I was told about a place in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington that I had to try at some point - Shantytown. I heard the place wasn't fancy, but they had good burgers and a nice selection of beers. "It's hard to find," a friend told me. "But I think it's worth it." After a long drive to the Twin Cities, I went to Shantytown on a cold fall evening complete with spitting snow. (Photo courtesy Jason Walker from Heavy Table.)
You definitely need a GPS or, at the very least, a good idea as to where Shantytown is located. It's on a side street - Pillsbury Ave. - in an industrial area just north of 86th St. and east of Lyndale Ave. (see map). The business has been around since the mid-60's and the outside of the building looks like it. It's a short, squat building that looks sort of out of place compared to the larger buildings around it. There's a small - and somewhat complicated - parking lot in front of the building. I was lucky - I got the last parking spot near the street when I pulled in. (As I was leaving later on, someone was trying to get into a parking spot by the front door and was having trouble maneuvering in the cramped lot.)
Walking into Shantytown, it's like walking into someone's idea of a cool basement man cave. The ceilings are low and the feeling is cozy. The bar is right in front of you as you walk in the door with a dining area off to the right. The main dining area with booths, tables and chairs is to the left. That's the direction I went to finding a booth in the corner.
The current owners, Peter and Laura Taykalo, bought Shantytown in 1999 and have done a good job of keeping the place up. There's signs here and there of some wear and tear - the booth I sat in had scratches on the wooden backs from people scooting in and out of them over the years. But for the most part, the place was clean and comfortable.
Shantytown is the comfortable type of place where the waitresses wear sweatshirts and blue jeans. Not long after I sat down, one of the servers came over to greet me and take my drink order. I was in a dive bar and I needed a dive beer - Grain Belt Premium. I took a look at the menu that was in a holder on the table top while I waited for my beer.
Their sign on the front of their establishment touts "gourmet" burgers at Shantytown. They have 12 burgers on the menu (a "veggie" burger for the vegetarians in the crowd is available, as well) and half dozen chicken sandwiches, as well. They have nearly a dozen assorted sandwiches (club, French dip, pork tenderloin, etc.) along with soups, salads, appetizers and wraps. I still didn't really know what I wanted when my Grain Belt Premium came my way.
One of their signature burgers that caught my eye was the Outback - strips of cactus, sliced jalapenos and pepper jack cheese. That sounded really interesting to me. Their Shanty burger was topped with cheddar and Swiss cheese, along with guacamole and bacon. The Pepper burger was topped with green peppers, black pepper and pepper jack cheese.
They had both a bacon cheeseburger with your choice of any one of five different types of cheese, and a "Shroom" burger, but not a bacon-mushroom burger. But I figured that they'd put bacon on a "shroom" burger for me. But then I saw the Breakfast burger - a fried egg, pepper jack cheese and ham on a burger. It was down between the Breakfast burger and the combination of the Bacon and "Shroom" burger with Swiss cheese. I went with the latter. Chips come with every burger, but for an upcharge you can get fries, onion rings or the state potato of Minnesota - tater tots. I thought having tater tots would be a nice change-up to go along with a burger. My server asked me if I wanted them Cajun-style with Cajun seasonings sprinkled on top and I couldn't say no.
It seemed to take a long time to get my burger to me after I placed my order. It was well over 20 minutes from the time I ordered until my server brought it to me. I figured that for a gourmet burger, it would probably take longer because they certainly weren't overly busy in the place.
The burger was covered with a slab of Swiss cheese, the sliced mushrooms were covered underneath the cheese. Two strips of bacon cris-crossed the top of the burger patty. The bun was lightly toasted. And a pile of Cajun-seasoned tater tots enveloped the majority of the plate.
As a gourmet burger, Shantytown flunked the test. The burger was severely overcooked and void of any flavor in the meat. The Swiss cheese and the mushrooms helped the taste, but the meat was tough to chew and was dried out. This was far from a gourmet burger.
The tater tots, however, were a nice little treat. I can't tell you the last time I had tater tots. The Cajun seasoning was a little overpowering. If I were to get them again, I would probably get them plain. And there was just too many of them - I was only able to eat, maybe, half that they put on my plate.
I liked a lot of things about my visit to Shantytown, the laid-back comfortable nature of a somewhat dive-bar atmosphere was tops on my list. The service was good, but I was extremely disappointed with my burger. Overcooked and lifeless, Shantytown should be ashamed to tout their burgers as "gourmet". I'm sure there have been some outstanding burgers come from the place - they've got a legion of followers who like their burgers. I may go back at some point and give them another chance. But they need to be consistent with each of their burgers at all times.