High Steaks Gambit

Will "crossroads cuisine" reinvent both St. Louis Park and the Brazilian barbecue?

4656 Excelsior Blvd., St. Louis Park

St. Louis Park is the new Nordeast. Brazilian barbecue is the new downtown steakhouse. And above all, Mojito is the opposite of Chino Latino. And if you don't believe it, you can just go stand on line some night in front of Mojito for an hour or two, and twiddle your thumbs till you come to accept the hottest North and South American restaurant ever to grace Excelsior Boulevard.

I mean, if you would just talk to Chris Paddock for a minute, you'd get it. Paddock is one of Mojito's co-owners, and has certainly earned the right to make whatever bizarre pronouncements he likes, because he is the man who turned a fading old funeral parlor in dying old northeast Minneapolis into Bobino--the hip, romantic bistro that anchored the neighborhood's transformation into a land of Panera Breads, parking ramps, and upscale townhomes.

Top shelf: Server Brennan Carlson with a sampler of offerings from Mojito's stylish bar
Raoul Benavides
Top shelf: Server Brennan Carlson with a sampler of offerings from Mojito's stylish bar

So, see if you can follow along. St. Louis Park is the new Northeast because, as a first-tier suburb, it's in the same battle for its future that Northeast was in a decade ago: The original settlers are aging out, the infrastructure needs redoing, and in comes Paddock to open a defining restaurant in a previously blighted block--the exact story of Bobino and Northeast. Furthermore, Mojito is leading a weekend farmers' market and craft market in the green space in front of the restaurant, giving St. Louis Park even more of a cultural anchor.

Brazilian barbecue is the new downtown steakhouse because Paddock et al. are providing the same sort of coddling to wine connoisseurs that places like Morton's have been known for. For example, say you have $300 a quarter to rent a wine locker at Mojito. You get a key, and the restaurant keeps a key. You can then special-order cases of wine through the restaurant at mere wholesale prices, and sometimes when they get special allocations they'll tuck an extra bottle in there for you, as a gift. For instance, the restaurant has a longstanding relationship with super-prestigious Turley Wine Cellars and one day when you bring in clients--voilà! a secret chardonnay. Can't imagine it? Picture one of those cardboard advent calendars, except the people folding back the doors are CFOs.

Finally, Mojito is the opposite of Chino Latino because, says Paddock, "They're the hot zones, foods and flavors on the equator, and we go up and down--a latitude of flavor." Which means, I think, that if you imagine a latitudinal net of parallel lines that stretch from Antarctica to the North Pole, you will come to understand that the pastureland of Argentina is like the pastureland of Kansas, and that Mojito serves the flavors of Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, Denver, New York, Minneapolis, and, if they feel like it one day, Canada. Paddock and the company he founded for this project, Hospitality Management Services, have even trademarked a phrase for this: "Crossroads Cuisine."

And if you think that all of North, South, and Central America is an influence base that is so broad as to be meaningless, well, then you are obviously thinking like a restaurant critic, and this is the sort of sour little rain that you can expect to live in forevermore, because people stop inviting you anywhere.

Which is to say, adept readers will have noted that I've been doing the sort of tap dance I do when I don't much care for a place, and feel bad about it. Which I do in this instance because the place is undeniably competent, cheerily conventional, and well liked by the neighborhood. So who am I to grouse?

The restaurant bills itself as a modified churrascaria, a Brazilian open-fire barbecue. But a real churrascaria is a meat orgy, hunks of skewered beast served in an atmosphere where men are men and women tumble voluptuously from their blouses because of flamenco dancing, reckless drinking, or brief but enthralling childbirth. Which is not very St. Louis Park. So Mojito is less a churrascaria than a nice upscale restaurant, and is exactly as good as, and exactly comparable to, nice local places like Ciao Bella, Coco ChaCha, and Three Fish.

Steaks come in a few guises, the most popular being the herb-rubbed sirloin "picanha" ($16), a thin slice of unremarkable meat, served with a chimichurri sauce that has the olive-drab color and distinctly twiggy aspect of being made from dried herbs. Chimichurri is the South American herb sauce based on fresh parsley, olive oil, vinegar, garlic, salt, and a chef's choice of other herbs or spices, and I can't think why the chimichurri here isn't fresh. The steaks come from the "open-flame" grill, from which are also available forgettable pizzas, a range of higher-quality-cut steaks, other meats, and excellent house-made sausages. The best barbecue thing is the lamb, which is simple, fresh tasting, and rosy.

The way to try Mojito's best is to go for their mixed grill ($23). On it you'll get good, local, Pipestone Farms pork, marinated with honey; the lamb; and the steak. You'll get a couple of cute little puffs of cheese-filled rolls. You'll have a glass of wine, and feel like a success, in Miami! Do not get the chalky and tasteless rice-based stews, the dreadful mofongo, the awful Cuban short ribs. If you're really rolling in dough, and meat-loving friends, for $29 a person, minimum four people, you can get a family style meal built around a gargantuan platter of different meats, big bowls of sides like the excellent sweet corn mash or grilled planks of zucchini tossed with grilled red bell peppers, and a salad. This is fun. Though the food isn't as good as in a local Mexican dive, or in a comparably priced, more chef-driven restaurant, it's festive and lively, and you'll look across the throbbing room and feel like the center of a fun world.

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