I will never again order the Monte Cristo sandwich at the Uptown Cafeteria. This is not a knock on the sandwich, which was in fact compelling if not outright excellent. It is a commentary on the fact that this is a sweet, powdered sugar-dusted, batter-fried ham, turkey, cheese, and more cheese sandwich that is meant to be dipped into raspberry jam. Having heard about the Monte Cristo several times while plowing through American food lore (it has roots, if not origins, in Disneyland), I was tempted to see if the Cafeteria version ($12) lived up to the heart-stopping, gut-pounding, flavor-pulsing hype. Yes, yes, yes. This thing should be a once-a-year treat, but oh, man, what a treat. The crispy, mildly sweet batter complemented the melted, cheesy, savory interior; jelly tipped the balance back toward dessert, and all ingredients involved cooperated very nicely. This is an outrageous sandwich, and one that we should all strive to avoid eating. (That said, I’ve already re-thought my opening line; it should probably be “I will never again in 2010 order the Monte Cristo sandwich at the Uptown Cafeteria.” Save me a table for Jan. 2.)
When we first reviewed Uptown Cafeteria, we were not kind to it (sample quote: “Without good food to back it up, the Cafeteria is just Applebee’s with a crasser sense of humor.”) A recent revisit, however, shows that there is in fact some gastronomic magic at work at this place, and from a shaky start, a new Uptown mainstay may be emerging.
It’s an open question whether the magic justifies the cost — five small crab rangoon appetizers cost $10. That’s two bucks a pop, folks. Still: What price deliciousness? These are some of the best crab rangoons in the city and therefore the state and possibly the region, starkly different than the soggy, sad, sack-of-crap cream cheese wontons that typically pass for rangoons in these parts. They’ve got a moderate and nicely balanced jalapeno kick, the taste of crab is fresh and clear without being overwhelming, and the ratio of creamy filling to light, delicate, crispy exterior is spot on.
An order of chilaquiles ($11) at the Cafeteria was also up to snuff. These spicy salsa-soaked chips are served with eggs, avocado, sour cream, and black beans, and perform equally well as a hangover brunch or an entree at dinner. I was first introduced to these at a brunch by Chef Noah Barton (Chino Latino) and it seems likely he had some part in bringing these to fruition, because they were reminiscent of his version: a great balance of textures, not overly salted, with an assertive but not overwhelming sense of spiciness.
At this remedial meal, only dessert fell short — and that gets classified as one of those noble failures that provoke thought even as they short-circuit desire. A duo of whoopie pies (sandwiches made of chocolate cake filled with orange cream or salted caramel marshmallow layers, $7) was disappointing — the cake was Gobi dry, and the frosting one-dimensional and merely sweet. An accompanying RC Cola / vanilla ice cream shake was terrific, and charmingly small — a little milkshake goes a long way. The RC both lightened and aerated the ice cream while imparting some cola flavor, and as a wingman to the whoopie pies, it really did its level best.
Add prompt, pleasant service and a bright, neo-diner interior to this mix, and Uptown Cafeteria has moved from a looming disappointment to a new hope for creative-yet-casual Americana on a plate.
BEST BET: The versatile, delicious, and not-entirely-bad-for-you chilaquiles.
3001 Hennepin Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55408
OWNER / CHEF: Parasole Restaurant Holdings / Jeff Anderson
BAR: Beer, Wine, & Liquor
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / Yes for Weekends
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Scarcely
ENTREE RANGE: $8-30