Maverick's
1746 Lexington Ave., Roseville; (651) 488-1788
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m. Monday-Friday; 11:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. Saturday

Surprise and delight have animated my every moment lately, ever since I got a new pair of spectacles and discovered that the little people I see everywhere are children and not, as I previously suspected, leprechauns, monkeys, or Norm Coleman. Look about the public spaces carefully, and you may note some as well. Generally they are chauffeured about the metro strapped into elaborate apparatuses in the back seats of cars and vans, which seems to suggest that they are repeatedly endeavoring to carjack their vehicles. But this I cannot know for sure.

One thing I have noticed is that they seem to go through two ages of cuisine before they learn to zip their own coats and thus are issued pre-approved credit cards with which to carve their very own abysses of debt. The first age of child cuisine would be that of dried cereal products and sippy-cups, some sort of clever evolutionary adaptation whereby children may always be located by mere identification of a crumb trail. The second age would seem to consist entirely of chicken nuggets, chicken tenders, chicken fingers, French fries, string cheese, and tubes of squeezable yogurt. I have never seen anything like it. Today's youth are a mobile army, unfamiliar with fork or place mat, ever ready to march and catch their nutrition with one hand as they go. Who put the nation's youth on permanent bivouac?

I'll tell you who will pay for it--each and every one of us. Mark my words: Your fancy dinner menu in 2048 will consist of hand-minced chicken fingers on a bed of string cheeses, home-ground chicken nuggets with a Cheerios syrup, and Swiss chocolate-hazelnut yogurt tubes. What else could their comfort foods be? They'll have seen meatloaf only twice, on TV.

Don't buy it? Well, hasten your doubting self to Lexington Avenue North right off Larpenteur Avenue West, to Maverick's, a little spot in a strip mall where they make the best roast beef sandwiches in town, mostly because they've got very fond remembrances of Arby's past. "Whenever I describe the sandwich, I ask people if they remember Arby's back in the day--that's the roast beef I do," says Bret Hazlett, co-owner of the sandwich shop. "People in their 40s remember," he says. "It's the ultimate comfort food."

Well, I don't know about that. A 1970s Arby's doesn't sound all that comforting to me, and frankly I have a hard time imagining that any fast food was ever this good. Not that these sandwiches are complicated. In fact they're incredibly basic: just hot, rare roast beef, sliced to order and placed on a bun, which is itself toasted to order. At Maverick's, $2.79 gets you a small roast beef sandwich (three ounces) on a sesame bun; $4.95 nets a large one (five ounces) on a kaiser roll, onion kaiser, or pumpernickel roll. That's all! No gizmos, no gadgets. In fact, you don't even need condiments.

Me, I never had a roast beef sandwich that was so tender it didn't need condiments, so that came as something of a shock. But glory be, what a treat. Just two ingredients here: a Blackey's Bakery bun, as fresh and light as could be, and then the just-roasted, warm, big-tasting, tender meat. Eureka. Of course, there are condiments available, if condiments you desire: creamy horseradish sauce, chopped onions, pickled peppers, and house barbecue sauce. You can also get cheese: American, cheddar, or Swiss, for another 29 cents. But I say skip it--it just dilutes a good thing.

The other standout at Maverick's is the beef brisket sandwich ($2.79/$4.95). One day when I was standing at the counter I noticed that the word "brisket" seemed to confuse people. Basically, it's fork-tender pot roast, and Maverick's serves it with barbecue sauce or plain. Plain is the best, all beefy and dark tasting, but please note that it's so juicy it will start to dissolve the bun if you don't consume it immediately.

Everything else I tried at Maverick's was just as it should be: good fries ($1.09), fresh cole slaw (89 cents), ultra-eggy potato salad (89 cents), creamy shakes ($1.59-$2.29), chunky homemade soups ($2.39), and even stuff for kids--hey, chicken fingers ($2.59)!

Except for the sandwiches, Maverick's is something of an odd duck. Undeniably, it's friendly and upbeat. Bret Hazlett has been behind the counter each and every time I've been there, chatting with the regulars, offering first-timers tastes of brisket or special meal deals. (Newbies can get one each of the small brisket and small roast beef, for the price of a large.) Yet as cheery as the people there are, there's something oddly placeless about Maverick's. Although the sandwich shop has been open for more than a year, and even though the interior is painted with a vast mural of colorful canyons, the place looks like it could be turned into a cell phone store in two blinks of an eye. You get the sense that a little interior decorating would triple the place's popularity. The way it is, though, there is plenty of room. The shop must seat 60, at big open tables. One day I was there, Maverick's hosted an impromptu all-company birthday lunch for a local business; another day, half a dozen moms and a dozen kids staked out tables for lunch and coloring.

