I spent the night in St. Cloud last fall because all of the affordable hotel rooms were filled in the Twin Cities for an event going on in the area. I wanted to try someplace that was unique to the area and I found a place over in Sauk Rapids just across the Mississippi River from St. Cloud that sounded interesting. I ended up going to the Old Capital Tavern for dinner that evening.
Adam Salzer was an information and public relations officer in the U.S. Army who had a love for craft beers and old style taverns. After getting out of the Army, he wanted to run a throw-back bar and restaurant but he didn't want to just open it in any building. Searching around central Minnesota, he found a building in downtown Sauk Rapids that had been built in 1915 as a tavern. When Prohibition came about a few years later, the place was shuttered. Over the years, the building had been a car dealership and a flower shop, but was empty when Salzer found it. Salzer and a couple of partners gutted the building and recreated a 1920's-style tavern in the spot. They opened the door to the Old Capital Tavern in June of 2013.
Now, I can't quite figure out why Salzer and his partners named their place the Old Capital Tavern. St. Paul is and has been the state capital since Minnesota was established as a territory in 1849 before becoming a state in 1856. I couldn't find anywhere the St. Cloud or Sauk Rapids was any type of a capital other than a local seat of government. So, the Old Capital Tavern name is a mystery to me as to why they named it that. (It may have been the name of the original tavern, too.)
It was about a 15 minute drive to Old Capital Tavern located at the corner of Division and Benton Dr. in downtown Sauk Rapids (see map). I found parking on the street near the the side of the building and went in. The interior definitely made it look like you were stepping back into the 1920's. From the tin ceiling to the old style light fixtures to the hand crafted bar, the attention to detail was remarkable.
I took a seat at the bar and was greeted by the bartender/server that evening, a nice guy by the name of Ian. He gave me a menu to look over and gave me a time to take a look at what I wanted to drink.
The line-up of beers on tap was impressive, to say the least. The light blue spigot of Kona Big Wave Golden Ale stood out among the 50 beers they had on tap. Happy to see Big Wave Golden Ale on tap anywhere, I ordered one of those from Ian. They also had an equally impressive selection of bourbon, rye, Scotch and Irish whiskeys - over 130 different varieties. This was my kind of place.
The food on the menu was also seemingly a step up from your typical bar or pub food. Appetizers included smoked duck legs in a Thai orange ginger sauce; Thai lettuce wraps with a choice of either Sriracha salmon or a Korean-style Bulgogi beef; and a smoked salmon dip with spinach and artichokes, topped with a baked asiago cheese and served with pita bread.
Entrees included a Mac and Cheese dish that featured cavatappi pasta in a spicy cheese sauce with pork, bacon and broccoli mixed in. There was also the pot roast - slow-roasted beef short ribs with potatoes, carrots, onions and mushrooms cooked in a bourbon/stout sauce. They had jambalaya on the menu, as well as a 14 ounce ribeye and a 12 ounce strip steak. They had a lamb burger, as well as fish tacos (I saw that they were deep fried cod pieces or I would have signed up for those), and something called the "Four Alarm Pig's Ass Masterpiece" - a pulled pork sandwich served with a house-made spicy stout barbecue sauce, and topped with giardiniera, pepper jack cheese, red cabbage and served on a garlic baguette.
I was in a quandary - I was hungry, but I wasn't. I thought about getting the meatloaf - topped with pepper jack cheese and caramelized onions, and served with garlic/parmesan mashed potatoes. Then I saw the Old Capital reuben sandwich that featured house-smoked corned beef, topped with a house-made 1000 Island dressing, Swiss cheese, red and green cabbage sauerkraut, and giardiniera served on pumpernickel bread. And the Cuban sandwich sounded good as it came with house-made mojo pork, ham, smoked provolone, sliced pickles and yellow mustard on pressed Cuban bread. The "Cuban bread" part caught my eye because I feel it's the sweet Cuban bread that makes a great Cuban sandwich, not the pressed panini-style Italian or French bread that nearly every other place in the Midwest has for their Cuban sandwich.
When Ian came over to take my order, I quizzed him on the Cuban sandwich and asked him if it was truly Cuban bread. "The real stuff, the sweet Cuban bread," I asked. He assured me that it was. Against my better judgment - mainly because I was really interested in the reuben and/or the meatloaf - I ordered the Cuban sandwich.
And Ian oversold me on the Cuban sandwich. It was on a pressed panini Italian bread and not the sweet Cuban bread that he assured me it would be. And why would I have thought any different? I haven't had a good Cuban sandwich since I was last in Miami 18 years ago. Still the sandwich on its own was good. The sweet and sour taste of the mojo pork - marinated in a combination of orange juice, lime juice, garlic and other spices - was very good. The pork was shredded and tender, and the smoked provolone was a nice complement to the meat. I got passed the fact that it was pressed Italian bread and enjoyed the sandwich as much as I could.
Along with the Cuban sandwich came a side of seasoned fries that were actually pretty good. But there was so much meat in the sandwich that I probably only had a handful of fries with my sandwich.
I'm sort of wavering on how much I liked the Old Capital Tavern. The food offerings were definitely a step up from regular pub food, they had a great craft beer selection and an overwhelming number of whiskeys to choose from. I'm still somewhat kicking myself for getting the Cuban sandwich, even though it was better than most Cuban sandwiches I've had at other places around the Midwest. And other than steering me wrong on the Cuban sandwich, Ian's service was top notch. Given some of the other interesting things they have to offer on the menu, I have Old Capital Tavern on my "Restaurants to Visit" list just to be able to try something else next time.