Lyndale Avenue Checklist, Part One of Five: Bloomington and Richfield

Welcome to the online home of the collected Lyndale Avenue Checklist! This collection of 79 reviews was created over the course of 18 months by writers M.C. Cronin (atmosphere/people) and James Norton (food/drink), and illustrated by photographer Becca Dilley and the artist WACSO. We’ve broken this review out into five distinct posts so the load time is a little less massive – this feature includes about 45,000 words of text and hundreds of photos and illustrations. Part one starts at the southernmost bit of Lyndale Avenue in Bloomington, and we work our way northward with subsequent posts, ending with an addendum of coffee, tea, and breakfast spots. Total miles covered from south to north: 16.

Like all of the Checklist Projects we’ve done (also including East Lake Street, Green Line, and Central Avenue), we picked Lyndale Avenue because it’s sprawling, diverse, and jam-packed with independent restaurants that tell unique stories. Along the way, we ate at Indian spots, pizzerias, Mexican restaurants, an all-you-can eat sushi place, a VFW, a Japanese spin on Korean grill-it-yourself cuisine, a waffle bar, a ritzy new-school steakhouse and one of the worst bars we’ve encountered anywhere.

We started our trip on Sep. 20, 2022; we took a total of 16 trips to the avenue and wrapped up with a final visit on March 22, 2024. We dined and drank at 79 different independent restaurants, bars, cafes, and teahouses. Our smallest check totals were about $20; our biggest clocked in at nearly $400. All told, we put about $5,200 into the local culinary economy over the course of the Checklist.

Thanks to our subscribers on Patreon for underwriting this massive 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.

These reviews are decidedly “warts and all.” We’re plainspoken and honest about the experiences we had and the food we tasted, and while there are a number of places that didn’t fare terribly well, there were far more that honestly delighted us, and we did our best to take a “glass half full” approach for the numerous spots that offered mixed experiences. We (almost exclusively) limited our visits to independent restaurants or small local chains.

This first WordPress / Heavy Table website edition of the Checklist spans the southernmost part of our trip, the first restaurants that we visited. All of these spots are in Bloomington and Richfield, and they’re typical of Lyndale Avenue’s “Suburban Sprawl” phase – lots of strip malls, ample parking lots, and sometimes surprisingly long drives between restaurants. The brightest find on this stretch was Dosa South Indian Grill, which has become one of our favorite Indian spots out of the dozens we’ve tried in the metro. This stretch also reinforced two lessons we’re going to take as read from here on out: grocery store or coop hot bars never transcend “adequate,” and massive all-you-can-eat buffets never transcend tragedy. We also had a surprising amount of fun at Zantigo (one of M.C. Cronin and WACSO’s favorite spots) and Broadway Pizza, an old-school pizzeria with a heart.

– James Norton, May 8, 2024

In this edition, from south to north: Golden Wok, Aroma Indian Cuisine, Umbria Gourmet Pizza, 98 Pounds Buffet, Zantigo, Droolin’ Moose, Sports Page, Luna Di Luna, Dosa South Indian Grill, Sawatdee Bloomington, Eddie Cheng, Joy’s Pattaya Thai, Broadway Pizza, Protagonist Kitchen and Bar, MyBurger, Von Hanson’s Meats, Lakewinds Coop 

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]

Golden Wok | 617 W 98th St, Bloomington | 952.888.0833

Dimly backlit menu board with fading pictures of egg fu young and mu shoo pork: Check. Iconic Kikkoman soy bottle and rectangular ramekins stuffed with duck sauce packets on every table: Check. Chairs lined along one wall with slouched patrons waiting for their take out: Check. You may never have been to Golden Wok, but you’ve seen this place before a million times.

As with many joints in this category, the dining room is more “Sure, go ahead and sit if you really want to,” than “Please, relax and enjoy your dining experience.” A stack of restaurant supplies had taken up a permanent spot in one part of the dining room, and a couple of staff sorting and stacking receipts had taken up residence in another. Perhaps they were working in the dining room because there was no room in the back for anyone else. We counted upwards of nine crew on duty, all busy cooking, cleaning, ringing and packaging orders.

So as not to be pigeon-holed, Golden Wok does offer one major twist on the genre. There’s sushi on the menu. Which, at a place like this, registers somewhere between fairly surprising and mostly suspect on our food radars.  But this is the Checklist, and we must give everything a fair shot. It’s in the by-laws. – M.C. Cronin

After the Shakespearean tragedy of Umbria Gourmet Pizzeria, we were hesitant to move on to cookie-cutter strip mall Chinese-American fare, but – hey – the bar had been lowered, and even vaguely decent food was going to taste like a banquet in Beijing.

As low as the bar was, Golden Wok stumbled on a rock and managed to collide with it before tripping off the trail into a raspberry bush. The Pork Lo Mein ($10.25) was nearly flavorless, and most of what we could taste was inexplicably sweet. It was accompanied by strange, underseasoned yellow rice, and the less we say about that the better. An eggroll on the side tasted like an eggroll wrapper – no cabbagey bite, no chewy bits of savory meat, nothing like the classic eggroll experience we’ve come to know and love at innumerable Chinese joints of days past.

Relatively better – but still not good, mind you – was Egg Foo Young ($10.35). While underpowered and mellow, this at least clicks with other renditions of the dish that we’ve tried, and there was a level of seasoning at work that could be described by a generous taster as adequate. The accompanying brown sauce didn’t do much to improve the situation, but neither did it derail it further.

We also got sushi – how could we not? – but opted for the fully cooked Shrimp Tempura roll ($7.45). While shrimp is a fairly unassertive flavor to begin with, this stuff was bland to the point of nothingness, and could hardly be perceived over the lingering garlic powder from our previous stop. The roll was a somewhat unpleasant hot-meets-cold collision of temperatures, and the accompanying wasabi was such a rare shade of green that we left it untouched. – J.N.

Aroma Indian Cuisine | 517 W 98th Street, Bloomington | (952.479.7154

If you’re a restauranteur looking for a way to improve your overall ambiance, we have a secret that just might save you thousands of dollars.

Before you engage a trendy design firm out of L.A… before you refinish your walls, your floors or your windows…before you invest in new decor, furnishings and glassware…before you you do any of that, go to the nearest hardware store, slap down twenty bucks and buy yourself a dimmer switch. 