"We've got a high percentage of regulars," explains Hazlett. "I'm amazed by how people will eat the same sandwich for a year, but never want to try the next one down the list." Here's one thing you can be sure of: The next one down the list won't be covered with molten, tangerine-colored cheese sauce, the kind you see on the Arby's TV commercials of today. Hazlett doesn't quite get it: People don't understand that a roast beef sandwich could be so good, it's good plain. "We've had so many people request that crazy cheese sauce, we actually got a can of it in here," admits Hazlett. "But we're afraid to use it. Whatever it is. It's ridiculous."

If he thinks that's ridiculous, wait till he starts getting requests for the sandwiches to be served in shelf-stable squeeze tubes.

TABLEHOPPING:

BROWN BAG PRICES, CHINA SERVICE: I lunched recently at Aquavit, where they've rolled out their brand-new $10 lunch specials--truly the buy of the year. For $10 you get all the fancy china, the fancy service, the fancy room, the fancy house-made breads with complimentary things to drizzle on them, and lunch: a bowl of for-the-table green salad with chopped tomatoes and sliced olives (odd), as well as an entrée of either fish, pasta, meat, or soup and a sandwich. I tried glazed beef brisket with a sort of butter foam piled here and there on the plate. It came with a Korean-accented cabbage salad and a vast mound of mashed sweet potatoes. My dining companion had a pan-seared trout fillet. The beef was great: intensely focused, rich, the buttery foam sauce a delight, the kimchi-laced salad a pleasant surprise. The trout was good, and, at $10 a head, I definitely felt like I was getting away with murder. I predict that when word gets out, tables are going to be rarer than March roses, so make your reservations now. Aquavit; 80 S. 8th St., IDS Center, Mpls.; (612) 339-6912.

TASTE THE CONCEPT: Concepts--they're what's for dinner. I'm dazzled lately by the way restaurant companies think their business plans matter to people trying to decide where to eat out. Consider Hops Restaurant, Bar, and Brewery, which proudly announces in a press release that itself, "a Florida-based casual dining concept," will open its second Minnesota location in Eden Prairie. Whatever for? Why, because "the commercial and residential growth in Eden Prairie and the close proximity of the downtown Minneapolis area has helped the location become a major dining and entertainment destination." Yup, Highway 212 and Leona Road. Screw down your courage and just try to shoulder through the revelry of Leona Road, that's what I always say. Additionally: "The new Hops location will also better serve our guests who have been traveling from the Eden Prairie area to our Maple Grove location." Which surely tickles the Maple Grove location pink. Hops also helpfully provided information that their ideal consumer is 25 to 55, college-educated, and earns $40K to $100K. Who's hungry? For more info, consult www.hopsrestaurants.com.

TASTE THE CONCEPT, EAT THE PROTOTYPE: Yet as quickly as Hops wins the Crown of Annoyance, Ground Round snatches it away. Or not Ground Round, but their overlord, American Hospitality Concepts Inc., which "announced today the debut of its new Ground Round Grill & Bar prototype in Maple Grove." (Does that make this prototype a debutante? And Miss Manners, must I send orchids? Please advise.) "AHCI aims to transform the Ground Round's image," they add, pointlessly. Well, who wouldn't? Why, I try to transform the Ground Round's image whenever I see one; the last time I was at Ground Round, I threw rough-hewn serapes hither and yon, creating an exotic atmosphere shattered only by the objections of those they covered. But enough wisecracking--pay attention already. For "Tom Russo, chairman, chief executive, and president of AHCI, [has] stated, 'The launch of the new Ground Round prototype in Maple Grove is the culmination of three years of extensive market research and testing. This site epitomizes the new look and feel of Ground Round, combining a fresh décor with an updated menu that appeals to our loyal guests as well as new customers." Further, the press release informs: "The prototype features a lighter interior... New signage and a tan, burgundy red, and brick color scheme complement the restaurant's updated exterior and enhance its curb appeal." Why, if they needed curb appeal, they should have just asked me. My friend Rags Raspberries needs work. Perhaps most important to the common diner: "The new logo, while similar to the current logo, signals to the guest an updated look and feel." What? Doesn't this imply that all the other Ground Rounds lie moldering about the countryside, positively festering with ancient logos? Even as we speak, the company is "specifically looking to grow the Ground Round brand in the Northeast quadrant of the country." Good luck! For more info, consult www.ahconcepts.com.

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