Can magic happen twice? Smack Shack founder Josh Thoma transformed the 1029 Bar when he started serving lobster mac-and-cheese at that northeast Minneapolis dive.
Now, he and chef Nick O'Leary (formerly of Rock Elm Tavern, Parlour) are taking over the kitchen of another watering hole.
As of last week, Tony Jaros River Garden (2500 Marshall St. NE., Mpls., 612-789-9728) is home to Burger Dive, where Thoma and O'Leary are griddling up burgers and other bar fare.
And Thoma says the likelihood the burger concept will become another Smack Shack, leaping to its own restaurant, is "100 percent."
"We'll do something else with this," said Thoma, who, in addition to co-owning Smack Shack, also co-owns the Lexington in St. Paul.
"It's nice to have a full running restaurant. Everything's integrated a little bit better. When we get up to that point, we'll call it Burger Dive Bar. We'll own the bar part." (Food and drinks are on separate bills; the whole place is cash only.)
O'Leary is cooking out of a closet-like kitchen on a newly installed 4-foot griddle (there was previously only a 2-foot cooktop). Thoma sometimes handles toppings on the burgers — which include a wedge salad version and a nacho burger with tortilla chips and guacamole.
The burgers are ground in-house and so heavy on the butter that they leave a pool of fat in the paper-lined basket when you pick one up.
"It's a little bit of this, a little bit of that," O'Leary said coyly about the blend, adding that it's 65 percent meat, 35 percent fat.
The two-patty smashed burgers drip with white American cheese. "No yellow cheese," Thoma said. "I'm not a yellow cheese guy."
For non-beef-eaters, there is a meatless Impossible burger, a chicken sandwich, and a pork tenderloin sandwich in homage to the former cook, Bitsy Jaros. A list of "munchies" include wings, cheese curds, deviled eggs and pierogies (O'Leary handmakes the dough and cheesy potato filling). Sides are fries, slaw, potato salad, beets and electric-green "Greenie pickles" made with the bar's signature Greenie punch.
O'Leary wants to use that Greenie mix in other ways, too, including a fiery, sweet and limey hot sauce for wings that he thinks would make for a good eating challenge.
Eventually, the chef plans to add blue-plate specials to the mix, such as a fish fry Friday and prime rib Saturday. He also wants to put salads on the menu.
When Bitsy Jaros announced her retirement, the bar's owner, Danny Jaros, called Thoma up. The daytime bartender at Tony Jaros, Marlo Thomas, knew Thoma from their days at 1029 and she had recommended him. But Thoma was no stranger to Tony Jaros.
"I'd never been in here in the daylight," Thoma said. After a 10-minute conversation, he made a handshake deal with Danny Jaros.
Thoma, and others, see the little bar kitchen as the future of restaurants.
"I was talking to Mike Brown [co-owner of Travail], and he says he thinks this is the new food truck model," Thoma said. "It's a way to get in and get started."