Heavy Table Hot Five: Feb. 9-15

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Each Friday, this list will track five of the best things Heavy Table’s writers, editors, and photographers have recently bitten or sipped. Have a suggestion for the Hot Five? Email editor@heavytable.com.

shepherd-song-banner-ad-horiz-3The Hot Five is a weekly feature created by the Heavy Table and supported by Shepherd Song Farm.

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James Norton / Heavy Table

1-new - one - hot fiveSport Platter at O-City
The heavily Oromo-influenced sport platter at O-City on East Lake Street was a garden of bold flavors and agreeable textures. So, what are we looking at? Up top: rolls of light, delicate, not-too-sour pieces of injera. To the left: Chili Chicken, every bit as fiery and deeply flavored as you’d hope. In the center: a much milder chicken with a delicate, vinegar-based flavor that was a great match for the shredded lettuce that flanked it. To the right: tender Beef Suqaar. On the bottom: rolled up pieces of crispy, chewy, utterly tasty chapati bread.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by James Norton from an upcoming East Lake Checklist]

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

2-new - two - hot five

Hu Tieu Bo Kho from Brooklyn Park’s Thanh Vi
The Hu Tieu Bo Kho from Brooklyn Park’s Thanh Vi (review coming Monday) is a beef stew with carrots, onions, noodles, 5-spice powder, and lemongrass, but it’s unlike any beef stew ever tasted by anyone at our table. The broth was more souplike than stewlike (by our American definition, of course), and the broth was complex, rich and intense, full of lemongrass flavor. Large chunks of tender beef had just a light taste of anise. Totally comforting and pleasing.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Amy Rea]

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

3-new - three hot fivePad Thai at Pho #1
We went to Pho #1 to shoot the soup for yesterday’s Bite, but we ended up ordering some Chicken Pad Thai while we there. You never know when this stuff will be good, and lo and behold, it was good. Tender but not fragile noodles, properly cooked chicken, nice textural balance, and a heat we’d describe happily as a “2” on a scale of 1-5, which was precisely how we ordered it.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted from a Bite, by James Norton]

Paige Latham Didora / Heavy Table

4-new four hot fiveHam and Gruyere Crepe at Penny’s Coffee
The Ham and Gruyere Crepe at Penny’s Coffee in downtown Minneapolis is a satisfying meal in an unlikely place. Located on the ground floor of a nondescript office building, Penny’s has a substantial menu in addition to premium coffee and pastries. The crepes are served with a frisée-and-herb salad, a crisp counterpoint to the creamy ham and cheese.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Paige Latham Didora]

James Norton / Heavy Table

5-new -fiveCurried Chicken Meat Pie
The chill of winter makes comfort food — stews, hotdish, etc. — the stars of the show. Inspired by the British cooking/detective serial Pie in the Sky, we bought a special mold and tried our hand at a traditional British hot water crust meat pie. We cooked our chicken by sous vide for maximum tenderness and dialed up the amount of curry to give it some depth. A hefty dash of locally purchased berbere added to the overall kick and further developed the spice profile. The result? A rich, hearty, warmly spiced dish perfect for February.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by James Norton]

Waldmann Brewery and Wurstery in St. Paul

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

If you’re a history buff, you probably already know about the (very) recently opened Waldmann Brewery and Wurstery in St. Paul. Originally opened as a German lager beer saloon in 1857, the new brewery is a lovingly refurbished tribute to the original venture, replete with hand-hewn woodwork and decked out with interior details that transport a visitor more than 150 years back in time.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The brewery’s interior restoration includes maps, antique clocks, wood stoves, 19th-century steamboat chairs, paraffin lamps, and enough additional period stuff (including a mounted buffalo head) that you’ll feel well and truly immersed in an earlier era by the time your beer and food arrive. Whether that’s a good thing is up to you — there is an antique shop / historic re-creation feel to the place that takes some getting used to, but it’s also obviously and appealingly one-of-a-kind.

About that food: The menu has a number of intriguing options (the Herring Plate, $10, and Smoked Fish Plate, $12, really tempted us), but the heart of the document is the Wurst Plank ($20), a collection of all three of the menu’s wursts, plus three sides, a bread, and three condiments: two excellent house-made mustards and a house-made ketchup that is one of only two we’ve ever really liked (Red River Kitchen has the other one).

