New in Northeast: Three gems on Central Avenue

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 10, 2014 - 2:34 PM

A repurposed drive-in, a gem of a Mexican hole-in-the-wall and a 14-seat icon under new ownership are three reasons to dine on Central Avenue in northeast Minneapolis.

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Ideal Diner owner Kim Robinson serves up pie and good humor.

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It only makes sense that the Twin Cities’ craft-beer epicenter would spawn a bar that delves deep into small-batch brews.

But the Mill Northeast is more than its liquor license, thanks to chef Matt Kempf. Fans of the former Cafe Maude at Loring, A Rebours and Red will recall Kempf’s name and talent. The neighborhood should consider itself fortunate to find him in its midst.

His best work showcases his gift for color, intelligence and nuance. Delicate crêpes were filled with a smoky, juicy shredded pork, its flavor accentuated by the meat’s crisp caramelized edges and its natural sweetness balanced against garlickly braised Swiss chard and a lively tomatillo salsa.

Seared steelhead trout, so velvety and pink, gets the Minnesota treatment with a pilaf of wild rice, sweet cherries and crunchy pistachios. A modernist spin on chicken and dumplings nurtured my winter-battered psyche through several subzero nights. A long list of egg dishes on the daily brunch menu also merit a loyal following.

Kempf wisely targets his beer-drinking audience with a first-rate burger, an appealing Scotch egg, strangely addictive cheese curds, similarly can’t-eat-just-one shrimp toasts garnished with coral-tinted salmon roe, battered and deep-fried cod speared on a stick and a split, grilled and fabulously spicy pork sausage supplied by the Butcher & the Boar. Great desserts, too.

Not everything works, but the kitchen’s output has continued to improve and impress since the restaurant opened in November. One particularly welcome attribute is the menu’s affordability, with entrees routinely landing in the teens — a depressing rarity for this level of cooking — and a bargain-minded daily happy hour that runs from 3 to 6 p.m.

There’s a reason why the setting has its idiosyncrasies. It originally housed a short-lived drive-in, and to describe the atmosphere as bare-boned is being kind. Still, the room doesn’t upstage Kempf’s handiwork, and whether it’s by coincidence or by design, its lack of pretense suits the service staff’s amiable attitude.

1851 Central Av. NE., Mpls., 612-315-2340, www.themillnortheast.com. Open 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.-Mon., 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 10 a.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat. No reservations.

Basic Mexican, done well

When a colleague enthusiastically extolled the virtues of Maya Cuisine, I paid attention.

“It’s not the diluted Tex-Mex stuff that I find everywhere else,” she said.

She was so right. The flavors are clear, powerful and clean, right down to the tender corn tortillas that are pressed and grilled to order.

The menu is fairly limited. It’s basically lots of carbs — in the forms of tacos, tamales, burritos, tortas and quesadillas — finished with vibrantly prepared treatments of pork, beef and chicken.

The cafeteria-like ordering process isn’t as smooth as it could be, but a little patience upfront yields a significant payoff. I continue to daydream about the tamale laced with chicken simmered in a fiery salsa verde, the two-fisted grilled sandwich stuffed with pineapple-marinated pork or the deeply flavorful beef tongue tacos. There are a few add-ons, from wonderfully creamy guacamole and a punchy salsa (both served with strips of freshly fried tortillas), to a pair of dreary soups and a so-so tres leches cake.

Sure, you’ll walk away with the scent of the grill permeating every molecule of your being. But the quirky setting could have been pulled off a telenovela sound stage, and what’s not to love about the spectacular man cave-inspired party room? Other pluses include the way-moderate prices (nothing over $8.75) and the late-night weekend schedule. Oh, and the super-nice people.

1840 Central Av. NE., Mpls., 612-789-0775, www.facebook.com/mayacuisine. Open 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 9 a.m.-2 a.m. Fri.-Sat. No reservations.

 

A classic continues

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