Here in the Mini Apple, we can take pride in how different our city is from New York. Streets are clean, public transit works, and cocktails don’t cost a mortgage payment. The City That Never Sleeps might have something to learn about our way of life in the North.
When it comes to food, it seems, New Yorkers are taking notes.
It is now easier than ever to eat like an Upper Midwesterner in the Big Apple, as restaurants incorporate some of our region’s beloved culinary traditions. (Whether they get them right is another matter.)
No, you can’t get lutefisk beneath the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. But some of our more, shall we say, palatable dishes are making inroads in the outer boroughs.
On a recent New York City visit, I tried three spots with a serving of Minnesota (and a dash of Wisconsin) on the menu.
My first stop was Juicy Lucy BBQ, which sits across a six-lane boulevard from Staten Island’s golden shore. Dining outside, on a deck outfitted like a beach shack, I didn’t feel like I was in Minnesota or New York.
Ordering the restaurant’s take on Minneapolis’ signature burger didn’t transport me back home, either.
“We recommend the Velveeta,” said the server, going over the cheese options for my Juicy Lucy. That’s a choice one doesn’t get at Matt’s Bar, the Minneapolis dive that inspired Juicy Lucy BBQ owner Rich Holmes to stake his business on our homegrown inverted cheeseburger.
At Matt’s Bar, where it’s spelled “Jucy Lucy,” the only cheese is American. At 5-8 Club and other famed Twin Cities purveyors, diners may select alternate cheeses. But Velveeta?
As Holmes tells it, he was on a long layover at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and ventured out for a quick bite at Matt’s. The burger’s molten middle left an impression, and five years later, Holmes launched a tribute to that fateful meal in his home borough.
News among Juicy Lucy fans spread fast, and by opening day this summer, Holmes said, there were multiple Minnesotans waiting to get in.
“The Minnesota Sentinel wrote about us,” Holmes said, referring to a Q&A I did with him in the Star Tribune back in March. “We’ve been selling out of everything.”
The Juicy Lucy I tasted, unfortunately, didn’t measure up to any I’ve had in the Twin Cities. The Velveeta soaked right into the meat, leaving an empty hole inside a burger that had been cooked to a pale gray.
Luckily, I also ordered the brisket. Smoked out back by a pitmaster from Austin’s Franklin Barbecue, it was fall-apart tender. I left the burger on my plate and devoured the smoked meat.
See, there is a compelling reason for a Minnesotan (or anyone) to make the trek to Staten Island to try Juicy Lucy BBQ. It’s just not the Juicy Lucy.
Next on my self-guided food tour was Burnside, a bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
I’d been googling cheese curds in New York City, and this bare-bones bar with “Midwest-inspired snacks” claimed to have the best.
One of the original owners was from Wisconsin, and though that owner has since left, fried cheese curds are still on the menu. So is a Jucy Lucy, offered only with American cheese. (It even has the Matt’s Bar spelling.)
I tried both. Who says you can’t have two Juicy Lucies in one day?
Burnside got right everything that Juicy Lucy BBQ got wrong. Cheese oozed out of the center of a pale pink patty, flecks of caramelized onion mixing into a fusion of beef juices and dairy that drizzled down and soaked into a sesame speckled bun. The only improvement would have been a Minnesota craft beer to wash it down. Alas, there were none on tap.
The cheese curds, made with Beecher’s from Seattle, were as comforting as the first basket you get on the first day of the State Fair. Enrobed in beer batter both crisp and plush, sprinkled with sea salt and melting in the middle, they gave a good name to a food that can easily be a leaden greasebomb.
They were so spot on that they transformed my three dining partners — all East Coasters — into Minnesota-style eaters. My friends gobbled up the whole basket, leaving just one lonely curd to get cold. No one would dare finish it.
There was one more stop, and the 15-minute ride to the deep-Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick might as well have been a direct flight to the North Woods.
On a lively block, two childhood friends from Minneapolis plopped down a nearly intact re-creation of the Turk’s Inn, an iconic Wisconsin supper club.
The original Turk’s Inn, in Hayward, Wis., closed in 2014, and mega-fans Varun Kataria and Tyler Erickson bought all the memorabilia they could get at auction. The new Turk’s Inn is now home to the original’s neon sign, antique bar, artwork and knickknacks — of which there are so, so many.
The menu melds the Turk’s Inn’s various worlds: rural Wisconsin, a kitschy midcentury rendering of the Ottoman Empire, and modern-day Brooklyn.
“It’s a supper club — but the food is good,” Kataria told me as he circulated among guests just like founder George “The Turk” Gogian used to do.
There were all the makings of a supper club: the relish tray, the brandy Old Fashioned, the feeling that dinner is more an experience than a meal.
The food playfully re-imagined the tastes of home. Green bean casserole was rolled into balls and fried like falafel. Breaded Halloumi cheese bites were essentially cheese curds, except stunningly spicy. An appetizer called the cheese cloud, a dip made with feta, evoked beer-cheese soup.
Aware that a Wisconsin supper club isn’t exactly suited to the New York market, Kataria and Erickson diversified their business by adding a takeout döner kebab stand, a rooftop bar, and a neighboring nightclub called the Sultan Room.
The night I stopped by the club, a band from New Jersey rocked the circular room. With a slushie cocktail in hand, I stood near a tufted door leading back to the restaurant. (The owners bought the door in an auction from another local institution: Minneapolis’ Nye’s Polonaise Room.)
Across from me, there was a portrait beaming under a spotlight. It was Margie Gogian, the stylish and authoritative family member last to run the original supper club. She presided over the Turk’s Inn until she died, long before it became this newfangled Midwest-meets-NYC amalgam.
In Brooklyn, she presides again. Her head is turned to her left in the painting, as if she is watching the show.
If you go:
Burnside, 508 Grand St., Brooklyn, 1-347-889-7793, burnsidebrooklyn.com
Juicy Lucy BBQ, 809 Father Capodanno Blvd., Staten Island, 1-718-979-5829, JuicyLucyBBQ.com
Turk’s Inn, 234 Starr St., Brooklyn, 1-718-215-0025, turksnyc.com