The burger: “This is a four-napkin burger,” said my friend, as he tried – without much success – to keep control of all the components spilling out of the two-fisted bacon cheeseburger he had in his grip. I nodded in agreement. We were deeply immersed in a tremendous quick-service burger experience at Slim’s, and soon enough I was running neck-and-neck in the paper napkin tally.
What a smart entry in the fast-food burger wars. The Slim’s version sports a hand-formed patty , its hefty 6 ounces pressed into a relatively thin shape (one that hugs the edges of the plus-size bun) and seared on the flattop until the rough-hewn outer edges take on a crisp, flavorful char.
It’s piping hot, and that heat makes quick work of the melty blanket of American cheese. Aside from the chewy beef bacon – a thoughtful add-on for the pork-averse – toppings include tangy red onions, a heavy dose of vinegar-ey pickle chips, a crispy Bibb lettuce leaf and a few forgettable tomato slices, all working in concert to create a quintessentially all-American fast-food experience, Grade-A division. The malts and shakes, hand-scooped and mixed to order, are an added bonus.
The highly agreeable soft white-bread buns, swiped with butter and given a light toasting, hail from Denny’s 5th Avenue Bakery.
How good is the Slim's burger? “I had every intention of eating half and then walking away from the rest,” said my friend. “And look: I ate the whole thing.” Same here.
Price: Hamburger $4.50, cheeseburger $5, bacon-cheeseburger $6, all a first-rate value.
Fries: An additional $2, and worth it. They’re skin-ons, cut fresh daily. Their rich potato flavor is enhanced by a light sprinkle of a house-made seasoning blend.
The back story: Brothers Omar (“Slim” is his childhood nickname) and Yunes Abuisnaineh renovated and expanded a former Starbucks into their cheery year-old restaurant (pictured, above), which also cranks out chicken wings, pizza, gyros and cheese steak sandwiches.
The brothers are locals. "I grew up here, this is right in my neighborhood," said Omar, and he's not exaggerating; he graduated from Park Center Senior High School, which is just down the street. Their business started in 2011 as a tiny chicken wings-and-pizza takeout joint before traded up to their big 69th-and-Brooklyn Blvd. location last winter. A convenient drive-through opened in earlier this month.
Another deep-fried specialty is the basket ($4) of crisp, liberally seasoned potato chips, cut long and skinny and paired with two sauces. “Take me straight to North Memorial,” said my friend, as he began to tackle that pile of chips in earnest. Don't miss them.
Address book: 6901 Brooklyn Blvd., Brooklyn Center, 763-512-2000. Open 10:30 am. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 10:30 am. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
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Change is coming to Corner Table. And how.
The restaurant, owned by spouses Nick and Chenny Rancone and chef Thomas Boemer, is moving is moving two blocks south to the former La Chaya Bistro (pictured, above).
Then Boemer and the Rancones are converting their 43rd-and-Nicollet restaurant (pictured, above) into a casual, affordable cafe specializing in fried chicken and other Southern fare. The Rancones purchased the restaurant from original chef/owner Scott Pampuch in 2012; Boemer is now a partner in the business.
First, the move. When I reviewed the restaurant last June, one of my (very few) complaints was the disconnect between Boemer’s exciting cooking and the generic and acoustically challenging surroundings.
“Well, we’ve solved that problem,” said Nick Rancone with a laugh.
Despite its roots as a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet (an irony, given the soon-to-come specialty of the house up the street), La Chaya, which closed in December, is a looker. It’s also a bit roomier than cramped Corner Table, and the square-footage increase benefits both the dining room and the kitchen.That extra space means Boemer is going to add a weekend brunch service, along with serving dinner Monday through Saturday.
The plan is to make the move in mid-March (“that’s a conservative estimate,” said Nick Rancone, pictured, above in a Star Tribune file photo, with spouse Chenny Rancone), following a slight rehab of the space. “We want to put our own touch on it,” said Nick Rancone. “It’s going to be clean and cool.”
Expect to see new custom wallpaper, light fixtures and woodwork. It helps that Boemer’s previous career was in cabinet making. “Not only can Thomas do the work – which can enable us to do things that we might not otherwise afford – but he also has a good aesthetic,” said Nick Rancone.
Once that project is up and running – the hope is that the Corner Table transition means that the restaurant will be closed for less than a week – the Rancones and Boemer can concentrate on their yet-unnamed second effort.
