Head to the beach. Now. Grab those flip-flops, a big towel and a hearty appetite.
Who would have thought the words “Doug Flicker” and “concession stand” would be such a seamless marriage?
Flicker’s natural habitat may be at his four-star Piccolo, one of the Midwest’s most food-forward joy rides. Yet the playful new fast-casual venture he calls Sandcastle clearly demonstrates what happens when top chefs insinuate themselves up and down every platform on the dining-out food chain. Whether it’s a beachside snack shack or a temple of haute cuisine, we’re all eating better, everywhere. It’s a thrilling — and long-awaited — development.
What Flicker, his spouse Amy Greeley, and their longtime friend and colleague Chele Payer have forged on the western shore of Lake Nokomis is exactly the kind of crowd-pleaser that should anchor every busy city park. What makes their effort extra-special is that while they’re emphasizing approachability and affordability (nothing tops $8), they’ve also managed to insert their own particular alchemy of originality, professionalism and wit.
Naturally, there are hot dogs — it’s the beach, right? — snappy-skinned beef-pork Minnesota-made wieners slipped into poppyseed-studded buns and topped with crunchy slaw and a slew of tiny, colorful and mildly sweet peppers. But in the life’s-too-short department, live a little and indulge in the boffo all-beef version blanketed in peppy kimchi and crowned with a runny fried egg. You’ll thank me.
The pork sandwich, a swoon-worthy meal in a bun, signals to the world — or to south Minneapolis, anyway — that Flicker has missed his calling as a barbecue pit boss. After a four-day spice rub works its magic, the meat gets the low-and-slow treatment until it shreds like a dream. Then it’s on to a tangy barbecue sauce — the polar opposite of those cloying sweet versions that ruin pulled pork for everyone — crunchy cabbage slaw and a decent onion bun. What a knockout.
Bacon to the rescue
The BLT — oh my goodness, the BLT! — reiterates why a bacon, lettuce and tomato on white is a card-carrying member of sandwich royalty. At Sandcastle, no detail is overlooked, and Flicker dispenses with the arty embellishments that can sometimes wreak havoc on this classic formula.
Here’s the breakdown: Tenderly toasted, butter-soaked slices of white Pullman loaf are dressed with a healthy swipe of mayonnaise. A ruby-red, ultra-juicy tomato — the kind that makes waiting for them until late summer seem entirely worthwhile — gets liberally seasoned with freshly ground black pepper. In keeping with the focus on texture, the lettuce is cool, snappy romaine. Most critically, Flicker doesn’t make the mistake of skimping on the all-important bacon. It hails from a first-rate source, the Thielen family’s smokehouse in Pierz, Minn., and Flicker stacks it, crisp slice over crisp slice, until it skates to the outer edges of overkill. Although, really, can there ever be enough bacon?
The cold dishes are similarly impressive. An eye-grabbing, brightly acidic gazpacho pretty much embodies all that we cherish about fleeting Minnesota summers, and an opposites-attract combination of sweet watermelon and spicy arugula makes for a lively salad. The flavors and textures locked inside a shrimp and octopus ceviche are so lucid that it’s tempting to believe that it emerges from a far fancier kitchen, not the cramped environment where Flicker’s crew — chef Jeremy Devon and sous chef Ben Porter — labor all day.
Meaty, crispy-skinned chicken wings go great with the short list of beers; ditto the well-tailored tacos. It’s also easy to appreciate what isn’t on the menu. Rather than a burger, Flicker goes with an Indian taco, spooning lean, cumin-kissed ground bison into a remarkably light and airy fry bread. A handful of crispy chopped romaine lettuce, a shower of mellow white cheddar shavings and a ribbon of sour cream complete the picture, totally eviscerating any and all hamburger cravings. Here’s hoping there’s a classic green chile version in our future.
A few issues
The menu, brief as it is, is not without its semi-duds. As good as the cheese curds are (and they’re fantastic, a shining paragon of deep-frying prowess), the greasy, ponderous hush puppies come off as their evil twin. A tortilla rolled around a delicate sweet pea falafel is full of good looks but short on flavor; better for vegetarians to opt for the more lively caprese-style wrap.
It’s hard to muster enthusiasm for the desserts, with two exceptions: an inventive and utterly irresistible frozen banana (organic, naturally), dipped in premium chocolate and coated in a crunchy pine-nut brittle, and a handful of those warm-weather goodies, Minneapolis-made Johnny Pops. A smattering of not-great supermarket ice cream novelties will be totally overshadowed next year, when Payer predicts they’ll install a soft-serve machine. The ultra-promising prospect of Doug Flicker moseying into Dairy Queen territory has already set my daydreaming clock ahead to spring 2014.
Beverages include a handful of well-chosen and competitively priced tap wines and beers, along with carefully prepared renditions of lemonade, iced coffee, iced tea and a rich, cinnamony horchata. The real hit among the liquid air conditioners are the totally refreshing aguas frescas, brimming with the pure essence of cool watermelon and throat-tickling ginger.
As outdoor dining venues go, few can match Sandcastle’s lakeside setting, which is particularly fetching as sunset approaches. Instead of a disruptive loudspeaker continually polluting the sound waves with “Number 56, your order is ready,” customers are notified via discreet handheld pagers. Flatware is reusable metal, not flimsy plastic, just one of the restaurant’s many laudable green endeavors. The serving staff is uniformly hyper-friendly, but while an iPad ordering system efficiently expedites credit-card orders, there’s curiously just one of them, which can make for a tedious wait when a crowd gathers.
Three cheers to Locus Architecture of Minneapolis for its astute transformation of an under-utilized wreck of a building into a cheery orange-and-blue people magnet. That such a fantastic piece of real estate (the beach’s sand starts just a few feet away) was ignored for so long does not reflect well on the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board. Its selection of Flicker & Co. was a step — more like a leap — in the right direction.
And kudos to the Park Board for recognizing that ready access to delicious, creative and moderately priced food should be an integral element of the park-going experience. The trend began with Tin Fish at Lake Calhoun in 2004, followed by Sea Salt Eatery in Minnehaha Park in 2005 and Bread & Pickle at Lake Harriet last year; here’s hoping it will continue beyond Sandcastle. The city’s nationally acclaimed park system deserves nothing less.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib