The last time I checked in on Tin Cup's, an old polka player named Roger Van Horn was still king of Sunday afternoons. He would huff and puff his classic accordion while old-timers danced and bargoers gambled on the day's meat raffle. For 50 years, Tin Cup's was a Rice Street institution in St. Paul. Then, in early 2009, the bar closed.

"It was like it was always here -- and then it wasn't," one regular told me.

In its final year, new ownership ran the place into the ground, the old-timers say. That's not to say the place wasn't always a dive. But for Rice Street lifers, it was their dive.

The bar sits in a strip mall that houses a busy liquor store and an Asian grocery called Double Dragon Foods. Across the street is Kathy's Live Bait. Tin Cup's was just the latest casualty along Rice Street, which has had a hard couple of years. In 2007, a nearby bar named Diva's (formerly Vanelli's) was shut down in the wake of several shootings. This old St. Paul neighborhood is in a transition period, but also stuck in time.

The June reopening of Tin Cup's -- now just Tin Cup -- was the topic of much discussion along Rice Street. The new owners, Darren and Debbie Wolke, knew very little about this St. Paul corridor, much less the history of a decades-old bar. In fact, the couple live an hour away in Belle Plaine. But the Wolkes' easygoing Midwestern attitude meshed well with Tin Cup's old-school vibe.

Metal in the head

Last Saturday was "Hunter's Widow" night, a very Minnesotan ode to women whose husbands have gone Up North for the deer-season opener. Darren had left for the Canadian border himself, but not before booking a live band to help entertain what was expected to be a light crowd. Debbie ran the bar with help from the couple's grown children, who bartend and wait tables.

Longtime regular Bill Meyer was sitting at the bar wearing a camouflage hunter's cap, but his hunting days were well behind him. He's been coming here for 40 years. Sipping a Miller High Life and watching the new flat-screen TVs, he spoke of his tough love for the old Tin Cup's. "The floors looked bad, the ceiling looked terrible from all the smoke," he mumbled from behind his handlebar mustache.

A woman sitting next to him told me that "Tin Cup" was the nickname of original owner Rudolph Tschida, who used to carry around a tin cup as a child. This back story is up for debate. Another regular said Tschida got the name because he had a metal plate in his head. Whatever the reason, the Wolkes knew the name had to stay.

"You can't hardly rename the Statue of Liberty," Darren said. (However, they did drop the "s").

Most of the old customers have been impressed with the remodeling. No one knows why, but the old Tin Cup's was built without windows. "It was like walking into a dungeon," Meyer said. The Wolkes installed windows, and redid the floor and ceiling. The 60-foot bar remains. There's still carpet on the walls, but at least it's new carpet.

The chicken fiasco

Not everything has gone smoothly. On opening day back in June, Darren said he expected a full house of curious Rice Street residents. When only a couple people came in, his nerves got the best of him and he threw up behind the nearby Walgreens.

Then there was what Wolke calls "the chicken fiasco." Tin Cup's was famous for its chicken. But without the original recipe, the Wolkes' chicken just didn't measure up.

"I got my ass chewed out on the second day by a 50-year patron who hated [our] chicken," Darren said.

After talking with previous Tin Cup employees, Darren said they've fixed their chicken recipe. On Saturday, Ken Mondry, a Rice Street lifer, came in with his friends and family to give the chicken a try. Like other customers, he had been disappointed on a previous visit. "You could have bought better chicken at the gas station," Mondry said.

On this visit, he gave the poultry a glowing review.

The Wolkes have expanded the rest of the menu to include a long list of Juicy Lucy varieties. Some examples: there's the Big Green Meanie (stuffed with cream cheese and avocado) and the Dirty Lucy (stuffed with blue cheese, green olives, jalapeños, onions and cream cheese). They also have a challenge straight out of "Man v. Food": Eat two one-pound Lucifer Lucys (stuffed with jalapenos), plus two pounds of fries and a bowl of coleslaw within 30 minutes and the $25 bill is free. Few have tried, no one has completed it.

Saturday night was a familiar sight at the Tin Cup. The neighborhood's old guard packed the bar at dinnertime. But by the time the band started playing, most of them had cleared out to make way for a slightly younger set. The four-piece country-rock outfit, called the Last Ride, was a far cry from the woozy polka sounds of Roger Van Horn.

Appeasing the old crowd while trying to attract a new one is like walking a tightrope, Darren said. He gets requests for polka music all the time, but isn't sure if he's going to bring it back. Still, they have meat raffles, and there's karaoke on Wednesdays. "We're still trying to find our niche," he said.

For now, Darren thinks treating the bar on its simplest terms is best. Or as he put it: "We've got TVs, we watch sports and we drink good beer."

Sounds like the old Tin Cup to me. • 612-673-7909