Uptown Cafeteria is tray chic, but can it keep up the pace?

Hennepin and Lake gets another Parasole joint

If you are granted passage via the glass elevator, you'll encounter nicely dressed people sipping colorful cocktails, fresh-squeezed juices, and smoothies spiked with booze or protein powder (a nod to the L.A. Fitness located between levels). The mixed drinks have silly names and most are frilly by nature, even the coarse-sounding F-Bomb, which is a sweet mix of black cherry and elderflower. If you want something more nuanced, try the Orange Shag Carpet of citrus vodka, basil, and blood orange. And if you're hoping to avoid a scene, should you happen to bump into your ex and his new gal pal, stick with the half-price, half-the-booze, $5 martinis. The Bo Derek tastes like the beach with its pineapple juice and coconut rum, and it's garnished with an edible orchid.

Sop up the alcohol with an appetizer or a sandwich, and there are several good ones, starting with the Crab Rangoon. Bites of the Hot Italian Beef sandwich that contain only meat and bun are too dry, but those with melted provolone and Italian-style pickled vegetables are quite satisfying.

And then there is the matter of the $13 hot dog. What might possibly justify such an expense? Well, for starters, it's a sight to behold: a foot-long beast, splayed down the middle like a field-dressed animal, and smothered in melted cheddar. It seems even more pretentious to critique a Kobe beef hot dog than to serve it, but here goes: The meat's pedigree, in this use, at least, probably resembles a designer purse whose brand name inflates the price more than the increase in quality. But still, the dog is delicious. It has a more tender texture than a garden-variety frank, and its crispy crust is as delectable as roast chicken skin.

A new spin on an old idea: the Cafeteria's dessert case
Alma Guzman
A new spin on an old idea: the Cafeteria's dessert case

Location Info

Map

Uptown Cafeteria and Support Group

3001 Hennepin Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55408

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Uptown/ Eat Street

Details

Uptown Cafeteria and Support Group
3001 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
612.877.7263; www.uptowncafeteria.com
appetizers $7-$10, entrees $9-$20

The restaurant's nightly specials are very 1950s: chicken potpie, Hungarian beef goulash, Friday night fish fry, prime rib. There's also kitschy Asian fare from the era, including a riff on the now-shuttered Nankin's Chicken Subgum Chow Mein. Bottles of Mrs. Butterworth's and sriracha placed on the tables seem to sum up the restaurant's mix of down-home nostalgia and hip worldliness. Most Cafeteria diners don't share any history with the blue-collar fare of truck stops and supper clubs, and they eat it with the same irony as one wears a mechanic's shirt with somebody else's name on the pocket.

Most of these dishes do the job, without exceeding expectations. The cheddar drop biscuits are good, if a little dry, but too cheesy and peppery to pair appropriately with honey butter. The walleye-and-sweet-corn fritters fry up just fine. And the turkey dinner—it comes with salty gravy, those classic, crimson spiced apple rings, and mashed potatoes just lumpy enough to suggest homemade—is what it is: a meal we never expected would amount to much. The made-to-order fried chicken, served with either mashed potatoes or waffles, is better. In my experience, the bird came out a little dark—the oil could have probably used a change—but the meat was tender, the crust was crisp, and it had a robust buttermilk flavor.

The kitchen misses no detail of its reminiscence, right down to the sides of cottage cheese served with canned peaches. But the difficulty with serving classics is that diners always have a basis for comparison, and memory can often be rosier than reality. Even the Sloppy Joes seasoned with the standard Manwich sauce—literally, straight from the can—might not meet diner expectations, especially if the ground beef seems mushy, the sauce not tangy enough, and the temperature lukewarm. I wished I were eating my mom's.

But I'd take the Monday night special, that Nankin Chow Mein, over the Minnesota-made Chun King that I grew up on—bland gray gravy, soft vegetables, and indistinct bits of mystery meat that came out of a bifurcated can. Cafeteria's arrives on a dome-topped stainless steel stand, its sweet-salty gravy smothering mushrooms, water chestnuts, peppers, cashew nuts, noodles, and chunks of identifiable chicken. I liked it, even as I wondered if its excessive saltiness was ironic. The curry has an even cuter presentation, arriving packed in a stacked-stainless-steel Asian lunchbox called a tiffen, but the flavors don't match up to those of Indian kitchens.

Several other dishes have fun built into their delivery. The night I tried it, the daily changing employee meal of soba noodles with salmon and mushrooms was fine, but not as memorable as the experience of heading into the kitchen with a cafeteria tray to pick it up off the line. Desserts are stationed in a rotating glass case of the sort indigenous to small-town diners where the waitress calls you hon. Watching it is like looking through old photo albums: an act one never tires of. My favorite was the chocolate layer cake, which is perfectly dense and moist, with a thick, not-too-sweet frosting. After a few revelatory bites, I practically needed to be wheeled out the door. Had it been my birthday, I would have been forced to turn down the restaurant's gift of cotton candy, even if the stuff is mostly air.

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