One of the buzziest restaurants of the year is open. Lucky Cricket, the Chinese-tiki mashup courtesy of Twin Cities-based traveling TV star Andrew Zimmern, is serving up dim sum, “shareables” and noodle dishes at St. Louis Park’s West End. (1607 West End Blvd., St. Louis Park, 952-206-6830, luckycricket.net)
With chef/consultant Alex Ong, formerly of San Francisco’s Betelnut, Zimmern — a self-described “Chinese takeout lunatic” — has put together a menu inspired by his travels across China as well as family dinners in his youth.
“I’m a Jewish kid from New York,” Zimmern said. “We ate Chinese food three times a week.”
The menu spans the vast country’s culinary regions. There are wontons in Szechuan chili oil; Xi’an style hand-torn noodles with spicy cumin lamb; a dish of Hong Kong waffles with Shanghai fried chicken.
Zimmern fondly recalls dinners in New York City’s Chinatown with his parents and grandparents. The meals largely consisted of Cantonese food, until chefs from other regions made their way to New York in the 1970s thanks to Richard Nixon’s diplomatic thaw with China.
The first time Zimmern tasted Hunan cuisine, at 14, everything changed for him.
“It tripped a switch inside me,” he said. “I can tell you who was sitting at the table. I can tell you what we ordered. I had never tasted food like this before. So incredibly flavored, so brilliant, so different from Cantonese food and yet everybody called it Chinese food.
“And it was a big cultural learning moment for me, that there can be microcultures within cultures, and the importance of food and how food can break down barriers.”
And that’s what he’s hoping to do, first here, and eventually beyond.
“This is a restaurant that has plans to expand,” he said.
He decided to launch it here, in his home, because Minnesota was ripe, he said, for a new understanding of Chinese cuisine.
“So many of the people who cook Chinese food are invisible,” said Zimmern, who counts Bloomington’s Mandarin Kitchen and Dinkytown’s Shuang Cheng among his favorite Chinese restaurants in the Twin Cities.
“I wanted to make the people who cook it visible, and I could do that by opening a restaurant.”
No big-name chefs are staffing the kitchen, however. Ong is still based in San Francisco. The only regular presence from Zimmern here will be the shape of his signature rounded glasses, oversized and used as handles on the doors into the restaurant.
Designed by Shea, Lucky Cricket brings midcentury kitsch to the former Bonefish Grill space.
A thatched-roof bar lined with tufted yellow swivel chairs, tiki totems on the walls (and one enormous one that spits out two different frozen cocktails), fishnet-wrapped globe lights and strings of rope give the place a Polynesian feel — or at least a 1960s American rec-room idea of a Polynesian feel.
The drink menu, by Dean Hurst, has all the greatest hits of tiki — ceramic drinkware and all.
Zimmern’s mother knew Vic Bergeron, the founder of Trader Vic’s chain of Polynesian-style restaurants, and the tiki bar is an homage to that family connection.
Tiki is “a place where it’s always permanently sunset and I love that,” Zimmern said.