I went straight for the crazy stuff at the Bullfrog Cajun Bar last week. Frog legs, alligator, crawdads. Not your typical bar food in the Twin Cities, but in owner Matt Lokowich's world, bar food nonetheless.
It all tasted like chicken, anyway.
Lokowich is the man behind the Bulldog Uptown and the Bulldog Lowertown (he's no longer involved in the northeast Minneapolis location). He opened the Bulldog's Cajun counterpart three weeks ago in downtown Minneapolis, hoping bargoers will take a chance not only on Southern grub, but a beer list unlike any other in this market.
The space, at 11th and Hennepin, was formerly home to Gladius, a short-lived gay bar that had a hard time getting customers to buy into its Roman theme. Lokowich and business partner Jeff Kaster have replaced the gladiatorial vibes with rustic tones.
The two have known each other since their bartending days at William's Pub in the early 1990s. Both started as janitors, hoping to one day call their own shots. Now they're asking people to rip apart crawfish and drink beer they've never heard of.
So what's up with this beer list? It's full of lagers. The pale lager is technically the country's most popular (thank you, Budweiser), but it's not exactly coveted by beer geeks who find nirvana in tongue-lacerating hops (hello, Surly) and the complexity of Belgian brews. As a bar owner, Lokowich has long supported craft and import beer.
But now he wants bargoers to take a closer look at the lager family.
"I'm done with Belgians, I'm done with IPAs," Lokowich told me, sounding like he was talking about an ex-girlfriend. While he'll continue to sell those beers at his two Bulldogs, Lokowich is basing the Bullfrog's list on his personal tastes.
"This beer menu is more drinkable," he said.
The Germans are coming
Lagers get less respect in beer circles mostly because they've been "McDonaldized," said Brad "The Beer Guy" Magerkurth, who works for Chisago Lakes, one of the area's top distributors of artisanal brews. The Bullfrog's 24 tap lines are dominated by pilsners, bocks and helles -- all from the lager family and mostly coming from countries like Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic.
"The bar will hopefully shatter people's preconceived notions of what a lager can be," Magerkurth said.
It's hard to hide imperfections in a lager, he said, whereas an IPA can mask its mistakes behind wild hop flavors. "The hardest beer to make is a nice clean pilsner," Magerkurth said. The more esoteric lagers at the Bullfrog all come with mighty names that are better shouted: Einbecker! Kostriker!
The Bullfrog's chef, Tim Favre, said these beers match perfectly with the Cajun food. "You want something crisp and refreshing to go with that spice," he said.
Beyond the frog legs, there are several po'boys (sandwiches with catfish, oysters, shrimp), all priced at $10. If seafood isn't your thing, there are plenty of specialty burgers. Lokowich is proudest, however, of the lobster bake, which includes clams, corn, potatoes and andouille sausage, served together in one pan. The dish can be ordered for two, four or six people ($35-$85).
Better than Bud
Of course getting people to try these beers is no easy task. Last Saturday, more people at the bar were gripping bottles of Bud Light and Grain Belt Premium than beers like Weihenstephaner and Helles Ochlenferla.
Given time, I think the beer geeks will come. Lokowich and Kaster's partnership at the Bulldog Lowertown has been fruitful (that bar brought in $2.6 million last year, they said). This one is about half the size, but they've tried to imbue it with the same comfyness. Save for its covered storefront, Gladius was a windowless hole. They've opened up the space with new windows that face the nearby theater district.
Both guys said they're happy to be on the edge of downtown, away from the craziness of the club scene. "It feels more like a neighborhood to me," Kaster said.
Soon after he said that, a bachelorette party walked in the bar, the bride wearing her white veil complete with tiny plastic penises.
"This is weird," Lokowich said, observing.
The 10 women crowded into one of the booths and ordered a round of hot-pink cocktails. Pilsners and bocks wouldn't be on the agenda tonight. Still, I told Lokowich he shouldn't take it as a bad omen.
You know you've made it in downtown when a bachelorette party shows up.