Lyndale Avenue Checklist, Part Two of Five: South of LynLake

Lyndale Avenue south of Lake Street was terra incognita for us before this trip – we didn’t have much of a sense of what was down there, and there isn’t really any uniting theme or bit of geography to help you tie things together. Nevertheless, we found some memorable things on this part of the road: the White Lotus-like decadence of Khaluna, giddily silly grill-it-yourselfness of Gyu-Kaku, the best affogato of our lives at Sonny’s, and the decidedly weird but ultimately great late-night experience of Fool Me Once (R.I.P, already closed.)

This is Lyndale Avenue before it gets truly hectic – parking is plentiful, you can cross the street without fearing for your life, and while things are more packed together than the suburban wastes of Richfield and Bloomington, there are often multiple blocks separating eateries. Pound for pound, we found this stretch surprisingly good, and surprisingly … well, just surprising in general. – James Norton 

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.

In this edition, from south to north: Mac’s Fish and Chips, Prima, Khaluna, 36 Lyn Refuel Station, Vo’s Vietnamese, Sonny’s Ice Cream Cafe, Saigon, Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ, Kung Fu Hot Pot, Up-Down Minneapolis, Caffrey’s, Fool Me Once 

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]

Mac’s Fish and Chips | 610 W. 54th Street, Minneapolis | 612.824.4804

“Chippy” is a word commonly used by the Brits to denote a small, no-nonsense, spot around the corner where locals can get their required daily allowance of fish-and-chips served with no fuss, no muss, and no fanfare. Traditionally, a chippy would sell stacks of golden filets piled on a heap of deep-fried potatoes wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper. Often there would be little more than a sprinkle of salt and malt vinegar offered as accompaniment.

Mac’s is a chippy. Sure, there’s a wider selection of U.S.-centric condiments like tartar sauce and ketchup available. Sure, your fish will arrive in a clean paper boat rather than in yesterday’s news. And sure, they’ve stretched the menu to include both fish tacos and poutine (a friendly nod to our neighbors both north and south of the border). But in most all other ways, Mac’s is a chippy. Or perhaps, more appropriately, you might call it a North American chippy.

The menu is still appropriately sparse and to the point. The white walls, concrete floors and metal chairs give off a distinctly austere, let’s-get-down-to-business vibe. As for decor, there are a couple of metal rolling racks stacked with sacks of flour and boxes of potatoes, there’s a wall mural of an ocean scene, and there are a few tables and counters at which to eat. 

In other words, there’s little to distract you from the task of stuffing your face. Which you’ll want to do without delay, because every second the fish is out of the frier risks compromising the integrity of that crispy battered exterior. Science. – M.C. Cronin

The barebones decor of Mac’s Fish and Chips echoes its menu, which is stripped down, easy to parse, and generally economical. It’s a menu made for gettin’ stuff done, not amusing or confusing the reader, and for that reason we liked it right away.

The Shrimp Taco ($5.75) at Mac’s Fish and Chips is an unexpected blockbuster. Not just in the context of Mac’s, but in the context of things we’ve eaten this year. The shrimp is improbably moist and tender, the breading delicate but full-flavored, the mango salsa bright without overwhelming the fish. It’s great, full stop. 

By contrast, the Cod Taco ($4.75) was … just fine. A little dry, a little underseasoned, perfectly pleasant.

One piece of fried Halibut should cost a little less than $14, you would think. The delicate fish was skillfully battered and fried, and surrounded with substantial and well-made French fries, but it could’ve used more seasoning and felt dear at its listed price.

By contrast, Mac’s Poutine is a mere $5! About a third the cost of its cousin over at Protagonist, and while it lacked all the pot roast meatiness and the demiglace of that upscale variation, this is a functional, well-balanced collection of fries, gravy, and cheese curds. It delivers value and pleasure way out of proportion to its list price.

Nothing much to say about the Coleslaw ($.95), but it gets the job done: the job of being coleslaw. – J.N.

Prima | 5325 Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis | 612.827.7376

Prima has been a neighborhood Italian restaurant since 1999. It says so  on the awning and it comes exactly as advertised.

But what does that mean in terms of experience? 

It means you’ll be surrounded by the familiar sponge-painted walls and rustic Tuscan decor you remember from all those pasta places from the 90’s. It means you will be seated amongst a sea of salt-and-pepper-haired regulars who have been coming since before before they sprouted their first gray hair because it’s comfortable and close-by and “I’ll be damned if they still don’t have my favorite pasta on the menu.” It means the service staff will treat you with the overly familiar demeanor of a friend who has gotten to know you over the years, even if you’ve never met before.

Prima is not out to be the next hot spot. They’re not looking to draw in a younger, hipper crowd. They don’t need to. As one of the staff told us, they actually did better during the pandemic. (And having driven by the place often enough, we can verify the curbside pickup was regularly as busy as a runway at La Guardia.)

Prima knows their regulars. They know exactly what the neighborhood wants. And they provide. Think Cheers in the form of a 90’s Italian restaurant. – M.C.

Walking into Prima blind, we were concerned that we were going to get hit by a worst-of-all-worlds situation: an old-school upscale Italian menu, creaky with age and far more expensive than we’d like. And while the check wasn’t small and the menu was, in fact, a blast from the past, the restaurant’s chefs acquitted themselves with grace and skill, leaving us remarkably happy at the close of the meal.

