The burger: A meal at the Band Box Diner is served with a gratis side of Minneapolis history. Don’t know the Band Box? You should. After all, it’s not every day that a person can dine in a factory-made, iron-walled, Depression-era restaurant, particularly here in Teardownapolis.
In the late 1930s, the Band Box’s original owners, Harry and Bert Weisman, had the brilliant idea to ask an Iowa silo manufacturer to apply its construction techniques to the then-booming prefabricated diner business. Butler Manufacturing Co. came up with an eye-catching and economical 14-by-20-foot prototype that the Weismans eventually dropped into 14 locations.
The Weismans sold their fast-food empire in the early 1950s, and the chain – which once fed the city, round the clock, in those pre-McDonald’s days -- began to slowly evaporate. Thirteen eventually disappeared. The second-to-the-last Band Box, located on Washington Avenue, had its fateful date with the wrecking ball in 1972.
The one remaining Band Box (pictured, above) anchors an oddball triangle-shaped lot in the Elliot Park neighborhood, one of those spots where edges of the city’s street grid slam into one another as they turn away from the curves of the Mississippi and follow strict north-south/east-west directional routes.
The city conferred historic status on the quirky 14-seat diner in 2000. Owner and chef Brad Ptacek added a bit of breathing room three years later, upping the number of seats to 21 without dampening the Band Box’s nostalgic aura. Still, I prefer a seat the fire engine-red laminated counter, watching Ptacek go through his paces at the grill.
Ptacek bought the place in 1998, when both the Band Box and the surrounding neighborhood were going through a severe case of Down-on-their-luck-itis. Two-eggs-over-easy was quite a switch-up for the history-loving Ptacek, who spent much of the 1990s cooking in far tonier surroundings at Caffe Solo, the Warehouse District hot spot that was located in the space now occupied by Saffron Restaurant & Lounge.
During the past 15 years, Ptacek’s approach to short-order cooking has always outpaced his greasy spoon counterparts. His burgers are no exception. There are a half-dozen novelty varieties on the menu, but the one that caught my attention was the Lunch Box.
It’s a doozy: a third-pound, no-nonsense Angus beef patty, fried on a flattop and blanketed in a melty slab of cheese (American, pepper Jack, Cheddar or Swiss), then slipped into a toasted Franklin Street Bakery bun. It’s resting on a bed of super-creamy coleslaw, and it’s topped with a small mountain of delicate, hot-from-the-fryer shoestring fries.
The word monster applies, as this is one of those burgers that probably cannot be picked up with two hands. Well, in polite company, anyway. I’m no Emily Post, and yet one look at it and I instinctively reached for a knife and fork.
What a brilliant idea, putting the fries right on top of the burger. Plenty of raw white onions inserts a sharp bite, and that coleslaw – prepared with a Thousand Isles-esque dressing – adds a welcome level of both cabbage-ey crunch and tang. In short, when it comes to the Band Box, go for the history, and stay for the burgers.
Fries: Included, and how (see above).
Address book: 729 S. 10th St., Mpls., 612-332-0850. Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.
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