It's time to update my list of my Best Burgers - 2011! A few things have changed, but for the most part it 's similar to my previous lists. I've changed the Top Ten a bit, added a few new places to the honorable mention list, and sadly had to delete a couple that have gone out of business.
1. Duffy's Cherry Cricket- Denver. Still the best. Hands down. I have yet to find a burger that comes close to Duffy's. Pictured at left is their mushroom bacon Swiss cheeseburger. Simply outstanding.
2. Krazy Jim's Blimpie Burger - Ann Arbor. It's been years since I've been to Krazy Jim's and would really like to go back at some point. It's worth a weekend trip to have a Blimpie Burger.
3. Monk's Bar and Grill - Wisconsin Dells. Still a strong number 3 on my list. This bar/burger joint in the Dells is a treat to stop at when I have the opportunity to drive past - which is now about once a year. The burger is tasty, the beer is cold. I just wish I had more opportunities to go there.
4. The Thurman Cafe - Columbus, OH. This place jumped right into my Top Ten list after our visit there in the fall of 2009. Not only was it an interesting place and they had a great staff there, the burger was outstanding. I know I've only been there once, but it was still one of the best I've ever had. Unfortunately, I probably won't be back out to Columbus any time soon so I won't be able to savor the taste of another Thurman burger for awhile.
5. Booches- Columbia, MO. A recent visit to Booches reinforced my belief that Booches deserves a Top Five mention on my list of favorite burgers. Booches is truly a burger joint and the consistency of their burgers each time I visit there reinforces my belief that you don't screw with tradition. (Booches cheeseburgers pictured at right)
6. Sobleman's- Milwaukee. After my initial visit to Sobleman's in 2009, I went back to Solly's, which previously held the number 4 slot on my list. While the Solly's burger was still good, the meat, the bun, the toppings on a Sobleman's burger clearly won out. It's a great place to have a burger, too.
7. Solly's - Glendale, WI. If Solly's burger wasn't so basic, it would be higher on my list. Their "butter burger" is flavorful and juicy. The place is truly an institution in North Milwaukee and they've got a loyal clientele. But I believe Sobleman's is a better burger.
8. B&B Grocery Deli and Meat- Des Moines Don't let the name of the place fool you. This Des Moines grocery store makes a burger that is moist and juicy, topped with gooey cheese and a bun that is light, but firm enough to hold this messy burger. It's a five napkin burger, to say the least. (B&B's double cheeseburger pictured at left.)
9. Louie M's Burger Lust- Omaha. The best name for a burger joint. I recently visited Lou Marcuzzo's funky little place south of downtown Omaha which features about 20 specialty burgers and can make about anything you want to order up. It's still a great burger.
10. The Burger Barge - East Peoria, IL. Still somewhat inconsistent, when they're on - they're tough to beat. When they're not, it's just another burger. However, it's still a Top Ten burger in my book.
Here's my list of high honorable mention burgers in no particular order. These are all worthy of being a Top Ten burger joint, but are just outside looking in.
Smoking Harry's - Creston, IL. Harry's burger was a Top Ten burger in 2010 and is still very good. The combination of a flat griddle-grilled 3/4 pound burger, a great bun and the ambience of a little town dive bar makes Smoking Harry's one helluva burger.
Creekside Bar and Grill - Davenport, IA - The Portobello Bacon Mushroom Swiss Cheeseburger continues to get better and better. The burger is getting to be consistent in taste and texture and is worthy of another nomination for the Best Burger in Iowa from the Iowa Beef Council. (Creekside's Portobello Bacon Mushroom Swiss Cheeseburger pictured at right.)
Lions Tap - Eden Prairie, MN. After a long absence, I was just at the Lions Tap not long ago and it was just as good as when I first went there years ago. It's got to be the grill that has the taste of fried burgers and onions literally burned into it that makes the taste of a Lions Tap burger so good.
Stella's- Bellevue, NE. Another place that is very tough to leave out of the Top 10. Stella's has been around for over 70 years. The old-timers in the Omaha area say the burgers are just as good today as they were when Stella was cooking them up in the 50's. I've been going there since the late 80's and even with new ownership, it's tough to beat a Stella burger.
Starlite Room - Cedar Rapids. I was just in there recently and it confirmed to me that their flat grilled Super Cheeseburger could easily be a Top Ten pick based upon their consistency of how good the burger is each time I visit. The football-shaped burger patty is moist, juicy and full of flavor. And more importantly, it's like that every time I go into the Starlite Room. (Starlite's Super Cheeseburger pictured at left.)
Blue Door Pub- St. Paul.Quite possibly - no, quite probably - the best of all the stuffed "Juicy (Jucy) Lucy" cheeseburgers in the Twin Cities. A great little place with a number of eclectic beers, the Blue Door Pub tops my list of cheese-stuffed burgers.
These burgers get an honorable mention from Road Tips. They're all very good and you won't go wrong if you have one of these burgers.
Burger Jones- Minneapolis. There are some great burger places in the Twin Cities and Burger Jones is one of the best. Eclectic burgers, great beers on tap, nice atmosphere. The only black mark against Burger Jones could be their prices - their mushroom/Swiss cheeseburger is $9.99. But it's worth it.
Moonshine Store- Moonshine, IL. The Moonshine Store double cheeseburger (pictured at right) is truly an iconic sampling of pure Americana. People line up until 12:15 p.m. for these delectable burgers. After 12:30 - forget it! The grille's off!
Dotty Dumpling's Dowry - Madison, WI. Would have been a Top Ten pick, but they've been inconsistent on the past few occasions I've been in. And they certainly aren't as good as they were when they were in their original location in downtown Madison.
Major Goolsby's - Milwaukee. I've completely overlooked having Major Goolsby's on my list before, mainly because it was one of the very first entries I had on Road Tips back in 2005. I need to go back in to Goolsby's downtown Milwaukee location to do an in-depth entry on the place. But their chargrilled burgers are excellent, to say the least, and are always a must each time we visit Summerfest.
Blue Moon - Madison, WI. At one time, no one could touch Dotty's in Madison. Now, the Blue Moon gives them a run for their money. I still think Dotty's is a tad better, but not by very much.
Green Gables - Hudson, IL. Another place that has suffered from inconsistency, but the Green Gables has made a little surge over the past couple of years. I've heard that the people who bought the place from the original owners are no longer there and the new management has gone back to making burgers like they used to. The last couple times I was in, the burgers were just as good as the first time I was in.
Two Mits - Elkader, IA. Steam grilled burgers made in a little trailer on a corner lot in downtown Elkader. Just the beauty of the area is worth the drive to Elkader. Two Mits is a must stop when you get there. (Two Mits cheeseburgers pictured at left.)
Newt's - Rochester, MN. Newt's burgers consistently win "Best of Rochester" honors and have been mentioned as one of the top ones in the state of Minnesota. I haven't had all the burgers in Minnesota yet, but they make a damn fine one at Newt's.