Low light is a magic salve that immediately makes everything better. Under a blanket of darkened lighting, blemishes get concealed, sharp edges get softened and shortcomings slip into the shadows. That’s not to say low lighting can do everything. It can’t make a bad restaurant good. But it can make any restaurant a slightly better version of itself.

Which is all to say that Aroma could really use a dimmer switch. 

In lower lighting, the bright orange walls and stark black furnishings might settle into something warmer and more approachable. As it was, with the lights gleaming off our foreheads while we flipped through the textbook-sized menu, it felt a bit like doing time in the school cafeteria. That might be totally fine for a lunch with coworkers, but it’s not necessarily the kind of atmosphere you’d want for a night out.

With the mostly excellent food we had here, we can’t help but think Aroma is missing an opportunity. Start with a dimmer and see what happens. – M.C.

What is it about suburban Indian restaurants being so – on the whole – good? We’re huge fans of Tandoor (in Bloomington) and Bay Leaf (in Eden Prairie), and we thought that Dosa South Indian Grill on Lyndale was one of the best finds we’ve stumbled upon in years. Add to the list: Aroma Indian, a seriously enjoyable strip mall spot that puts biryani, dosas, parotta bread, and goat meat into the limelight.

We ordered our Mastan Keema Biryani ($17, a dish mostly comprised of herbed rice and charred chunks of goat meat served with a refreshing yogurt sauce) medium hot and we were delighted to receive exactly that: every few bites of the earthy, intensely savory goat would send us running to our chais and/or yogurt to balance the bite. Biryani generally seems to go one of two ways: “here’s your large pile of rice” (our experience at the otherwise good Curry Corner) or “here’s an incredibly complex, layered, rich, rice-driven dining experience,” and this was the latter.

I don’t know what it is about the fruit-and-nut laden flatbread called Peshwari Naan ($5) that means it’s always good no matter where we order it, but it’s always good. Aroma’s is no exception. The sweetness of the bread was a balm for the hotter kick of the biryani and our okra curry. 

A single piece of Parotta ($4.50) bread was equally tasty. We expected it to be a 1-for-1 for the buttery, flat, dense, layered paratha we’ve had at other spots, but this stuff was notably lighter and fluffier, presenting almost like an oval croissant.

About that okra curry (Bhindi Masala, $12) – it was intense, a thick, rich blend of onions, tomatoes, herbs, and spices. Served with white rice, it was a big hit of complex flavor.

And we thought our Masala Dosa ($10) was a hoot – dosas tend to be either neat little packages or absurd, 30-inch tubes, and this was in the latter camp. 

It was generously filled with an earthy, thoroughly spiced curry of lentils and potatoes, accompanied by a trio of chutneys. We might give the dosa at Dosa South Indian Grill slightly higher marks for overall flavor, but Aroma’s dosa wins on presentation. We’d eat either again in a heartbeat. – J.N.

Umbria Gourmet Pizzeria | 521 W 98th St, Bloomington | 952.746.9505

Making a living owning and operating a restaurant is unimaginably hard work at any level–from the trendiest chef-driven spots to the smallest mom and pop’s. This is a truth that continually runs through our minds as we push our way through these Checklists.

And it was especially relevant at Umbria as we sat outside under the Logan’s Run inspired awning of an aging strip mall eating pizza we’d ordered from the owner’s wife and which had been cheerfully served to us by the owner who had just himself returned from a delivery run. There were no other staff. No other drivers, cooks, dishwashers or servers that we could see working that night.

So the fact that Umbria Pizza has been around for close to 15 years is astonishing. And the owner’s continued enthusiasm for the work is truly something to be appreciated. We just wish all the effort didn’t somehow feel wasted on us. Perhaps it’s just more proof that no matter what you’re looking for in your pizza (or burger or taco or any other omnipresent culinary item), there is something out there that will work for you. – M.C.

The food situation at Umbria Gourmet pizzeria is, for want of a more appropriate term, a bummer. Our heart legitimately goes out to the married couple who run the restaurant, who seemed likable and tremendously hard-working. But the two pizzas we ordered (the Thai Chicken and the Margherita, $14 for 10″) were pretty, pretty bad.

CRUST: Characterless, with no chew or char.

TOPPINGS: Buried beneath the cheese. Both far too much toppings by weight and far too little flavor. The Thai Chicken was loaded with plain, seemingly unflavored chicken, not perceptibly touched with anything resembling a Thai herb or sauce. The Margherita had fat, wet, slices of beefsteak tomatoes – bringing a lot of moisture and next to no flavor to the party. In both cases, burying the toppings beneath the cheese shielded them from the charring, caramelizing, healing power of a hot oven, which would have potentially improved the pizzas a lot.

CHEESE: Lots of it, but not much flavor.

INDUSTRIAL-GRADE GARLIC POWDER: Woo mama, a lot of this. A lot a lot. We were still tasting it two restaurants later. – J.N.

98 Pounds Buffet | 824 W 98th St, Bloomington | 952.881.1088

“You really gonna eat all that food you just took, you gluttonous slob?” is not actually what the signs on each of the buffet islands read, but they might as well have. (For the record, the signs actually read: “PLEASE…Do Not Waste Food. Eat what you take! – Thank You”) Regardless, that pretty much set the tone for the experience.

By name alone, we had some idea what we might be in for at 98 Pounds Buffet. And we were right. There was, indeed, a lot of food to choose from. Probably much more than the 98 pounds they promised.

But what else can we say about a place like this really? It was clean and well cared for. The dining room had plenty of tables and comfortable seats. The patrons seemed to be enjoying themselves while extolling the virtues of their own elaborate buffet beating strategies.

At least there were no turnstiles at the entrance. We’ve seen this buffet sharing (read: cheating) countermeasure used before, and if there’s a better way to make humans feel like livestock than to  funnel them through a turnstile to gorge themselves on troughs full of food, we have yet to see it. – M.C.

$18.50 buys you an all-you-can-eat ticket to eye-watering mediocrity at 98 Pounds Buffet, where the mock crab is bound up in low-grade cheese, the lo mein is soft spoken to the point of being inaudible, the crab rangoons are a bit soggy, and the flavor levels of everything – really, everything we tasted – are dialed down past bland into something approaching a zen state of nothingness.

To the credit of the buffet, the quality of its food is incredibly even – on a scale of one to ten, just about every bite we tried clocked in at a 3. Not “I’ve got a funny story for you” bad or “legally actionable” bad, but definitely “oooh I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that particular place” bad if you were talking about it with a friend. – J.N.

Zantigo | 9725 Lyndale Avenue South, Bloomington | 952.253.0770

Around these parts, Zantigo is the stuff of legend. And in the spirit of journalistic integrity, we’re not going to pretend that at least a couple of us in this Checklist crew aren’t rabid zealots. The first step is admitting you have a problem.

Perhaps there are other regional fast-food chains around the country that have a similarly turbulent backstory, but it’s hard to imagine how. Here’s the official condensed version: The restaurants opened in 1969 as Zapata, became Zantigo after a series of sales to food holding companies eventually reaching up to 140 locations, disappeared after the stores were turned into Taco Bell outlets by PepsiCo in 1986, and finally was resurrected by a the passion and the photographic tastebuds of a former employee and his brother in 1992.

Here’s our version: Taco Bell tried to kill the Chilito and failed.

Oh, you want to know about the experience? Fine dining it’s not. But it is everything you could ask for from a fast-food restaurant. The place is well cared for and delivers on the promise of a consistent Mexican fast-food experience in a way that could easily lead you to believe it is a national brand. No small feat for a chain of only four restaurants.

In an industry dominated by national players, Zantigo dares to be its own thing. Hard as they tried, the Powers That Be with all their fancy data-driven algorithms couldn’t kill it. Which is further proof to our theory that the world will always find a way to keep the Chilito in it. – M.C.

Chilitos ($2.29) are the killer app that built (and rebuilt) Zantigo, so it was Chilitos that we sampled in depth. The Mild Chilito was just that, with cheese and a chewy, paper-thin tortilla bearing the lion’s share of the flavor and texture burden. Soothing and simple. The Hot Chilito was, as Robb told us, “Minnesota hot,” which is to say you can taste a bit of pepper fruit at the back of each bite, minus anything but the faintest perceptible touch of spicy heat. That pepper flavor is a nice addition to the mix, however, and these were my favorite chilitos. The Chorizo Chilito had more heat and flavor than the other two combined, but I think there’s something about the narcotic simplicity of the Mild and Hot Chilitos that I prefer – they’re kind of just an excuse to eat a chewy tortilla full of cheese and with a touch of chili sauce, and that’s a nice excuse to have once in a while.

I didn’t totally understand the Taco Deluxe ($3.39), which was a pretty bog standard hard shell beef taco with cheese and lettuce and tomatoes encased in a second, soft tortilla. It was underseasoned, but otherwise just fine – nothing a dash of hot sauce couldn’t fix.

Now, the Taco Burrito ($3.79), a paradoxical marriage of a burrito wrapper with an American hard taco’s fillings (refried beans, ground beef, shredded cheese, chopped onion, lettuce, and tomatoes), was more my speed – it reminded me a bit of the now extinct Seven Layer Burrito from Taco Bell, and it was a similar warm hug in a tortilla of a dish. This burrito would get its ass kicked on East Lake Street, and it would have it coming. But here, in this context, it’s legitimately nice to eat. – J.N.

Droolin’ Moose | 9424 Lyndale Ave S, Bloomington | 952.300.2468 

Does the idea of chocolate covered peanuts, graham crackers and pretzels branded with names like “Squirrel Bait,” “Graham Trackers,” and “Fisherman Knots” make you smile? Then you’ll love the Droolin’ Moose. This is a Minnesota outdoors themed chocolate shop. But if you hadn’t deduced that by now, well, to use an oddly relevant movie quote from the fittingly named John Candy, “The moose out front shoulda told you.”

Someone here understands how to follow through on a theme, too. Between the shelves of candy lies plenty of moose emblazoned merchandise for potential Droolin’ Moose brand ambassadors to choose from. From water bottles to tote bags to  bucket hats to t-shirts with slogans like “Duck, Duck, Moose.”

They also have the most generous sampling policy south of the Boundary Waters. Stainless tubs filled with samples in tiny plastic cups sit next to every variety of chocolate candy. You may think that’s crazy, but it’s just smart business. Because honestly, if the embarrassment of walking around the store carrying a ridiculous number of empty sample cups in your hand doesn’t guilt you into buying something, you must have glacial lake water running through your veins. — M.C.

Through the magic of unlimited free samples, we actually got to try a surprisingly wide array of chocolate treats at Droolin’ Moose and the verdict is: not bad. Not bad at all. And while the store loses a bit of charm due to the pass-through nature of the business (from what we gathered by talking to the staff, the chocolates are made off site by a third party), it regains a fair bit of ground through its aggressive, free sample-driven in-house marketing campaign. Being able to taste anything you want really is a pretty persuasive sales pitch.

The Malted Milk Boulders (massive malted milk balls) are displayed front and center in the shop, and they’re good – nice bold crunch, chocolate that’s sweet enough to complement the filling without being overwhelming, a bit of legit chocolate flavor but not so much that it’s distractingly bright or pointlessly nuanced.

Rustic Blue (chocolate covered blueberries) were one of my personal favorites, owing to the contrast between the bright tartness of the berries and the sugary sweetness of the chocolate coating. Also high on my own list, the Enchant Mints, which were pretty much a bang-on copy of Girl Scouts Thin Mints, but with better chocolate.

I don’t totally get the point of covering a gummi bear in chocolate, but the Droolin’ Moose rendition of this treat (Bear in the Woods) was … just fine. I don’t get it, but they were fine. OK chocolate, not too much chew from the gummi bear, sort of like a chocolate covered fruit but sweeter and not quite as… good. 

Salty Bogs (salted milk chocolate caramels) are a pretty good test of a chocolate shop, and the Droolin’ Moose passed – the chocolate was underpowered in terms of flavor and only so-so in this context, but the caramel was tender and offered up a toasty fullness of flavor that was enjoyable.

We ended up leaving the store with a cup full of Plumpers, which are good old-fashioned chocolate covered raisins. The fruit has more size and tenderness than their mass-market equivalent (Raisinets), and their comparatively much tastier chocolate is layered thickly enough to balance and complement the robust raisins within. Plumpers are the Raisinets of the gods! – J.N.