When you dig into Prima online, there’s a surprising amount of buzz about the restaurant’s Roasted Garlic appetizer ($13) – and there should be. The appetizer brings together a mix of the sweet (a pear chutney), the savory (a mild, creamy Italian blue cheese) and the warmly earthy (perfectly roasted, tender cloves of garlic), making a tripartite topping for toast that honestly can’t be beat. This is one of our favorite sorts of foods: a multi-component dish that’s more than the sum of its parts, where each distinct taste makes a contribution that hits you with the power of multiplication, rather than mere addition.

The restaurant’s Hand Made Meatballs appetizer ($12) was equally good – a bit salty to be sure, but covered with a rich tomato and roasted pepper sauce and a slice of perfectly toasted bread custom-crafted for scooping sauce and carrying tender, full-flavored pieces of meatball to a diner’s mouth. 

We tried three pasta entrees and liked them all – all three were cooked perfectly al dente, they arrived at the table piping hot, and in every case flavors and seasoning were big without being unbalanced. The Bucatini Amatriciana ($21), above with bacon, pancetta, tomato, sage, and Pecorino Romano was a lot lighter than it sounds – big bold flavors but with a thoughtful proportion of meat to pasta to sauce, making the dish a joy to eat.

Rigatoni Alla Rustica ($23) was even better, with a big hit of oregano, caramelized onions, and creamy Ricotta Salata making this the very definition of comfort food. 

And Squash Ravioli ($22) was just what we’d hoped: a sweet, mild, nostalgia-rich throwback to a simpler time (the late ’90s) when this particular dish was omnipresent and inescapable. Our one complaint – and it’s a minor one – is that the caramelized pears in sage brown butter in the center of the plate were so big in flavor and resolute in texture that they overwhelmed the pasta they were meant to support.

After all of this, if dessert at Prima had been a disappointment, we would’ve written it off with a shrug. But no: It’s legitimately stellar. The housemade tiramisu is (nearly) on par with the stuff at Mucci’s, veering in a more chocolate, less coffee-forward direction than we’d like but otherwise perfect: light, supple, delicate, creamy, basically downright damned delightful.

The creme fraiche in the restaurant’s Butterscotch Budino ($10) keeps this dessert remarkably light on its feet and balanced in terms of sweetness – yes, it’s a dessert, and yes, the caramel / butterscotch flavors really bring it, but your overwhelming impressions are: “This is miraculously smooth and creamy” and “this is the perfect amount of sweet – not cloying, not sugary, but definitely firmly in the category of ‘dessert.'” The weird, wonderful long-stemmed novelty spoons that Prima provides so that guests can scoop out every last bit of this stuff are just an added bonus to a dessert that’s easily among our favorites of 2022. – J.N.

Khaluna | 4000 Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis | 612.345.5199

Like Saigon Uptown, Khaluna is also very, very beige. Though we suspect Khaluna might call their particular shade of beige something more fashionable like Clay or Mushroom Stem or Fawn’s Breath. But that’s where the comparisons end. If Saigon Uptown is on one end of the Southeast Asian dining spectrum, Khaluna is in an entirely different universe.

This is the epitome of resort chic. Tranquil, earthy tones (the aforementioned beige). Plush organic textures. Simple, elegant fixtures. Warm, sensual lighting. We’re talking major White Lotus vibes here, people—from the sheen of relaxed luxury to the fascinating people-watching to the cloyingly attentive yet somehow eerily detached demeanor of the service staff.

Everything about the place says this is An Exclusive Experience™. It’s in the way your server lets you know in a friendly but firm manner how the kitchen prefers to serve you (order everything for your table at one time and they’ll orchestrate your meal properly). It’s in the way the exotic dishes and craft cocktails are described to the table in lavish detail (not to mention the eye-popping prices you’ll pay for said items). It’s also in the way you pay a $10 valet fee to access the connected parking lot (frankly, this seems a bit of an overreach to us). 

It is tricky to pull off extravagance without coming off as aloof. And they run dangerously close to the edge here. At points it felt like The Khaluna Experience™ was more the center of attention than we were as patrons. But there is no doubt that Khaluna makes an impression. It’s the obvious result of a singular vision manifested with exceptional execution. In other words, it’s definitely a thing. Whether or not that thing ultimately suits you depends entirely on your expectations, your willingness to play along and the size of your expense account. – M.C.

The true genius of Khaluna, one of the most buzzed up and popular restaurants to open around here in the last couple of years, may all be in the eyes of the beholder. This place looks fabulous, boasting a Southern California-by-way-of-Restoration Hardware kind of chic, breezy, warm prosperous thing. Someone talented was obsessed with making every facet of this place look DAMN GOOD.

That aesthetic carries over into the cocktails, which look (and sometimes taste) like magical elixirs. From their glass straws to bowl-like glassware to suspended assortments of herbs and spices, there’s a real botanical / greenhouse / terrarium thing going on with these drinks, and it’s compelling. 

Speaking generally, the drinks were bright, light, complex, and a match for the Asian-influenced flavors of the main dishes. More specifically: we least liked the Old Fashioned (Suntory Toki, Torres 10, Uncle Nearest, Coconut Ghee, Palm Sugar, Chamomile-Rested Trinity Bitters for $16), which tasted uncharacteristically bitter and thin, and we most enjoyed the Silk Road Spiced Tonic ($14, Tailor Made Tonic, Horse Chestnut, Cubeb, Cardamom, Blue Lotus, Amla, Roku Gin & Rancio Sec or Iwai Japanese Whisky & Carcavelos) which had a warm, bright complexity that echoed and intensified similar notes in the food.

