A Tribe Called Lucy

Christopher Peters

Matt's Bar
3500 Cedar Ave., Mpls.; 722-7072

5-8 Club
5800 Cedar Ave., Mpls.; 823-5858

So, where exactly in Michigan is Minnesota? Living in Mindianapolis, is it difficult to get tickets to the big car race? Oh, I've been to Minnesota four or five times, I just love it, all those geysers, they just take your breath away.

I thought I'd heard it all--East Coasters, happily clueless about the world on the far side of Philadelphia. I was wrong. Witness today, when an editor called me from New York to clarify some questions she had about what and where exactly the Twin Cities were: So we were a suburb of Chicago? And our main industry was Hormel? So there were a lot of feedlots? How exactly did Milwaukee and Fargo fit into it all? And mostly it was like the movie? I stammered something incoherent. Later, lying in the dark, headachy, with a cold compress on my head, I imagined all the witty things I could have said:

Yes, yes, of course! Think of the Twin Cities as a cluster of igloos hard by Wrigley Field. We all look like Loni Anderson in a parka, and we spend our time shoveling handfuls of fire-roasted Spam into our Chapstick-caked maws. The most important thing to remember is that the buildings are mostly underground. You see, the snow piles up so high--hundreds of feet in the winter--that building vertically is just about impossible. Some do still call us the Twin Cities, but mostly we're known as the Subterranean Cities. So come visit Minnesota, the only state that hasn't yet repealed Prohibition. We're lucky the sun doesn't set all summer, since it makes it easier to shoot the roving packs of timber wolves and polar bears that daily raid our trash barrels. Primary industries? Cod fishing, lace tatting, ice chipping--come to the land that time forgot!

When I pulled the cold compress off my brow I realized my headache was still there, and the only possible cure was to take a couple of Juicy Lucys and sleep it off. Now Juicy Lucys (in case you're mailing this to an out-of-town friend) are South Minneapolis's contribution to world cuisine, made by crimping two beef patties together around a hunk of cheese and grilling until the cheese melts. Served on a white, seed-free bun and usually topped with onions, grilled or raw, and a slice or two of pickle, the Juicy Lucy works on a couple of levels.

First, it keeps the meat inside near the cheese very moist. Second, keeping the cheese apart from the bread makes for a pleasant separation of meat and bread tastes and textures. Last but not least, the Juicy Lucy effectively separates members of the tribe from outsiders: Those in the know bide their time and wait for the cheese to cool, while rubes, hicks, New Yorkers, and other social misfits scald their tongues on the excruciatingly hot mixture of grease and cheese that pools inside the burger, poised to escape through any opening.

The idiosyncrasies of the Juicy Lucy allow for the development of personal technique: Some people like to dump their liquid cheese over their fries, some carefully nibble the cheese-free edge away while waiting for cheese-cooling. Some even claim to be able to stanch the flow of the cheese through careful application of a frosty beer glass.

Did the Juicy Lucy originate at Matt's Bar? That's like asking: Is there a Santa Claus? You can only answer in the affirmative, even if there aren't any scientific documents to prove it. Cheryl Bristol, daughter of Matt Bristol, the bar's founder and namesake, tells the well-known tale: "The whole story goes like this: There was a bachelor customer who used to come in every day and order a burger. One day, in 1954, he told the cook to seal up some cheese in the middle. So the cook did, and when he bit into it the hot cheese spurted out, and he wiped his mouth and said, 'Oooh, that's one juicy lucy!' They used to talk goofy like that back then." The name went up on the board as "Jucy Lucy," and they've been serving a couple hundred a week ever since. (Was life more fun in the age of creative spelling--Krispy Kreme, Jucy Lucy, Uneeda Biscuit?)

Matt's Lucys come off what just might be the best-seasoned grill in the universe: It's been on for about 12 hours every day since that fateful 1954 experiment. Burgers come off with a gorgeous crust of char, onions are grilled to a lightly caramelized summer blond. Most importantly, when you're tucked into one of the booths waiting for your cheese to cool, beside a gold-vinyl wall covering as wholesome, slutty, and American as Annette Funicello's beach blanket, with points of light peeking from the perforated brass lamps like so many stars, you know you're in Minneapolis, deep in Minneapolis, in the Minneapolis where everyone knows what 3.2 is, where the crick goes, when the Aquatennial is, who Sven and Ole are, and how you become a butter queen. No explanations required.  