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The bratwurst, made by former Seward Co-op butcher Karl Gerstenberger, is about as good as it gets. Both the bratwurst and the currywurst were finely and evenly ground, tender, and remarkably juicy without being excessively moist. The bratwurst’s seasoning was spot on — enough salt and spice to complement and frame the flavor of the meat without swamping it. Gerstenberger got his start cooking in California restaurants including Stars, Chez Panisse, and Oliveto, and he’s bringing all his talents to bear at Waldmann, presenting simple food done beautifully well. The Red Dog (by Red Table Meats) deserves a shout, too. It’s firm and snappy, with a milder, more natural note of the paprika “hot dog flavor” that we associate with this classic street food.

The Wurst Plank’s sides and condiments were uniformly excellent, as well. Our strudel-cut dumpling (known in German as Wickelklösse) was toothsome and beautifully seasoned, offering flavors of salt and butter and tasting all the better for that simplicity. The Limestone Potatoes (cooked under a slab of Platteville bedrock) were something akin to a well-browned hash brown cake, with a tender interior and crispy-crunchy outside. And the Cold Sauerkraut was truly a good friend to the bratwurst, bringing heat, acid, and earthy character without much sugar or fat of its own. Our only complaint about the sides would be that we could happily have eaten twice as much of them.

Missing from the Wurst Plank — and the entire menu, for that matter — were buns. It’s hard not to admire the purist attitude that would present artful wurst like this in a naked state, ready to be dressed with house-made condiments, but it seems likely that Waldmann will run into a stream of customers (maybe some Wisconsinites?) who want their lunchtime wurst on the bun. When we emailed Gerstenberger about it, he wrote back: “I wanted/still want a semmel roll. Right now we’re baking off quality par bake dinner rolls as a stop gap. At present we’re in an options mode (Aki rye, Brake Bread Granny, or roll) with planks and wursts. We’ll soon standardize the buns (or hopefully a semmel) and likely offer a bread basket with butter or lard.”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

We tried two beers ($5), and liked them both. The Oktoberfest was remarkably refreshing and light on the palate, lacking the sometimes syrupy finish that malt-forward beers can suffer from. The beer presented a bright smoothness of flavor that made it remarkably easy to drink without being monotonous.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

We found Waldmann’s Hefeweizen enjoyable but puzzling, initially. It was malt-driven and evocative of cloves and other warm spices, and was actually less refreshing and summer-ready than the Oktoberfest. A quick conversation with brewer Drew Ruggles after lunch set things straight. He’d been shooting for something halfway between a hefeweizen and a dunkelweizen, and the darker, stronger character of the dunkel had taken the reins. As we sail into colder weather, that’s probably a good choice. Once you’ve had a hefeweizen on a patio on a humid 90-degree day, it can be hard to enjoy in other settings.

Waldmann is a rare duck, a restaurant doing a simple, approachable menu with utmost seriousness. The food’s uniformly good, the setting’s unique, and the excitement over the brewery’s mission is palpable. Here’s hoping they can wring another 160 years out of the space.

Waldmann Brewery and Wurstery
Taproom and Sausage Restaurant off West Seventh in St. Paul

445 Smith Ave
St. Paul, MN 55102
651.222.1857
OWNER / CHEF / BREWER: Tom Schroeder / Karl Gerstenberger / Drew Ruggles
HOURS:
Sun 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Mon Closed for private events
Tue-Thu 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Fri-Sat 11 a.m. midnight
BAR: Beer
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes, if you like cheese / No
ENTREE RANGE: $10-$16
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
PARKING: Six-car lot, limited street parking

The Animal Burger at Gray Duck Tavern in St. Paul

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

It hails from a section of the menu called “Handhelds” — come on, they’re sandwiches! — and it costs $13. Even with that context, the Animal Burger at St. Paul’s Gray Duck Tavern still deserves acknowledgement for being one of the latest and greatest ACL* burgers to hit the metro scene.

Like any good ACL, this isn’t a story about meat. Don’t get me wrong — the twin quarter-pound beef patties are rich and delicious, and they’re important players in this burger’s ensemble. But the Animal Burger (whose name evokes the grilled-onion Animal Style burger of In-N-Out fame) really revolves around the caramelized onions, whose earthy-but-bright flavor explodes in every bite.