On the food side of things, the best of Khaluna’s aesthetic was reflected in the restaurant’s Shrimp Rolls ($16), rice paper-wrapped lumpia that were delicate but substantial, and a noteworthy twist and enhancement of a hard-to-beat Filipino classic. These things looked like a million bucks on the plate and tasted similarly good, particularly when eaten with the accompanying thick, sweet-tart sauce.

Also innovative was the Rainbow Rice ($23, above left), a plate of meticulously organized colorful piles of stuff that united into a savory, contrasty whole when mixed together. As per the menu, the dish includes “anchan flower rice, puffed rice, shrimp flakes, peanuts, carrots, red bell peppers, grapefruit supreme, green mango, purple cabbage, and yard beans.” The textural contrast between the crispy puffed rice and yielding, flavorful flower rice is a nice shorthand for why this dish works so well – it’s a lot of complementary pieces that make for a much tastier and more impressive whole.

We also liked the restaurant’s Siin Swan ($16), an appetizer of dried ginger sesame beef that we ordered with sticky rice ($3). While this wouldn’t be out of place anywhere on University Avenue (where Southeast Asian-style jerky abounds), it was a nicely done version of the dish: yielding (not sharp or leather-tough as it can sometimes be) but still really dense, chewy, and umami-first flavorful.

The only real complaints we had with Khaluna’s food come down to a value question. For nearly forty bucks, we expected the Duck Laab ($39, two images up on the right) to pack flavors that rival or perhaps even surpass the stuff we tasted all up and down the Green Line: that means heat, and funk, and earthy depth of spice. Instead, we got a fan of elegantly prepared slices of mildly flavored aged duck breast and a delicate, forgettable salad that wouldn’t be out of place next to a serving of steak tartare. 

The duck was quite good, but “laab” makes us think of “laab,” and this dish made us think of a decent French bistro-style restaurant at an upmarket hotel. It may well be that Khaluna knows its clientele, and its clientele wants the excitement of ordering duck laab combined with the genteel comfort of a Continental-inspired luncheon – we can’t fault them for their business sense if that’s the case. But we were hungry for a lot more intensity after trying this dish.

Beef short rib massaman curry ($32) was much the same story: really nicely prepared pieces of rich, tender beef, swimming in an affable brown sauce that seemed embarrassed to offer any flavor more challenging than roasted onions. This is a dish designed not to offend anyone except for people who like assertive food.

We don’t usually talk about service while doing Checklist write-ups because the context tends to demand friendly, workaday help and that’s what we almost invariably get. Khaluna floats a couple levels higher than that, and we found its service appropriately engaging and elevated – at times. We were greeted and sent off by a server who brought an effusive sense of enthusiasm, but we felt abandoned at various points during the meal and were surprised to see dishes plonked down on the table without much ceremony or context. (For example: We knew that we should enthusiastically mix up our Rainbow Rice because one of our diners had tried it on a previous visit, but we could have easily missed that step and thus the heart of the experience.)

There’s no doubt that Khaluna is one of the jewels of dining on Lyndale – it’s an unforgettable space with some unforgettable food. But it’s a jewel that could use a little polishing on a couple of its facets. – J.N.

36 Lyn Refuel Station | 3551 Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis | 612.800.4036 

Refueling your car is a bummer. Between the stress of watching your hard-earned cash go up in smoke and the downright grimy experience of most stations, putting gas in a car is just not something most people look forward to. (Unless perhaps you’re an oil tycoon or Monty Burns.)

36 Lyn is out to change that. Their dedication to the surrounding community—offering locally made goods and donating time, money, and other resources to local causes—has been covered extensively in other media and our visit did nothing to diminish our overall positive perception. (If you’d like to read more, just check out their website.)

But our visit was also a reminder that 36 Lyn is in fact, still a gas station at heart. A busted front window and floors slick with dirty winter slush were tell-tale signs that 36 Lyn contends with the same issues any gas station must. When you have a constant stream of cars and people rolling in and out at all hours of the day and night, there’s only so much you can expect in terms of cleanliness and atmosphere. This isn’t the Ritz, people.

That being said, it is a great place worthy of all the praise it gets, and we’ll continue to support them because seriously, in addition to their admirable mission, their gas prices are always the lowest in town. We’re talking Costco low.  – M.C.

Beyond a bountiful hot sauce section and some drinkable CBD options, there weren’t a great deal of local choices at 36 Lyn, its mission and story aside. (In its defense: it’s also a pretty small store.)

But we homed in on a couple promising choices and rolled the dice. The Afro Deli Buffalo Chicken Bites ($5.29) could’ve used more spicy kick, but these little bite-sized chicken wrap pieces boasted a tasty, pliable flatbread and tender meat. For about five bucks, they’re a good value and a reasonably healthy big snack or light meal.

Similarly good was a bottle of Northstar Cherry and Elderberry Kombucha ($5), made in Northeast Minneapolis. It was light, refreshing, and pleasantly full of natural cherry flavor. – J.N.

Vo’s Vietnamese | 3450 Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis | 612.584.3630

EDITOR’S NOTE: Vo’s is now closed, replaced with The Brothers Cafe.