O'Connell's Pub - St. Louis. I've been sampling burgers in the St. Louis area over my past few visits and while there are a number of good ones in the area, "Oc's" burger is still one of the better ones I've encountered. The old-time pub feel alone is worth going to and hanging out.
Paradise Pup - Des Plaines, IL. Prepare to wait in line for these juicy char-broiled burgers that they top with creamy cheddar cheese. But the wait is worth it.
The Nook - St. Paul, MN. The Twin Cities are known for their "Juicy (or Jucy) Lucy" cheese-stuffed burgers and the Nook is the second-best I've found, behind the Blue Door Pub. Pictured at right is their "Paul Molitor Juicy Nookie" - a pepperjack cheese-stuffed burger. The bad thing about it is that the interior of the restaurant was destroyed during a fire late last year and I'm afraid the ambiance and the burgers won't be the same after they reopen later this Spring.
Jack's Locust Street Tap - Davenport. Don't let the "Warm Beer" and "Lousy Food" signs in the window fool you. They have one of the best burgers in the Quad Cities. But go only on Tuesday thru Friday during the day when Karen's cooking. The other times, the burgers can be pedestrian, at best. Karen's got the touch.
Hackney's - Glenview, IL. Their Hackney burger is served on dark rye bread and is one of the best in the Chicagoland area. I've had Hackney burgers in five of their six locations. Each time at each place, the burger is exactly the same. It's consistently very good.
Maid-Rite - Newton, IA. I'm partial to loose meat burgers and while many will argue with me that the Canteen in Ottumwa, IA or Taylor's Maid-Ritein Marshalltown, IA is better, I still think the oldest existing Maid-Rite that I grew up loving is the best of them all.
The following establishments don't fit the "burger joint" title as they're more upscale with both their decor and their burgers. But they deserve a mention.
Atwood Cafe-Chicago. Hands down, the best gourmet burger I've ever had. And at $17.95, it had better be. If cost isn't an issue, anyone can make a great burger, but the Swiss cheeseburger at Atwood Cafe is moist, flavorful and tasty. The pickled red onions, fresh tomato slice and crisp lettuce help add to the sensational taste of the Atwood Cafe burger. (The Atwood Cafe burger pictured at left.)
Newstead Tower Public House- St. Louis. From my two visits to Newstead Tower Public House, they tend to under cook the burger, so if you want a medium burger, order it medium-well. But the half-pound grass-fed ground chuck burger is still very good and the toppings are fresh and flavorful. Bring some cash, though. It's not a cheap burger at Newstead Tower Public House.
Jack Fry's - Louisville. Jack Fry's is a little pretentious and snooty, especially the time I went in just to order one of their cheeseburgers for lunch. But the taste of their burger more than made up for the snobbishness I encountered on my visit.
Merriman's Market Cafe - Waikoloa Beach, HI. The locals on the Big Island called the burger at Merriman's Market Cafe the best on the island. They have a great burger served on a sourdough bun with tons of bacon and grilled mushrooms, topped with white cheddar cheese and what could have been the best tomato slices I've ever had. (Merriman's mushroom, bacon, white cheddar cheese burger pictured at right.)
Alfie's Inn - Glen Ellyn, IL. Alfie's has the feel of an old time supper club, mainly because that's what it is. And they have a damn fine sirloin burger and they serve a lot of them.
The Kitchen- Stillwater, MN. A surprisingly good burger at a contemporary American restaurant in the tourist village of Stillwater, just east of the Twin Cities on the east coast of Minnesota. Their burger may have been the best of all the upscale places I've been to.
Burger Bar - St. Louis. Chef Hubert Keller's foray into gourmet burgers. I had the Kobe burger on my first visit, then had the regular Black Angus burger my next time in. I think I liked the Black Angus burger better.
Ted's Montana Grill - Various Locations. Ted Turner's restaurant chain has a very good buffalo burger that is actually pretty juicy for as lean as the meat is. Their special grilling technique is the key, but the spices they add to the buffalo burger helps, as well.
My All-Time Favorite Chain Restaurant Burgers -
In 'n Out Burger - The west coast classic. Absolutely the best of all the chain burgers.
Five Guys Burgers- The east coast classic. Gives In 'n Out a run for their money. And they're expanding westward as we're starting to see more Five Guys locations around the Midwest. Plus Five Guys is one of the very few places where I order french fries. (Five Guys bacon cheeseburger pictured at left)
Schoop's - From my first couple of visits, I can see why this Indiana-based chain has been in business from 1948. It's a great burger with great flavor.
Whataburger - I still love getting a Double Meat with cheese when I come across a Whataburger. It's just too bad that I rarely come across one in my travels because I don't travel the Southwest region of the nation.
Meatheads - A blatant rip-off of Five Guys burgers, but I certainly like the ones I've had there. I just wish they'd come to the Quad Cities. That is, if Five Guys doesn't make it here first.
Dairy Queen - Yep, those mavens of ice cream cakes and Blizzards make a mean cheeseburger. Some locations are better than others, but for the most part the burgers at Dairy Queen are consistently good. And they are made to order so you don't have to worry about someone pulling them off of a line or from under a heating lamp.
Don and Millie's - Probably the closest thing to the old King's Food Host burgers that I grew up loving in the 60's. This Omaha-based chain isn't big, but they make a great burger.
Smashburger - This Denver chain is also rapidly growing and for good reason. They make some pretty damn good burgers.
Runza - If Don and Millie's doesn't have the closest thing to an old King's burger, then Runza is right there, too. Found primarily across Nebraska, the Runza burgers are a great for a quick burger fix when I'm on the road.
Fuddrucker's - Financial troubles has caused the closure of many Fuddrucker's locations, but the few that are still open are still consistently good. If you need a burger and you don't know the good local places and there's a Fuddrucker's around, go to Fudd's.
Sonic Drive-In- One of the toughest things to do while I'm trying to watch my weight is to stay out of the two or three Sonic's they built here in the Quad Cities over the past couple years. And I've been doing a fine job at that, thank you very much.
And these five burger places are vastly overrated, in my opinion -
Nitty Gritty - Madison. Two visits, two bad experiences. The burger was vastly overcooked the first time there (and that included a long hair cooked into the burger) and my second visit was a disaster with getting the wrong burger. No, I won't go back
Cozy Inn - Salina, KS. Burger bloggers rave about the Cozy Inn. But I went there last summer and I was highly disappointed. Now, you tell me if their burgers would be worth the visit again from the picture on the left. Where's the beef?
Cheeseburger in Paradise - Jimmy Buffett's chain of "upscale" burger joints. The burgers I've had at a couple of them are average, at best. They don't bring any cache to the party, other than being served in a place owned by Jimmy Buffett.
BLT Burger - Las Vegas. Great chefs should stick to what they do best - make eclectic and dynamic food. I've eaten at Laurent Tourondel's upscale burger place in the Mirage three times and each time it was an average burger at inflated prices.
The 5-8 Club- Minneapolis. People rave about this place for having the best "Juicy (Jucy) Lucy" in the Twin Cities. While it may - or may not have been - the first place to feature a cheese-stuffed burger, on the two visits I've made to the 5-8 club the meat was so over-cooked that the cheese cooked completely out of the burger.
The Cubby Bear North is the far north suburb's sister location to the original Cubby Bear bar/restaurant/music venue located directly caddy-corner from Wrigley Field in Chicago. The original Cubby Bear was named by Sports Illustrated as one of the Top 25 Sports Bars in America back in 2005. It's a place I've visited many times before going across the street to a Chicago Cubs game and it's a pretty fun place to visit. They also make one of the best bloody mary's I've ever had. Like the original, the Cubby Bear North is a place I've been to many times in the past, but only recently went back to for a late dinner on a cold winter's evening.
The original Cubby Bear at the corner of Addison and Clark (see map) started in 1953 when Greek immigrant Gus Loukas and his wife, Sophia, opened the Cubs Tap. The Cubs Tap evolved into the Cubs Pub, then it became the Cubs Grill. In 1978, Loukas' sons, George and Angelo, bought the place and turned it into the Cubby Bear Lounge. Both the Loukas brothers have a background in football - Angelo Loukas is a former professional football player who played a couple years with the Buffalo Bills, while George Loukas is a former Southern Illinois football player who was one of the best running backs in school history. George Loukas is a member of the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame.
George Loukas and his wife, Patty, also have a somewhat famous daughter. Christina Loukas represented the USA in diving at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, placing ninth in the 3 meter springboard competition, and is a former collegiate and national amateur women's diving champion. The Loukas' son, Nick, helps with the day-to-day operations of the original Cubby Bear.
When Angelo and George Loukas took over the Cubby Bear Lounge, the Wrigleyville area was in a state of quick deterioration . The Cubs weren't drawing well, the neighborhood was falling into decay and the area became a series of dilapidated buildings and seedy joints. George Loukas helped spearhead a movement to clean up the area, and almost as a coincidence, the Cubs began to draw larger crowds to their games. In the late 80's, Loukas began to book nationally known musical acts into the Cubby Bear. The family also opened Vines on Wrigleynext door and the Sports Corner at the southeast corner across from Wrigley Field. They also own one of the rooftop buildings just beyond the outfield wall of Wrigley Field on Waveland Ave.
Over 10 years ago, the Loukas family expanded to north suburban Lincolnshire and opened the Cubby Bear North fashioned as a roadhouse style restaurant/bar/music venue on Milwaukee Ave. (see map) It was one of the first of what is now many restaurants in the immediate area across the road at the Lincolnshire Commons shopping and entertainment district.
As I said, I've eaten at the Cubby Bear North many times over the years enjoying their Italian beef sandwiches, burgers, and ribs. The menu at the Cubby Bear North also features steaks, seafood, pasta entrees and your normal bar appetizers. Cubby Bear North also features a late night bar menu that features burgers, tacos, cheese pizzas and their famous (and yummy) Garlic French fries. The beer menuat Cubby Bear North features a number of your normal domestic beers, along with a nice mix of eclectic beers from microbreweries around the Midwest including Three Floyds, Great Lakes, and Metropolitan.
The Cubby Bear North seems to be a little bigger than the Cubby Bear in the city. At least it's more spread out and open compared to the original Cubby Bear. There's a main bar area to the right as you walk in, a large dining/dance hall in the middle, and another bar area on the far south side of the establishment. A large stage sits on the long far wall of the building and a couple large projection screens drop down for sports viewing when bands aren't playing. Flat screen televisions proliferate the walls, nooks and crannies of the Cubby Bear North.
It was close to 8:30 p.m. when I arrived at the Cubby Bear North and took a seat at the main bar. A few basketball games were going on and I was pretty content to watch some of those as well as to read my Chicago Tribune. The bartender came by with a menu and asked what I wanted to drink. I looked into the large glass cooler in front of me and saw that they had Old Style. I immediately ordered one of those.
I wasn't overly certain what to get that particular evening. I didn't want barbecue because it was so late and I knew it would sit in my stomach like a rock all night. A burger or sandwich didn't sound all that pleasing at that point in the evening. The special that evening was 2 for 1 pizza - buy one pizza and get a second one of equal or lesser value for free - and there were a number of people in the Cubby Bear North enjoying a pizza. But I definitely didn't want a pizza.
I pared my choices down to Cubby Bear North's Chicken Vesuvio (and I knew it wouldn't be as good as what I've had at a couple Italian restaurants in the past), seared fish tacos (another thing that I was sort of skeptical about, given that the Cubby Bear North isn't really known as a seafood restaurant), or their rigatoni, served with chunks of sweet Italian sausage, topped with mozzarella and baked. I thought that would be pretty good and I decided to try that.
About 20 minutes after I ordered, a waitress brought the steaming bowl of baked rigatoni over to me. I got some parmesan cheese and crushed red peppers to throw on top. It looked pretty similar to the "Wigatoni" that I love so much at the Wig and Pen in the Iowa City/Coralville area. The mozzarella was caramelized on top, the rigatoni noodles were thick and large and there seemed to be ample amounts of Italian sausage throughout the dish.
A couple three guys came in before I ordered my baked rigatoni and ordered some food for themselves. The guy seated next to me commented when the waitress brought my pasta to me that it didn't look bad at all. After a few bites, he sort of leaned over and said, "How is it? It looks good."
I said, "It looks better than it really is."
Quite honestly, it wasn't as good as the Wig and Pen's "Wigatoni". Most of the sausage was located on top and it wasn't all that plentiful. The pasta was all right, but the marinara sauce wasn't all that zippy in taste. Overall, it was very far from inedible, but it was more of a pretty bland taste experience. But I guess I couldn't expect that much out of a place where most of the food is geared toward bar patronage. It's definitely not fine dining at Cubby Bear North.
While the Cubby Bear North does a lot of things "OK" at their place, nothing they have on the menu is really what I would call outstanding. But if you're there with a group of friends after work, or stopping in to catch a game, sip a few brews and eat some standard bar food, the Cubby Bear North is a good place to hang out. The sandwiches and burgers are good. The ribs are actually surprisingly above average and the garlic fries I've had in the past are pretty damn good on their own. The Cubby Bear North is about as good a place for the rich suburban North Shore people to "slum" as any around.
(Update - Thanx to Road Tips reader Bill who informed me that the Cubby Bear North is now closed. They closed in early January 2014 with seemingly no explanation why. The original Cubby Bear across from Wrigley Field is still open.)
