We’re coming down to the wire. Sure, the Green Line technically keeps going into Downtown Minneapolis, but this is just about the end of the line for us. Perhaps that’s why these last couple of installments have taken so long to complete. Maybe, in some unconscious way, we don’t want to be done. What will our lives look like when we’re not trolling University every other week, stopping at every establishment that might possibly serve a meal or a drink, stuffing our faces, talking about food, and learning about the lives of complete strangers? How will we fill that void? We have no idea.
The good news is we’re not finished quite yet. — M.C. Cronin
This week’s checklist crew: WACSO, M.C. Cronin, Becca Dilley, James Norton.
GREEN LINE INSTALLMENTS THUS FAR: 88 Oriental Foods to Thai Cafe, Ha Tien Deli to Hook Fish and Chicken, Family Lao Thai to Cheng Heng, iPho by Saigon to Los Ocampo, SugaRush to PaJai, Pinoy Fusion to The Best Steakhouse, Johnny Baby’s to Ngon Bistro, Flamingo to Trend Bar, Midway Pro Bowl to Big V’s, On’s Kitchen to Tracks Bar and Grill, Caspian Bistro to Playoffs Sports Lounge, Mesa Pizza to Stub and Herb’s.
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
The Green Line Checklist is the Heavy Table’s follow-up to our 55-restaurant survey of independent eateries on Central Avenue. We’ll publish five-restaurant installments biweekly until we’ve documented every nonchain spot between the University Avenue and Rice Street intersection in St. Paul and the Green Line terminus on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis. (We’re estimating 75 spots, but we’ll see how it shakes out.)
This series is made possible by underwriting from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative. Heavy Table retains editorial control of the series — as with Central Avenue, this tour will be warts-and-all.
Dubliner Pub and Cafe
2162 University Ave W, St. Paul
Raymond Avenue Station
Our first visit to Dubliner was back in July. We were greeted by the sound of a live band playing traditional Irish music and people turning about the dance floor in pairs. The mood in the bar was the perfect antidote to what had been a difficult night on the Green Line Checklist.
The beer was cold, the service was pleasant, and the conversation around the bar was spirited. It was good craic, one might say. Especially, if one were Irish.
During this first visit, we were heard mourning the loss of Bonnie’s Cafe next door, and we learned that the Dubliner had plans to open a restaurant in the space. We were especially happy to learn that the plans included reusing some of the best parts of that charming old diner. We were given a tour of the space under construction, and we vowed to return when it opened, which we did for the present Green Line installment.
We arrived around brunch time. The cafe space was sunlit, bright, and open, with wood floors and booths. There was a counter with round bar stools set up along the front window. And in the back of the space, there was a small, raised stainless counter with more stools.
Clocks — all of which appeared to be non-functioning and frozen at wildly different times — were lined up along one wall. Framed Life magazine covers hung along another. Famous quotes about time from people as varied as Kurt Vonnegut and Benjamin Franklin where sprinkled around the room. So time was clearly a central theme.
In keeping with the theme, our waitress arrived right on time. She offered us coffee right away, explaining that she learned to serve coffee first or risk dealing with cranky customers. Age-old cafe wisdom.
The menu was surprising and promising. Many of the items appeared to be updated takes on traditional Irish fare. Unfortunately, the food — on this day, at least — didn’t quite live up to the menu’s promise. Perhaps another time. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
On the drink side of this operation, we had no complaints. Our beers tasted right and were (as detailed above) enjoyed in a charming place, surrounded by cheerful company.
But the food side has some catching up to do, at least as regards breakfast and lunch. Our Eggs Baked Du Jour ($8) was billed as three baked eggs atop hash browns, which conjured up rich runny yolks or soft, buttery scrambled clouds, with browned, texturally fascinating hashed potatoes. What we got was akin to a wet hockey puck squatting in a (cold) miniature skillet. The skillet was clearly meant to bring class to the proceedings, but when brought out at room temperature and immaculate, it merely served as an ironic indicator of how underproduced and loveless its contents were.