The American cheese, the onions, the mustard, the Thousand Island dressing (aka “special sauce”), and the meat are all players. This isn’t an egotistical hunk of beef shouting down its teammates; it’s a civil boardroom meeting of flavor.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

And the Animal Burger is big, big enough that two average adults could chop it in half and lunch like kings at a far more reasonable $6.50 a head. There seems to be an unwritten law that new, ambitious, business-friendly eateries like Gray Duck Tavern need to have a burger like the Animal on their menus and we, frankly, wouldn’t mind seeing that law written out and made permanent.

Oh, and order the fries ($5). They’re extra, but they’re crispy and perfect, and they come with a house-made mayo that can be combined with ketchup to create world-class fry sauce. If you’re into that sort of thing, which we most assuredly are.

*“Au Cheval-like” burgers; there are lots of them now

The Gray Duck Tavern, 345 Wabasha St N, St. Paul; 651.340.9022

The Seventh Street Truck Park in St. Paul

James Norton / Heavy Table

The newly opened Seventh Street Truck Park has all the authenticity of a Guy Fieri S’mores Indoors Pizza, which is to say not a very large amount. We’ll unpack what that means in a moment; for now, here’s our evidence:

1. The entire “truck park” — which we were naively hoping might contain counters serving local food-truck menus or be some kind of a covered eating space at which actual food trucks could dock — is an indoor space with ersatz food-truck counters, lighted signage, computerized menus, and condiment stations. You are essentially eating in an up-to-date mall food court with a full bar. It’s one part street food, about six parts Disney.

James Norton / Heavy Table

2. There are big-screen televisions everywhere, to the point where there is essentially nowhere you can look without seeing four to six of the things. Name a sport, and it’s on the wall, often in several places at once. The effect is like being locked inside of an ESPN news ticker.

3. Legitimate food trucks push the envelope of food; the Seventh Street Truck Park plays it padded-helmet safe with a mixture of pizza, fried chicken, tacos, and ice cream sandwiches. There are a few local purveyors in the mix (Surly, Sebastian Joe’s, etc.), but nothing on the menu would be particularly out of place if you stepped back in time to 1989.

4. While we visited on Sunday night, a live band (yay!) performed a set comprised of pop song medleys (boo!) including a cover of Is This Love that must surely rank among the whitest musical events of modern America.

James Norton / Heavy Table

Now back to unpacking the “authenticity” thing. Let’s assume that you are a) in a crowd emerging from the Xcel Energy Center, b) drunk or about to become drunk, and c) in an open-minded or otherwise not horribly critical mood. Under these conditions, the Seventh Street Truck Park is a fun, busy, happening extension of the neighboring New Bohemia Wurst House (whose team also owns the Truck Park). It’s lively, it has a lot of menu options, and it feels like some strange but cheerful middle ground between a college bar, a house party, a food truck court, and an Applebee’s.

Although it might not be for everyone (notably: food people), the theme is coherent — it’s well-executed and likely to gain real traction in the market.

The Rice Plate with Grilled Meatballs and Egg Roll at iPho by Saigon

James Norton / Heavy Table

We may have stumbled upon the best lunch. What is the best lunch? The best lunch is filling, yes, but not greasy or overwhelming. It arrives at the table almost instantly, but it’s made with care. It’s inexpensive but has many components to offer up a full field of flavor and texture. The best lunch may well be the Rice Plate with Grilled Meatballs and Egg Roll ($8.50) at iPho by Saigon on University Avenue.

We first encountered iPho during our Green Line Checklist of 70+ restaurants on University Avenue and the Green Line. It had a deservedly glowing reputation that preceded it. The food was full of flavor and nuance, the atmosphere spartan but friendly, and the service so fast as to defy belief.

WACSO / Heavy Table

Summer is a wonderful time of year for Vietnamese food (followed by autumn, winter, spring), so we’ve been surfing the iPho menu looking for a bulletproof choice among many strong contenders. The winner may be E10, the aforementioned rice plate.

