Kim Bartmann’s collection of restaurants is less a unified empire than it is an archipelago, an eclectic assortment of gastronomic islands, each with their own distinct identity. From the bedrock bistro-for-all-occasions that is Barbette to the LEED-certified update on a Midwestern supper club that is Red Stag to the performing arts-space-meets-bowling-alley quirk of Bryant Lake Bowl, Bartmann’s eateries cover a fair bit of conceptual ground.
But they all possess a combination of virtues that is ideally suited to Minneapolis-St. Paul: a casual, come-as-you-are feel married to a thoughtful higher purpose.
Tiny Diner fits right into the island chain. Located at 38th Street and 11th Ave. in South Minneapolis, Tiny Diner is, as per its blog, “a restaurant and permaculture demonstration site.” (It’s also a mini farmers market on Thursday nights.) From the carefully engineered food garden that surrounds the outdoor patio to the solar array that sits majestically above it to the restaurant’s overall aesthetic of energy conservation and the use of local food, Tiny Diner is engineered for the long haul. But for all the thought that went into its design and construction, the place is still accessible, from the diner counter to the parking lot.
“That’s why the Tiny Diner is a diner,” says Bartmann. “In foodie communities, there have been people re-exploring the diner concept — the building just says ‘diner’ to me, and the neighborhood doesn’t really have that many places to eat at. A diner is a place where you go and eat. I’m hoping you’ll grace us with the celebration of your birthday, but it’s built for someone to go there a couple times a week.”
Permaculture dining can’t truly be permanent without the menu to back it up. Tiny Diner’s selection is true to another hallmark of Bartmann’s style: Prices range all up and down the map, from the humble (a turkey sandwich for $7.50) to the grand (Shepherd Song Lamb Chops for $36). “I’m always really interested in creating a room that a lot of different people feel good in,” says Bartmann. “I want to see a mix in my dining room. And so the menu has to be approachable from a lot of different angles.”
In bulk, although the menu’s prices and value prospect run all up and down the chart, things skew in the guest’s favor: There are a lot of ways to eat cheap (and well) at Tiny Diner. Take the Deviled Eggs ($6.25), for example. Topped and intermingled with Lake Superior smoked whitefish, beets, yogurt, dill, and horseradish, these appetizers pack a tremendous but balanced flavor punch and present a spectacle of color that is guaranteed to improve your day.
House Cured Pickles ($3.75, or $4.75 with sausage) are, if anything, too punchy from a flavor perspective. The carrots in particular delivered a great deal of acidic kick. But the freshness, crunch, and flavor of this honking big cup of veg can’t be denied, and it’s the perfect side order for a table of four (or more) looking for some acidity to balance the creamy comfort of other dishes.
Speaking of which: the Philly Cheesesteak ($12). It’s a guest on the menu as part of Tiny Diner’s “diner city of the month” exchange program, but we hope it becomes a permanent resident. Red onion and shishito peppers dress up this working-class classic without messing up the balance. The keys of salty cheese dressing (“Real Wiz” made from butterkase in this case) and melt-in-your-mouth-tender shaved steak on a pliable but absorbent bun are all in working order.
“A place like [Tiny Diner] is going to start to have sacred cows that we can’t get rid of,” says Bartmann, on the need to keep mixing up the menu. “I’m interested in looking around regionally at what kinds of food are local, why are they local? Do they come from ingredients, from subcultures? I think it’ll be really interesting to travel around and look at those kind of things.”
“We’re not re-inventing the wheel; all we have to do is pick up a Jane and Michael Stern roadtrip book, and we’re good to go.” She pauses. “But we’re trying to elevate that food, too — that Philly cheesesteak with the butterkase and the shishito peppers and the Peterson Limousin grass-fed beef is not your Pennsylvanian roadside cheesesteak.”
While the diner may have its roots in classic American roadfood, the team isn’t afraid to play around with flavor. A Lamb Schwarma Burrito ($14.50) has a pickled, acidic kick that conjures forth the flavor of a grape leaf dolma. While the burrito was runnier than our personal preference, it’s entirely possible and probably preferable to tear the thing to pieces and eat it as sort of a lamb / veggie / creamy dressing salad on the plate.
The Deluxe Burger ($14) came dressed with lettuce, tomato, an onion ring, pickles, smoked Gouda, bacon, and a Béarnaise aioli. Proportions are everything with burgers, and the toppings tasted harmonious, in terms of both flavor and quantity. We ordered ours medium rare; it came out medium rare. If you’re prone to paying $14 for a hamburger with a bunch of stuff on it, this is not a bad way to go.
Not everything on the menu is necessarily as value friendly as the cheesesteak or the burger: We wished the Rasher Salad ($16.50) would have packed more of a punch. Little more than a small (but competently composed) frisee and potato salad sitting astride two fat pieces of Fox Farm bacon, this dish felt more like a starter than the entree it was labeled and priced as.
Dessert at the Diner may be the high point. The slice of house-made strawberry rhubarb pie that we tried ($5.50) had that classic sweet-tart balance — it was no sugar bomb, but it wasn’t lip-curling sour, either. The crust was substantial without tasting stale, and the consistency of the filling was spot on, neither gummy nor runny nor cured caulk-dense. A Keikeu Cake Boutique whoopie pie ($3) was also all about the balance; although it looked like a soft Oreo, it led with rich cocoa flavor, not sugar. And the chocolate malt we sampled ($4) was spot on, rich in flavor and thick without being a brick.
Few other restaurants on the local scene can boast the sort of fascinating, tangled ball of humility and ambition that lies at the heart of Tiny Diner. It’s an attempt to do some very big things in a reasonably small space. For that — and for the taste of the food, and the quality of the local beer menu, and the Thursday night farmers market — it’s a place that demands a visit from anyone who wants to know what’s new and exciting in local food in the Upper Midwest.
Gastro-diner in Powderhorn Minneapolis
1024 E 38th St
Minneapolis, MN 55407
OWNER: Kim Bartmann
Farmers Market: Thursdays through September from 4-7:30pm
BAR: Beer + Wine
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $7-36
PARKING: Small lot, ample street parking