Our Guinness Fish & Chips ($14.50, including a $1.50 surcharge for wedge fries instead of skinny fries) had some points in their favor, but they ultimately bellied up to our table with about $10 in value. The “chips” were few in number, listless, and underseasoned. Drowning customers with a hot, salty pile of good fries is an easy cure for all manner of ills, and we wish the Dubliner had gone that underhanded but ultimately lovable route.
We got one piece of fish (a fair prospect at an $8 entree price, but somewhat outrageous at $13), and while it was skillfully battered and fried, it too was bland. The excellent and likely house-made tartar sauce was a saving grace, but ultimately, the dish was just too dear. — James Norton
Workhorse Coffee Bar
2399 University Ave W, St. Paul
Raymond Avenue Station
A java joint couldn’t be more appropriately named. This is an absolute workhorse of an independent coffee shop. It checks off all the right boxes. The space is inviting with high tin (or at least tinlike) ceilings, a dark brick wall, creaky wood floors, and art for sale on the walls. The coffee and espresso selection is decent. The bakery case is stocked with cookies, bars, and croissants. There are plenty of tables and chairs to settle into.
It’s a perfect place to pop in, grab your latte, unfurl your tablet or laptop, and get to work. You can even get a pizza for those times when your morning routine stretches into the afternoon.
While you’re there, you might want to check out the Smallest Museum in St. Paul. As the name implies, it won’t take much effort on your part. You won’t need a half day or a downloadable audio tour to get through this museum. Just walk over to the window box just outside the front door of the coffee shop, take a peek, and that’s it. You’ve met your cultural quota for the day.
Workhorse steadfastly follows the long-established traditions and principles of some of the finest independent coffee shops while managing to be uniquely its own. It just works. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
We hadn’t really expected anything in the way of substantial food at Workhorse, so we were pleasantly surprised to find a whole pizza (pepperoni, tomatoes, ricotta, mozzarella) on offer for a mere $7. Granted that the pizza was small and rather humble, but the cheese pulled and tasted like the real deal, and the overall value was good.
The restaurant’s turkey and Swiss cheese croissant ($3.25) was made at SugaRush (an earlier stop that we quite enjoyed), and while it wasn’t a distinguished example of the breed — the sweet dough all but screamed “Pillsbury” — it really wasn’t all that bad. Like the pizza, it had an earnest, easy-to-please attitude and alow price that made it a soft-spoken winner.
We haven’t encountered Cafe Racer cold press ($4.25) anywhere other than Workhorse, and that’s a shame. We liked the mellow, nutty, rich flavor of this stuff, which managed to avoid various longstanding cold press missteps: being gritty, or weak, or aggressively acidic, for example.
Our Peppermint Lemonade ($3.75), by contrast, wasn’t really what we were expecting or hoping for. A mix of peppermint tea, simple syrup, and lemon, it tasted unnervingly like a cough drop. A good cough drop, it should be said, although that’s not enough to save the beverage overall.
Our mocha ($3.75 for 8 ounces) was a fine, upstanding specimen of its fellowship — not overly sweet or chocolate-syrupy, but rather subtle and balanced and understated.
Between the general care taken with design and service and the pleasantly unassuming and ultimately fairly priced food and drink, Workhorse lives up to its name. It’s a little cafe going to a lot of care and effort for its customers. — J.N.
The Egg and I
2550 University Ave W, St Paul
What do you get when you scavenge a Denny’s interior from the early 80s, complete with it’s Pepto-Bismol-pink laminate and vinyl, and plop it into the first floor space of a dated office building? You get the Egg and I.
Even the TV — a small cathode-ray-tube model sitting atop a beverage refrigerator — seemed to be of the same era.
For a reasonably large place set back from the main drag and hidden inside an office building, it felt surprisingly busy. True, The Egg and I has made a name for itself in breakfast circles over its years on Lyndale, but still. Who could find this place?
The answer was immediately evident. There were several booths of retirees and tables full of families stuffing their collective faces with various breakfasty items. The servers and staff bustled about scribbling on order pads, delivering large trays of food, swiping tables with washrags, and aggressively clearing plates. (Perhaps too aggressively, actually. One of our crew had his plate removed before he was able to enjoy the last few bites on it).