Along with fried chicken (Boemer, pictured above in a Star Tribune file photo, is also working on a gluten-free formula), the plan is to offer a short list of Southern comfort food classics at lunch and dinner, a reflection of Boemer’s North Carolina upbringing.
Expect to encounter a biscuit-dough chicken pot pie, hush puppies, a thin-patty burger, served on the premises and packaged to go. “We want to make it approachable, in terms of price, but keep the food to our standards,” said Nick Rancone.
The space is getting a makeover, although the details haven’t been worked out. “But it’ll be more than a coat of paint,” said Nick Rancone. Late May to early June is the target opening date.
The burger: I’ll confess that I was pre-disposed to have positive feelings towards Streetz American Grill before I even got out of my car, and here’s why: For the first outlet of his proto-chain, owner Paul Harmon has repurposed a former Denny’s franchise. Not a teardown, but a top-to-bottom renovation. Picture replacing a pair of ratty Zubaz with well-fitted selvage jeans, and you’ve got an idea of how Streetz has rubbed out a longstanding blight on the suburban Bloomington landscape.
Harmon, a first-time restaurateur, obviously didn't do it alone. He tapped two Minneapolis design firms -- Tanek, for architecture, and Cue on the branding front – to scrape away every last trace of that 30-year-old Denny's template, and if there are awards for adaptive reuse done right, here’s hoping that the powers that be keep Streetz in mind.
The restaurant really stands out on the crowded fast-casual burger scene, and it’s not just because of its curb appeal. The menu is dedicated to creating spot-on iterations of American street vendor classics, including a long line of burgers.
“We started out by saying, ‘We can’t get a truly authentic Philly cheese steak in this town,’ said Harmon. “We want to be the place where locals from other places come here and say, ‘That’s where you go for the best Philly cheese steak, or the best Chicago Dog.’”
This being Burger Friday, I won’t speak to the veracity of Streetz's version of the City of Brotherly Love's most enduring working-man's culinary export (but it’s an encouraging sign that Harmon’s Philly go-to is Pat’s), or its Coney Dog. But the burger? A winner.
The beef – an 80 percent lean meat/20 percent fat ratio -- is formed into a far thicker patty than most of its quick-service counterparts. The gently seasoned, loosely packed ground chuck is clearly shaped into a hug-the-edge-of-the-bun patty with as little intervention as possible. Each patty is cooked to order on a flattop grill. I chose medium-rare, and it arrived – about four minutes later -- with an interior that was appropriately rosy if not wildly juicy, and an exterior sizzling with a lightly crusted char.
For the basic burger, toppings stick to the basics, just raw thin-sliced red onions, a pair of not-awful-for-January tomato slices and an unexpectedly crisp, deeply green lettuce leaf. Harmon and general manager Tim Malloy have the smarts to source the no-nonense buns from P.J. Murphy’s Bakery. They're a burger classic: a tender, almost milky, white bread, one that’s lightly toasted and manages to be both soft and yet sturdy enough to stand up a third-pound patty.
With so many order-at-the-counter burger chains crowding the market, locally owned Streetz is definitely a force to watch, in part because they're taking obvious pains to nail the time-tested elements that go into creating first-rate quick-service fare. "Our goal is to do simple food, really well," said Harmon. So far, so good, I'd say. Next time, I'll be back for the Philly cheese steak. And another burger.
Price: $4.95 for a burger, $5.50 for a cheeseburger, a great value. Other add-ons include mayonnaise, avocado, bacon, buffalo hot sauce, lamb/beef gyro meat, all-beef hot dogs, chili, Polish sausages and more, $5.95 to $8.95. The hand-mixed malts and shakes ($3.95) are appropriately thick and creamy.
Fries: Not included, but worth the extra cash. The “side” order ($1.95) is an extremely generous basket, and the “basket” ($3.25) could easily feed two. They're sliced relatively thick, with their skins on, and my lone quibble is that they could use more salt.
Coming sometime soon: Harmon & Co. launched a second Streetz in Hopkins about six weeks ago, this time in a reconfigured manufacturing facility. “Our plan is to do five or six of these in the next five years,” said Harmon, who noted that he has been inundated with where-and-when queries. “Give us a little time,” he said with a laugh. “We’ve only had six months with the first one. We need to rest a little bit, and get our act together.” Bottom line: “We don’t have the next one on board, yet,” he said.