The booths that line the perimeter of Vo’s Vietnamese are divided into snug chambers surrounded by rustic stucco walls. A thatched palm roof overhangs these booths and wraps around the room as well. In fact, woven and thatched palm leaves cover most of the walls and the columns in the center of the space. There are touches of Vietnamese-inspired art, artifacts and decor sprinkled about: a buddha bust, paper lanterns, bamboo, pottery.  

The intent of all this is to create the sense that you’re dining in a cozy Vietnamese village. And while no one will mistake that they’ve suddenly been transported across the world, it works in its own small way. It’s warm and inviting and has a charm that makes the place feel personal, not manufactured.*

And it actually is personal. The owner was cooking the night we visited. We caught multiple glimpses of him greeting regular customers by name and wishing them well from through the kitchen window. It felt natural and unforced. 

The idea that people come here regularly enough to be recognized by name, and that the owner cares enough to remember them, tells you something about a place. There was no corporate mandate requiring him to do this, he just did it. And these are exactly the kinds of small moments we’ve grown to appreciate while doing these Checklists. 

*Vo’s was actually built on the bones of El Meson, which was a Spanish restaurant that originally created the villa vibe. But Vo’s has done an admirable job taking inspiration from those bones and making it their own. – M.C.

The pho at Vo’s ($15.50 including $2 meatball add-on) has that rich, star anise-forward broth and plate of herbal fixin’s typical of southern Vietnamese cooking, and while it doesn’t reinvent that wheel, it needn’t bother – this off-the-rack pho is the perfect antidote to winter weather. From the brightness of the mint leaves to the snap of dense meatballs, this dish contains multitudes in terms of taste and texture.

Similarly according-to-Hoyle is the restaurant’s BBQ pork rice plate ($13.75), which features delightfully charred, richly flavored thin-cut pieces of pork draped over white rice, ready to be sauced up with nuoc cham. The meat is aggressively salty, which makes it an ideal companion for the mild rice.

The restaurant’s Special Hors D’oeuvre Platter II ($8.75) wasn’t bad, but the BBQ chicken and beef brochette were near taste-alikes for the pork on the rice plate, and when you bill something as a platter you expect more than a single tiny fried wonton that breaks down to its constituent molecules when you attempt to split it five ways. The platter’s spring roll, by contrast, was a pleasantly chonky fellow stuffed with enough BBQ pork and shrimp to offset and balance the mint and lettuce vegetable content.

We felt compelled to try Vo’s dessert because it was the only one on the menu, and we’ve never seen it anywhere else: $6 gets you a serving of the housemade banana bread pudding. Served screamingly hot, this silky, rich, dense-but-delicate rustic dessert wasn’t excessively sweet and made for a strong finish to the meal. – J.N.

Sonny’s Ice Cream | 3403 Lyndale Avenue South | 612.824.3868

We mistook the small sign pointing to the side patio as reading “Secret Pizza Patio” and had visions of some underground pizza enthusiast society operating out of a hidden veranda. Our hopes were dashed when we realized the sign actually read “Secret Piazza (Patio).”

But even without the pizza, the piazza tucked along the side of Sonny’s is a treasure—created and cared for by someone who truly understands the transportive powers of an outdoor space. Vine covered walls, planters overflowing with colorful flora, cute cafe tables scattered about, charming water features, artful ironwork trellises. It’s a perfect place for stealing some time away to sip an affogato or a glass of wine (yes, they have beer and wine here, too). If you squint, you can almost pretend you’ve discovered a little Italian cafe down a narrow passageway in some quaint Tuscan village. 

Still Sonny’s is somehow one of those places that lands squarely on our “How do we not come here all the time?” list. We’ve visited before, and each time we ask ourselves that same question. Their enigmatic operating hours probably aren’t helping, but why is that?

Maybe it’s because Sonny’s feels like a passion project that’s just happy to exist as a treat for anyone who happens to discover it rather than a place with an ambition to thrive into something more. And that’s totally fine if there’s no threat of them disappearing and taking that amazing piazza away from us. 

(Side note to Sonny’s: we wouldn’t be disappointed if you wanted to try that pizza patio idea.) – M.C.

Sonny’s is less a restaurant or an ice cream parlor at this point in time than it is a mystical land like Brigadoon, winking into and out of existence based on the seasons, the tides, and the mysterious workings of the spirit world. It’s hard to remember that it exists, occupying its relatively lonely little spot at Lyndale and 34th Street, but then you walk in and all of the ice cream flavors look amazing and there’s a serious dedication to affogato and there are some cakes in the display case as well.

If you’re paying to subscribe to Heavy Table, this should help you recoup the value of your subscription: go to Sonny’s and order an Affogato made with the shop’s Black Pepper Cardamom Ice Cream ($7.50). I never really believed that there was a flavor out there that could be markedly better than vanilla in terms of complementing coffee, but this is it: funky, deep, bright, creamy, earthy and just mind-blowingly good overall. By contrast our Sea Salt Caramel Affogato ($7.50) was perfectly nice, and would have made a lovely drink on an ordinary day, but the black pepper cardamom version blew it out of the water.

The shop’s Vietnamese Iced Coffee ($7) needed more chicory and roasty coffee bite. It’s perfectly nice, but sweet to excess.

We ordered a stand-alone scoop of Gianduja Gelato ($6), a satiny, hazelnutty dream of a flavor that took me right back to the flavors of Andalusia. Big thumbs up on this one.