I had some reservations about telling you about Jolane's Cafein Glenview, IL mainly because it's owned by the Abt family, the same people who are my biggest account - Abt Electronics. Jolane's is part of the Abt Design Center which is a small shopping area just to the south of the mammoth Abt store on Milwaukee Ave. (see map). I was at Abt Electronics for a weekend event recently and a handful of us went over to Jolane's for lunch.
I had the food from Jolane's Cafe on a couple occasions before, but had never actually eaten in the place. When I did training for Focal and Cambridge Audio last summer, I had some food catered in for the event. It was primarily appetizer food and such, and it was pretty good. And at an event Abt Electronics had last fall, they had catered in some food from Jolane's to help feed the people working the event. I had a sandwich that was pretty good.
Jolane's is named after the mother of the owner of Abt Electronics, Bob Abt. Jolane - a.k.a. Jewel - emigrated to America from Austria at the age of six. A very self-sufficient and independent woman, she was one of the first women to own a car in Chicago in the 1920's. She traveled alone to Cuba during the height of the Depression in the early 30's. In 1934, she met and married Dave Abt and two years later they opened their first electronics store in the Logan Square area in Chicago.
Jewel's "can-do" attitude is what helped put Abt Electronics on the map. After retiring from working at the store well into her 70's, she continued her independent streak by taking an Alaskan cruise at the age of 84 and going to Japan by herself at the age of 90. Jewel Abt died in 2002 just short of her 97th birthday leaving a legacy that the Abt family carries on in her name with Jolane's Cafe.
Designed to be a restaurant that is similar to a European Cafe, Jolane's opened in the fall of 2008 offering gourmet coffees and teas, pastries and baked goods, a nice selection of wines and specialty drinks, and full lunch menu and dinner menuto choose from. The main dining room is cozy and inviting, and Jolane's features a sun room/bar atrium that is open, light and airy. John Collante is the executive chef at Jolane's and Jay Jones is the manager. I've worked with Jay on a couple of occasions as I had some food catered in for the Abt crew during trainings. He's a good guy and very thorough in his approach.
Five of us went over to Jolane's for lunch - a couple friends of mine who work for Mitsubishi and Martin Logan, and a couple sales guys from Abt. We decided to eat in the sunny and warm atrium area. Actually, when Jolane's was originally built, an outdoor patio stood where the atrium is today. I understand a little over a year ago the Abt's decided to enclose the outdoor seating area with sort of a "greenhouse" feel to the place. I asked one of the sales guys from Abt if it got hot out in the atrium in the summertime and he said, "Oh, yeah. So much that the air conditioning has a hard time of keeping up."
I was told by the guys that Jolane's makes a mean bloody mary and we all decided to get one for lunch. They're served in 16 oz. glasses with a bunch of munchie additions including a boiled peeled shrimp, a bleu cheese stuffed olive and a slice of salami. Yep, salami in a bloody mary. It wasn't bad, but a little weak in taste for me.
I wasn't overly certain what I wanted to have. I'd had breakfast earlier in the day fully anticipating that I wouldn't have time for lunch, so I wasn't overly hungry. One of Jolane's featured items at lunch that day was their Philly cheese steak sandwich with a chipotle dressing. A couple of the guys ordered that. My friend from Mitsubishi got the black angus cheese burger and my friend from Martin Logan got the roasted chicken sandwich topped with bleu cheese.
I hemmed and hawed for a moment between the chipotle lime chicken wrap - chunks of grilled chicken breast with bacon bits, avocado, lettuce and a chipotle lime dressing wrapped in a tortilla shell - and the Harvest tuna sandwich - a tuna salad sandwich mixed with chunks of tomato and cucumber, then served on a multi-grain bread. Not too exciting, but that's what I ended up going with. A side of Jolane's homemade potato chips came with the sandwich.
When the food finally showed up (it took over 25 minutes for the food to get to our table), the Harvest tuna salad sandwich was a big one. It nearly filled the plate and left little room for the potato chips. And that was fine with me - I can give or take potato chips, and, quite honestly, Jolane's homemade potato chips weren't anything special. The tuna sandwich was OK, as well. Nothing special, nothing that jumped out on the taste buds, it was just a nice sandwich.
What I should have gotten was the black angus burger. My friend told me, "Oh, man! Yeah, it's good." It was thick and juicy, served on a pretzel roll and he got cheddar cheese on top of it. The cheese was oozing down the sides of the burger. (Update - I did get the burger on my next visit about a week ago. It was actually very good.)
The nice thing about eating at Jolane's with guys from Abt Electronics is that we got a 15% discount for eating there. And that was appreciated because the bill can get to get a little on the high side for lunch. I paid for lunch for one of the Abt guys and with a tip it came to about $31 bucks. And that was with the discount.
The next day, the Abt's catered food in from Jolane's for their employees and for the manufacturers reps that were working the event. I went upstairs to their employee dining area with a longtime friend who is now working for Audioquest cables and they had a number of things to choose from - one of which was the chipotle lime chicken wrap. I immediately selected that.
And I'm glad I did. The taste sensations in the wrap were much more forward than what I had the day before with the tuna sandwich. It was actually pretty good. And it was large - I couldn't finish the whole thing, but I did make sure to pick out the tender grilled chicken breast chunks before I put it down.
As we were sitting there enjoying our lunch, Mike Abt (pictured left) came by and asked if he could sit with us. Mike Abt is Bob Abt's son and the "number one" son when it comes to running the company with his dad. I've gotten to know Mike over the past couple of months and he's a very nice guy. I asked him how Jolane's was doing for the family and he said, "Well, we had a lot of problems finding the right manager for the first few months. We went through, I don't know, three or four before we found the right guy."
He continued, "Food-wise, it's good. Service-wise, it's getting much better. Money-wise... Well..." He admitted that the overhead at Jolane's was an on-going battle. "It's not quite the money drain it was initially, but it's getting better."
I told him that any new restaurant was going to experience some money problems until it got a foothold and he said, "And we knew that, too. We just didn't expect it to continue for as long as it did. That's one of the reasons we worked through so many managers. I think we've got the right guy in place now."
While I did like the chicken chipotle lime wrap, the tuna sandwich I had at Jolane's was average, at best. But, then again, there's really not a lot that you can do to a regular tuna sandwich unless you're able to doctor up the tuna salad with ground horseradish or cajun seasonings, like I do at home. I can't say that Jolane's was outstanding, but it's a nice place to go for lunch while you're over shopping at Abt Electronics or at one of the nearby design stores. That's why I initially said that I had some reservations about talking about Jolane's because I wasn't going to suck up and say it was outstanding. But it's good enough that I'm sure that I'll be back there many times over the coming years as we continue to grow our business with Abt.
During my recent trip to Minneapolis, I will have to say that I was bound and determined to visit Punch Neapolitan Pizza at some point, based on the recommendation of a friend of mine who lives in the Twin Cities. If you saw my post on Little Sushi on the Prairie, you'll know that I tried to visit the Punch in Eden Prairie one evening, but found out that they had a promotion going on and the place was packed and the line to order was nearly out the door. The next night, however, was back to normal and I was able to get into Punch rather easily.