The Sports Page Bar and Grill | 9014 Lyndale Avenue South, Bloomington | 952.887.0046

When your server arrives at your table a bit late and a bit flustered and tells you she’s serving the entire place, you worry. Especially when you look around and realize the space she’s covering is the size of a school gymnasium. 

Yet, we found ourselves less concerned with the question of whether our food and drinks would arrive this century (in fairness, they came relatively quickly) and more concerned with another question–one that still haunts us: Why would anyone come here?

Sports Page is little more than a large carpeted rec room with a few additional tables, televisions and people willing to bring you beer and food in exchange for money. Its only distinguishing feature is its lack of distinguishing features. There’s no interesting bar, no distinctive furnishings or decor, not even a drop of color in the walls or ceilings to describe. And yet, with nothing to set it apart (including the food), the place was unquestionably busy. 

We applaud the idea of not giving up and going to some faceless corporate chain, but if you’re in the market for a local sports bar, there are so many to choose from. Why do so many choose this one? 

There must be something here, but honestly, we can’t explain it. It’s just further proof that the way in which people arrive at decisions around perceived value often goes beyond a simple calculation and has to more to do with complex intangibles like customs and comfort and social connection. – M.C.

The food of The Sports Page Bar and Grill represents a total surrender of the human spirit. Up until now, even the most malconceived, unpalatable food we’ve eaten on our long Checklist journey has had some squashed sense of hope, some meager aspiration to hospitality, some tiny but shining dream of being something better. But it’s not that the dreams of the Sports Page menu items have died – it’s that they were never born in the first place.

Take, for example, the Cheeseburger ($9). All you need is a flattop, a smashing implement, and some American cheese and you can make yourself a serviceable burger with a little heart and soul to it. This cheeseburger came as close as we’ve ever eaten to a McDonald’s burger outside of McDonald’s – neat, sterile, tame, underflavored, it was a burger damn close to being a total non-entity. It’s not that the burger was bad – it just wasn’t really even there.

The fries were equally bland – neatly cut, uniform, neither particularly crispy nor soft, these were cafeteria fries from a medium-grade cafeteria. 

Our Chicken Wings (10 for $12) were similar. Served without so much as a side of ranch, these wings were fried hard, wearing crunchy jackets saturated with salt. The aggression of the breading made them taste like they’d been fried at least twice, and the flavor of the breading overwhelmed the small bits of chicken within. 

Best of the three entrees we ordered was a fat stack of folded-up ham wrapped around a couple pieces of bacon covered with a bit of American cheese on an undertoasted hoagie bun. The Pork Paradise ($10.25) gets points for an alliterative name and a bit of culinary imagination, but the end result was underwhelming. After a few beers it might’ve gotten the job done, but we’re not talking about a very glamorous job. – J.N.

Luna Di Luna | 8820 Lyndale Ave S, Bloomington | 952.303.4111

The more you try to describe Luna di Luna, the more it defies description. A condensed account might go something like this: Luna di Luna is a Taco Bell (probably) that’s been transformed into an abstract interpretation of an Italian restaurant where a primitive patchwork of old-world and modern Italian elements meld into something inexplicably charming. And there’s a collection of old pop cans.

Seriously, the place is held together only by its own incoherence.

Let’s start outside. This clearly used to be a fast food joint. We can’t confirm it, but the building gives off a distinctly Taco Bell-esque vibe. Except now, each of the plate glass windows that previously displayed posters advertising 2-for1 chalupas has been encrusted with a mishmash of rustic wood planks and random colored glass rectangles framing out a much smaller arched church window at the center. To the passerby, the place might look something like a small, off-brand Medieval Times.

Inside, it’s dimly lit even during daylight hours (as you might expect from the covered windows). Most of the light is supplied by an amalgamation of multicolored Italian blown glass wall sconces, teardrop pendants and LED backlighting. Dioramas high on the walls evoke miniature Roman ruins  complete with off-kilter stones and toppled alabaster columns. Below these sit a modern-ish design of mirrors behind and a pattern of horizontal wood strips. Faux flowers and foliage peek out from all around the room. Prints of vintage paintings depicting sultry ladies in slinky black dresses drinking wine and smoking at dark bars hang all around the space. And of course, there is the aforementioned pop can collection.

As we understand it, this wild pastiche is the singular vision of the owner. His wife takes no credit. (And she was particularly quick to deny having anything to do with it, we noted.) Their sons took our order and served us our meal. They told us everyone that works here is either family or very close to the family. And considering that this place oozes all the same oddball charm and eccentricities that make families interesting, we’re not surprised at all. – M.C.

Putting aside the aggressive level of charm that this place’s family staff and eclectic decor exerted upon us, the food of Luna Di Luna won our hearts on its own merits.

It’s workmanlike but winning stuff. For each entree, you get a salad, a simple combination of iceberg lettuce, buttermilk ranch, and Parmesan cheese. And you get a loaf of pretzel-like chewy, heavily seasoned bread to dip in personal plates of olive oil. And then you get a dish that invariably combines a lot of cheese with a generous helping of housemade meat.

Least successful – and we didn’t mind it – was the Bourguignon ($20), which combined an aggressive amount of sauteed peppers, onions, sliced beef filet, and serviceable gnocchi to create a dish that almost but not entirely conjures up beef fajitas at a decent Mexican-American spot. 

Better was the Tetrazini ($19), a throwback dish we haven’t seen on a menu in years. The shrimp in this dish were tender and properly cooked (not overcooked, a real rarity out there), and while the creamy, cheese-heavy Alforno pesto sauce could have been a little more delicate for our tastes, the dish was comforting and well executed.

We really enjoyed the Bolognese ($18). It was a straight-down-the-middle rendition of a real Italian-American classic, with big-but-light meatballs and go-for-the-gusto red sauce. It tasted good on a day that hit 91 degrees, it would have been bang-on perfect in January.

And our favorite dish of the four was the Carne Amante ($20) a penne and meatballs dish that closely resembled the Bolognese but with ravishingly good, classic-tasting hot Italian sausage, which offered a real fennel and garlic kick. – J.N.

Dosa South Indian Grill | 8654 Lyndale Ave S, Bloomington | 952.884.1033

Ah, Long John Silver’s. That unmistakable boardwalk entrance with its teetering round dock pilings. The warm glow of light from the portal windows beaconing you inside. As a disillusioned adult, we know those LJS’s were designed for cost efficiency so they could be easily stamped out across the US. But to the imagination of a naive six year old, going into Long John Silvers felt like visiting some old sea shanty on the end of a foggy pier.