And we couldn’t resist the shop’s housemade Butter Lemon Cake ($6), which was a little dense and claggy but beautifully citrus-kissed and substantial in a pleasant, pound cake-like fashion. And unlike the Vietnamese iced coffee, it was sweetened in a disciplined way – sweet, sure, but not aggressively sugary. – J.N.

Saigon Uptown Restaurant | 3035 Lyndale Ave South, Minneapolis | 612.827.8918

In the parking lot behind the building, two large “Entrance” signs pointed us to the rear kitchen door…

Before we go any further, this is a good time to mention if you ever get the opportunity to enter a restaurant through the kitchen, you may want to consider stabbing your eyes out first or taking an amnesia-inducing blow to the head. This advice is not specific to Saigon. Witnessing the inner workings of any well-used restaurant kitchen (even at the most exclusive places) is not for the faint of heart. You may see things you can’t unsee.

That said, as we walked through the kitchen at Saigon, there was nothing we wouldn’t have expected to see. Sure, it has some rough edges. And yes, pushing through dangling vinyl strips of a walk-in freezer curtain to get to the dining room may not be the most ideal welcome, but such is the nature of visiting a true independent. They often require a bit more grit and determination from their patrons.

We found the dining room very sparse, very clean, and very, very beige. A few paintings on the walls and an M&M’s dispenser provided most of the color in the space. Aside from one restaurant staff member eating dinner, we were the only table occupied, which added to the sense of sparseness. But perhaps that is expected at 8pm on a weeknight in a heavily take-out focused restaurant like Saigon.

What wasn’t expected was our server passionately espousing the restaurant’s philosophy and approach to the culinary art of preparing fried rice. In our lifetimes, that’s happened exactly never times. Fried rice is so often treated as a phone-it-in, menu-filler dish. But when the cosmos sends you a sign like this, you damn well order the fried rice. And the cosmos delivered. – M.C.

It’s entirely possible that Saigon Uptown Restaurant wins the award for “Least Consistent Restaurant” out of the hundreds that we’ve visited and documented for this project. This is saying a lot! This was a legitimate roller coaster of a meal.

THE GOOD: Our waiter talked up the fact that Saigon’s fried rice ($9) is marinated for 24 hours in a mix of secret seasonings before it’s prepared, and the dish backed up the hype. This was among the best fried rice dishes we’ve had in years: delicate, richly flavored, balanced in terms of seasoning, generously laden with hand-torn looking irregular pieces of moist chicken, and neither too greasy nor too salty, the two conventional downfalls for this dish. 

Saigon’s Pork Banh Mi ($10) was absolutely solid – it came on a crispy crackly crusty baguette, packed with a generous amount of tender meat and rich dressing. It could have used more heat and more acid from the pickled veg, but that’s nitpicking – this was an enjoyable, familiar version of a classic sandwich.

THE BAD: The restaurant’s Combination Appetizer Platter ($10) featured bland, slightly soggy cream cheese wontons, a few absurdly greasy fried wings, and a respectably crispy and tasty egg-roll that looked as though it had been hit by a shrink ray (possibly on a higher-than-usual setting).

The Lemongrass Chicken ($14) was a legitimate whodunnit (or, more accurately, whereisit), as we could not smell, see, or taste a hint of lemongrass in the food. What we got instead was a generous sheen of neutral-tasting reddish oil surrounding bland, insubstantial bits of chicken.

THE UGLY: But even the Lemongrass Chicken didn’t hold a candle to our post-meal fortune cookies. As we opened them we exclaimed, to a person, something like: “Hey! What’s that smell?” or “Does anyone smell a weird chemical all of a sudden?” or “Can anyone possibly explain what this fortune cookie is doing to my nose right now?”

Our best guess is that whatever oil these cookies were fried in went off many time units ago, a guess verified by eating a tiny bit of cookie and finding it unctuously oily and absolutely corrupt in terms of flavor. – J.N.

Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ | 3025 Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis |  612.224.9888

Upon entering Gyu-Kaku, you’re greeted with a big, bright  flatscreen monitor displaying what looks like the in-flight emergency instructions for a Boeing 747. Turns out, this is actually a food safety health warning. While this might not seem like an ideal way to start a dining experience, you’ll understand the cause for alarm when you realize that you and your party will be solely responsible for the proper handling and preparation of raw hunks of meat at your table.

Not that this did anything to dissuade anyone here. The night we visited, the place was positively filled with patrons happily sizzling slivers of beef over the gas grill in the center of their table. The char smell and sound of metal tongs clinking on iron grill grates permeated the room.

Honestly, by the time we threw the first hunks of beef on the fire, we too were enamored. Our initial skepticism and confusion about what this experience might hold had transformed into wonder and excitement. How could you not love this? 

And while at first glance the multi page menu—filled with full-color pictures, multiple combination dinner options and starbursts advertising price breaks—seemed like a Pandora’s Box designed to wrest money out of our wallets, it turned out to deliver decent value. You just have to know how to order. (Quick hint: A combo for two might just be enough to feed four.)

It would be easy to be jaded here. You could view it as gimmick dining. Even we were not above jokes like, “I have to cook my own food? Isn’t that what I pay the restaurant for?” But in fairness, Gyu-Kaku does offer something unique on the dining scene. You just may need to leave your vegan friends and/or anyone with an aversion to handling raw meat at home. – M.C.