Address book: 1200 W. 98th St., Bloomington, 952-888-1411 and 415 17th Av. N., Hopkins, 952-217-4406. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
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Downtown Minneapolis is crawling with construction projects, including the billion-dollar Vikings stadium, the $79.3 million Target Field Station transportation hub and more apartment buildings than an urban statistician can follow.
For food lovers, the biggest buzz-generating newcomer is currently raising up all kinds of dust in the historic Soo Line Building at Marquette and 5th (pictured, above, in a Star Tribune file photo). That’s where Meritage co-owners Russell and Desta Klein are carving out a potentially transformative dining-and-drinking quartet: Brasserie Zentral, Foreign Legion, a wine-and-spirits retail shop and Cafe Zentral.
Following a hardhat tour earlier this week, it’s clear that the Kleins (pictured, above, in a Star Tribune file photo) have an affinity for historic buildings. Meritage is located in the glorious Hamm Building, which was built just four years after the Soo Line, a 19-story Beaux-Arts beauty that went up in 1915 to house the First National Bank of Minneapolis. Until the Foshay Tower opened in 1929, the building was the tallest commercial structure on the Minneapolis skyline. Developer Village Green paid nearly $12 million for the building and has spent the past year giving it a top-to-bottom renovation.
The Kleins' project spreads out over three levels, and because it's in various stages of construction flux, nothing is terribly photogenic at the moment (picture unpainted drywall, scarred concrete and exposed venting ducts), which is why I pretty much dispensed with my camera and stuck to my notebook. Here’s what I learned:
Brasserie Zentral. The restaurant is located at the Marquette/5th corner of the building (pictured, above), the spot anchored by that iconic black-and-white clock hanging over the sidewalk. A relatively low ceiling (the Soo Line’s soaring interior spaces are reserved for the second floor, once home to the building’s original grand banking hall, long since remodeled out of existence) dictated an intimacy to Brasserie Zentral’s overall design.
“We want it to have a timeless look, so it will feel a part of this timeless building,” said Desta Klein. “We want to celebrate the brasserie culture that exists outside of Paris, in places like Vienna, Munich and Budapest.”
The 150-seat dining room (by comparison, Meritage originally had 80 seats and has since grown to 125) has windows on two sides, and turns its back on the building’s decorated-within-an-inch-of-its-life lobby.
Rather than a single large, sweeping space, architect David Shea of Shea Inc. in Minneapolis has sectioned off the floor plan into a series of interconnected rooms within a room. A 10-seat bar anchors one of two interior walls and the exhibition kitchen – flanked by a 10-seat chef’s counter – holds down the other one.
In a matter of weeks, the floors will be finished in dark hardwoods, and the walls will be predominantly a vibrant Provence yellow, with burgundy and gold accents. Many of the tables will be semi-circular banquettes.
The kitchen is aiming for showplace status. “We’re building a Swiss watch in this place, one with plenty of horsepower,” said Shea. At its center, literally, is a European-style island stove, designed so that chefs face one another as they work, rather than stand shoulder-to-shoulder in a single line.
“It’s such a sexy stove,” said Russell Klein. “I’m excited to show it off.”
Meritage is closed on Mondays, so Russell Klein and his crew have been using the time to develop the menus for the Soo Line project. Klein has described Brasserie Zentral's emphasis as “Continental cuisine with a real focus on central Europe,” an exciting prospect for Twin Cities diners, since those traditions don’t get a lot of play in local restaurants.
“Although I don’t want to be pigeonholed,” he said. Along with his take on classic dishes from Austria and Hungary, Klein said that he hopes to reach into Spain, Belgium and the Alsace region, for starters.
The bar will feature a line of schnapps created specifically for the restaurant by Parallel 45, the craft distillery in New Richmond, Wis., and will also place an emphasis on Alsatian and Austrian wines. Expect a strong beer program, too. The restaurant will also feature a 10-seat private dining room.
The Kleins are in the middle of a hiring spree. They’ve recruited Goodfellow’s alum Troy Unruh, a veteran of a number of top New York City restaurants, including Del Posto, Jean Georges and Le Bernardin, to run Brasserie Zentral’s day-to-day operations.
They’ve also hired Niki Francioli, formerly of Sea Change, as pastry chef.
Meanwhile, back at Meritage, longtime sous chef Jon Beyreuther has been promoted to chef de cuisine.