Bonus activity: Try a putt or two at the practice golf hole embedded in the carpet near the front door. It’s a good way to kill time while you wait for a table or to keep the little ones busy while you wait for your pancakes (the “Biggest Cakes in Town,” according to the menu) to arrive. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Our expectations for the Egg and I were modest, at best, and the Denny’s-evocative interior tamped them down into the realm of dismal by the time we ordered our food.
Little did we expect a sourdough pancake (a mere $2.85 for a plate-sized monster) that would boast crispy edges, real chew, and a gentle but discernible yeasty finish. This heads right to the middle of our Top Ten Pancakes Around This Part of the Country list.
Our Skillet Breakfast ($10.65) was everything our egg dish at the Dubliner wasn’t. The cheddar cheese was incredibly stringy and pleasantly salty, and it was mixed evenly throughout the bed of still-crisp, flavorful vegetables and American fries that supported our properly cooked over-easy eggs. Add to the equation that the Egg and I’s egg dish was at least twice the volume of the Dubliner’s and you have something approaching a 2:1 or 3:1 value advantage for the former. Added bonus: no cutesy skillet, just a serviceable ceramic boat.
The Bacon ($4.75 for four pieces) was decent — reasonably meaty, could have been crisper, salty but not oversalted. This isn’t bacon to fly into town for, but it’s not going to ruin your morning, either. — J.N.
Ippindo Ramen House
Stadium Village Station
Based on the red, white, and blue bunting decorating the windows of Ippindo Ramen House, we were expecting something utterly different from what we got. We were anticipating a scrappy little hole-in-the-wall Asian joint cashing in on the ramen trend. Instead, we found a well designed, well coordinated, well run restaurant that was almost so put together we began to wonder if it was a chain (and not in a bad way).
Hanging below a high black ceiling, wooden rafters mimicked the rooftop of a garden pergola. Decorative floor and wall tiles resembled reclaimed cedar planks with their gray wood-grain patterns. The space was narrow and deep. Steam billowed from the open kitchen over the long counter seating area. The staff wore matching black T-shirts, pants, and bandanas. It was simple, clean, and warm.
Our server greeted us in a manner that was enthusiastic bordering on fanatical. When asked about what we should order, there was no hemming or hawing. He didn’t go through a canned list of every entree on the menu. He pointed out a couple of dishes and strongly suggested we order them. So we did. And we soon discovered his fanaticism was warranted. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
On the food front, our expectations for the unsung (maybe “unknown” is a better word) Ippindo Ramen House were modest. We were expecting quick, Chipotle-style service and indifferent food spooned out to uncomplaining college students.
But what we got was one of the better ramen experiences we’ve had in a state that’s recently gone crazy for the stuff. Our Curry Fried Chicken Ramen ($9) is something we’ll be back for — maybe as soon as next week. The broth was rich with a real depth of flavor and not too much salt, the plentiful chicken was that perfect marriage of tender and crispy, and the whole dish was pleasantly haunted by the presence of toasted sesame. The taste of curry was present but not aggressive or acrid. This is one of those flashbulb dishes that we’ll remember for a long time to come.
We were initially bummed that our Tantan Ramen ($10) was dry (which is to say, no broth), but the dish redeemed itself with ground pork that was tender and flavorful, not gritty or overly salty. The noodles were delicate and had taken on the richness of the meat, and the seasoned egg that we ordered for an extra $1 was lovely — a flavor bomb in an otherwise quiet, soothing dish.
And our eel rice bowl (aka Unagi Don, $11) was yet another solid hit. The five big, super-tender, not over-cooked or overly sweet pieces of eel that topped the rice bowl were presented in a lovely, starlike formation, and the rice was properly cooked and an ideal vehicle for the fish. In terms of cooking technique and amount of meat served, the dish easily came to the table with $15 or $16 in value.
For a restaurant open all of three months, Ippindo is doing a number of things exceedingly well. — J.N.
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