There were no portal windows in the former Long John Silver’s building that Dosa now occupies. This one felt like a later-model version of the franchise after corporate tightened their belts on the design budget. But the boardwalk was still there. And it was hard not to smile while revisiting those nostalgic childhood memories.

What was even more heartening however was to discover that this building, originally designed to shovel low-grade fried fish down the gullets of the masses, had finally found its true purpose in life. Namely, as home to an independently owned family restaurant serving truly fantastic South Indian food. Sometimes the universe has plans that corporate could never have predicted. – M.C.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, there is a venerable Indian restaurant called Punjabi Dhaba. It looks and feels like a not-remarkably-clean Indian highway service station, and it serves some of the best north Indian food we’ve had, on metal trays. Dosa South Indian Grill hails from another part of the subcontinent, and the aesthetic is more “former Long John Silver’s knockoff” than “truck stop,” but there’s a similar lack of decor and polish and – joyfully – a similar flat out deliciousness of the menu. This is easily one of the best Indian spots we’ve been to in Minnesota, including the relatively nearby Tandoor, which we raved up in the May 21, 2021 edition of this newsletter.

The Mutton Dosa ($17) was a picture perfect specimen of its species, and we’ve been eating a lot of dosas recently, including the very tasty ones at Momo Dosa and the serviceable one at India Bazaar‘s in-house restaurant. This dosa had a remarkably nice chew to it, an even application of savory, elegant filling, and a lovely selection of three housemade (to our palates, anyway) dipping opportunities. These ranged from an almost marinara-like spiced tomato paste to the classic dosa-complementing sambar soup to an herb-forward light cheese dip that was close to but a little more assertive than a yogurt sauce.

For $9, we were really pleased we got the Vada, three savory doughnuts that arrived at our table piping hot from the deep fryer. They weren’t oily in the least, and they had a substantial, almost mashed-potato like filling accented by herbs and spice. They arrived with the same three sauces that flanked our dosa, so we were able to joyfully break apart and dip these things as well.

The Papadi Chat ($8) brought together a remarkably thick, tart yogurt, smashed up papadam (a cracker-like bread), bright kicky herbs, raw onions, and chutney into a package that was refreshing, complex, balanced, and joyful.

Last but certainly not least, the Dal Makhani ($13) looked a bit underwhelming on the menu as a Black Lentil and Beans Curry, but it caught Colin’s eye and he was right to pick it out. This stuff was heavily layered with complex, balanced, entertaining levels of spice, suggesting smoke, garlic, and ginger, with enough cream to be pleasing but not so much as to be oppressively rich. On rice, and with the top-grade garlic naan that we ordered ($4, chewy and charred and basically perfect), it was a huge hit with our whole crew. – J.N.

Sawatdee | 8501 Lyndale Avenue South, Bloomington | 952.888.7177

Make no mistake, you are coming here because it is a Minnesota Thai dining institution/regional chain with which you may be familiar and comfortable. You are not–we repeat, not–coming here for the atmosphere. If you think you are, you are wrong. Unless the aesthetic tone you’re after is “Suburban Strip Mall Minimalist.”

Aside from a few pieces of carved wall art, an ornate wood bench, and a couple of subdued displays of Thai buddhas, there’s little in the way of decor to even describe here. The place is utilitarian in the extreme–designed to get people sitting, ordering, eating, paying and leaving as efficiently as possible.

Don’t get us wrong, the service was attentive and the place was clean. But if you’re looking for more in the way of character from your Thai dining experience, there are many other interesting options to choose from (even within the Sawatdee family of locations). – M.C.

I haven’t been to a Sawatdee location since before the pandemic, and this visit reminded me of my reasoning: they’re not bad restaurants per se, but they can’t hold a candle to a place like Thai Cafe or Ruam Mit Thai or Thai Garden or On’s.

What makes Supenn’s Fresh Spring Rolls ($8.50) so fresh? Well, they’re almost entirely stuffed with lettuce, that’s what. Dip that lettuce wrap into the accompanying Jif-sweet peanut sauce and you’ve got a none-too-subtle, but ultimately functional basic salad situation going on. Good spring rolls can bring textural complexity, meaty fullness, chewy noodle-driven textures, and herbal brightness to the table, but these were content to tote a much lighter bag of tricks.

The restaurant’s Chicken Pad Thai ($15) was similarly unadorned, with little-to-none of the citrus, funk, earthy depth or other bold complementary flavors we’d been hoping for. The noodles were overdone as well, with no real snap or fight left in them. In this pad Thai’s favor: the spice level we ordered (medium) was exactly what we got, and the unadorned chicken was cooked properly. 

On the other hand: the Roast Duck Curry ($16) tasted rich and full, with the duck cooked sufficiently to render it tender, but not so aggressively that it lacked flavor or structural integrity. This was a legitimately tasty curry, and because we probably taste poorly cooked duck more often than properly cooked duck, it gets extra points for handling a challenging protein with style. 

Our Thai Iced Coffee ($6) was … sweet. The coffee tasted almost entirely missing in action, meaning we were left with a watery milkshake. Not ideal, particularly in comparison with all the legitimately interesting boba beverages we would drink later in the night, for less money. – J.N.

Eddie Cheng | 720 W 78th Street, Richfield | 612.243.0888 

By the time we rolled up to Eddie Cheng, it was 20 minutes to closing. And while the sign in the window said “Open,” the vibe most definitely said “Not, really.” The place was quiet, the kitchen was dark and the staff collectively had that weary, post-workday slouch about them. 

So, we put our odds of being greeted at the counter with “Sorry, we’re closed,” at about 10-to-1. Boy, are we’re glad we didn’t take that bet. 

Our credit card had barely begun processing when the crew jolted into action. The kitchen instantly whirred up into a cacophony of clanging, scraping and sizzling. 

Mustering that kind of energy that quickly, after you’d already mentally switched off, is an impressive feat. Mere minutes after we’d entered a restaurant in apparent shutdown mode, we were sinking our chopsticks into steaming take-out containers of classic Chinese-American cuisine.