It’s an overstatement to say that I read menus for a living, but not by much. Parsing a menu to divine chef intent, marketing schemes, profit drivers, sure things, dark horses, and overall expectations is an important part of assessing a restaurant from a diner’s perspective, and I can say with all honesty that the menu at Gyu-Kaku left me instantly and totally confused. 

After a lot of discussion and some actual ordering, here’s the deal: the front of the menu features some massive collections of items that you can order as a set (to feed 2, 3, 4 or 6 people, with calorie counts approaching 10,000). 

The back of the menu features all of those packaged items broken out into individual bits so that you can order a la carte. Many of the items (Miso Soup, Edamame, Karaage) come to the table ready to eat, but most of the items (Toro Beef, New York steak, Umakara Ribeye) need to be cooked by you, the diner, at your table on a gas-powered super grill covered by a handy grilling grate.

After confirming with our server that it was OK to order a two-person set meal for four people, we went with the Meat Lover’s ($90):

As you can see, there’s a great deal happening here. Little plates of raw meat hit the table fast and furious, so you’ll have to forgive me for vagueing up some of the food notes – the meal is meant to be a sensory overload, and it really succeeds.

Gyu-Kaku Salad? Adequate if uninspiring – think sesame dressing meets Miracle Whip on reasonably fresh greens with a few wedges of hardboiled eggs. This is the sort of salad I would really enjoy while flying Delta in 3rd class, but it loses some of its charm on the ground at a restaurant.

The Miso Soup? Absolutely bog standard. The fried chicken Karaage…? Not worth writing a haiku about, but tender and properly fried, and a drink of cool refreshing water after hiking barefoot across the 11-mile long salt flat that was that stupid Firebird sandwich.

The Gyu-Sushi? Well! Quite a fascinating idea. Lots to think about here. The concept: slap some “premium roast beef” on top of sushi rice, douse it with soy sauce, and hope for the best. And the bastards might have gotten away with it, too, except that my piece of roast beef was so chewy that I could have kept enjoying it well into our meal at Wrecktangle.

Now here’s where things get vague, as the meal really gets going. 

We were given no fewer than seven kinds of raw meat on little trays. We were told the names, quickly, and in a fairly mumbled way, and managed to forget them within seconds of the server leaving the table. None of the meats were bad – some were a little chewy or tough to cook through completely, and a few lacked much of a flavor perspective, but there were some nice marinades (mostly leaning into garlic or sweet barbecue flavors) and some legitimately pleasant thin cuts of meat that cooked quickly and tasted delicious on white rice. 

Assessing this whole situation is difficult, but here are some data points to consider:

– Our “2-person” meal honestly could have fed all four of us for dinner if we’d cleaned our plates instead of taking a lot of meat home in a doggy bag and pecking lightly at our appetizers. At a little north of $100 (before tip) that’s honestly not a bad price for a legitimate dining experience.

– Or is it a legitimate dining experience? If you think hassling with a bunch of sauces and trying to cook stuff yourself is fun – and I very, very much think that – Gyu-Kaku is absolutely that “dinner and a show” thing that certain nitwits (again: me) really go in for. But if you don’t have much tolerance for this sort of tomfoolery, well, you’ll really hate this sort of goofy culinary weirdness.

– Even though we had some occasional chewy bites and boring duds, nearly everything we tried was in the “OK-to-good” range, and the overall meal was well-balanced and entertaining. Plus, bonus: dessert was s’mores, and the restaurant’s s’mores are so completely ordinary that you would think you were back in Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts or whatever the other scouts are. Graham crackers. Jet-Puffed marshmallows. Hershey’s chocolate squares. Like criminally ordinary. WHICH IS HOW S’MORE’S SHOULD BE.

S’more’s don’t need to be fixed, or improved, or made into artisan treats, they don’t need new flavors, or better chocolate, or anything else whatsoever. They are perfect. Gyu-Kaku gives you perfect s’more’s, and if you watch yourself, you can properly roast a marshmallow over your table’s open flame. – J.N.

Kung Fu Hotpot | 3016 Lyndale Ave S | 612.208.1552

It was October, and the first cold tendrils of autumn air had begun working their way down our spines. Through the front window, we saw a group of people leaning over a cauldron in the center of their table. Steam clouds billowed from the bowl fogging the cold outside glass. It was a surprisingly cozy and welcoming scene considering just how low our expectations had been set.

Not long ago, this space was occupied by a sit-down American Chinese restaurant that the pandemic had reduced to serving takeout through a slot in the front door. It closed before we could get there, and we suspected we’d dodged a bullet. That same strain of jaded skepticism had us wondering if this place would be little more than a skin-deep attempt at a reformat to drum up business. 

Thankfully, it was more than that. 

Chinese lanterns dangled from the open, black-painted ceiling. A few simple pieces of Chinese art graced the walls. The room was all freshly appointed in deep earth tones. The chairs—very likely the same chairs from the previous restaurant—were now encased in velvety fabric shrouds with gold piping. It’s not going to win any interior design awards, but at least someone cared enough to give the place a decent face lift.

Hot pot is a group effort. That’s the fun of it. An induction burner in the center of each table keeps your party’s hot pot, well, hot. After your hot pot arrives, you get up and approach a vast, self-serve, glass-fronted refrigerator case filled with an assortment of raw ingredients. Choose anything your heart desires from bok choy to green beans to pork strips to fish balls to potatoes. Throw them in the burbling broth (also, of your choice), fish them out a few minutes later, add a sauce or two, and voila.