The beauty of this plate is how incredibly responsive it is to the diner’s preferences — bite by bite. You’ve got the quiet neutrality of the rice, the sweet and/or heat and/or tart from accompanying sauces like hoisin and sriracha, the crispy lightness of shredded jicama and carrot, the meaty substance of the meatballs, and the crispy crunchy earthiness of the egg roll. By toggling starch, vegetable, meat, and sauce, you can lean into virtually any flavor and texture combination you feel like: the crispy spicy heat of an eggroll with sriracha, for example, or the cool, soft brightness of a tomato slice and rice. And regardless of what you do, don’t skip the nuoc cham.

Then again, the best lunch might be pho. That’s also a fine answer.

iPho by Saigon, 704 University Ave W, St. Paul, 651.225.8751

The Dirty Secret at J. Selby’s in St. Paul

James Norton / Heavy Table

Our take on vegan analogues of meaty (and/or dairylike) foods is firm and unwavering: If they taste good, more power to them, even if they’re not a one-for-one for the original item. Vegan cheese generally seems to fall short of the real deal; we don’t have time for it. But vegan meat (like the stuff made at The Herbivorous Butcher) is often good or downright delicious in the right context. And there are enough good veggie burgers out there (Fitger’s leaps to mind, although that’s merely vegetarian) that we’re always happy to give them a shot.

So we were intrigued by all the positive buzz about the Big Mac-ish Dirty Secret ($15) at the recently opened J. Selby’s in St. Paul — two falafel-esque “beaf” patties from The Herbivorous Butcher, onions, lettuce, three slices of sesame seed bun, pickles, vegan mayo (which we quite like, particularly with the menu’s excellent Buffalo wing-ish batter-fried cauliflower florets), vegan American cheese (sigh), all stacked up in a jumbo-sized, meatless approximation of the perennial best-seller at McDonald’s.

This faux Big Mac works. It really, really works. Now, if you closed your eyes and took a bite, there’d be absolutely no chance you’d mistake it for an actual Big Mac. It’s missing the fatty richness of ground beef, and the additionally unctuous gift of legit special sauce, and the plasticlike binding power of American cheese. But there are elements in common: that doppelganger of a bun, which seems to have arrived at J. Selby’s on the back of a McDonald’s truck, and the pickles, which play together with the bun in a way that triggers some strong McMemories. And while the vegan cheese lacks the chewy richness of dairy-based American cheese, and the nicely seasoned and spiced patties are closer to falafel in terms of dryness and texture, everything works well together. The sandwich has a compelling savory depth and a nice balance of bun to “meat” to veggies that puts a lot of flavor into every bite.

Value is the question. While most of J. Selby’s sandwiches are $10, the Dirty Secret is $15, which would be expensive (although not unheard of) for a traditional gourmet hamburger just about anywhere. (It’s worth noting that tip’s included, and you do receive a side, so it’s not as brutal as it looks on paper.)

Our stance is that this particular burger — with a clean, balanced flavor and no horrible post-burger meat hangover — is better than more than 50 percent of its meaty competitors, particularly when you take into account all the depressingly lame $15-$20 burgers at hotel and chain restaurants around the metro. But if your opinion is that your $15 is better spent at Parlour or buying three fancy little burgers at Constantine, or, hell, three Big Macs, that’s a legitimate stance. At $10, the Dirty Secret would be an unmitigated success story, but even as it is, it’s a nice option to have in a town full of compelling burger-related choices.

J. Selby’s, 169 N Victoria St, St. Paul; 651.222.3263

Zait & Za’atar in Merriam Park, St. Paul

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Promise falafel and/or shawarma under the roof of an independent restaurant, and we’ll be there — few foods are as soulfully nourishing as well-done Mediterranean classics. Zait & Za’atar promises these classics on its homespun, approachable menu, but it has some focusing to do before it hits the bull’s-eye.

