Found Art

An erstwhile hipster chef and a preservationist philanthropist team up to provide truly artful diner food

Band Box Diner
729 S. Tenth St., Minneapolis
612.332.0850

If you will consider the received wisdom of the most learned minds of western culture, you will see that high art is considered our collective exemplary achievement, while the diner is not considered at all. As usual, everyone is wrong. Consider:

Art: The Diner:
Discus throwers cut from marble
New conductor, better song: Brad Ptacek, chef and part owner of Minneapolis's Band Box
Allen Beaulieu
New conductor, better song: Brad Ptacek, chef and part owner of Minneapolis's Band Box

Commissioned art thefts, with priceless masterpieces hidden in billionaires' secret dens

Crinkles cut from fries $2.99
Monet's Hay Stacks Strawberry short stacks
American abstract expressionism American fries
Bottomless ennui Bottomless cup of joe

And such.

Obviously then, if considered with an unbiased and well-reasoned mind, the diner is undeniably the highest achievement possible to humankind. Egalité? Fraternité? Liberté? Check, check, check. With fries, no less.

Unfortunately, while even the average American schoolchild recognizes that most artists are merely pretenders to the title, fewer recognize the dire straits in which the American diner currently flounders.

To wit: Most diners these days are one of three things. The first and most common: Low-rent horror shows where they heat and serve the cheapest possible things off the back of the Sysco truck, and the toast counts as its two parents the wheat field and that part of the American petrochemical industry that allows toxic wastes to be re-encapsulated into such shelf-stable products as I Can't Believe It's Not Poison! Second, diners may be '50s-ish retro faux simulacra where children roller-skate to the sounds of songs recorded before their parents were born, and the Bay of Pigs is something inventive with ham. Finally, of course, there's the Janis Rolls in Her Grave diners, where tempeh-calamata olive-rice milk malts might be sucked up through a hemp fiber straw, and for only $31.45 per child.

A real diner, you know, a real diner is a place where $3 buys something. Where potatoes come from the ground, and not from the industrial, chisel-it-open bucket. Where your worth comes from your ability to be nice, to not get all attitudey about Tibet-grown hemp oil or French cold-pressed lanyards, to appreciate homemade whipped cream when it shows up and to be, above all, regular. Regular in the sense of showing up frequently, doing your own weird, idiosyncratic thing, but simultaneously not hassling your fellow diner-sitters out of their own weird thing. Of being appreciative and neighborly and not too much of a pain in the ass.

I didn't think Minneapolis had any such diners. Brother, was I wrong.

And all it took was one single little Band Box baby burger to convince me. Order one of these things and you get a wee, flat little burger that's been expertly diner-griddled until it gets all that gilding of flavor that only a continually operating diner grill can provide: Little whiffs of the morning's omelets; little wisps of flavor from some other guy's onions; more. The soft, sweet bun is griddled up there too, so it toasts and soaks in that magic grill flavor. Sidle up to a counter seat or tiny table and they'll serve you that burger and that bun right next to a pile of fresh and real garnish: a bright slice of tomato, green disks of pickle, purplish circles of red onion, and a vivid green leaf of lettuce. Whip the whole rigamarole together, voilà! That superlative combination of meat and rich, salad and fresh, salty from the grill, and sweet from the tomato: Heavens! This thing is so good that you can simply have the plain meat and plain bun--no ketchup, no nothing--and it's great. And it's two bucks! Two bucks for the plain baby burger!

Or, you know, $3.50 for a double-meat and cheese, which I don't recommend, because it throws off the singularly perfect ratio of meat to stuff that the baby burger achieves. There are also big burgers, which feature a bigger meat patty, but if you're really hungry the magic move is to get two baby burgers--two baby burgers! One to marvel in awe at, murmuring that you can't believe a burger this good, this authentic, this real exists just in the shadow of downtown, and a second with which to lord your good fortune over the universe. Add crinkle fries for a dollar.

Or, if you've got some time, add American fries for $2.25. These things are wonderful too, made the real, from-scratch way, with potatoes boiled the night before and let cool so they lose any excess moisture, then cooked to order on the grill with plenty of onions until they get that caramelized and crisp concentration that is the holy grail of all potato cooking. This kind of magic doesn't come quick, however: Figure at least 20 minutes for American fries made the old-fashioned way--but brother, they're worth it.

And just to add to your losses and woes, please know that one week I was there and there was, as a special, the best possible corned-beef hash of the diner variety: Homemade corned beef, diced and shredded, added to the potatoes; the whole of it griddled to that miracle of crisp and soft, paired with eggs and toast for $6.95. But it's gone now, until chef Brad Ptacek decides to whip up another batch.