Punch Neapolitan Pizza was the brainchild of John Soranno who became obsessed with wood-fired pizza as a young boy growing up in Milan, Italy. Soranno's father had been transferred to Milan and the younger Soranno just loved the Neapolitan pizza that was cooked at a small restaurant just around the corner from their home. The Soranno's eventually made it back to the U.S. and John got a degree in business and marketing before going to work for the former Northwest Airlines in the Twin Cities. On a honeymoon to the French Riviera, Soranno and his wife found a little wood-fired pizza place that was just packed. The fire in the oven was over 800 degrees, the toppings were farm fresh and the taste reminded Soranno of his upbringing in Milan. It was then that Soranno decided to leave the corporate world and open his own wood-fired pizza restaurant - something that was not available in the Twin Cities at the time.
Soranno, with the help of friends and family, opened the first Punch pizza location in early 1996. It instantly became a hit with people around the Twin Cities. One of the biggest fans was John Puckett, who along with his wife, Kim, founded Caribou Coffee in 1992. The Puckett's sold their shares of Caribou Coffee in 2000 and he soon approached John Soranno about becoming a partner in Punch and expanding the business. After a trip to Naples to learn more about Neapolitan pizza, Soranno and Puckett became partners and opened the second Punch location in 2002. Today, there are seven Punch locations around the Twin Cities.
Punch continues to make their pizzas as they did when they started out over fifteen years ago - Soranno insists on only the freshest ingredients to go onto his pizzas including imported San Marzano tomatoes and top-grade buffalo mozzarella from Italy. The pizza ovens at Punch are all handmade by Soranno, Puckett and members of the Punch staff. Each pizza oven they have built features an intricate and colorful series of tiles on the outside of each oven. And each location has an oven named after their favorite pizzerias in Naples. The one at the Eden Prairie location is called Da Michele, a pizzeria that has been been making wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas since 1870.
It wasn't far from my hotel to Punch in Eden Prairie (see map) and the crowd was appreciably smaller than the one the night before when they offered $3 dollar pizzas after being named as one of the "Best Places I Have Been" by Twin Cities native Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods on The Travel Channel. I was able to walk right up to the order counter and check out the menu on the board behind the counter.
Punch offers both Neapolian (made with fresh oregano) and margherita (made with fresh basil) styles of pizza. There's only one size - about a 10" pizza - and you can either order one of their house specials, such as the "Milanese" with ham, roasted red peppers, gorganzola cheese and fresh basil; the "Adriatico" with imported saracene olives, fresh oregano, capers, onions and feta cheese; and the "Toto" with arugula, prosciutto, cracked red peppers, goat cheese and garlic. But if you're a regular reader of Road Tips, you know that I'm not very adventurous when it comes to my pizza. I ordered my old stand-by Italian sausage, pepperoni and mushroom, Neapolitan style. I also ordered a couple Surly Brewing Furious ales to go along with the pizza. I thought about just getting a pitcher, but decided just a couple would do me.
Not long after sitting down in a booth in the bright and ornate dining room at the Punch location in Eden Prairie, it was less than 10 minutes after I ordered at the counter and my pizza came to the table. It looked like an authentic Neapolitan pizza, sort of mis-shaped and loaded somewhat caramelized on top from the intense heat from the oven. But I was a little taken back at what I thought was a lack of toppings on the pizza. It was much more crust than toppings. There were a lot of mushrooms - very fresh mushrooms - on the pizza, but there was a noticeable lack of both pepperoni and sausage on the pizza. While I fully expected there not to be a lot of cheese on Punch's Neapolitan style pizza, I thought there would have been more of the meat toppings. And there wasn't a lot of fresh oregano on the pizza, at least not enough to give it any pizazz.
Being that it wasn't that large of a pizza, I made pretty quick work of it - not eating all of the crust, of which there was a lot of crust. While it was chewy, the crust was rather bland. I'm sorry to say that Punch didn't live up to my expectations.
And that's too bad. Punch gets a lot of "People's Choice" awards from Twin Cities residents. While it is authentic Neapolitan style pizza, I've had better Neapolitan pizzas in other places. For the fresh toppings and the unique nature of cooking their pizzas, Punch is tough to beat. But, to me, it was an average pizza, at best. I guess I just wasn't as impressed with Punch as my friend is.
First of all, I have to apologize to whoever suggested I go to Sammy's Lounge in Cedar Rapids to try one of their pork tenderloin sandwiches. I finally did make it into Sammy's a few weeks ago and here's my story -
Sammy's Lounge is located just off of Interstate 380 in a strip mall next to a Hy-Vee near the corner of Center Point Road and Blairs Ferry Road (see map). Sammy's is what I would characterize as a working-class bar. Even during the middle of the afternoon there's an hard-scrabble crowd in the place. Not that there's anything wrong with that - I sort of tend to gravitate toward those types of places. But don't go into Sammy's thinking that your son or daughter isn't going to hear some foul language from conversations people are having. It's definitely more of a bar than a family restaurant.
Bob Hamilton was the longtime owner of Sammy's. "Was" is the operative term because sadly Bob passed away last November from cancer at the age of 66. Hamilton owned Sammy's since 1978 and made hundreds of friends over the years. The "Bob-O-Burger" on Sammy's menu is named after Bob. Hamilton's family continues to run Sammy's Lounge today.
Sammy's Lounge gets a good crowd at night with karaoke mainly on Tuesday and Saturday evenings. And you can be sure that if there's a NASCAR race on TV, Sammy's will have it on. And on my visits to Sammy's, I've seen everything from 20-somethings to 50-somethings hanging at the bar. That's a good sign for any successful bar/lounge.
Actually, I went to Sammy's Lounge for a pork tenderloin sandwich late last fall, but I got in after 2 p.m. and the cook, I believe her name is Cathy, had shut the kitchen down for cleaning. Not wanting to wait, I just had a beer and decided to come back at another time. I was passing through Cedar Rapids recently and decided to stop in a little earlier in the afternoon. This time, the grill was on and the fryer was hot. I sat at the long, rectangular bar and ordered up a pork tenderloin sandwich and a beer from the bartender.
It wasn't long before the tenderloin came out, piping hot. It was served with pickles and onion and I put mustard on the sandwich to complete the condiment trifecta. Sammy's Lounge gets their tenderloins from Fareway(there's a familiar theme with pork tenderloin places using Fareway pork - it is damn good), they hand-cut and hand-bread them in their kitchen. The tenderloin hung over the edges of the sesame-seed bun, but it wasn't pounded into submission and flattened into the size of a man-hole cover like some places will do.