One of the most difficult challenges facing any restaurant is that of decor. Go too cluttered, and you eat up valuable space (and make a difficult space to clean); go too minimal and you risk making guests feel as though they’re eating in a warehouse. Zait & Za’atar goes the latter route, with bare walls and widely spaced tables that give the room a somewhat foreboding feel.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

That said, the first thing to hit our artfully tiled table was delicious. Zait and Za’atar’s fresh-squeezed lemonade ($3) may actually be the best in town. The sugar-to-citrus level is perfect: It’s incredibly tart and compensatingly sweet, with an herbal supporting note that makes for a deep, balanced, thirst-quenching beverage of the highest order.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

After the lemonade things get more complex. We tried the restaurant’s Meat Shawarma Sandwich ($7.50, above) and its Falafel Sandwich ($6, top) and both had elements of greatness undone by parts that weren’t completely functional. Both wraps were crippled by the dry, cardboardlike pita that contained them, an especially glaring shortcoming when compared with the mellow, toothsome, soft pita around the corner at The Naughty Greek.

The Naughty Greek in Merriam Park, St. Paul

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The Naughty Greek is crushing it.

The shop feels vibrant and full; it’s bright and airy, cheerfully painted with white and blue iconographic art that evokes Greece; the staff are friendly, helpful, and numerous; and the food is bold and balanced. We could end the review here, with an exhortation that all who read this will be rewarded by a visit to this shop, but we’ll take a moment to dig into exactly what’s going right, as it’s worth understanding (and emulating, should you happen to be in the food business).

Let’s begin with the most mundane aspect of The Naughty Greek’s success: the pita. We chatted with Angelo Giovanis, the shop’s cheerful and omnipresent owner, and he said it’s one of the few things not made in house. Instead, he buys pitas that are revived through a turn on the grill with Greek virgin olive oil, oregano, and lemon juice. It works. The gyros of The Naughty Greek come cradled in warm, soft, flavorful bread. If you’ve ever had dry, cardboardlike pita — and we all have, unfortunately — you’ll understand just how lovely a good version of the bread can be. (See also: Gyropolis, another shop that does pita justice.)

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Both of the gyros we tried (chicken and pork) were successful. The pork, through meat that was rich and tender, the chicken through a fantastic (and not excessive) grill-imparted char that lent depth and drama to what could have been a simple sandwich. A proper application of garlic- and cucumber-infused yogurt tzatziki gives lightness and tang to the sandwich without drowning it or sogging it into pieces, and delicate wisps of raw onion give a bit of crunch and assertive flavor without savaging the palate.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

We tried the Original Greek ($8.50, above) and Kale ($7.50) salads, and they’re lovely accompaniments to heavier parts of the menu. They’re light, simple, classic, and balanced, uniting bits of creamy cheese, tangy acid, and fresh-tasting vegetables.

The Tap: Restaurant Openings and Closings for Early May

Banner for the Tap: Food and Drink News

This week in the Tap: A look ahead at upcoming restaurants, notes about spots that have closed, and about those that have recently opened.

The Tap is the metro area’s comprehensive restaurant buzz roundup, so if you see a new or newly shuttered restaurant, or anything that’s “coming soon,” email Tap editor James Norton at editor@heavytable.com.

“THE SUMMER OF THE YEAR I TURNED 45”

Jeanne Carpenter, creator of Cheese Underground and the curator of Cheesetopia, has posted a beautifully written essay that’s like a juicy slice of a memoir. I won’t spoil the content by trying to summarize it, but it’s personal, and moving, and reflective of the way that many of the people who spend their time documenting and working within the culinary community feel about their work. — James Norton

NOW OPEN

Paige Latham Didora / Heavy Table
Paige Latham Didora / Heavy Table
  • Black Stack Brewing, 755 Prior Ave N, St. Paul | Sharing a complex with Can Can Wonderland (above).
  • Colossal Cafe, 2403 E 38th St, Minneapolis| New, larger cafe in the former Pilgrimage location.
  • La Costa, 194 Cesar Chavez St., St. Paul  | Billed as the first Mexican sports bar in Minnesota.
  • Burrigato, 314 15th Ave SE, Minneapolis | The sushi + burrito trend kicked off by SotaRol refuses to die.
  • J Selby’s, 169 Victoria St N, St. Paul | Vegan restaurant that prefers to call itself “plant-based.” (Opened, but is now temporarily closed to retool for larger-than-expected crowds.)
  • The Early Bird, 1612 Harmon Pl, Minneapolis | Formerly Bearcat, formerly Third Bird, still a Kim Bartmann joint. Sometimes referred to just as “The Bird,” further muddying the waters.
Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table
Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

