The Depot at First Avenue and Green Mill's Twisted Fork

Casual, chef-driven eats in the Twin Cities

The First Avenue of my youth, where we traipsed around in combat boots and vintage sundresses, was a filthy place. Its insides were as black as the bottom of my friend Megan's foot after the night she lost a shoe in the We Might Be Giants mosh pit. Soundproofing material dripped off the Mainroom's ceiling like Spanish moss, and urinating outside on the then-vacant Block E seemed a more hygienic option than the Entry's graffiti-plastered, coed bathroom. The frozen pizza came out of a hole in the wall, served on a paper plate.

First Avenue is still a place a teenager might feel reluctant to let her mother survey before dropping her off for a concert, but its new bar-restaurant, the Depot, looks squeaky enough to belong in a suburban shopping mall. The First Avenue building originally housed a bus depot, and the new eatery, tacked onto the Seventh Street side in the former home of Unbank, reprises the name bestowed on the club's first incarnation. The space feels rather cavernous and kind of generic, save for the televisions that display live feeds from both of the stages, and the garage door opening onto the sidewalk, which draws in plenty of light, fresh air, and Twins fans in search of a pit stop.

The new Depot kitchen serves bar food, but it's certainly trying a lot harder than the food service in the Mainroom. Who thought you'd ever be able to order a Coconut Curry Chopped Salad at a club that's hosted Garbage and the Suicide Commandos? While the salad's nothing revolutionary—shredded Napa cabbage, various veggies, a coriander-heavy dressing, fried wonton strips—it's not a bad option for a sports bar.

Jana Freiband
The Lady Gaga of hot dogs: The Depot's Diamond Dog with bacon and pretzel bun
Jana Freiband
The Lady Gaga of hot dogs: The Depot's Diamond Dog with bacon and pretzel bun

Location Info

Map

Twisted Fork Grille

1342 Grand Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55105

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Macalester/Groveland

Details

Twisted Fork Grille
1342 Grand Ave., St. Paul
651.690.5901; www.twistedforkgrille.com
appetizers $4-$12; entrées $12-$25

The Depot
First Avenue 17 N. Seventh St., Minneapolis
612.338.8388; www.first-avenue.com/thedepot
appetizers $5-$10; entrées $7-$11

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After stints at the now-defunct Tejas and A Rebours, and as head chef of Joe's Garage, chef Karl Lichtfuss is going gourmet on hot dogs, burgers, and chili. Appetizers include jerk chicken wings, cayenne-dusted fried cheese curds, and some killer, thick-cut French fries that arrive with three dipping sauces from an array of house-made ketchups spiked with ginger, aiolis with curry, cornichons, and capers. We devoured the whole basket faster than anyone with a sense of decorum should probably acknowledge.

The rest of the menu consists of a few casual entrées, such as the Denver omelet and macaroni and cheese, along with several sandwiches, including a beef po' boy big enough to feed two (the meat's blandness, unfortunately, doesn't sustain interest as large as its portion). The Depot's star players are its Inside Out Burger and the Diamond Dog, both of which are over-the-top renditions that riff on the ballpark fare down the block. The burger is stuffed with bacon and American cheese, which makes it more compelling than a regular burger but not as good as Target Field's short rib-and-Gouda-stuffed Vincent Burger. If the Diamond Dog were a musical act, it would be Lady Gaga, dressed to dazzle. The quarter-pound tube steak is encased in a crusty bacon spiral that's been fused to the dog via a dip in the deep fryer. But its real innovation is its soft pretzel bun, which possesses the same leathery, salt-glazed crust and dense, chewy white flesh of those sold at street carts and concessions stands.

The best part of the Depot's ambiance is the people-watching from the entryway seats, between the parade that passes by on the sidewalk (the bar employs a staffer to shoo away loiterers) and the concert-goers filing out through a chute from the Entry. One night, after the band Train played a private show, the crowd dispersed with autographed promotional photos in hand. The manicured, middle-aged fans looked nothing like those I listened with—or danced with, or just stood around and tried to look cool with—back in the '90s. It left me a little nostalgic for everything about the old First Avenue. Except, of course, the food.

TWIN CITIES RESTAURANTS that espouse a local/sustainable/organic ethic tend to fall into three categories: hippie, hipster, or haute. Among the first are the old standbys, such as Ecopolitan and Tao Foods, which have been around since long before DragSmith Farms took on a Fendi-like cachet in some circles. The second are the others' hip contemporaries, such as the Red Stag and Common Roots. And the third are places like Restaurant Alma, Lucia's, Spoonriver, and Heartland, where those with bigger budgets are willing to pay for premium ingredients. For all these eateries' importance, one thing they aren't—yet, at least—is mainstream. The diners you find at the Craftsman don't tend to frequent McDonald's, and vice versa.

The new Twisted Fork Grille in St. Paul, which shares space and ownership with the Green Mill pizza chain, is staking out new territory in locavore land by confronting the question of how a burgeoning sustainable food movement might reach beyond the early adopters.

The Green Mill at Grand and Hamline avenues is anything but trendy; it began as a soda fountain called the Green Mill Inn, in the 1930s, and has been a neighborhood pub and restaurant ever since. (In fact, it's the oldest licensed pub in St. Paul.) In the mid-1970s, its owners started specializing in Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, which has led to a franchise of 28 locations across the Midwest.

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