Another 75 to 80 employees will be added to the Zentral payroll in the next three months; right now the couple employs 60 at Meritage.
The project has a kind of iceberg quality: All the real estate that will eventually be visible to the public eye is supported by an enormous maze of prep kitchens, walk-in coolers, work rooms, dishwashing stations, storage spaces, locker rooms and offices, all filling the building’s basement.
“I never thought that in my life I would get a chance to do a project like this,” said Russell Klein. “I never thought we would literally build from scratch something of this magnitude. But in the end, we’re opening a restaurant, and I just hope that people show up.”
Opening: An as-yet-announced day in April.
Foreign Legion. Across the Soo Line lobby from Brasserie Zentral, the Kleins will be introducing another dining-and-drinking element that is currently in short supply in downtown Minneapolis: A wine bar.
“It’s going to have an entirely different personality from Brasserie Zentral,” said Russell Klein. The menu will be dominated by an array of small plates, including a number of variations on grilled cheese sandwiches, no surprise since the restaurant will keep an inventory of what Klein describes as a “huge” cheese selection.
“We don’t have a number on it yet, but it’s a lot,” he said. “The possibilities are of course endless, and so it becomes the same challenge associated with creating a wine list. You have to curate, you have to filter. It’s easy to put together a 10,000-bottle wine list, but it’s hard to choose 100. So we’ll be thinking about things like, ‘what’s showing well right now?’ It will constantly evolve.”
Foreign Legion will also feature cured meats made specifically for the restaurant by local charcuterie kingpin Mike Phillips. And desserts. Lots of desserts. “One of the reasons that we’re so excited about signing up Niki is that we want to be known as the place where you go for dessert,” said Desta Klein, putting an emphasis on the.
The 60-seat space will include a 10-seat bar, a four-seat cheese counter and two private dining rooms. What you won’t see: Television screens. Hurrah.
“We debated about that, a lot,” said Russell Klein. “TVs are so distracting. We decided that we want to get back to what restaurants are all about, which is socializing with friends and family.”
One demographic the Kleins are targeting are the residents upstairs, with hopes that the building’s occupants will think of the casual, more affordably priced Foreign Legion as an extension of their living quarters. Including the Kleins, who have taken an apartment in the swank building. Right now it's doubling as an office, but it will eventually morph in to a convenient crash pad.
Opening: Probably a post-Labor Day date, to be determined. “We want to make sure that we get everything right with Brasserie Zentral before we proceed with Foreign Legion,” said Russell Klein.
Wine and spirits shop. The Soo Line's commercial space was originally being eyed by a local supermarket chain, which ultimately bailed when the building’s short-term parking situation (bottom line: there isn’t any) couldn’t be rectified.
The supermarket’s plans included a wine shop. As it happens, longtime Meritage sommelier Nicolas Giraud dreamed of opening a wine shop. Bingo. The Kleins are becoming retailers, with a boutique operation (one that will include a delivery service throughout the downtown skyway system) located on the 5th St. side of the building’s lobby and managed by Giraud.
“Now Nico gets what he wants, and we diversify our revenues,” said Desta Klein.
The shop doesn’t have a name, yet. “We’re working on that,” said Russell Klein. “Names are some of the hardest things about opening a restaurant, although Zentral and Foreign Legion came to us right away. Right now we’re calling it Zentral Wine & Spirits, but we’re not in love with it.”
Opening: No set date, but it will follow Brasserie Zentral’s debut.
Cafe Zentral. It’s hard to picture a Jimmy John’s occupying the spiffy skyway level of the newly refurbished Soo Line, and thanks to the Kleins, downtowners won’t have to. Instead, this second-story counter-service format will offer uncomplicated street fare, including grilled cheese sandwiches, crepes and Mike Phillips-made sausages. “Quick and casual, but real food,” said Russell Klein. "We're going to be taking healthful, locally sourced food, and bring it to the skyway." At long last.
Opening: Spring. “Just in time for food truck season,” said Russell Klein with a laugh.
The Kleins clearly have a nose for real estate, because the formerly sleepy corner of 5th and Marquette is about to get incredibly busy.
Within the next year, nearly 800 not-inexpensive apartments will sit within a few hundred feet of the Zentral zone. The Soo Line’s 254 units are filling up fast. The 26-story Nic on Fifth – at Nicollet and 5th, obviously – is opening later this year with 253 apartments (pictured, above, in a Star Tribune file photo), and ground is breaking soon on 4Marq, a 30-story, 262-unit tower on the same block, at Marquette and 4th. Oh, and a 13-story, 320-unit apartment building has been proposed for the half-block parking lot that now occupies 301 Washington Av. S., five blocks from Zentral.