A lesser restaurant might’ve stopped us at the door, and we probably wouldn’t have blamed them. It says something about the skill and dedication of the crew of Eddie Cheng that they didn’t. – M.C.

Kong Pao Bean Curd ($12.15) sits at the top of the Eddie Cheng Chef’s Specialties menu for a reason: the fried blocks of curd were surprisingly delicate, with a pleasing chew and a sauce that had an earthy depth and balanced amount of salt. We’ve cruised through enough paper menus at independent Chinese-American spots to come into Eddie Cheng’s with a healthy sense of skepticism but the taste of this curd won us over quickly.

The General Tso’s Chicken ($12.40) didn’t build on that trust, but it didn’t eviscerate it either – it was a workaday crispy breaded chicken entree, but to its credit, its sauce wasn’t cloying in the slightest. So often these dishes are mere sugar dumps; this version stayed firmly and correctly in the savory lane.

Now, the surprising all-star of the meal: the best Egg Foo Young ($10.25) we’ve tried in years, if not ever. It offered big, full, eggy flavor, nice browning, hearty bits of onions and scallions, and a general sense swagger rarely if ever found in this particular corner of a menu. And with three big patties plus gravy, it was a tremendous food-for-dollar bang for buck. – J.N.

Joy’s Pattaya | 7545 Lyndale Avenue South, Richfield | 612.866.0660

The first thing you’ll notice as you walk up to Joy’s Pattaya just might be the windows. They are distinctive Art Deco, chrome-wrapped beauties. The windows along with the iconically sloped front side of the building hint that this place may just have been home to a 1950’s-themed diner at some point in its past.

Inside, there are further signs of a diner-related origin story including a line of comfy booths and a small service counter with a few stools in front. Perhaps we’re just romanticizing, but if true, there’s something harmonious in the idea that a place that once specialized in slinging American comfort food like hotcakes and hash browns has now evolved into a place that serves up equally as comforting dishes from clear across the world like Massaman Curry and Pad See Ew.

All-in-all, this is a cozy, neighborhood Thai spot with a friendly feel. There’s something for everyone. For the kids (and some adults) there’s a candy dish filled with suckers. For the adults (and some kids) there are spicy Thai soups that show up to your table in heated serving pots as big as your head. Which is all to say, if you’re looking for a solid, simple Thai dining experience, Joy’s totally lives up to its name. – M.C.

Food may be the ultimate key to memories – take the right bite, and the sense of transportation through space and time is so fast and visceral that you can just about get whiplash. When I took my first sip of the Tom Kha ($17) at Joy’s Pattaya, I was transported about 20 years backward in time and 1,400 miles away to Dok Bua, a little Thai restaurant in the back of a grocery store in Brookline, Massachusetts. Dok Bua was a schlep from where I worked in Back Bay, Boston, but I made the trek because of that same broth – intense, sour citrus, deep earthy funk, bright spicy heat, creamy sweet richness… It packed a punch of flavor that has only been distantly echoed in the tom khas I’ve had at other restaurants since. It’s at the top of my list of Lyndale Avenue bites so far.

Also tremendously good at Joy’s Pattaya were the Thai Iced Coffees ($4.50). A lot of Thai iced coffees trend too sweet (see Sawatdee) which makes them unbalanced. This stuff packed a tremendously bitter robusta-like kick of coffee flavor that stood up to the sweetened condensed milk to create an evenly matched duel or (if you’d prefer) a loud but ultimately harmonious marriage. This is how this drink should be done. The handle-sporting Mason jar glass also felt 100 percent correct, for some reason.

Tofu Drunken Noodles ($14) were pleasant and properly cooked but underflavored compared to the Tom Kha, offering mild earthy and citrus notes that hinted at the dish’s potential. The tofu was perfectly fried and was the highlight of the dish; we’d absolutely order it in other dishes next time we’re back.

The restaurant’s Fresh Veggie Spring Rolls ($9) were disappointingly lettuce-focused, but they came with a triple threat of peanut sauce, sweet and sour sauce, and finely chopped peanuts. Once dunked in the peanut sauce, rolled through the peanuts, and baptized by the sweet and sour, they were tasty if a little insubstantial. – J.N.

Broadway Pizza | 7514 Lyndale Avenue South, Richfield | 612.861.3402

Without an ounce of embarrassment or trace of irony, we asked our server if she could pretty please, with sugar on top, turn on the model train that runs around the restaurant on tracks overhead. No, we are not children. Yes, we are prone to indulging the less mature areas of our psyche. But come on, when you’re Broadway Pizza – well-known around these parts for being a train-themed pizza joint – you gotta have the choo-choo running, right?

The Richfield outpost of this local institution has been here since the 1970’s. And it looks every bit its age in the most positive way possible. It’s not dirty or worn down at all. No, it just has all those classic ‘70s touches like warm wood paneling and those wooden spindle room dividers that, as one of our Checklist crew pointed out, make you feel like you’re in a giant crib. (Perhaps that’s why we were so comfortable reverting to childish behavior.)

In contrast to Protagonist, Broadway Pizza knows exactly what it wants to be and commits to it fully. This is a family-friendly pizza restaurant with a train theme. You can’t miss it. You’d be as comfortable here hosting a kids birthday party as you would be sharing a pitcher and a pizza with your neighbors. 

The only bummer was that they didn’t have a full-sized train car to dine in like the now defunct original location on Broadway near the river in Minneapolis. We’re not ashamed to admit, we used to get a giddy tingle of excitement when we got a chance to eat in that old train car. – M.C.

When we walked into Broadway Pizza, we were, collectively and individually, absolutely stuffed with food. We mulled the menu without even an ounce of enthusiasm. It was a real Mr. Creosote situation, made worse by the fact that we were wading into a land of cheese and meat of unknown quality. The toy train was a nice touch, but not particularly helpful.

Propelled solely by inertia, we ordered the Classic Deluxe pizza (“Our #1 seller!” $20 for a 13″ medium on original thin crust). This was a “works” kinda situation – cheese, sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, green pepper, and onion. It looked inviting when it hit the table and, flavorwise – yeah. Legitimately classic crispy tavern-cut Minnesota pizza. Nothing fancy, but no complaints – this was a tasty, get-the-job-done pizza with a nicely balanced brightness from the tart sauce and generous green peppers and onions. The minimalist crust had a pleasant rigidity to it, but it wasn’t aggressively dry. Some of us had second squares, someone may have even had a third. Stuffed or not, this pizza won our hearts.

