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
612.824.7878

Murray's
26 S. Sixth St., Minneapolis
612.339.0909

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.

I sat down in Murray's for happy hour one day, innocently enough, and asked the server what wines they had. "A chardonnay," he answered. "Everything." By which he meant, presumably, merlot. What brand of chardonnay? I asked. Was there a list? This question so completely freaked him out that he abandoned my table and refused to make eye contact or return. So I made my way to the bar, where my server was engaged in some kind of passive-aggressive shutdown-slash-panic attack and refused to deal with me, answer direct questions, or acknowledge my existence in any way. Finally, with preposterously persistent probing, the newly hired barback and I managed to discover that happy-hour wines were priced at $4, and at least one of them was Pepi pinot grigio, a pretty nice little wine that has a lot of fruit for a pinot grigio, and also a lot of acid, which makes it a nice budget-food choice, so clearly somebody chose it on purpose, and it's not even that hard to say, but who knows. They really didn't want to part with it.

Exhausted by my strange face-to-face encounter with the most wine-fearing, under-trained server in the history of happy hours, I contemplated the complimentary--if schizophrenic--finger foods on offer. There were hand-cut, house-made fresh potato chips so delicious as to be sort of overwhelming: long slices of potato curling like party ribbons in a bowl, snapping crisp, dusted with a smoky spice blend that encouraged various parties at the bar (all drinking liquor--wonder why?) to play tug-of-war with the bowl. Those chips would be a drive-across-town signature item in a better-managed bar, so let's hope one day they will be.

Nearby was a truly lovely assortment of olives--tiny brown ones, medium speckled pinkish ones, fat green ones, and many others--all tossed with a marinade of fresh lemon zest, fennel, chiles, rosemary, and such. Better olives than I see in most of our $30-a-plate restaurants--here, for free. Yet, bafflingly, next to that, was something that seemed exactly like a crock of port-wine cheese spread. And close by, a warming tray of those nondescript cheese-toasts that Murray's regulars like as well as pets like pet food, and, I'm guessing, attributable to the same causes of familiarity and learned helplessness.

I sat down and immediately listed how Murray's happy hour could be improved. Number one: The happy-hour wine offerings could be written down in some fashion, preventing the staff from hiding them. Number 604: Dear Murray's, Your core demographic, like all of us, is aging. But unlike all of us, they are also retiring to the Sun Belt in droves or being ordered by their doctors to stay the hell away from Murray's. So if you in fact do not wish to go the way of the Oldsmobile, the Whig Party, and our post-Watergate innocence, you must embrace change, on some level. Sometimes an establishment can live quite richly in the heart of a population but has to close anyway, because people stop going there, and then all you get is a nice obituary. Like, for example, the New French Restaurant. Fellow Warehouse District pioneer Chez Bananas. And clearly, sometime soon, North Dakota.

Oh, come on. We all know that in 20 years that state is going to be emptier than a Santa Claus suit in July. And then what are we going to do? How are we going to keep punk kids from filling it up with tires--or worse? I think it's about time that Canada, Montana, and we all got together to form a block association, because property values are just going to plummet when the suet hits the fan over there. I'm telling you.

Because I am not afraid to ask the hard questions. At happy hour, especially. Questions like, who, me? How am I supposed to know how my hand ended up on your knee? What am I, the Amazing Kreskin?

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