The burger: The kitchen at newcomer Pub 819 channels a considerable amount of creative energy into its burger roster. That’s an agenda that merits support.
Chef Joe Wuestenhagen (a Hell’s Kitchen vet) takes some memorable twists. One subs in ground bratwurst for beef, another folds ground gyro meat into beef, and the patty of a third is a fifty-fifty blend of chorizo and beef. There’s also a turkey burger, and Wuestenhagen hits new heights, garnish-wise, when pairing blue cheese with a blueberry compote. Oh, then there’s the beef patty that’s basted in a port wine reduction.
Tempted as I was by these excursions into the offbeat, my appetite steered me to a straight-up cheeseburger, a decision sparked at the moment my accommodating server referred to me as “my dear.” I mean, a classic endearment calls for a classic burger, amirite?
It was a doozy. The thick half-pound patty – truly, a monster -- hugged the bun’s outer edges as every good burger should, and oozed juices at every bite. Seasoning was right on the money, with enough salt to both enhance the beef’s earthy flavor and play nicely against a drape of sharp Cheddar, its meltiness oozing like a show-off at every turn.
With this particular burger, the menu offers “cali-style” add-ons at no extra charge; naturally, my flinty Norwegian DNA jumped at the invitation. Besides, what Minnesotan doesn’t crave a taste of California in the dead of winter? Huzzahs to the tangy, crunchy red onion and decent-for-December tomato slice. My one complaint: Did no one notice that the spine of the lettuce leaf was well on its way to brown?
Full marks for the bun, a lovely-in-every-way New French Bakery import that receives a light toast (and a semi-silly "819" branding) before being sent out into the dining room. Yep, I’ll definitely be back.
Fries: Included, and not your standard-issue version. Long, thick-ish and golden, they’re burnished with an extra level of crunch via a beer-batter dip. The results are a kind of Potato Tempura Lite, and it’s an intriguing way to battle French fry boredom. Oh, and kudos on stockpiling 78 Red, the hyper-flavorful all-natural ketchup.
Raise your glass: Of the 32 beers on tap, 20 are ever-changing, and someone obviously has a well-schooled taste for the offbeat. The bar also stocks more than six dozen whiskeys and offers a pretty heft sample via seven three-pour flights.
Downtown charm: I spent my adolescence bored senseless by the strip-mall universe of my hometown, a characterless third-ring suburb that will go unnamed (Ok, Burnsville). Which probably explains my enduring affection for the real-life historic downtowns sprinkled around the outer edges of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the commercial districts of pre-suburban Anoka, Stillwater, White Bear Lake, Robbinsdale, Excelsior, Osseo and Shakopee.
And Hopkins. Main Street, the city’s scrappy and compact commercial spine, got a Nicollet Mall-esque makeover ages ago, and the remake (complete with a Brand X-style moniker, Mainstreet) has triggered plenty of development in the ensuing years, including a performing arts center, a busy discount cineplex and an ever-growing housing base. And now a well-run pub. All that’s missing is a third-wave coffeehouse, an artisanal ice cream shop and a taproom (scratch that: there’s LTD Brewing Co., a half block off Mainstreet). I can see the bumper stickers now: “Downtown Hopkins: A New Urbanist’s dream.”
Pub 819 is the work of Steve Benowitz and David Benowitz. The father-and-son duo (owners of the Rail Station Bar & Grill and Stanley’s Northeast Bar Room) are no strangers to downtown Hopkins; they’ve been operating the place as the Hopkins Tavern since 2001, and the conversion to Pub 819 took place over a three-month period in late 2014.
What a civic improvement it is. Giant windows draw Mainstreet strollers inside, where they discover a wide-open room, with tables and comfortable booths ringing a conversation-friendly center bar. True, the handsome space is a conglomeration of every current craft beer-driven design element (chalkboard-covered walls, a veritable forest of reclaimed lumber, exposed Edison light bulbs), and if this were Northeast or Lyn-Lake, a been-there, seen-that eye-roll might be hard to resist. But in Hopkins? It’s treading new ground, and it’s a job well done.
Master marketers: To generate interest and awareness among the local populace, the 819-ers adapted a canny launch strategy, in the form of a lawn sign campaign.
“We got the idea during the election cycle,” said operations manager Luke Derheim. “We looked around at all the political signs and we thought, ‘After all of these are gone, is there something we can do with them?’
They eventually placed more than 250 of the talk-of-the-town signs in Hopkins front yards. Although the restaurant officially re-opened nearly a month ago, many lawn signs remain. “We asked people to leave them up for a couple of weeks, and we’re certainly not telling them to take them down,” said Denheim with a laugh.
And yes, there was an incentive for participation: Each homeowner received a $10 gift card.
“It’s enough to say, ‘Come on in and enjoy a burger,’” said Denheim.
I know exactly which one they should order.
Address book: 819 Mainstreet, Hopkins, 952-933-1230. Open 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday and Friday, 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.
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