Better – and the pizza was pretty good! – was the Italian Hoagie ($11). There are a lot of ways these sandwiches go wrong, with stodgy bread, too much low-grade cheese, and greasy, indifferently flavored meats leading the pack. This sandwich? Light, crispy, elegant bread, a sparing but tasty use of melted cheese, balanced amount of decent quality meats, and enough lettuce and tomatoes to balance out the ham, salami, and pepperoni. Workaday and traditional? Yes. Done with actual care and love? Also yes. We’d happily eat this sandwich again. – J.N.

Protagonist | 6601 Lyndale Avenue South, Richfield | 612.259.8135

It was five minutes into our visit before we finally made the connection that Protagonist wasn’t just the name of the place, it was also meant to be the theme. What finally did it were the names of the cocktails on the drink menu. There was the Darko, the Everdeen, and the Gatsby. But there were also the Eastwood, the Rainbow Brite, and the Robin. So it seems they’re opting for a looser interpretation of “protagonist” by including a random mixture of major and supporting characters (and the actors that portrayed them?) in books, movies and TV. Fair enough.

But that about sums up the trouble with Protagonist. It’s a place that clearly wants to offer something unique but just can’t quite fully commit. For instance, where was the theme on the rest of the menu? You could have some fun with that. Perhaps the Lobster Roll could be the Sam Malone and the Cuban sandwich could be the Tony Montana. We’re just spitballing here, but you get the idea.

Admittedly, once we were clued in, we did find other signals to the theme around the place. There were bookshelves in the dining room, but they somehow felt more like an accessory than an essential design element. If they were more fully committed to the theme, you might expect the entire place to be lined with bookshelves overflowing with classic novels. Instead, the only other indication of the theme was a few seemingly incongruous portraits of celebrities on the walls including a Back to the Future era painting of Michael J. Fox and one of Prince. Again, a bit of a loose interpretation of the idea of “protagonist.”

Look, the place was fine. We’d characterize the overall vibe as “suburban chic light.”  Accessible but not really inspiring or unique. Which is disappointing, because the opportunity is there, if they want to commit. Don’t get us wrong, we’re not saying they have to be overly heavy-handed with the theme, but perhaps not so light-handed as to have it go virtually unnoticed. – M.C.

I don’t usually like to tip my hand about my own preconceived notions, but for some reason I was really personally rooting for this place. Maybe it was the incongruity of the Michael J. Fox painting on the wall and the British phone booth out front and the weird walls of fake plants flanking the strange library-sized bookshelves in the middle of the dining room. Like Luna di Luna, there was a disarmingly kooky vibe to this spot’s decor, and the menu had ambition.

Ambition, of course, doesn’t always pay off. Take the restaurant’s Poutine ($15). With its beef demi glace, seriously large hunk of brisket, and light cheddar cheese sauce, this is an aggressively upscaled version of the Canuck classic. But we missed the chunky, grounding presence of cheese curds and more down-to-earth gravy of the original rendition of the dish; the Protagonist version was more refined, but it was so dominated by the brisket that it was more of a spin on a pot roast than a poutine per se. Did we hate it? Not at all. Would we freakin’ devour it after we’d had a few cocktails (or edibles), absolutely yes. But it did feel like a gilded version of a lily that was perfectly lovely in its original format.

Likewise, the two cocktails we ordered both tasted overwrought. The Darko ($13) featured rye, Ida Graves amaro, vermouth, and  bitters, and looked on paper like a play on a Manhattan. But it tasted surprisingly thin and bitter, lacking the body and sweetness that typically comes via brandied cherries and/or sweet vermouth. The Spongebob ($13) was better – driven by pineapple rum, pineapple amaro, demerara, and smoked lime, the pineapple and smoke both punched their way out of the glass successfully and played in relative balance with each other. But it still could have been either sweeter or more booze-forward – there was something attenuated about the drink that we didn’t love.

Our big swing was the Duck Confit ($26), and we were curious to taste whether it hit the heights that this dish is possible of attaining (a place like Meritage always nails it, supremely rich, dense, and deeply flavored) or the lows that it can plunge into (too greasy, too gamey, too salty come to mind immediately.) In actuality: It was a middle-of-the-road duck experience. A little salty, not as deeply intense as we’d hoped, but not gamey or greasy or outright unpleasant. The accompanying risotto didn’t taste much like risotto – it lacked the dish’s brothy, cheesy intensity, and it sported an incredibly unwelcome hit of garlic powder. For $26, this dish was a swing and a miss, but not a catastrophe. – J.N.

My Burger | 6555 Lyndale Avenue South, Richfield | 612.500.9106 

They don’t go have a clown spokesperson or an indoor play area, but this local, quick-serve burger chain is going for fun. Good, clean, meticulously-designed fun.  All around the place there are tasteful touches intended to amuse and delight.

There’s signage with sassy sayings like “Flippin’ good burgers.” There are gravity-defying sculptures of upside-down mustard bottles pouring their contents out into little yellow pools. There are artfully placed shelves stacked with containers of pickles, ketchup and beer that are so perfectly aligned they’ll tickle your OCD bone. As a cheeky nod to Richfield’s Wood Lake Nature Center nearby (and a reminder of My Burger’s local roots) there’s even a custom designed wall featuring a tableau of nature and burger joint iconography.

While the design could feel a bit too planned and persnickety, the outcome is a bright, tidy space that is friendly to adults (there’s beer!) and to kids (watch your burger being made at the big kitchen viewing windows!). Add to this some pretty darn tasty burgers, and you’re bound to have a (lowercase) happy meal. – M.C.

We’ve been to the local chain My Burger before, and we had it vaguely filed under “just fine, no particular need to return.” Either our files got corrupted or the place has evolved for the better – we thought they served good food that was remarkably good for the money.

Take the Strawberry Malt ($6). It was so thick we ate it with forks, and while it was pleasantly malty and lightly flavored with legit bits of strawberry, it was only slightly sweet, making it refreshing and surprisingly restrained.

Our Classic Bacon and Cheese Burger ($11, with fries) was just ravishingly good – the bacon was a George Clooney-style superhero flavor here, dominating the otherwise balanced story of the burger in a brash but charming way. The well charred burger tasted just fine on its own, but accompanied by the bacon and cheese and light, fluffy, high-quality bun it was shockingly tasty.

