My friend took one look around Punch Bowl Social, the raucous eatertainery that landed late last year in the Shops at West End in St. Louis Park, and she succinctly summed up our surroundings.
“It’s an adult’s Chuck E. Cheese’s,” she said, a reference to the arcade diversions — including eight bowling lanes, karaoke studios and a huge host of table and arcade games — that sprawl across the enormous, Mall of America-like space.
There’s one notable difference, and that’s the food, which takes its cues from the Southern diner tradition. It’s a vast improvement over Mr. Cheese’s cheesy, factory-made, kid-targeted fare.
Those in search of the definitive Southern dining experience will be disappointed. But by tapping into the smarts of chef Hugh Acheson — the Canadian-born, James Beard award-winning chef behind top-rated 5&10 in Athens, Ga., and Empire State South in Atlanta, and a familiar face to “Top Chef” and “Top Chef Masters” viewers — the menu manages to hum its way through a skin-deep, greatest-hits compilation.
Superficial, sure, but Acheson’s Southern strategy sets this fast-growing, Denver-based enterprise apart from its shopping mall competitors.
That’s not exactly a high bar. Still, one look (and a single bite) of the diner-style burger — a pair of thin quarter-pound patties, scads of oozy American cheese, tangy pickles, an appropriately salty-sweet sauce and a toasted, sesame-studded bun — and you know that an effort is being exerted. No wonder the kitchen sells more than 1,200 of them each week.
Another item that deserves top-seller status is the “Bologna” sandwich. Bologna sandwiches are all the rage right now, and Acheson’s refined version is a winner. In between buttery, lightly toasted slices of thick-cut Pullman loaf, he stacks thin shears of a teasingly smoky, fat-laced mortadella, a punchy green olive tapenade and creamy Gruyère. A Cubano — stacked with ham and slow-braised pork — is similarly appealing.
The shareable dishes are hit-and-miss. Because bacon improves everything it touches, there’s nothing to complain about with a creamy pimiento cheese that’s capped with a thick covering of smoky bacon marmalade. An onion dip gets a boost beyond the usual Lipton’s soup mix formula by charring the onions and inserting the sour tang of crème fraîche. (The crispy, salty kettle chips aren’t bad, either.) The kitchen — led by veteran Twin Cities chef Erick Dominguez — is capable of cranking out respectable carnitas tacos, packaging them for Skee-Ball-playing crowds with four to eight per serving.
Tiny tweaks could vastly improve other offerings. Hummus infused with black-eyed peas (one of many token nods to Southern core ingredients) cried out for bolder lemon and garlic bites. Fried hominy — “our version of Corn Nuts,” explained my server — was a clever idea, but in execution were little more than bite-size grease bombs with a vague corn aftertaste.
Even a standard meat-and-cheese board (well-chosen prosciutto, from Iowa’s La Quercia, paired with a luscious burrata) was marred by too vinegary (or not vinegary enough) pickled carrots, cauliflower and cucumbers.
Ups and downs
Entrees lean toward the disappointing. A sad slab of meatloaf more than embodied the word “bland.” Pork ribs were meaty and plentiful, but arrived barely warm and coated in a too sweet sauce that was billed as “Memphis-style” and cried out for a far more pronounced acidic bite.
Does Punch Bowl Social produce the best chicken and waffles I’ve encountered? Hardly. The crisp, tender waffles have that kind of fake, prepackaged taste that’s prevalent in setups at freebie hotel breakfasts. But the chicken? There’s a noted contrast between crunchy, peppery batter-coated skin and juicy meat. Not bad.
Acheson scores major points for recognizing that vegetarians dine out. Two sandwiches — charred eggplant and rich burrata on crusty ciabatta, and a mushroom-based veggie burger — impressed, as did a handful of vibrant, garden-fresh salads, including a kale-based play on the Caesar and a quinoa-farro bowl that’s finished with a kitchen sink-like array of goodies.
Desserts also stick to a middle-of-the-road position, and, again, just a modicum of attention would pay off big-time. Pecan pie delivered with a flaky crust and a not too sweet custard, but the pecans had gone mushy.
Chocolate fans could happily make a habit of the homey triple-layer concoction of banana bread and cream cheese icing, minus the way the (terrific) chocolate ganache coating was covered in beads of refrigerator sweat. Similarly, a Betty Crocker-like chocolate layer cake was so cold I wondered if it had been removed from the freezer just before it was served.
Brunch, and the bar
Kudos to the kitchen for continuing to cook past the 10 o’clock news. There’s a pleasant weekend brunch, too, a slight expansion of the daily menu’s breakfast-at-lunch options.
Crossovers include a crazily over-the-top French toast that’s built with monkey bread, bacon and candied walnuts and reads more like a heart attack-inducing bread pudding. There’s also a pair of sandwiches built with so-so biscuits; one incorporates that crispy fried chicken, the other calls upon a thick, salty mushroom gravy. Both would benefit from a little more tender loving care.
On weekends, the menu expands to include an ill-advised Benedict using a gluey quinoa cake. Better to go with the Southern-style shakshuka, which formulaically incorporates black-eyed peas into the traditional stewed-tomatoes/baked-eggs formula. Or try the does-the-trick yogurt/fruit combo, finished with an inventive house-made granola.
The bar gets into the act as well, pulling together a respectable build-your-own Bloody Mary setup.
Actually, the real star of the show here is the bar (technically, bars), which is introducing an admirable level of craft to what could have been a generic suburban shopping mall drinking experience. The extensive program is the work of Denver mixmaster Patrick Williams, and it impresses for its ingenuity, breadth and commitment to freshly prepared components.
Leading the pack are a group of colorful punches, each based upon a different spirit — tequila, bourbon, rum — and aimed at groups engaged in the serious fun of game playing. There’s a long list of well-composed cocktails, but what also sticks out — in a very good way — is Williams’ deep dive into nonalcoholic beverages.
A place where the response to, “What can I order that’s nonalcoholic?” isn’t “Coke products”?