The Finger-Food Fear Factor

Haute junk food and bargain libations make for unlikely but truly happy hours

Chino Latino
2916 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis

26 S. Sixth St., Minneapolis

Murray's restaurant and cocktail lounge
Richard Fleischman
Murray's restaurant and cocktail lounge

Location Info


Chino Latino

2916 Hennepin Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55408

Category: Restaurant > Korean

Region: Uptown/ Eat Street

Murray's Restaurant And Cocktail Lounge

26th S. 6th St.
Minneapolis, MN 55402

Category: Restaurant > Steakhouse

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)

Afraid? Who, me? No. I'm not like most people. I don't have time to cower in the dark, terrified of Minneapolis's best--and worst--happy hours. I am unafraid. I am willing to drink the low-cost drinks and taste the more economically priced snacks that, while salty, and sometimes also crisp, lay bare the sinew and marrow and bone of an America that few are willing to look at, because it includes so much, so very much. Like Vermont. Rhode Island. I could go on.

"Why happy hours?" asked one of this city's most revered tastemakers, as we were borne through the gravid, portentous air of this moneyed city that few, if any--not even Mrs. Barnstable Huxtable of Prior Lake, with her fancy dentures and man-stealing hibiscus punch--could ever forget.

"Because I am unafraid. Duh! Pay attention." I growled, muscling through the crepuscular gloom toward a sun as onomatopoeic as it was adorned with prestigious designer logos, which is to say not at all, for those willing to cast aside preconceptions about who exactly owns the sun, which is to say all of us, or none of us, or perhaps Betsy Nguyen, a sharp-eyed third-grader from Little Canada who can make things in her Easy-Bake Oven that few of us could ever forget.

Unafraid, I ventured into Chino Latino, where from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. weekdays and from 11:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sundays there is a happy hour that, after extensive, exhaustive, to say nothing of hospitalizing, research, I can confidently report is the best in Minneapolis. Because all the tap beers (Dos Equis, Newcastle, etc.) and the house wines are just $3, and everything on the impressive sake list is just $4. It's hard to get a good education in sake drinking in this town, since so many sakes are priced at $12 a glass, and because that high cost means that the large bottles don't turn over quickly enough, resulting in too many glasses of stale, hollow-tasting sake. Not so at Chino Latino, where the low prices keep the sake moving, giving you the opportunity to finally learn to distinguish between liltingly vanishing Harushika or sweet and tangy Suishin Topaz.

That brainy task accomplished, I move on to the best haute junk food since artichoke met ramekin. Oyster shooters are $1.50 a pop--I loved the Latino-style ones here, dressed with chipotle and cilantro, the spice giving a nice finish to the fresh ocean brine of the mollusk. I've always liked Chino's ceviches: The kitchen has the money to spend on good-quality fish, elevating the dish far above what you can get at most local Central American spots. Here it's clean and pure and fresh-tasting, yet presented without kid gloves--full of chiles and lime juice, bolder than you'd find at any similar restaurant with that quality fish. I tried a few satés (at only $2), but I guess must confess I still don't get the whole satés-in-a-restaurant thing. It seems like by the time they make it to the table they're always ice-cold (after all they are thin things served bare on plates that are necessarily cold, to accommodate the accompanying cucumber salad).

The healthy things dispensed with, I moved on to the fun part of the menu: The salt-and-pepper calamari ("Lamma Island Salty Squid," $5), addictive strips of plump-inside, crisp-outside, lively-everywhere finger food that make young girls put peas in their ears, so overcome are they with desire. And that's before they get their hands on the deadly, deadly "Popocatepe," hereinafter known as the French-Fry Inferno of Elite Nacho Doom (FIEND). This thing, this thing... I do not know if this thing can be safely loosed on an American population already weeping quietly into their Lean Cuisines, haunted by visions of obesity. Yet, mother of pearl--this dangerous FIEND is damn good. Imagine a vast plate of skin-on French fries covered with various piles of fresh guacamole, sour cream, chile de arbol salsa, fresh pico de gallo, and earthy black beans, the whole thing covered with crumbled bits of tangy queso fresco. I mean, ask yourself: Do you really, really like junk food? Do you really, really like upscale Mexican? Do you really like paying $5 for a plate of food the size of Mahtomedi?

Chino serves this thing, as well as chilaquiles ($5) and a bunch of other stuff, nightly from 10:30 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. Danger, danger, danger. I fully expect this to be the main caloric source for our new generation of dot-com-bust, temp-agency youth: FIEND and sake at Chino Latino, the pemmican for a new generation.

Of course, in happy hours as in all things, there is no glory without pain. So I went to Murray's. I had heard some things about Murray's, intriguing things about the wine list changing, the side orders and appetizers improving radically, and happy hour featuring a bounty of shockingly delicious appetizers, all issued in during the first-year tenure of new executive chef Steven Vranian.

Vranian boasts one of Minnesota's most impressive résumés, having cooked all around the world in places that'd make your head spin, if you watched way too much Food TV. When Murray's hired him away from the company that owns California Café and Napa Valley Grille, it seemed very exciting and newsworthy. And yet whatever changes have been wrought at Murray's have been pretty much invisible to the naked eye. Suddenly I've got an inkling of why that might be.

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