Eddie Wu of Cook St. Paul

Chelsea Korth / Heavy Table
Chelsea Korth / Heavy Table

Eddie Wu is the owner of Cook St. Paul, a diner and Korean-food gateway on St. Paul’s East Side. His restaurant on Payne Avenue is bedecked with colorful “All Are Welcome Here” signs in Arabic, English, Hmong, Somali, and Spanish. “Black Lives Matter” posters are displayed on his restaurant’s storefront. He knows well that unity isn’t the same as uniformity, and he’s happy to bullshit with anyone who walks in his door. He’s created a “greasy silver spoon” vibe, as he calls it, by giving a nod to Serlin’s Cafe (the diner that lived in his restaurant’s space from the 1930s) while also introducing the Korean food he knows and loves. It’s a made-from-scratch restaurant — from the English muffins for your eggs Benedict to the kimchi for your mac and cheese — and a place unafraid of mixing in a dash of politics.

Chelsea Korth / Heavy Table
Chelsea Korth / Heavy Table

The spot attracts its share of high-profile regulars: On any given day, you could just as easily sit next to State Senator Tom Bakk, U.S. Representative Tim Mahoney, Eater editor Joy Summers, a mechanic from Dave’s Auto Shop, or a fanatic regular with the Cook St. Paul logo tattooed on his biceps. Wu, a restaurant owner who won’t allow himself to be called a chef, was just filmed by the Food Network for a series that will air late this summer. He’s laid back about it. He’s not driven by the luster of stardom. On Friday nights, he’s happy to cook Korean food with plenty of house hot sauce, while wearing his “I Love Eve” T-shirt (Eve is his wife) and holding an “Eddie Wu” in his hand. What’s that, you ask? A twist on the Arnie Palmer using the house lemonade he spent years crafting blended with Grey Duck chai.

HEAVY TABLE: Tell me about your upbringing. A culinary background?

WU: By birth, I am Edmond Charles Hansen III. I didn’t know I’d be a Wu someday, but my wife’s identity was stolen, and she was already on her third name, having been adopted, so I took hers. Ninety percent of the men I’ve met are appalled by me taking a woman’s last name. I’m not interested in tradition for tradition’s sake. My dad always told me my name was spelled Edmund (rather than Edmond, as his is spelled) so that our mail wouldn’t get mixed up, but I realized when I needed my birth certificate at age 18 that he was wrong. The spelling of my birth last name, Hansen, was changed when the first of my family members immigrated here. Names don’t mean shit to people.

I’ve been told McDonald’s was my first word. I’m one of five siblings, and my parents divorced when I was four. I grew up eating Tombstone pizza, hot dogs, and Chef Boyardee.

My dad was a Chief of Paramedics for the St. Paul Fire Department. He’d work for a period of time and then have ten days off. He’d sometimes take off and not tell us where he was going. I remember asking my sister once where my dad was, and she was like, “Oh he’s in Florida.” After my parents split, my mom was on welfare and struggled to take care of herself. My sister pretty much raised me.

Chelsea Korth / Heavy Table
Chelsea Korth / Heavy Table

When I was six, and because my parents weren’t hanging out that much, I would take rocks out of my front yard, clean them, and use my older sister’s clear nail polish to shine them. I’d put them in a wagon, and sell them around the neighborhood. I’d spend 10 hours a day out selling rocks. I used the money first to put a lock on my bedroom door, then buy a mini fridge, then food, and then I’d pay back my sister for the nail polish, plus interest. I remember buying frozen chicken Kiev and sitting on my bed with my door locked watching a movie and feeling like a king.

When I met my wife, there was still a good amount of my diet that was 7-Eleven-based: a taquito in my mouth and a Gatorade in my hand.

HEAVY TABLE: How did you claim your own path in the culinary world?

WU: When I was 14, I started washing dishes at Drover’s Inn in South St. Paul. Evidently, it was an institution. I just thought it was a lame restaurant in a hotel. It was the first time I saw how real food was made. From dishwasher, I was promoted to prep cook and then line cook. I worked there for two years. The head chef at Drover’s left to open Clyde’s on the St. Croix in Bayport, Minn. He poached me and three of my friends from Drover’s to help him, and at 16, I was running his kitchen. The place had a walleye special. I didn’t know what I was doing but I worked through the trenches and put in my time.

