Generations of Minneapolitans have admired the Grain Belt sign as they crossed the Hennepin Avenue Bridge from downtown to the Northeast (or Nordeast, depending on one's accent).
And generations have quenched their thirst with a Belt or two. Grain Belt was brewed in Minneapolis
, about a mile upriver of the famous sign, from the 1890s until the mid-1970s when Heileman bought the brand and closed the landmark brewery. These days Grain Belt is brewed by August Schell in New Ulm. The old brewery still stands and most of the buildings have been renovated, housing a public library, a large architectural firm, artists' studios and miscellaneous small businesses. Some of the restoration is quite spectacular and one can spend a pleasant hour or two wandering around the site (but most interiors are off limits to the casual visitor).
I tried my first Grain Belt at Dusty's, an old tavern across the street from the brewery.
Some of the brewery's buildings can be seen reflected in Dusty's windows. Grain Belt Premium is a middling example of an American adjunct lager, with a disturbing sweetness and very little hops presence. It may be a "friendly beer" but it's not a very good one. The new Grain Belt Nordeast, introduced in 2010, is slightly more palatable, its sweetness fitting somewhat better with the darker malt profile. I had no high expectations of Grain Belt but needed to try it out a sense of duty. I didn't leave Minneapolis
without drinking some good brews however.
There are only a few small breweries here now but that is changing. Surly is here and is everywhere and it's a good thing. Fulton Brewing has my new favorite beer - Sweet Child of Vine an IPA, and 612 Brewery has just opened shop in the warehouse district downtown.
Surly is surely one of the bright spots in the local brewing scene. I especially enjoyed a glass of Surly Wet at Nomad World Pub. I've been trying a bunch of wet-hopped beers recently and this was perhaps the best. Surly's tendency toward overhopping is entirely appropriate for this style. I also enjoyed a Sweet Child of Vine at the downtown Pizza Luce. I never was able to find 612Brew or whatever the name is. Anyone know where it's located?
The most interesting brewery in Minneapolis
doesn't make beer. Uptown's moto-i claims to be the only sake brewery/restaurant outside Japan.
Brewing is done on the premises in an unbelievably tiny room glassed off from a lounge area. They offer up to eight sakes on tap but only three were available during my visits. I especially enjoyed their junmai gingo yamahai nama. If bananas grew underground they might taste like this.
A few blocks south of moto-i is a beautifully preserved White Castle from 1936. It now houses a combination jewelry store and accordion shop.
While in the Twin Cities I had a few burgers but no sliders. My first stop was Matt's, an old tavern often credited with popularizing the Jucy Lucy, a burger with cheese encased in the center. These creations have been getting an awful lot of publicity recently, probably more than they ought to.
Matt's seems to evoke strong opinions, mostly positive but many negative. I liked Matt's a lot, both food and atmosphere. It wasn't very crowded when I was there—mid afternoon on a weekday—so that probably helped a good deal. The place probably looses much of its charm when packed to the gills. I had a prime ringside seat so was able to watch many Jucy Lucys being made. It's obvious there's an art to cooking these things. As the cheese-stuffed patties sizzle on the well-seasoned griddle they shrink in diameter but increase in thickness. After flipping they swell even more so the cook jabs them with a knife to prevent rupture.
During the all-important cool down period I hungrily stared at my burger. I sat mesmerized as the Jucy Lucy oozed molten cheese through its blowhole. After an excruciating wait it was time to eat. The burger pretty much lived up to the hype and certainly exceeded my expectations. It's a beautiful variation on the classic griddled tavern burger theme: well-seared outside, juicy interior, great griddled onions. I was fearing a gloppy monstrosity but got a well balanced burger.
Next I tried The Nook in St Paul. Their Juicy Nookie is more what I expected from a Juicy Lucy.
I didn't particularly enjoy the massive quantity of molten cheese but I guess I understand its appeal. I have a feeling I'd enjoy one of their regular burgers a lot more. Sadly, The Nook suffered a serious fire in December and hasn't reopened yet.
Finally I hit Blue Door Pub for their signature burger—the Juicy Blucy.
This is another well-made burger but I simply didn't care for the combination of blue cheese and too much minced garlic (from a jar it seemed). Again, I have a feeling I'd much prefer a simple hamburger from this place. Things are really getting out of hand in the Juicy Lucy world. Have a look at this highly questionable offering at the Blue Door. Has anyone noticed that the Twin Cities seem inordinately fond of pepper jack cheese?
By many accounts, these are the top three JLs in the Twins. I was surprised how different they are and surprised how much I enjoyed Matt's version.
The Ju(i)cy Lucy isn't the only distinctive local sandwich. Dusty's is but one of many taverns and restaurants serving the unfortunately named Italian sausage specialty.
It's actually a very good sandwich—at least Dusty's version is—not unlike the Freddy of Chicago's southwest side
. Dusty's makes their own Italian sausage patties and the roasted red peppers are terrific. Their homemade soup and potato salad are top notch too. Dusty's is a great old blue collar tavern with excellent food.Minneapolis
has several Somali malls serving the Twin Cities' large East African population. I visited three and found Suuqa Karmel to be the most interesting.
It occupies several sizable buildings (don't miss the big one north of the parking lot), each one mostly divided into small stalls. Every business seems to be Somali owned—tailors, clothing and fabric shops, barbers, money wire services, record shops and of course food vendors. Like the Hmong malls, it's like slipping into another culture.
From several restaurants, I chose the one in the south building (I'm not sure if it has a formal name). At the suggestion of one of the security guards I chose a plate of goat and a side of spaghetti. It was served with a salad with Kraft French dressing, a pitcher of mango juice and the obligatory banana. A classic Somali-Minnesotan meal.
The goat was plain but tasty and a squirt of the green hot sauce really livened it up. I was pleasantly surprised by the pasta—properly cooked and not oversauced. An absurd amount of food for, I think, eight dollars.
In addition to the restaurants Suuqa Karmel has several snack shops scattered around. Calami Coffee is typical.
A pair of bajiya (black-eyed pea fritters), nafaqo (potato and egg fritter) and a double espresso made an awfully nice breakfast for $3.
I also picked up some snacks for the ride home, including sort of a Somali egg roll stuffed with delicious curry-flavored chicken.
Also a pair of sambusas, one meat, one fish. Flaked dried fish mixed with onions and red chili makes an outstanding filling.
As I mentioned there are other similar Somali malls. Another big one is Somali Community Mall, about a mile north of Suuqa Karmel. I wanted to visit but didn't have time. I did stop in a couple smaller ones in the West Bank neighborhood—Kaambo Market (also known as African International Mall; right at the Cedar-Riverside light rail stop) and Al-Karama Somali Mall
(across from The Wienery). Both these are interesting but more limited. I'd really recommend one of the big ones for the full-immersion experience and wider food choices. There's nothing like these Somali (not to mention Hmong) malls in Chicago.
Grain Belt Brewery
Marshall St NE & 13th Av NEMinneapolis
1319 Marshall St NEMinneapolis
Nomad World Pub
501 Cedar Av SMinneapolis
119 N 4th StMinneapolis
2940 Lyndale Av SMinneapolis
3252 Lyndale Av SMinneapolis
3500 Cedar Av SMinneapolis
The Nook (closed due to fire)
492 Hamline Ave S
St Paul MN
1811 Selby Ave
St Paul MN
2944 Pillsbury Av SMinneapolis
Somali Community Mall
912 E 24th StMinneapolis
Kaambo Market (African International Mall)
620 16th Av SMinneapolis
Al-Karama Somali Mall
420 Cedar Av SMinneapolis