The breading on the tenderloin was sort of tasty - it was more of a breading/battered coating on the tenderloin. The tenderloin, however, was a little overcooked and wasn't quite as moist or juicy as it could have been. She could have pulled it out about 30 seconds sooner and it would have been better.
But that's not to say that it's not a bad tenderloin. I don't think I can put it in the same category as Augusta and TC's Point After, but it's better than many that I've had. Sammy's Lounge acquitted themselves very well and their pork tenderloin sandwich is worth a mention.
Staying in downtown Milwaukee one evening, I decided to walk over to the venerable Karl Ratzsch's for dinner. Karl Ratzsch's has been around since just after the turn of the 20th century and you'll get a lot of debate as to which German restaurant is better in Milwaukee - Kegel's Inn, Mader'sor Karl Ratzsch's. Well, I was going to find out on my own.
The restaurant opened in 1904 as Hermann's Cafe, run by German chef Otto Hermann. After a few years, Hermann's step-daughter, Helen, moved to Milwaukee to help in the cafe. In the mid-1910's, a young German man by the name of Karl Ratzsch was touring the U.S. when World War I broke out in Europe. Deciding not to go back to Germany to fight in the war, Ratzsch settled in Milwaukee and began to work in the restaurant. Helen and the young Karl Ratzsch soon became an item, but it took them 10 years of courtship to tie the knot.
After they married, Karl and Helen bought the cafe from Otto Hermann, changed the name and moved it to it's present day location (see map). "Mama" and "Papa" Ratzsch continued to work in the restaurant until they sold it to their son, Karl, Jr. in 1962. Karl, Jr. ran the restaurant until the mid-90's when he sold it to his son, Josef. Josef, in turn, sold the restaurant in 2003 to longtime employees, Tom Andera, John Poulos and Judy Hazard, who, collectively, have nearly 90 years of working experience at Karl Ratzsch's. The ownership team continues to provide the same food and service that people have come to trust for over 100 years.
It was a 10 minute walk from my hotel to Karl Ratzsch's on a brisk winter evening in Milwaukee with the wind cutting through my winter jacket. By the time I got to the restaurant, I was ready to warm up. There were a handful of people in the ornate dining area, but I decided to pull up a seat at the bar. The bar area is decorated with a number of antique beer steins that Helen Ratzsch collected over the years. Some of them, including the big ones in the window of the bar area (above right), are pretty darn cool.
One of the waitresses gave me a menu and the bartender asked me I'd like to get something to drink. Karl Ratzsch's has about a dozen beers on tap and I decided on a Spaten.
As I was going over the menu, another waitress came, Dawn, over and told me that she'd be taking care of me for the evening. She told me of a couple specials they had that evening - one of which was a combination of weiner schnitzel and Hungarian goulash, served with red cabbage. Oh, man! I about stopped right there and ordered that, but I knew I had to look through the full menu before I made up my mind.
In addition to Old World German foodson the menu - such as sauerbraten, rouladen, roast duck and pork shanks - Karl Ratzsch's also offers a number of European specialitiessuch as Chicken a al Poulos, named for chef John Poulos and it features a grilled chicken breast with both a white cream and marinara sauce, then stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes, spinach and feta cheese. That certainly caught my attention.
Karl Ratzsch's also features seafood and steaks, and on Saturday nights they serve a 12 oz. or 18 oz. beef prime rib.
But some other things on the menu also made my stomach do jumping jacks -
Koningsberger Klopse - veal, beef and pork meatballs in a lemon caper sauce.
Black Forest Veal - a breaded veal cutlet layered with smoked pork, Swiss cheese, spinach, and mushroom sauce, served over spätzle.
Wiener Schnitzel a la Holstein - a breaded veal cutlet topped with fried egg, anchovies and capers served with steamed vegetables and potato dumpling.
It all sounded so good and I was having a lot of problems. After the second time Dawn came back to take my order, I decided to go with the wiener schnitzel and Hungarian goulash combination. I also got a cup of their liver dumpling soup and a basket of rolls and toasted bread chips was served with the meal.
The cup of liver dumpling soup came out first. The liver meatball was different in taste from other liver dumplings I've had in the past. I didn't know if I cared for the taste or texture at first, but decided that different is good - it allowed me to try something new. The liver dumpling fell apart easily in the broth, it was very moist and tender. I will have to say that it was above average overall.
Not long after finishing my liver dumpling soup and getting another Spaten, my waitress brought out the main entree. It was a lot of food! The wiener schnitzel was a pretty good sized cutlet and the portion of the Hungarian goulash was heaping and heavy ladled over the spatzle. The wiener schnitzel was, well, it was OK. It wasn't the best I've ever had and it was a little dry in taste. A sauce would have helped it, but on its own it was just OK.
However, the Hungarian goulash was excellent. There were large chunks of beef and vegetables in a rich sauce that had a slight tinge of paprika. I've always like the Hungarian goulash over at Mader's. I'll have to say the Hungarian goulash at Karl Ratzsch's was even better. But, oh! Was it so filling!
And I do have to say that the red cabbage at Karl Ratzsch's was also very good. It was some of the best I've ever had. Even with the average wiener schnitzel, the overall meal was very, very good.
I can see why people have trouble when they debate the merits of the big three German restaurants in Milwaukee. I think the wiener schnitzel at Mader's is better than Karl Ratzch's. But the Hungarian goulash at Karl Ratzsch's is better than Mader's. However, overall I feel that Kegel's Inn is the best value of all three. I guess the bottom line is that you can't go wrong with any one of the three. But the menu at Karl Ratzsch's intrigues me enough to want to go back and try some of the interesting food at some point in time.
One of the first entries I had over five years ago on Road Tips was about the Lions Tap in Eden Prairie, MN. My friend, Bob Boyd, had turned me on to the Lions Tap and I wrote about it here. As you can tell, the blog - and my voice within the blog - has come a long way from those early days. The Lions Tap makes such a great burger that I had to revisit the place on a recent trip to Minneapolis and write a more deserving post on the place.
The history of the Lions Tap twists and turns all the way back to 1933 when the present day location (see map) was used as a vegetable stand to sell produce for land owners Severin and Mary Peterson. Mike and Inga Larson managed the little produce stand for the Peterson's and after awhile they began to sell beer along with the fruits and vegetables. After a while, the Larson's decided to put in a gas station.
After the death of Severin Peterson, Mary Peterson sold the business to her son, Severin II, and his wife, Doris. The younger Peterson's eventually sold it to John and Mattie Buckingham who quit selling produce and turned the place into a boot-legged whiskey bar with gambling. And after the death of John Buckingham, Mattie sold the little roadside tavern to Leonard and Helena Schaefer.
The Schaefer's introduced little deli sandwiches, known as "Stewart Sandwiches". Business got so good from the sandwiches and the beer being sold that they eventually tore out the gas pumps to make room for more parking. The Schaefer's eventually began to franchise their sandwiches and today the "Stewart Sandwiches" are now known as Deli Express- a company that provides pre-made deli sandwiches to convenience stores in 26 states.