At 18, I stopped, and didn’t cook for a long time. I had the exact amount of credits I needed to graduate high school, and I planned to join the Marines after graduation. One day, I was hanging out with two other friends who spotted a Schwan’s truck down the street. They stole food from the truck, and we got caught. I didn’t steal anything, but I was with them. Because I was 18, and the other two were still minors at 17, the officer chose to charge me with the theft. It wasn’t exactly a “prison or Marines” scenario, but my recruiter did move my boot camp ship date from October of ’97 to August of ’97 in order to avoid that happening.

Chelsea Korth / Heavy Table
Chelsea Korth / Heavy Table

When I decided to enroll in the Marines, my sister was shocked, “The Marines, Eddie?” But I decided if I was going to serve, I was going to do the hardest one. There was even a pool at Clyde’s on how long it would take me to fail out of boot camp. They had an over-under bet. It wasn’t even if, but when. Of the four that joined with me, I was the only one who made it through.

I had really negative experiences up until the Marines. When I got there, it was the first time I felt like someone had a vested interest in what I was doing. I worked for Sergeant Stephen Griffin, and he took a really practical approach to leadership. He commented once, he believed I was probably the thorn in the side of anyone who had ever been in charge of me. At the same time, as long as I produced the results he was looking for, what I did didn’t matter. I was good enough to the extent that he didn’t have to punish me, but bad enough that he didn’t have to give me too much responsibility. Even still, at 22 I was in charge of 40 people in two different countries: in Kuwait, and a team on a boat off the Indian Ocean.

Right after the Marines I worked at Sodexo as a general manager for corporate accounts. It was soul-crushing. It didn’t help when I went to a managerial training, where other GMs were talking about how they’d been with the company for twenty years. I couldn’t imagine ever following that path, doing the same thing day after day, so I left. I had to do something to prevent that from being my life.

I found a job as a bathroom attendant at a strip club in Denver called Shotgun Willie’s. The place had a hundred girls working on seven stages. They started calling me “nice guy Eddie” because I wasn’t doing drugs on the job or stealing from them. I made three times more money as a bathroom attendant there than as a GM at Sodexo. I was making $150 an hour. After a while, they promoted me to a manager because I knew how to avoid fights. I managed the place for six months and was there for a year-and-a-half, total.

I was working in Denver when I met my wife, Eve. We went to high school together and reconnected when I came back to Minnesota for my brother’s funeral. A few months after the funeral, she started flying out to Denver every month to get tattooed. She had her entire back tattooed by a guy in Denver, so it took multiple trips. She continued making weekend trips to visit me, and I’d fly back to Minnesota monthly for a few days too. The path I took to becoming a husband and a father is about as irregular and unadvisable as you can get. We got married without telling anyone on an April night in Vegas. At that time, my wife’s father became sick. So I went from what seemed like an overnight change of living on my own in Denver, to being married and moving into a house back in Minnesota with my wife, my new father-in- law and two step children. I flew back to Minnesota, and then loaded up a car, and drove back to Colorado on Sundays, taking 4 different trips with my stuff before I eventually came back to Minnesota.

Chelsea Korth / Heavy Table
Chelsea Korth / Heavy Table

After coming back here, I had two ankle surgeries, two spinal surgeries, and a jaw surgery. I had five surgeries in five years, and they were all from my time in the Marines. I was [clinically] depressed, didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I couldn’t get anything done because I was constantly recovering from surgery.

It was my wife who finally told me, “You don’t want a boss. You want to be your own boss.” So I went to community college, and I took all business classes. My wife encouraged me down the path of opening my own restaurant.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

HEAVY TABLE:  What drew you to Korean food?

WU: I had eaten Korean food once while I was in the Marines in San Diego. But it was my wife who introduced me to it. She’s Korean but was adopted and raised in the U.S. When we were in Denver, we ate at a Korean restaurant. We drank shochu and sang karaoke. It was there I discovered Korean hot sauce. I loved it and wanted to know everything about it.