Hot pot is an all-you-can-eat situation, so you can keep going back for more, but be aware there are two rules at Kung Fu clearly outlined in both English and Chinese on a sign above each table: 1.) there is a 2-hour limit and, 2.) there’s a $20 surcharge on food waste. So, your dream scam of paying for a single buffet at lunch and hanging out until dinner is officially dashed.  – M.C.

If you’ve not experienced a Szechuan hot pot meal, you could find many starting points worse than Kung Fu Hotpot, which takes the ritual quite seriously. 

The first salient fact: It’s not cheap. The hot pot experience (which truly is an experience, for once the word is sincerely applicable) ranges from $17 for a three-year-old at lunchtime to $37 for an adult at dinner. Fear not: Your $37 gets you a hell of a lot. For starters, you get to choose two different broths from a menu of four and these are brought to a lively simmer on an induction plate in the center of your table and refilled throughout your meal. We tried the spicy beef tallow broth and the restaurant’s original broth. More on these in a moment.

Beyond your broths, you are granted an all-access pass to the restaurant’s sprawling refrigerator case of meats / tofus / noodles / shrimp balls / etc. / etc. / and so forth. The selection is overwhelming to the point of being a little humbling, and the fridge experience doesn’t even include the salad-bar-like bunker full of diced scallions / grated garlic / soy sauce / various flavored oils and more. Simply load up trays with everything you want to simmer, and go to town. Grab gingerly, make multiple trips. It’s all you can eat and there’s no rush.

Also: You’ll want to give yourself a bit of time to acclimate to the spicy broth, if that’s the direction you go. I took what I thought was a reasonably sized spoonful of the spicy beef tallow broth and felt immediately like I’d smushed the top of my head directly onto the surface of the sun. My throat closed up and I became concerned that I was having a medical event. I enjoyed the experience so much that I spent the rest of the meal playing around with spicy broth dosages so that I could experience searing little droplets of pain without actually having to take a ride on Charon’s moped. 

The original broth was fine. It was nicely seasoned. Trying to talk about the original broth after talking about the spicy beef broth is like trying to remember details about your first snowball fight moments after being evacuated from the trenches of Verdun.

Things cook very quickly in whatever kind of broth you choose. I ended up liking the ramen a surprising amount; likewise the frozen shrimp balls, which had a delightful chewy texture and mild sweet flavor. Thinly sliced bits of beef and lamb were perfectly pleasant, but the tofu brought a sponge-like absorbency to the situation that was exciting.

Because Heavy Table’s budget doesn’t allow four people on a five-restaurant crawl to spend $40 each on soup at one spot, we also got a number of ala carte items from Kung Fu.

The Chicken Fried Rice ($12) was underseasoned and forgettable, but inoffensive and actually pretty tasty when sampled with some of the other, more flavorful items.

Items such as: the Szechuan String Beans ($15) which had a great fresh snap and an insistent but mellow heat.

We really liked the Pork and Chive Dumplings ($7), which had that hand-made, rough-hewn rustic quality that makes for a really hearty, satisfying dumpling experience. The only dumplings we’ve had around here that give these a run for their money are the pan-seared pork dumplings at Mei Inn, and those are just terrific. And everybody’s bubble teas ($6) were pleasant and acceptable. – J.N.

Up-Down | 3012 Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis | 612.823.3487

If I’d told my 8-year-old self that someday there would be a magical place where all my favorite arcade machines lined every wall and I could hang out with all my friends for hours while stuffing my face with pizza, my 8-year-old self probably would have responded, “Yeah, that’s Chuck E. Cheese.”

And it’s true. You wouldn’t be far off the mark to call Up-Down Arcade Bar “Chuck E. Cheese for the recently over 21 set.” Paint the walls black, add alcohol and replace the Teletubbies tunes with a thumping Bad Bunny soundtrack and you’re basically there. 

The night we visited, the place was buzzing with a diverse, mid-20ish crowd bouncing between ordering drinks, chatting up friends, casting flirtatious glances around the room, and saving Pauline from the clutches of Donkey Kong (while casting flirtatious glances around the room). 

Is it an arcade, a bar or a nightclub? Yes. Is it a great pizza place? Well, let’s just say there’s a good reason it’s not called Up-Down Pizza Arcade. – M.C.

The limited menu at Up-Down Arcade Bar couldn’t be more appropriate to the setting: it’s pretty much just pizza ($4-5 a slice, or $20-25 a pie), ordered from a window helpfully illuminated with an Order Pizza Here-esque neon sign. For the context – a dark, loud, arcade-meets-nightclub-meets-dive-bar situation – it really couldn’t be a better fit.

We tried two slices: the Mona Lisa ($5 a slice, laden with assorted thinly sliced veggies) and the Mac and Cheese ($5 a slice, laden with… well, mac and cheese). After 3-4 beers and an hour or two of Q*bert, this stuff would be killer – it’s greasy, substantial, and with just the right oregano bite to the sauce. Stone-cold sober, it’s difficult to justify but not offensively bad. The mac and cheese slice doesn’t quite measure up to the version at Mesa Pizza, which itself is serviceable and enjoyable but not poised to revolutionize the world of pizza. – J.N.

Caffrey’s Deli and Subs | 3008 Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis | 612.822.5551

It’s a long, narrow space, hemmed in on two sides by raw brick walls–almost alley-like. There’s a counter running along one side and tables down the other. A few drink fridges. Black chalkboard menus on the walls. It’s utilitarian and efficient. 

