As I sat at the bar, drinking out of a coconut, I thought to myself: The Twin Cities could use more places like this.
Wait, that makes it sound like I want more bars that serve cocktails in coconuts. While I found this tropical drink amusing, it was the entire vibe of the new bar and restaurant that had me smitten.
Subo opened quietly in early December in the old Hell's Kitchen space, half a block off the Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis.
Even with its foodie inclinations (Asian tapas) and a complete re-imagining of the space, Subo hasn't necessarily garnered the tidal wave of attention that it deserves. The ownership team includes New York-tested chef Neil Guillen and well known Twin Cities businessman Jim Hays, plus a behind-the-scenes Kieran Folliard, who is helping Subo get established while overseeing his own Irish pub empire.
Subo is a Filipino word that means "to feed." Guillen, who previously worked at the Kuma Inn in New York, said Hays (a Kuma Inn customer) persuaded him to move to Minneapolis to run a restaurant inspired by his Filipino heritage.
With its railcar-narrow layout, small-plate menu and burgeoning bar scene, Subo could be on its way to becoming an Asian version of Barrio.
While Guillen's focus is on the kitchen, where he crafts traditional Filipino dishes as well as Southeast Asian favorites (the menu features a lot of seafood), he and general manager Johann Galera have made no secret of their nightlife aspirations. The front lounge is nearly twice the size of the dining room.
What's to like
More than the original Hell's Kitchen, Subo has maximized the vintage mystique of the 103-year-old Handicraft Guild Building. After gutting the interior, Guillen and company discovered cobblestone-like flooring under old carpet and plate glass windows behind wallboard.
To complete the transformation, they erected a wall of wooden shipping crates behind the 23-foot-long wormwood bar. It looks like the rear end of a delivery truck. But instead of vegetables and other goods, the crates display the bar's inventory of liquor bottles, back-lit in a neon blue glow. It's one of the more innovative bar designs in the Twin Cities. All of this makes Subo's lounge feel like a cleaned-up version of a dingy hangout on some darkened side street in Manila (or Minneapolis, for that matter).
The cocktail list isn't exactly a mixology stunner, but it's fun and has variety. Currently, it includes a saketini, a pumpkin-pie martini, that coconut doozy and an energy drink named after boxing champ Manny Pacquiao, among other libations. In many of the cocktails they've subbed out traditional juice mixers for more Philippines-based ingredients, including kalamansi juice, buko juice (coconut) and kaffir leaf.
High-end finger food is hot right now, and some of Guillen's small plates could definitely be classified as sophisticated bar food. My suggestion: the roasted "pork candy," which is a Chinese-style sausage cut into coin-sized bites and dripping with palm sugar and lime gastrique. Try it during the twice-daily happy hour.
The beer list would benefit from some more boutique brands. Also, management told me they plan to make Saturday night DJs a regular thing. It's a good idea. The size of last Friday's crowd was much smaller than Saturday's, which was bolstered by the presence of a couple of DJs.
Subo is near the busy corner where the Local and Barrio reside. But this end of the street can be deathly quiet. The cavalcade of late-night bar-goers who overrun those Nicollet Mall bars need to take a peek down the street. If you do, I see a coconut in your future.
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