After community college, I apprenticed at a [St. Paul] Korean restaurant my wife introduced me to called Sole Cafe. The owner’s name was Kimberly, and she needed help on the business side of things. I told her, “If you teach me how to make your hot sauce, I will reorganize and restructure your restaurant.” Nine months later, I had taken on much more than restructuring her business, I was her busser, dishwasher, server, and prep cook. And anytime someone came into the restaurant that she didn’t want to talk to, she’d point them to me. In many ways, I admired her work ethic and felt like, “Kimberly! I just need your approval!” It was from her I got a solid grasp on the fundamentals of Korean cuisine.

An Illustrated Tour of the Original Coney Island Cafe and Bar

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table

Some time in the mid 1990s, the Original Coney Island Cafe and Bar in St. Paul abruptly went dark. A sign posted in the window said that the restaurant was closed due to family illness. The sign stayed there for years, but the space remained untouched and looking like they could reopen at any minute. Since they closed, I’ve pressed my face against the window 1,000 times wishing/hoping it would reopen. Well, they finally did…for one day earlier this month during the St. Paul Winter Carnival. We got there early and stood in a line with the diehards that stretched down the block an hour before they opened…everyone waiting for a taste of that famous Coney dog and a peek at space that’s been frozen in time. Sometimes dreams really do come true.

(Top: The line stretched out the door and down the block. And see the original-sized illustrations on WACSO’s website, in gallery #31.)

There are 2 distinct sides to the Original Coney Island…the “cafe” side, and the “bar” side. Walk through a fenced doorway with a sign reminding you that children are NOT allowed in the bar area and the space goes from a very diner-like space with stools at a counter, to a very bar-like space with stools at a bar.

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table

The bar side.

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table

The cafe side.

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table

The old bar gets a workout.

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table

Enjoying the original.

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table

People couldn’t believe what they were seeing: an “open” sign.

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table

Left: Preparing the Coneys. Right: Mustard is key to a good Coney dog / the dogs / satisfied customers.

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table

I’m assuming she’s the daughter of the original owners…she kept saying how happy her mother would have been to see so many people lined up down the street for the dogs.

Strip Club Meat and Fish to Close in July

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

St. Paul’s iconic Strip Club Meat and Fish will be shutting its doors later this year, with a planned closure date of July 1. Chef J.D. Fratzke (above right) attributes the upcoming closure to an amicable parting of ways with owner Tim Niver (above left), and promises news on new projects soon. This post will be updated with additional details later today as the Strip Club makes them available. The Strip Club opened in 2008.

Update: Here’s the restaurant’s official press release about its upcoming closure.

February 1, 2017
Dayton’s Bluff
Saint Paul, MN

To our friends and patrons:

The Strip Club Meat and Fish has enjoyed nearly ten years of operation in Dayton’s Bluff and Saint Paul. It has been a fabulous run, however, we have decided not to renew our lease ending in July, 2017. We’re Not Done! We are announcing our closure now so that our friends and those who still haven’t joined us might be able to do so over the next 5 months. Get your unused gift cards out and join us at one of our tables until July 1, 2017.

We retain possession of The Strip Club space until the end of July. Our restaurant will still beavailable to large groups for either business or personal dinners and celebrations until the end of the month. Also, we invite our aspiring restaurateur peers an opportunity to host pop ups in this unique and special location.

Other changes are occurring along with our announcement. Our final brunch service will be held on Sunday February 12, 2017. We will be serving Mother’s Day and Easter brunches by reservation. Our new hours of operation as of February 14, 2017 will be Tuesday through Saturday evenings from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. We will be closed on Sundays and Mondays.

We are commonly associated with what we lovingly call our “sister restaurants” Saint Dinette and Mucci’s Italian. We are a family of restaurants by nature and ethos but are independently owned and operated and both continue to be healthy and happy businesses. We appreciate your ongoing support and patronage.

THANK YOU!!! We have been truly blessed to own and operate such a wonderful place in the amazing city of Saint Paul, Minnesota. Your trust and support of us will be an enduring force behind our progression as professionals and humans. We look forward to providing excellent food and service to you until our final night of service on July 1 st . Come see us.

Love,

The Strip Club Meat and Fish

From our archives:

Upfront with Tim Niver
Brunch at the Strip Club
(Louie the Loon)
Feasting on Frozen Waters and J.D. Fratzke’s Chef’s Notebook