Now, if you are currently storming up and down and gnashing your teeth while cursing me, because you have been to the Band Box and you know it to be horrible, dirty, greasy and lackluster, a place where mere nostalgia is the only engine, I say to you: Hold your horses there, pardner. I, too, held a low opinion of the Band Box, based on long-ago visits when the place, quite frankly, stank. But things are different now. See, what happened was that Brad Ptacek took over the joint--and he's not just a diner chef, he's the old chef from Café Solo, the long-gone warehouse district restaurant that defined young, chef-driven Italian food in the Twin Cities in the early '90s. And he's not just the chef at the Band Box, he's also an owner.

I talked to Ptacek on the phone for this story, and he told me how a chef on the clear path to becoming a face on chef trading cards ended up in a diner: He got burned out on the rat race that was Café Solo's 24-hour super-stress kitchen (they ran a bakery at night too) and walked out the door, renouncing the whole world of competitive chefs. "I just got to feeling like that life was tainted," he says. "When you act as a chef for somebody, your investment is almost more personal than theirs. But you don't get any real control. It gets old after a while working for someone else, and I got to thinking: Maybe I'd just rather be a diner with regulars and a crew. Instead of trying to outdo the next guy I'd just try to do something nice. So I walked in here, introduced myself to the owner, and said, 'I think you need a hand. Would you like to sell it, or would you like a partner?'"

The owner was one Orin Johnson, a retiree who lives down in Red Wing, and to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude. "Orin's a great guy," says Ptacek. "He's a retired rocket engineer--literally. He worked on the computers for the first moon launch, and he was living in the neighborhood because it was close to the Metrodome, so he could walk to games. When it looked like the Band Box was going to close, he figured, 'Why don't I just buy the Band Box so the neighborhood can have it?'"

Johnson provided this gift of architecture and history to the city; the Band Box has been officially designated by the city of Minneapolis as an official landmark, because of its odd architecture (it's a sort of rail-car diner made by a grain-bin manufacturer) and because of its local historical importance (in the pre-Eisenhower era of virulent Minnesota anti-Semitism the Band Box was an important Jewish hub).

But while Johnson rescued the place from physical oblivion, it was Ptacek who put it on the culinary map. When Ptacek left Solo and wandered into the Band Box, Johnson had been losing thousands of dollars a year on his gift to the city. But instead of closing it down, he worked out a sweat-equity deal with Ptacek, so that every day Ptacek worked he would gain a $40 stake toward ownership in the diner. By the time last winter arrived, Ptacek owned 65 percent of the restaurant, and shut the place down for three months to remodel the kitchen and add a separate dining room. So now the place is merely tiny, instead of being truly miniscule. They held a grand opening this summer, and the Band Box of yore has been replaced with the Band Box of now: A place with enough room in the dining room that you can teach your kid what a real diner burger is, and enough room in the kitchen to cure corned beef or make whipped cream from scratch.

Which is what you'll find on top of the strawberry short stack ($4.95), a dish I cannot go to the Band Box without ordering, and neither should you. Because when you do, what you'll get are two plate-sized, griddle-crisp pancakes with just the ideal amount of resistance, salt, and chew. These are real American diner pancakes, not the too-sweet, super-fluffy pillows that are currently so popular. They come decorated with a few strawberries' worth of fresh sliced fruit, a shaking of powdered sugar, and a mound of fresh whipped cream. The salt of the pancakes together with the sweet of the whipped cream make such a heart-soothing comfort that I gave serious thought to never writing about the Band Box for fear that I'll never ever again get one of the few precious seats in the joint.

And it is against my better judgment entirely that I point out, for all you folks who spend your work days in your cars, that the Band Box is merely a few blocks from the 11th Street/Grant Street exit off Highway 65, that tributary of Interstate 35 that goes into the heart of downtown. (Veer right at the top of the exit ramp and follow Grant for a few blocks, there's the Band Box.) And it is with even heavier heart that I point out that it is in fact the ideal place to take a kid before or after something at the Metrodome, and, sigh, that it's right close to Hennepin County Medical Center, too.

In fact, only two things induce me to share these tidbits. First, of course, is my ulterior motive: I kind of hope that you'll all throng the place, thus convincing them to stay open for dinner. As of this writing they are only open from 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. every day. But Ptacek says that if business warrants and people beg, he'll make the dinner leap one day. Make that one day soon!

Finally, I feel pretty secure in the knowledge that this joint is never going to be overrun with Swedish strollers and cul-de-sac prestige vehicles. It's just got too much real American character to it, like a smoking section, a bunch of real American characters reading newspapers and looking like they're newly sprung from jail, or fresh from the cover of Spin, or both. A look which, I would posit, is actually the highest art currently achievable in Western culture. And that this particular feat can be displayed inside of a diner only makes it twice as significant.

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