Along this stretch of Payne Avenue the pavement hums with activity. Families saunter down the street, calling out greetings to neighbors. At a nearby market a crew of dudes smokes cigarettes and gives each other some good-natured verbal abuse. Music spills from passing cars while the bass vibrates down to your toes. There are a few souls requesting the odd bit of spare change or bus fare. There’s a faint perfume of grilled meats and hot asphalt. The doors at the Tongue in Cheek swing open every few minutes, welcoming diners to settle themselves inside the newest eatery along this street.
The team members behind the restaurant are Chef Leonard Anderson, his wife Ashleigh Newman, and business partner Ryan Huseby. Anderson previously worked at W.A. Frost and The Hanger Room. Huseby was once the manager at The Happy Gnome. Newman brings her graphic artist aesthetics to the party, and it shows in the casual modern room. She’s also the driving force behind their commitment to using only locally sourced, sustainably raised meats. However, with a name like theirs, you’d expect there to be some tongue, cheek, or otherwise lesser-used cuts on the menu. What we found were familiar dishes served with just a pinch of chef-y tweaks.
The restaurant space has been beautifully redone. There are sleek little black corner booths for gathering with a couple of friends. There’s a stone-topped bar, the best perch for observing all the activity inside and out. There is also a dining room around the back that seemed to surprise a few people who came wandering in. The host stand would be better if it were closer to the front, where folks could be welcomed, rather than near the back by the kitchen. On more than one occasion I heard someone remark, “Oh, there’s a whole other room in here!” There is, and it’s adorable.
Back at the bar, they’ve got an irresistible happy hour menu that runs 4-7pm Tuesday through Sunday with many of their cocktails available in mini sizes for just $2. The Tickle My Tiny Pickle was the most adorable brine-spiked gin martini we ever did see. The clear-as-day Cross Eyed Mary had all the zest of a bloody mary without ever overwhelming with spice. The gin they use is steeped with blood mary spices and is garnished with a slice of hot, pickled pepper like the button on a happy brunch belly.
When we bumped up the drink size, the flavors became a little more muddled. The Red Headed Stranger was Bulleit Rye forward, but then the other Manhattan-inspired flavors melted into the water when it was most likely overly shaken. The Palapas No Mas sounded like it would be a take on a margarita with tequila and grapefruit, but it was so jaw-clenchingly tart it created beverage-induced lockjaw.
The small plates are where the restaurant shines, with $2 teasers that allow the chef to change what he serves depending on his whims. Roasted pork was a fat, thumb-sized slice of belly that arrived with a charred crust and meat jelly middle, packed with smoky flavor accentuated by bits of mango and a slice of raw jalapeno. It all easily disappeared in one eager bite. The Watermelon Squeeze was an adult gusher: At the bottom of a sip of champagne rests a little juice ball that explodes in your mouth when you toss it back.
Depending on how it was served, the burnt feta with sweet pea was a creamy, luscious bed for that little princess of springtime or a fresh-cheese curd squeaky, salty nub of cheese.
A heap of beef tartare for $11 was served atop a slab of blush-colored salt alongside a mound of crispy fried potato chips best used for scooping up savory, salty, black truffle-kissed grass-fed beef. Meanwhile, the $5 fries and gravy were just exactly what you would expect: crispy, aggressively seasoned potato digits begging to be submerged in a meaty gravy.
The popcorn shrimp was once served crusted in cornmeal with tender nubs of fresh, briney meat inside, the flavor of which was accentuated by the fish roe served atop them. Presented on an escargot tray for $10, it seemed worth the cost for the imaginative dish. However, when the preparation changed to several tiny shrimp on the same plate with three kernels of popcorn atop a dollop of aioli, it suddenly seemed overpriced. Especially sitting on the table alongside the teasers.
Heading toward the entrees, the $9 fried egg sandwich was an oblong pretzel roll with round fillings that left the lonely ends of bread in want of fillings. The $11 burger was a beefy bite of grass-fed beauty, redolent with juices and topped with cucumber-y pickles and just a bit of peppery arugula.
Attempts at ordering entrees weren’t nearly as successful as the smaller plates. The grilled scallops were an unfortunate texture served with what was described as “potato soup,” but it was so thin, it might have been better described as “potato broth.” The daily market meat entree was as a choice between three grass-fed beef cuts served with “whatever vegetable we have today,” with prices ranging up to $49.
No, it’s better to hang out on the affordable end of this menu, popping teasers like they’re going out of style, sipping your way through the drink list and watching all the action carrying on outside.
Tongue in Cheek
Bistro in Payne-Phalen St. Paul
989 Payne Avenue
St Paul, MN 55130
OWNERS: Chef Leonard Anderson / Ashleigh Newman / Ryan Huseby
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / Yes for Weekends
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $11-49
PARKING: Street parking