The California Burger ($9, with fries) was more of a team effort, with the lettuce, bun, burger, and lightly applied burger sauce working in tandem and complementing each other. This is a fine all-rounder burger – every component present, everything in balance, and every bite compelling. 

As for fries – the Sweet Potato Fries ($2 upcharge) were more naturally sweet and creamy than any we’ve had in a long time, and the Regular Fries were classic, no twist, but perfectly enjoyable. – J.N.

Von Hanson’s Meats | 6531 Lyndale Avenue South, Richfield | 612.861.0234

If anyone in Von Hanson’s HR department is listening, your man Will in Richfield deserves a raise based purely on his passion for your brand. He lavished praise on your meat and deli products. He bragged about the tenure of the butchers that worked there. When we asked how many Von Hanson’s stores there are around town, Will told us he wasn’t exactly sure, “But that doesn’t matter, because you’re in the best one in the world right now.” 

In terms of atmosphere, Von Hanson’s will “meat” all your expectations. It’s a spacious, open room with knotty wood paneling and glass front cases running around the perimeter. A long, low refrigerated island floats down the center. An expansive order counter displaying an impressive selection of fresh meats and deli items runs the length of the store. 

The surfaces are sparkly clean. The shelves are tidy and well stocked with specialty grocery products to enhance your meat eating experience. (Glazes and marinades and rubs, oh my!) And the place is as brightly lit as a surgical operating theater. Which feels about right for a butcher shop. 

But mostly Von Hanson’s was a reminder of the important role that service plays in the food service industry. (Heck, “service” is right there in the name.) Even if we didn’t find anything we exactly loved in terms of the food, we thoroughly enjoyed the visit. Cheerful service and a pleasant attitude will get you far in this world. Don’t ever give that up, Will. – M.C.

In the Oct. 22, 2021 edition of the Churn, Brian Fanelli memorably wrote that “Von Hanson’s jerky both looks and tastes exactly like a leather boot outsole,” and with that in mind, we steered clear of the store’s classic jerky product. (For what it’s worth: yes, the regular jerky looks very flat, very firm, and very footware-focused.) Instead we tried their Teriyaki Nuggets ($25 a pound), which by appearance and name promised to be moister and tastier. And they were: They offered a tasty sweet-salty balance, an aggressive but not excessive chew, and a relatively mild flavor profile. They could’ve been a little smokier and spicier for my money, but they worked.

Less successful: the butcher shop’s Ham and Cheese Macaroni Salad ($8 a pound). It was utterly drowned in something that tasted dangerously close to Miracle Whip and was remarkably sweet in a not-terrific way. The ham was bland to the point of being invisible.

Green Olive Snack Sticks ($7) had a pleasant snap to them, and a distant but discernible taste of olive that complemented the meat. We would’ve liked bigger everything – more salt, more smoke, more olive, more heat, and more meat – but these snappy meat sticks were agreeable enough.

Less agreeable was the store’s Summer Sausage ($12 a pound). Flavor in this usually oh-so-bold, rich, garlic-driven sausage was almost completely missing in action, and we desperately tasted our portions in search of some smoke, or spice, or heat, or just about anything to redeem the dish. But no such luck. – J.N.

Lakewinds Food Co-op | 6420 Lyndale Avenue South, Richfield | 612.814.8000

A large parking lot. Big, brightly lit signage. Clean, spacious aisles. A sprawling selection. These are the kinds phrases you might use to describe a Costco. So the fact that we’re describing a neighborhood co-op tells you just how far we’ve come as a society in accepting the mass appeal of foods that lean more local and organic than processed and artificial. 

Long gone are the days of the hippy-dippy corner co-op stereotype. Good riddance to the snarky remarks your relatives gave you when you told them you were headed to the co-op to buy organic milk and granola. (To be fair, we set ourselves up for that one.)

But while we’re happy to see these old tropes fade, there are some things about the old-fashioned hippy-dippy corner co-op we miss in these emerging multi-location variants like Lakewinds. 

Rough edges often give a place its character. And when those edges are sanded away in the interest of appealing to a wider audience, sometimes things can feel a bit impersonal. The passion and personality gets a little harder to sense. That vibe of a co-op being deeply connected to the community around it can be more difficult to pick up. 

We’re not trying to harsh anyone’s mellow here. This isn’t a big gripe. We’d rather have more people welcomed into the co-op fold than repelled by it. And Lakewinds seems to be doing a fine job of just that. – M.C.

When you know the highs that sushi is capable of, it can be tough to embrace it as an everyday food, churned out relentlessly to stock refrigerator cases at grocery stores. But still: Lakewinds does a pretty good job with prosaic sushi. Stop by around 10:30 am most days and the case is starting to fill up with just-made rolls and nigiri; I’ll generally choose it before most of the middle-of-the-pack restaurants in the state, at a considerable discount from restaurant prices. At 6:15pm on a Thursday night, after an unknown time chilling in the case, the bloom is off the rose of the store’s Hosomaki Combo (tuna and salmon, $9 for a dozen individual rolls) but it’s not bad – the rolls are small and delicate, the fish tastes clean and bright, and the overall experience is pleasant. Not great, not transcendent – but pleasant.

The unwritten rule about Checklist tasting is that we tend to run in a pack. Food might be good, bad, mixed, or mystifying, but the group tends to rule unanimously. Not so much with the Avocado Chocolate Pudding ($6.24) a rich, creamy chocolate dessert that is either blessed or plagued with remarkably chewy lumps that are, we presume, pieces of avocado. Are these textural anomalies a quirky, pleasant twist on a comforting old favorite? Or, as I would argue, hellish lumps of rubberish mystery gunk? It was a real split decision for us, which is surprising, because the chunks were AWFUL.

Back to observing the unwritten rule: we all agreed that the store’s Mac and Cheese ($10 a pound) was pleasant and that the Mac and Cheese Goulash (also $10/pound) was better – garlic and tomato kicked it up from anodyne to enjoyable.
The coop’s Curried Wild Rice with Apples ($9.25/pound) was better still, the sweetness of the apples complementing the depth of flavor provided by the spice, and the toothsome texture of the rice adding interest with every bite. This was good stuff. A little unexpected, and surprisingly harmonious. – J.N.