"Ma" Schaefer, as Helena was called, was quite the local celebrity around the Twin Cities. Newspaper articles were written about her and she was overly beloved in the community. Upon the death of Leonard Schaefer in 1958, "Ma" sold the place to her niece Irene Lyons and her husband, Sears Lyons. It was then that they began to make the burgers they're so famous for today.
The first burgers were made in an electric frying pan that could cook up to four burgers at a time. The Lyons introduced draft beer - Hamm's and Grain Belt, of course - and soon they expanded the little place to provide for music and dancing. But the draw were the burgers the Lyons' made at the roadside bar.
In 1974, the Lyons retired and sold the business to Lloyd Berg. When Berg couldn't get a city permit to sell liquor, he sold the place to his brother Vern. Vern, and his wife, Marlene, saw how much of a gold mine the burger portion of the place was and expanded the kitchen just to be able to do more burgers. They also introduced the french fries and onion rings the Lions Tap is famous for today.
The Berg's eventually sold the business to Don and June Gilbert in 1977. The Gilbert's owned the place for a very short time, selling to Bert and Bonnie Noterman only after a few months of ownership. The Noterman's changed the name of the place to the present day Lions Tap. The Noterman's also improved upon the already great burger by introducing a quarter-pound, handmade patty, and cooked with their special seasoning. They upgraded the buns and began to lightly toast each bun for improved flavor.
The Noterman's upgraded the building in the mid-80's with a nearly half-million dollar renovation. More parking was added, more seating was added. But it was the same great burgers on the menu that people kept coming in to eat on a regular basis.
I met a dealer and his fiancee for lunch at the Lions Tap one day when I was in the Twin Cities recently. I was a little early, so I sat at the bar and ordered up one of the Lions Tap's craft beers they had to offer. Their beers are brewed for them by the Cold Spring Brewery, a Twin Cities area brewery that dates back to the mid-1800's and who now makes a number of private label brews for a number of restaurants including Gluek's in downtown Minneapolis. The Lions Tap Lager had a crisp, but somewhat bitter taste to it. It was OK, but it wouldn't have been anything that I would have sought out to take home with me.
My dealer and his fiancee showed up and we sat in one of the booths in the main dining area by the bar. The menu at Lions Tap is pretty small - they feature six different types of burgers along with their fries and onion rings. My dealer ordered a double cheese burger with fries, his fiancee had gone to the restroom, so he ordered a California Cheese burger (lettuce and tomato) and onion rings for her. I ordered a double mushroom/swiss cheese burger with raw onions. They cook the onions on the grill with the beef patties and it helps give the burgers their distinct taste.
It wasn't all that long after we ordered when the burgers showed up at the table. From the first bite, I remembered what I have been missing for over five years. The taste of the burgers at the Lions Tap is just sensational. The special seasoning helps, but I'm almost positive that the old grill that has been cooking thousands and thousands of burgers over the year helps give them that distinctive taste. The beef was juicy and moist, the fresh mushrooms were grilled, it was swimming in Swiss cheese, the bun was excellent and the overall taste was outstanding. It's no wonder the Lions Tap has won a number of Twin City area "Best Burger" awards over the years.
I'm in the process of updating my "Best Burgers" list and I may have to seriously think about adding the Lions Tap to my personal Top Ten favorite burgers. It's a little bit of a drive out to the Lions Tap, but the trip is worth it. The Twin Cities have a number of very good burger places, but the Lions Tap may be the best of them all.
After a long day of tearing down suites and booths and packing equipment back into boxes at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, we usually all get together and have a nice meal to celebrate the end of another show. However, since we were effectively showing in three different places, things got a little disjointed on Sunday evening as we were split up into two groups - one group at the Convention Center, the other at the Venetian. I was with the Convention Center group which included my boss, Daniel, and two of my Montreal colleagues, Simon and Michel. We finished packing up by 7:30 and made it back to the Mirage around 8 p.m. and decided to stop for dinner at Stack restaurant and bar.
Stack is part of the Light Group organization that oversees a number of restaurants and night clubs in the Las Vegas area. They also oversee two pool/lounges including Bare- the European-style private pool area at The Mirage. Yes, the name says it all - nude sunbathing is allowed at this place. Brian Massie is the Executive Chef for Stack (as well as some of the other restaurants) and the menuconsists of an eclectic mix of American-style bistro favorites such as steaks, chicken and lamb chops. But it also features a number of Pan-Asian specialties such as miso black cod fish in lettuce cups, yellowtail sashimi and ahi tuna tartare. A number of items on the menu are available to share, as well.
Stack is not the kind of place where a guy in a t-shirt and a pair of jeans is made to feel comfortable in. Unfortunately, after a full day of tearing down and packing up, I was in a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. And doubly unfortunate for me, I didn't have my room key on me - my colleague John had it over at the Venetian as they were finishing up over there. He had it from earlier in the day to let in the freight guys to pick equipment up at the Mirage suite while I went over to the Convention Center to help over there. So I couldn't go up and change into a better shirt and a sweater for dinner. Simon and Michel were able to do so - Daniel was already dressed in a nicer shirt. As Simon and Michel were upstairs changing, Daniel and I sat at the bar and ordered a couple drinks while we waited for our table.
The decor at Stack is unique in that the woodwork is very sleek and contemporary in its look. The wooden walls form a sort of cave-like feeling to the place. It was very chic and very modernistic. By the time Simon and Michel wandered back in, we had time for a couple more beers before we were escorted to our table near the center of the restaurant.
The one thing we noticed about Stack as we were going through the menu, it wasn't cheap. Even the wine list was eye-popping with their prices. Daniel took a gander through it and then handed it to me. He said, "See if you can find an American red that is reasonable in price." Quite honestly, I couldn't. Many of the wines that I was familiar with were exorbitantly priced. I handed back the wine list to Daniel and said, "You're on your own, cowboy. I'm not gonna order a bottle of wine that's price $35 bucks higher than it should be." He was able to find a French red that he felt was too expensive, but the most reasonable of the ones on the menu.
The first thing that caught my eye on the dinner menu was the Ultimate Steak for Two - a 40 oz. porterhouse served with a side of whipped potatoes. I sort of caught Michel's eye and I said, "Hey, look at this!" And I pointed at the steak for two.
His eyes lit up and said, "Yeah, but it's $94 dollars!"
Daniel said, "Go for it! If that's what you guys want to get, go for it."
And even though there were some other interesting things that I wanted to try such as the lobster tacos or the $29 dollar Kobe beef burger, that's exactly what we ordered. Daniel and Simon both ordered the bone-in filet. And all of our steaks were ordered rare. Simon also ordered a side of baked mac and cheese - and like the potatoes, they were served family style so each of us at the table could give 'em a try.
