Nintendo games and Tang cocktails go together like Zack Morris and Kelly Kapowski, the inseparable “Saved By the Bell” couple from ‘90s teen TV.
All of the above have a home at Ox Cart Arcade (255 E. 6th St., St. Paul, 651-528-6171, oxcartalehouse.com), the transformed former Ox Cart Ale House in Lowertown St. Paul. Opening Thursday, the one-time sports bar serving ambitious pub fare is now fully embracing the Clinton years – and luring customers who came of age when Rollerblades were all that.
The pinball machines and gaming consoles (Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, etc.) are just the start. Justin Sutherland, Minnesota’s contestant on the most recent season of “Top Chef,” is overseeing the relaunch, as managing partner of the restaurant group that owns Ox Cart. And as a child of this era (he’s 35), he’s put his generation’s stamp on the place in more ways than one.
“It was just good, fun, simple times back then,” Sutherland said. “You could go out and play, play video games, hang out with friends. There was a lot more social interaction. We didn’t have the internet and cell phones and all that. You had to be face-to-face and it produced fun.”
Sutherland made his name at his nearby restaurant Handsome Hog, and this project gives him a chance to veer from the Southern, whole-hog cooking he’s known for. “I’m more than just the pig guy,” he said.
This is the first spot he is revamping since he got the gig with Madison Restaurant Group. Next up will be Fitzgerald’s, in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood. Ox Cart Rooftop will also open at a later date, and it will have its own menu: “More classic,” Sutherland said.
But at Ox Cart Arcade, the menu is a recreation of after-school snacks sent down to the basement where kids would spend hours racing digital go-karts. There is Minnesota Sushi, aka pickle roll-ups, aka lunch meat and cream cheese on a stick. A giant pretzel with cheese dipping sauce. Puff pastry with berry jam inside and a hard purple shell of frosting on the outside – a homemade Pop Tart.
The space’s former private dining room is now dubbed the “living room,” a party space rentable by the hour, with a television hooked up to Sega, Super Nintendo and other old-school gaming consoles. The furniture came straight out of Sutherland’s mother’s basement. Another of Sutherland’s mother’s contributions: the VHS tapes of Disney movies that became art pieces on the walls, and their cases, which are being used as check presenters.
Bathrooms pay homage to “Saved By the Bell” and Zack and Kelly, that heartthrob couple, each have their faces posted outside the restrooms. Inside, the walls are painted with brightly colored zig zags, like one of Screech’s weird ties.
Cocktails, by bar director Gus Gonzalez, veer into alarmingly neon territory. The Jaws mixes coconut rum, juices, sprite and bright blue curacao. It’s topped with a gummy shark candy. The Wu Tang blends tequila with the powdered orange drink popular toward the end of the 20th century. Tang is not easy to come by in 2019, so Sutherland had to buy it by the pallet. “I hope the drink sells,” he said. “We have enough Tang for a swimming pool.”
Born at the tail-end of the 1980s, Gonzalez is a smidge too young to identify fully with this era, but he says he researched it to make his drink menu. “What was popular then was sweet drinks, fun-colored drinks. And what better way to garnish them than with glow sticks, Trolls and gummy bears?” he said. “You get people my age and older, having these drinks, and it just takes them back.”
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