The area’s daytime population is also experiencing a major growth spurt.
The 510 Marquette office building – across Marquette from the Soo Line -- is currently under renovation and several large tenants -- including Campbell Mithun advertising, RedBrick Health and Augsburg Fortress publishing – have signed leases, meaning hundreds of workers will be moving in. And later this year, Xcel Energy is planning on demolishing a dreary 1960s parking ramp at Nicollet and 4th and replacing it with a 9-story office building.
In addition, the Hiawatha and soon-to-open Central Corridor light rail lines (renamed Blue and Green lines) stop a half-block away. In other words, in the not-so-distant future, a whole lot of people are going to be living and working within a stone’s throw of the Kleins' new enterprise.
“We really had no intention of expanding into Minneapolis,” said Russell Klein. “But at some point, the opportunity was just too incredible for us to pass up.”
The burger: If “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Hollywood’s latest paean to excess, had a burger promotional tie-in, a leading candidate could easily be the Bacon Burger at Pat’s Tap.
With its insane 50-50 blend of beef and bacon, the patty pretty much defines “over the top.” Like so many top-flight Twin Cities burgers, the former is sourced from Peterson Limousin Farms in Osceola, Wis. As for the latter, chef Matt Gray purchases ends and scraps from premium pork-meister Tim Fischer of Fischer Family Farms Pork in Waseca, Minn.
This is not one of those burgers where an all-beef patty is topped with a criss-cross of crispy thick-cut bacon. The fatty, teasingly smoky cured pork is mixed, raw, with the beef. The marriage is conducted in the kitchen’s big Hobart mixer.
“That beef is so lean, and then we add a bunch of bacon to it,” says Gray with a laugh. The blend is hand-formed into 6-ounce patties, and no matter how long they languish on the grill, the patties end up tinted to medium-rare on the burger color chart (the results remind me -- visually, anyway -- of the Spam burgers my mom made when I was a kid), thanks to all that pork.
“We could cook them for 14 years and they’ll still be pink,” said Gray, who prefers to take them to medium-rare, “just warm enough so that the bacon melts,” he said. Fine by me. It's a remarkable flavor (only reinforcing the theory that bacon improves everything it touches), with that top-shelf bacon permeating every bite but not completely overshadowing its beefy counterpart. The word gilded comes to mind.
When I mentioned to Gray that I lasted through about three before my appetite cried “uncle” -- that’s how rich this burger is -- he laughed. Turns out, the Bacon Burger is dietary chicken feed compared to the menu’s Big Cheese Burger, which is crowned with 2 ½ Lipitor-defying ounces of fried Cheddar cheese.
“I recommend them for when you’re slightly hung over, or when you have a nap scheduled,” said Gray.
Back to the Bacon Burger. Not content to leave well enough alone, Gray continues on the more-more-more melody by blanketing said patty with a slab of melt-friendly Swiss cheese, then showers the whole shebang with crispy fried onions, thinly shaved and breaded with a Cajun-inspired seasoning. The simple white bun, baked by the New French Bakery, shows remarkable restraint. It arrives with just the barest, faintest trace of a toast. Still, Gray can’t resist brushing the cooktop, pre-toasting, with a conspicuous bit of clarified butter.
My take? This unwieldy burger is a definite reach-for-the-knife-and-fork-er, and I was all over it. I’m not alone; Gray sells upwards of 270 Bacon Burgers per week.
Price: $14. Bacon -- particularly top-shelf bacon -- doesn't come cheap, remember?
Fries: An additional $2. They’re ultra-crisp (Gray fries them in rice oil) and generously salty, and the enormous handful is a fine complement to this unusually – and unusually delicious – burger.
Add-ons: Along with renewing my deep and abiding appreciation for the kitchen’s night-owl hours – work-ethic-centric Minneapolis still goes to bed far too early -- I’d forgotten what a pleasant getaway Pat’s can be at lunch. I’ll be back just for another crack at the robust tomato soup and Gray’s amusing (and addictive) obsession with recreating the iconic Cheez-It cracker. The 2-for-1 Bloody Marys (weekdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) are also a draw.
Address book: 3510 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-822-8216. Open 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.
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