They brought out the steaks and Michel and I were almost giddy when they placed the 40 oz. porterhouse in front of us. It had been sliced away from the bone and even though it doesn't look like it in the photo below left, it was a good rare steak. There was some sort of a seasoning on the steak that was sort of salty, peppery and had a little garlic herb taste to it. It wasn't unpleasant and really helped electrify the taste of the steak.
Above right is a picture of Simon's bone-in filet, topped with a homemade potato chip. Daniel's was identical. From the first bite of their steaks, they declared them as magnificent. We all had steak at Charlie Palmer Steak earlier in the week. Daniel said, "I think this steak is better than the one I got at Charlie Palmer. And that was a very good steak!"
Michel and I made very short work of the 40 oz. porterhouse. We admire each other so much for being big carnivores that it was really fun sharing the steak with him. Michel has a history of ordering large steaks in restaurants - up to 32 oz. steaks - and polishing them off with no effort. And he's not that large of a guy. His saving grace is that he doesn't drink so he doesn't gather those calories like I do.
We were sort of looking at one another and Michel said, "You know, I could almost go for another one of those."
I said, "I was thinking the same thing." (I hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast over 12 hours earlier.)
Michel said, "Yeah, but it's $94 dollars!"
Daniel was sitting there with a big smile on his face. He said, "If you guys want to get another one, go ahead!"
We thought about it for a few moments and I vetoed the idea. I said, "We'd just be miserable if we did, but it sure would be fun."
We did partake in a couple of Stack's eclectic desserts - the cherry creme brulee that is served in an exotic thin, curved bowl; and the mini key lime pies - three small key lime torts with a side of lime sorbet. And both were very good, as well. I did take pictures of the two, but the battery on my phone was wearing down quite rapidly and the pictures were very blurry - an annoying side effect of a low battery on my Blackberry.
Other than the price of the meal and wine, Stack was just outstanding. It was a great and very pleasant surprise not knowing what to expect when we walked into the place earlier in the evening. We caught up with the rest of our colleagues having a night cap in one of the suites and we were telling them of how great the place was. I'm sure we'll be staying at the Mirage at CES again next year and Stack will undoubtedly be on our list of restaurants to eat when we come back. But we'll need a good year of sales to help pay for it.
I had to break one of my cardinal rules in traveling this winter - never drive above the Minnesota/Iowa border between Dec. 1 and Feb. 28. With business prospects beginning to wake up in the Twin Cities, I had to go up for a couple meetings in late January. Actually, other than it being cold and the ground covered with a ton of snow from a huge snowfall they received in December, the weather wasn't that overly bad. I got into my hotel in Eden Prairie about 7 p.m. and I was ready to go get something to eat. I ended up at a little place with a unique name - Little Sushi on the Prairie (see map).
Actually, I wanted to go next door to Punch Neapolitan Pizza on the recommendation of a good friend in the Twin Cities area. However, Punch was packed with a full dining room and a line nearly out the door. I had mentioned that Punch was packed to someone the next day and they were incredulous that it would have been that busy on a Tuesday night. It turned out that Punch had been named one of "The Best Places I Have Been" by Twin Cities native Andrew Zimmern who hosts "Bizarre Foods" on The Travel Channel. They were offering a one night only special of $3 dollar pizzas - no matter how many toppings you wanted on a pizza, it was $3 bucks. So it was no wonder the place was so packed.
As I was getting ready to drive out of the parking lot to go someplace else, I caught the "Little Sushi on the Prairie" sign. I thought, "Whoa! Kind of an interesting name for a sushi joint. Sushi! That doesn't sound half-bad." I was able to find a parking spot tucked in at the far end of the lot and went inside to the place.
Tom Thoj is the owner of Little Sushi on the Prairie, a combination sushi/tempura restaurant. But everyone thinks the owner is Monzong Thao - or better known as "Mo" - who is the likable and highly visible sushi chef at Little Sushi. Mo was in that evening, doing his magic with the nigiri sushi and he was assisted by - I believe he was introduced as - Billy. I took a seat at the small sushi bar and an older lady came over to see if I wanted a menu. I told her that I was going to just get sushi and that I wanted a large bottle of Asahi to start me out.
Little Sushi on the Prairie is not an overly large place and there was only two other people in the very vibrant looking dining room that evening. The walls on the south and west side of the dining room are painted in pastel colors with fish and sea life the prominent features in the picture. The chairs all are sturdy, high-backed wood with a nice leather seat to them. Even though it's hidden back in a strip mall, it probably gets a lot of business from shoppers and business people in the area. In fact, the Minnesota Vikings training facility is not far from Little Sushi on the Prairie and I understand that a number of players will come in and get sushi from the place during the season.
I looked over the sushi menu and immediately ordered a spicy tuna roll. Mo asked me if I liked it spicy and I said, "Of course!" When the lady got back with my Asahi, I was ready to order some more - I ordered salmon, tuna, yellow tail, red snapper and the sweet shrimp. The lady asked me, "Do you want us to cut the head and deep fry it? We'll do that for no extra charge."
I found that to be sort of repulsive the first time I had it at a sushi place in Davenport. It was given to Cindy and I to try for free and Cindy couldn't get past the eyes looking at her. After a couple bites of the deep-fried, battered shrimp head I just had to tell myself to not dwell on what I was eating - sort of the same ritual I did when I first started to eat sushi some years ago. But now, it doesn't bug me. Sure, if you're gonna offer it for no extra charge, go for it!
The spicy tuna roll (above left) was very, very good. It had a nice kick to the spiciness and was a great start to the meal. By the time my tuna roll was finished, Billy handed over the plate of the nigiri sushi to me (top right). The fish was fresh - especially the tuna and the salmon. It was just wonderful. I was almost finished with my sushi plate and Mo handed over the sweet shrimp, which was also good. As I was waiting on the shrimp heads, I ordered up a couple more pieces of the tuna nigiri, which was the highlight of the meal. And about the time Billy handed me my two new pieces of tuna, the lady brought out the shrimp heads. And they were just GREAT! I don't know what kind of tempura batter they use on them, but the taste was out of this world. I just had to mentally get past the crunchiness of the head.
I was talking to a friend of mine, Bob Boyd, the next day and I told him that I had ended up at Little Sushi on the Prairie. He exclaimed, "Little Sushi! That's my place, man! Isn't that place great?"
It certainly was. I'm always looking to be pleasantly surprised when I find a hidden gem of a restaurant in my travels and Little Sushi on the Prairie certainly didn't disappoint. The sushi was great, I had a good time with the sushi chefs and the service was pretty good. It's sort of a hard place to find in Eden Prairie, but now that I've found it, I'll be back.
(Update - I got this note in March of 2013 from Jenny who lives in Eden Prairie. "My husband and I went to Little Sushi on the Prairie based on your wholehearted recommendation. However, we found that the place had closed. We went for pizza instead.")