Back to the Root

Soda Works
2519 Marshall St. NE, Mpls., (612) 789-2156
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m., Monday-Saturday

Hot enough for ya? With any luck this hits the stands at 90 percent humidity and sunshine as bright as a dairy princess's teeth, and you can lie back on the bed, stare at the twirling ceiling fan, and indulge in a little philosophy. Consider. What's perfectible? What's perfect?

Not a ceiling fan, certainly, frilly or plain, covered with embossed curlicues or bright with polished steel: There's no accounting for taste, or for style. What about a Doberman pinscher? An African violet? A racehorse, or a 300-meter dasher? There are contests for those--but the crown has to be earned anew every year, and if you can't compete against the winners from the past, what's the point? In Paris they anoint the best baguette each year, which seems legit enough--but what if it's all just as bizarre as that perennial crowning of the most beautiful unmarried or married American woman? So what if we limit our parameters? What about root beer? Surely root beer is not perfectible.

Mark Wojahn

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Soda Works Drive In

2519 Marshall St.
Minneapolis, MN 55418

Category: Restaurant >

Region: Northeast Minneapolis

Unless you're John Haidos, co-owner with wife Georgia of Soda Works, a northeast Minneapolis "microbatch soda pub." He has three variations on the theme, all made from scratch, and he's still tinkering. Never heard of a microbatch soda pub before? Well, pony up to the bar, boys, this is pop in its most desirable form.

You couldn't tell from the outside: The building is a modest sort of thing, looking like a standard A&W drive-in restaurant--which, funnily enough, it was from 1960 to 1996, when the Haidoses were satisfied with others' root beer formulas. Those were 35 hopping years in a part of northeast Minneapolis that bustled during the day with workers at the Grain Belt and Glueck's breweries, and at night with revelers at the nearby Edgewater Inn, all caught up in the postwar explosion of automotive culture. It was a world where families went out for after-dinner drives and teenagers built their social lives around their cars.

"Oh, you wouldn't believe it," remembers Georgia Haidos. "After something like the Aquatennial parade, not only was the parking lot full, but we'd have lines around the block. In that era the wonderful thing that teenagers did was they went to the drive-in, they met, they showed off their cars. We've had lots of people come in who said they met their future husbands or wives in our lot. And as much as we discouraged our car hops from meeting anybody on the lot--well, that happened too." That was the scene: A lot of root beer, a lot of burgers, a lot full of cool cars with cool names--Dodge Dart, Ford Fairlane, AMC Rebel, Mercury Marauder. Maybe even a Lincoln Versailles or two.

Yet John Haidos was never satisfied. He knew he could brew a better root beer than the one he was serving--and a better sarsaparilla, birch beer, ginger ale, ginger beer, cream soda, orange cream soda, and lemon-lime cream soda. He knew he could hit high notes that could be achieved only by using a broad, deeply sweet and rich syrup base made from local wildflower honey, dark molasses, and cane sugar--whereas most sodas are made from a one-note corn-syrup base.

The Haidoses also knew they couldn't serve their own sodas under the A&W sign, so four years ago they debuted as Soda Works, serving their own recipes for what health professionals frowningly call 'liquid candy'--and yum, yum, yum, what liquid candy it is. The cream sodas are silky and fragrant with vanilla, the lemon-lime has a real citrus zing, the ginger beer packs a spicy punch--in fact, it tastes a bit like a spicy punch. Some enterprising bar owner should figure out how to serve these in some signature drinks--it seems like a gold mine waiting to happen.

The Haidoses' variations on root beer include an honest-to-goodness birch beer and sarsaparilla. You thought those were interchangeable terms? Nope--so let's all put our heads together for a quick Food Nerd fact huddle: Sarsaparilla (or sassparilla) is a beverage that gets its essence from the dried roots of the tropical smilax vine. Sassafras flavor, on the other hand, comes from the root of the sassafras tree, which is the same North American laurel that generously provides the universe with filé powder, a key ingredient in gumbo. Birch beer, of course, derives from birch. But root beer proper is a chef's-choice blend of some of the above ingredients and a couple more to boot. It was invented by Charles E. Hires, a Philadelphia druggist who served root beer first at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and advertised it as the "National Temperance Drink." This teetotaling concoction is a stew of roots, herbs, and extracts from bark and leaves, including sarsaparilla, sassafras, ginger, wintergreen oil, and wild cherry. Anyone for a food-nerd rebellion? Wintergreen and sassafras are native North American plants--if we all unite, maybe we can change that slogan to "American as root beer?" Apple pie, your days are numbered.

All of Soda Works' sodas cost 99 cents for a big, 16-ounce frosted mug or $1.89 for a float with vanilla ice cream, or $1.99 for a Freeze, which is soda blended with ice cream. You can drink them at one of the several counter stools or minibooths inside the tiny restaurant. Alternatively, you can sip them in your car (a dozen of the 20-odd spaces in the lot are shielded by a canopy) or at one of the little inlaid tables between the lot and the store. Having your icy soda outside is particularly pleasant on a humid day: A waterfall of condensation immediately forms on the outside of the glass, dripping into a pool on your lap or table and vividly accenting the heat and how brave you are to live through it.

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