Even our sandwiches arrived in basic foil wrapping held shut with a white sticker marked with a black Sharpie to indicate the sandwich inside. In all its simplicity, the most obvious adornment are a few 1950’s refrigerator doors hanging along one wall, each with a classic mid century modern design that matches Caffrey’s retro atomic star-lite logo.

Other than the  80’s era Phil Collins blaring over the sound system–which momentarily sparked a debate over whether Collins’s “Sussudio” or Starship’s “We Built This City” was the worst song ever recorded–we truly appreciated the basic overall attitude of the place. 

For an independent joint like this to be holding its own in the ever changing vortex that is Lyn-Lake for over 20 years, it must be doing something right. And this was seemingly confirmed by the avid fan we chatted with on our way in. She absolutely swore by it. 

Creating avid fans like this is no easy feat, and something to be admired. The only downside was that her fervor may have set our expectations a bit too high. – M.C.

The next time the subject of Minnesota’s deficient sandwich culture comes up, we’ll have an example loaded up and ready to go: Caffrey’s, a long-standing independent sandwich shop in a busy commercial section of Minneapolis, is serving sandwiches that would get them bounced right out of the state if we lived in New York, Pennsylvania, or New Jersey. There’s absolutely no reason these sandwiches shouldn’t be distractingly tasty, or at least “really good in a pinch.” But the oddly wide bread that they’re served on is squishy and almost flavorless, while being so voluminous that it swallows the sandwiches’ contents. 

The shop’s #7 (the Hot Shot Italian, $11.25) should be a banger of a hoagie with grilled ham, capicola, pepperoni, and provolone, but the fluffy bread and bite of raw onions were the first and second things to register after taking a big bite, with the bland layered meat coming in third.

And the Loaded Chicken Philly ($11) had even less character still, with the raw onions registering first, second, and last, leaving the underpowered chicken, mushrooms, and provolone completely in the dust.

The restaurant’s soup is no saving grace – a cup of the tomato basil ($5.50) was so overloaded with basil and sugar that it tasted like drinking hot basil syrup. – J.N.

Fool Me Once | 3006 Lyndale Ave S | 612.503.9350

EDITOR’S NOTE: Fool Me Once is now closed.

Let’s talk about the name for a minute. No, we don’t know what it means either. And we certainly haven’t figured out how it relates in any way to the “cosmic cantina” theme. But we’re talking about it, and that’s likely the point. Also, strange as it is, the name clearly sets the stage for what you’re walking into. This is a local with a specific sense of humor and a clear idea of how it wants to present itself.

Someone put care into the details. The ceiling is painted with a mural of cowboys on horseback riding across a rocky western landscape. This is left over from the Cowboy Bar which used to occupy the space, and it clearly influenced the design aesthetic. Virtually every wall is painted with stenciled art blending elements of the American West, eastern religion, and alien mythologies. There are cacti, scorpions, mountain ranges, UFOs, stars, snakes, hand of Fatima, and an underground cave with an alien skeleton…oh, my. 

There’s also custom-made, cheekily written, vintage-looking posters advertising their food and drinks. They left a raw brick wall untouched with the remnants of an old, faded painted drug store billboard. Classic antler chandeliers add to the old-west vibe. And, behind the bar, the clincher: a giant lighted diorama featuring their logo—a cowboy on bucking bronco surrounded by cosmic planetary rings—hovering over a dramatic western landscape. 

We wish the diorama was on a dimmer, as it lit up the entire place in too bright a light. Regardless, all the well-considered touches blend into a strange cocktail that—while we can’t pinpoint why—just works. Giddyup. – M.C.

The Hamm’ss at Fool Me Once cost $3 at happy hour and are served in iced glass mugs. And if that seems like faint praise, it isn’t – these things are refreshing, tasty, and quite possibly one of the best alcohol values in the metro at these prices.

You might be expecting that intro to serve as a set up for a takedown of otherwise indifferent bar food, but you’d be wrong – Fool Me Once offers a surprisingly lively and well-executed collection of slightly twisted comfort foods.

The fire-blistered Tequilia Shisitos with queso were snappy, bright, and snackable, which was good because they also arrived in a bucket-served portion. A fine deal for eight dollars; during happy hour, they were $5, which was absurd.

The bar’s Crunchwrap Supreme ($12) was stupidly good. Nice crispy exterior. Terrific ratio of tortilla to ground beef to cheese sauce, sour cream, and lettuce. This is the sort of food that lives and dies based on the details, and the details here were dialed in.

Not so much with Double Smashburger ($16), which was a perfectly OK burger that suffered from being disgustingly huge. If the bulbous mass of beef, cheese, and bacon could be cut in half and re-bunned into two half-sized burgers, the proportions would be just about right and the whole thing would be a lot tastier. As it is: quality was fine, it works as drunk people kibbles, it comes with a lot of fries. 

For dessert, why not try the Twinkie “Maki” ($5)? Some of us loved the way the dehydrated coconut Campari, lemongrass, and ginger diametrically opposed and dramatically counterpointed the sweet fluffy cream in the deep-fried snake cake; some of us found the intensely bitter aftertaste to be an absolute non-starter. Either way, this is one of the most interesting things we’ve eaten all year, and at this price, we’d make a case for everyone trying it once. – J.N.