In my continuing quest to find the best "stuffed-cheese" burger in the Twin Cities, I was directed by one of the guys at the Ultimate Electronics location in Roseville to The Nook in St. Paul. Located right across the street from the famous Twin Cities Catholic High School, Cretin-Durham Hall, The Nook is a small place in a little neighborhood enclave of shops just south of the corner of Randolph and Hamline (see map).
The Nook is owned by partners Ted Casper and Mike Runyon who also own and operate The Shamrock, an Irish bar about a mile east of The Nook. Lifelong friends, Casper and Runyon graduated from Cretin-Durham Hall and ended up buying The Nook in 2000. While they were going to school across the street, the place was known as "Mickey's Nook", named after the original owner, Mickey Braunsen who owned the business from 1967 to 1997. In 1997, Chuck Mitsch bought the place from Braunsen and shortened the name to just "The Nook." When Casper and Runyon bought the business in 2000, it wasn't much of a place - a small joint that just sold beer and had a limited menu. However, with the guidance of Ted Casper's dad, Tom, as well as the cooking experience of Mickey Braunsen, it became one of the best places in the Twin Cities to get a burger.
There's not a lot of available parking in the immediate area around The Nook, but I was able to find a spot on Randolph that was designated for 30 minute parking only. I didn't figure I'd be in there much more than a half-hour, tops, so I took the parking spot. Besides, it was a shitty day with temps in the mid-30's and on-and-off rain. I also figured that there probably wouldn't be any parking enforcement that day.
It was around 2 p.m. when I got into the Nook. I took a seat at a table toward the back of the restaurant. There's a small bar area up front as you come in and the kitchen is sort of off to the side. There's a number of pictures and old-time memorabilia on the walls of the place. It had a sort of wonderful, homey feel to the place. I immediately liked it. And I knew my friend, Scott Schroeder, would like it, as well. His brother lives in the St. Paul area and I wondered if Scott had ever been to The Nook. If he hadn't, I was going to tell him he needed to go - even before I got my food.
I grabbed a menu that was on the table and took a look to see what their version of the "Juicy Lucy" or "Jucy Lucy" cheese-stuffed burger would be. Whereas the other places in the Twin Cities that I've been to feature only a stuffed-cheeseburger, or maybe two or three other variations, The Nook has a number of burgers to choose from other than a stuffed-cheese burger. Mickey's Original Burger is what Mickey Braunsen helped build and sustain his business for 30 years. Some of the burgers are named after notable Cretin-Durham Hall athletes who have gone on to find success in professional sports, such as Paul Molitor and Joe Mauer, two guys who undoubtedly have eaten in The Nook at some point in their life.
The waitress came over and I asked if the Juicy Nookie burger was their form of a "Juicy Lucy". She said, "Yes, it is. Only ours is better." I noticed just under the Juicy Nookie there was the Paul Molitor Burger - a Juicy Nookie stuffed with pepperjack cheese. I wanted that. Fries came with the burger, although I really didn't want them. I could have substituted onion rings or sweet potato fries, but I just stuck with the french fries. She also asked me if I wanted raw onions or grilled onions on my burger. Although I love the taste of grilled onions, they don't get along with my stomach for some reason (same with grilled peppers). I also ordered up a beer to go with my burger.
I looked through the menu and saw that The Nook also does a number of grilled chicken sandwiches for those people who don't want to go the burger route. But The Nook features 21 different types of burgers and six different grilled chicken sandwiches. They also have Reubens, pork-tenderloin sandwiches and what they call the Half-Pound BLT - a bacon, lettuce, tomato sandwich that has a half-pound of bacon. Oooo... My arteries are hardening just thinking about how great THAT has to be!
I really liked some of the old signs, pictures and memorabilia on the walls. I was sort of taken with this old Hamm's Beer sign they had on the wall near my table. Hamm's was the beer my dad always drank when I was growing up and they always had some of the best beer signs available. A few years ago, I thought I'd start collecting some of the Hamm's signs and old-time memorabilia, but I soon found that it was pretty expensive stuff. I had a chance to get a lighted Hamm's beer sign from a friend a number of years ago. It was one that had a circular image that moved to show different scenes that where all somehow connected. I'm still kicking myself in the butt for not taking him up on his offer. I found one at some point in an antique store about five years ago and they wanted $300 bucks for it.
My waitress, who was a very good server, by the way, brought out my burger and fries. From the first bite, I knew this was a better stuffed-cheese burger than what I'd had around the Twin Cities. The bun was a fresh baked bakery bun that was light and chewy. It definitely wasn't dried out from the toasting it went through. The burger was oozing cheese, but it hadn't been completely cooked out of it like I'd had at the 5-8 Club. Even the handcut french fries looked good. And the few I had were very good.
The burger wasn't over-cooked like I had at the other places, either. The meat was still pretty juicy and the pepperjack cheese was a great compliment to the overall taste of the burger. I have to tell you, I sort of like having a camera on my phone now. But I'm still trying to figure out all the settings on it. And when I use the flash, it's so obtrusively bright and obnoxious that I get embarrassed when I take pictures in darkened areas. It's bad enough when I hold up a burger like this and take a picture, then look over to see a couple looking at me and thinking, "What the hell is he doing?"
All in all, the Paul Molitor burger at The Nook was the best of all the stuffed-cheese burgers I've had in the Twin Cities. I have a couple three more places to go check out before I declare it the best, but it has taken the lead halfway around the track. I also liked the ambiance at The Nook better than the other places. I guess I'm a sucker for old beer signs, baseball memorabilia and old pictures on the wall of a small tavern. But it just had something of a homey feel to the place. It was comfortable, the service was very good and the burger was top-notch. I can't put it in my Top Ten List at this point, but I'd give it a strong honorable mention. Sometime when I have the time when I 'm in the Twin Cities, I'd like to come back to The Nook and just hang out.
(Update - The Nook suffered a devastating fire in mid-December of 2010. The owners have vowed to rebuild and hope to reopen by the Spring of 2011. But losing all the old signage and memorabilia will be a blow to the ambiance of the place.)
(Update II - The Nook has reopened and it has an updated look. All the old beer signs and memorabilia are gone, but they have a nucleus of new signage to being with. Click here to see a new report on the renovated Nook and what they had to go through to after the fire.)