Meanwhile, 23 blocks south, you can find more Lucys at the 5-8 Club, a onetime speakeasy and current neighborhood 3.2 bar filled with small-reproduction tin signs and nostalgic film posters. The 5-8 serves an upscale Juicy Lucy: The meat is ground daily, and the big, pillowy buns are baked every morning for Lucys stuffed with your choice of thick American cheese or--and there's genius here--Swiss, pepper jack, or bleu cheese. At $3.85 for a big, sizzling, dense, and tender burger filled with good cheese--or $5.45 in a basket with fries and some homemade coleslaw--if you consider yourself any sort of a Lucy connoisseur you owe it to yourself to give the 5-8 a whirl.

The rivalry between Matt's and the 5-8 is rather charming. "The Juicy Lucy has been around for many, many years, and there's always been a dispute that exists between Matt's and ourselves as to who invented it," says 5-8 owner Jim Emison judiciously. "We try to outdo them, and I'm sure they try to outdo us." Not so, says Cheryl Bristol. "I haven't eaten their burgers so I don't know what they're like."

Which is the better Lucy? I could tell you what I think, but then I'd have to leave town, because offended Lucy partisans would surely rip me to shreds. And I'm not ready to go back to New York, the obnoxious homeland that fills me with such alternating bouts of love and horror. Thankfully, though, my headache's gone. With a gut full of beef, onions, and cheese, thoughts of the East Coast dissolve like tears in my 3.2. Such are the pleasures of life in Mindianapolis.


NEW DING-DONG, ER, DINING, GUIDE: Have you seen the new national Zagat guide with the Twin Cities section? It purports to capture "the real flavor" of America's cities by summarizing the opinions of local eaters, gathered through surveys. But the real flavor here is distinctly off-putting.

First there are the mistakes. The guide complains that Broders' Southside Pasta Bar doesn't have a wine list (untrue) and describes both Table of Contents locations as being housed in bookstores. From there it devolves into descriptions that are so wildly incongruous with reality that they may as well have been written by Martians. At the Bryant-Lake Bowl, Zagat promises, you'll dine among "lumberjacks" (!); the reasonably slick and regionally famous Origami, which, as anyone who's been there in two years knows, is nestled against a brand-spanking-new Federal Reserve Bank building, is called a "back-alley sushi-bar"; and both Gallery 8 at the Walker Art Center and Cafe Latté are decried as "trendy." Trendy with whom? Admission-paying art patrons and St. Paul moms, respectively?

Also, although this guide says it's aimed at the best "meal deals," prices in the New York section range all the way up to $36 per person, which would certainly encompass all of our white-tablecloth haunts (for one person's entrée plus one drink and tip, the criterion here)--so where are Café 128, the No Wake Cafe, the St. Paul Grill, the Vintage, Goodfellow's, D'Amico Cucina, café un deux trois, Auriga, and countless others? And where are any of the real meal deals, places where you can eat very well for under $10--like El Burrito Mercado, the Phuong Cafe, Jitters, Pizza Lucé, the Royal Orchid, Rainbow Chinese, Sawatdee, or any of our prized barbecue joints?

Perhaps most tellingly, in a guide purporting to represent 1998 findings, there's a note in the Loring Cafe's entry asserting that "post-survey" the Loring had added a "new" dining room. What? Again? Where would they put it--up on the roof or out in the parking lot? Well, guess what: That would be the "new" dining room the Loring added in 1994.

I called Zagat representative Andrew Sprung in New York and asked him what the deal was. After rifling through his notes, Sprung admitted the results may be from "a survey done in 1995 at the earliest, so the questionnaires may be from 1994. I can see your point--you're looking at a market that's got one of the two or three oldest [Zagat Survey] books."

Maybe the section on the Twin Cities should be subtitled "A time capsule--what people in the Twin Cities remembered about their 1993 dining experiences in 1994, for historical reference and fond memories." Personally, I find this guide not merely useless but actually insulting. It perpetuates the myth that we're a Lake Wobegon tundra of mashed potatoes and toast, it insults the dining public's taste, and it denigrates the achievements of hundreds of restaurateurs. Maybe I'm overreacting, but I'm going to pull a Sally Struthers: Only you can make a difference. Send a self-addressed, stamped, business-size envelope to Zagat Survey, P.O. Box 582326, Minneapolis, MN 55458-2326, or call (800) 333-3421. Tell them you want to be a surveyor in the next Minneapolis/St. Paul go-round, which is coming up. If they're going to publish guides about us, they may as well get it right.

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Matt's Bar

3500 Cedar Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55407


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