The Turf Club in St. Paul

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table
Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

The Turf Club has given fans of local music a few scares over the years. Since its establishment around the turn of the century as a nucleus and incubator of the local rock-music scene, the Turf has changed hands multiple times, frequently closing, leaving bands and fans in the lurch and worried about the future of their beloved club.

The most recent transfer, into the hands of the owners of Minneapolis’s legendary First Avenue, took place in 2013. The venue closed in early June for remodeling and reopened in September with a new sound system, new bathrooms, a raised ceiling, and most interesting to us: a remodeled kitchen.

In previous incarnations, food at the Turf Club could be had only if your timing was right. You had to catch the lady selling late-night tamales in zip-loc bags or one of the periodic pop-ups selling tacos or arguably the best pastrami in town. This latest iteration of The Turf Club serves food almost all the time, with lunch and dinner daily as well as weekend brunch and late night food.

Having eaten at First Avenue’s restaurant across the river, The Depot Tavern, we expected similarly competent bar food — sandwiches, hot dogs, burgers — but the Turf Club menu indicated a different approach. The food is generally Southern style (po-boys, smoked brisket, grits), and the price point is a little higher. Admittedly, it was hard to conceive of the Turf Club — where the previous kitchen (yes, there was always a kitchen) was primarily used to store gear, and where the bathrooms had no place for cooks to wash their hands — as a place serving quality food. But knowing First Avenue’s record of success, we entered the revamped Turf Club with muted optimism, which they did not fail to satisfy.

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table
Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

Over several visits, we found the food to be mostly good. There were some triumphs and there were a couple of stumbles (sometimes on the same plate). The service was at times frustratingly relaxed. While it’s tempting to excuse the service by granting that the Turf Club is a dive bar, not a “real” restaurant, the kitchen, which is open more hours a day than it’s closed, and the diverse menu that reaches far beyond short order specialties, indicate that The Turf Club does indeed aspire to be a real restaurant.

The corn chowder ($3 cup, $5 bowl) was a triumph. Thick with chunky potatoes and corn, the soup was creamy, smoky, and delicious. Its kick was noticeable, but not strong enough to knock you over. The smoked brisket chili ($5 cup, $8 bowl), a true Texas chili, was also a success. Tomato based, with smoked peppers, the chili contained no pesky beans to dilute its beefy flavor. The chili upped the ante on the chowder and was spicy enough to leave one of our tasters hiccuping and short of breath.

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table
Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

From the variety of po-boys offered at the Turf (shrimp, meatloaf, roast beef, and fried catfish), we ordered the catfish po-boy ($11). Served on a soft hoagie roll, this sandwich hit all the right notes. The thick filets of lightly breaded catfish were delicately fried, savory, and tender, with a hint of buttery sweetness. The abundant leaves of lettuce were crisp and fresh, and the Tabasco mayo added a little spice without Tabasco’s overpowering vinegar taste.

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table
Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

Similarly, the Nashville chicken sandwich ($9 with chips, $2 extra for tots) was excellently constructed. With a thicker, crunchier breading, the white meat was perfectly cooked and light tasting, despite being fried. Brushed with hot sauce and topped with the same crunchy butter lettuce and sliced tomato, this was another winner. Order it with tater tots and crunch your way to satisfaction. The Turf Club knows how to fry things.

The Turf Club club sandwich ($10) was a riff on the popular standard. Other than the addition of a layer of roasted red pepper, very little stood out. If anything, the red pepper interrupted a previously perfected sandwich. The bacon was thick cut and fried to a crisp, but the turkey was just your average, sliced deli meat. As per the standard, there were three slices of bread, quartered crosswise and frilly toothpicks. In the middle, they dump chips. Unless, for $2 extra, you order French fries, as we did. The thick-cut potatoes were somewhere between steak wedges and State Fair fries. They were fried crisp on the outside and pillowy soft on the inside. Did we mention: the Turf Club knows how to fry things.

Chicken tacos ($8.50 for 3) were, with the exception of their ripe avocado, a total misfire. The grilled chicken was dry and flavorless; the doubled-up corn tortillas fell apart on contact with fingertips; the lettuce and tomato were an out-of-place gringo taco addition; and the cilantro lime mayo was undetectable. These deserve a full reboot, and either leaving out the lettuce and tomato or subbing a flour tortilla for  the corn tortilla would be a start.

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table
Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

The slow-roasted beef sandwich ($16) was served open faced on Texas toast with mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy. The beef was expertly cooked — tender and toothsome — and tasted homemade and soulful atop the buttery toast. Unfortunately, the potatoes and gravy, which tasted cafeteria style, were not up to the same standard. This single dish sums up the food at the Turf Club. They are doing some things really well, and it’s not necessarily where you would expect. Roast beef is much harder to prepare than mashed potatoes and gravy. At least they’ve got the hard part down.

Compared with other rock clubs that serve food (and we’re not talking about Heggie’s pizza), some of the prices feel a little high. For a sandwich with fries, $13 seems a bit out of step. And for $16, the slow-roasted beef sandwich, while delicious, doesn’t feel like a good value, especially if you leave most of the potatoes on the plate.

The beer list is just as comprehensive as it was prior to the remodeling, with Surly, Bell’s, Summit, and other regional and national micro-brews on tap, in addition to Schlitz, Premium, and the like. In case tap beer is not your thing, on one visit, we saw them wheel in nearly 1,000 tall-boy cans of PBR.

As a music venue, the Turf Club is top notch. And under the careful curating of First Avenue, any more shut-down scares seem unlikely. As a kitchen, there are some soft spots, but rest assured, local music-heads: You can get a quality bite to eat at the Turf Club.

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table
Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

The Turf Club
Southern-style bar food in St. Paul’s midway neighborhood
★½☆☆ (Notable)
1601 University Ave
St. Paul, MN 55104
M-F 11am – 1am
Sat & Sun 10am – 1am
BAR: Full
PARKING: Lot / Street

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