.  What else would you call a place that’s half corner bar, half restaurant, and half live music venue? We know, we know, that math doesn’t add up, but there’s something about this place that defies the analytics.

There are few enough places around town that can pull off food, drink and live music well. But add in the neighborhood “supper club” vibe that The Camden Social has captured, and we’re hard pressed to come up with any. The night we visited, a live band was playing R&B covers, there were folks happily mingling at the surrounding diner tables, and every seat at the bar was occupied with a mishmash of people either dressed for a night out on the town or just stopping in to wash off the grind of a long work week.

The owner was sharply dressed and kept a sharp eye on the staff and the patrons. He roved the place, peeking in on the kitchen, chatting with bartenders and servers, constantly curating the vibe. If you weren’t having a good time, he was going to find out why and he was going to fix it. An actual social influencer. – M.C.

The Camden Wings ($18) are the restaurant’s signature dish, and that makes some sense – they bring together a really satisfying crispy crackly exterior with a rich, tender, meaty interior. The whole package is finished with a hint of cinnamon and brown sugar – barely enough to be perceptible, but sufficient to give the dish a delightful and subtle concluding note.

The restaurant’s Smoked Salmon Croquettes ($17) were a bit dense and meatball-like for our taste, but they had an elegant touch of smoke to their flavor that was set off nicely by whipped lemon cheese, capers, and a light side salad.

The Guyanese Filet Tips ($19) are simple enough by themselves, but they’re next level when combined with the accompanying pepperpot jus, steamed rice, and delicate rings of hot peppers and strips of orange zest.

We absolutely loved Camden Social’s Collard Green Dip ($11), which somehow managed to capture all the earthy richness of the vegetable without any of its sometimes off-putting metallic flavors. A cornbread streusel and parmesan cheese add texture and depth, making what could have been an acceptable simple dish into something complex and lovely.

The stylish mood of the place seemed to call for a cocktail, so we got the house interpretation of an Old Fashioned, Is Your Real Name Fonzie? ($12) It was so smooth and clean on the first sip that we worried it would be over-sweet. Despite that: it finished big and bold with a lovely citrus kick, making for a balanced and pleasant drink. – J.N.