Back to the Root
2519 Marshall St. NE, Mpls., (612) 789-2156
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m., Monday-Saturday
Hot enough for ya? With any luck this hits the stands at 90 percent humidity and sunshine as bright as a dairy princess's teeth, and you can lie back on the bed, stare at the twirling ceiling fan, and indulge in a little philosophy. Consider. What's perfectible? What's perfect?
Not a ceiling fan, certainly, frilly or plain, covered with embossed curlicues or bright with polished steel: There's no accounting for taste, or for style. What about a Doberman pinscher? An African violet? A racehorse, or a 300-meter dasher? There are contests for those--but the crown has to be earned anew every year, and if you can't compete against the winners from the past, what's the point? In Paris they anoint the best baguette each year, which seems legit enough--but what if it's all just as bizarre as that perennial crowning of the most beautiful unmarried or married American woman? So what if we limit our parameters? What about root beer? Surely root beer is not perfectible.
Unless you're John Haidos, co-owner with wife Georgia of Soda Works, a northeast Minneapolis "microbatch soda pub." He has three variations on the theme, all made from scratch, and he's still tinkering. Never heard of a microbatch soda pub before? Well, pony up to the bar, boys, this is pop in its most desirable form.
You couldn't tell from the outside: The building is a modest sort of thing, looking like a standard A&W drive-in restaurant--which, funnily enough, it was from 1960 to 1996, when the Haidoses were satisfied with others' root beer formulas. Those were 35 hopping years in a part of northeast Minneapolis that bustled during the day with workers at the Grain Belt and Glueck's breweries, and at night with revelers at the nearby Edgewater Inn, all caught up in the postwar explosion of automotive culture. It was a world where families went out for after-dinner drives and teenagers built their social lives around their cars.
"Oh, you wouldn't believe it," remembers Georgia Haidos. "After something like the Aquatennial parade, not only was the parking lot full, but we'd have lines around the block. In that era the wonderful thing that teenagers did was they went to the drive-in, they met, they showed off their cars. We've had lots of people come in who said they met their future husbands or wives in our lot. And as much as we discouraged our car hops from meeting anybody on the lot--well, that happened too." That was the scene: A lot of root beer, a lot of burgers, a lot full of cool cars with cool names--Dodge Dart, Ford Fairlane, AMC Rebel, Mercury Marauder. Maybe even a Lincoln Versailles or two.
Yet John Haidos was never satisfied. He knew he could brew a better root beer than the one he was serving--and a better sarsaparilla, birch beer, ginger ale, ginger beer, cream soda, orange cream soda, and lemon-lime cream soda. He knew he could hit high notes that could be achieved only by using a broad, deeply sweet and rich syrup base made from local wildflower honey, dark molasses, and cane sugar--whereas most sodas are made from a one-note corn-syrup base.
The Haidoses also knew they couldn't serve their own sodas under the A&W sign, so four years ago they debuted as Soda Works, serving their own recipes for what health professionals frowningly call 'liquid candy'--and yum, yum, yum, what liquid candy it is. The cream sodas are silky and fragrant with vanilla, the lemon-lime has a real citrus zing, the ginger beer packs a spicy punch--in fact, it tastes a bit like a spicy punch. Some enterprising bar owner should figure out how to serve these in some signature drinks--it seems like a gold mine waiting to happen.
The Haidoses' variations on root beer include an honest-to-goodness birch beer and sarsaparilla. You thought those were interchangeable terms? Nope--so let's all put our heads together for a quick Food Nerd fact huddle: Sarsaparilla (or sassparilla) is a beverage that gets its essence from the dried roots of the tropical smilax vine. Sassafras flavor, on the other hand, comes from the root of the sassafras tree, which is the same North American laurel that generously provides the universe with filé powder, a key ingredient in gumbo. Birch beer, of course, derives from birch. But root beer proper is a chef's-choice blend of some of the above ingredients and a couple more to boot. It was invented by Charles E. Hires, a Philadelphia druggist who served root beer first at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and advertised it as the "National Temperance Drink." This teetotaling concoction is a stew of roots, herbs, and extracts from bark and leaves, including sarsaparilla, sassafras, ginger, wintergreen oil, and wild cherry. Anyone for a food-nerd rebellion? Wintergreen and sassafras are native North American plants--if we all unite, maybe we can change that slogan to "American as root beer?" Apple pie, your days are numbered.
All of Soda Works' sodas cost 99 cents for a big, 16-ounce frosted mug or $1.89 for a float with vanilla ice cream, or $1.99 for a Freeze, which is soda blended with ice cream. You can drink them at one of the several counter stools or minibooths inside the tiny restaurant. Alternatively, you can sip them in your car (a dozen of the 20-odd spaces in the lot are shielded by a canopy) or at one of the little inlaid tables between the lot and the store. Having your icy soda outside is particularly pleasant on a humid day: A waterfall of condensation immediately forms on the outside of the glass, dripping into a pool on your lap or table and vividly accenting the heat and how brave you are to live through it.
There's also summertime food at Soda Works--good, basic roadside grub like double cheeseburgers ($2.79); fish sandwiches ($2.69) made from a real fillet, not minced bits; Coney Island hot dogs covered with chili and carefully chopped onions ($1.49); grilled cheese with tomato ($2.29); and veggie burgers ($2.99). All the dishes can be ordered "deluxe" for an extra $1.70, which fills out the plate with unremarkable crinkle fries and a little tub of some really good coleslaw made jazzy with bits of celery, shreds of carrots, and minced apple. (Coleslaw à la carte is 95 cents.)
These inexpensive, reliable vittles don't go unappreciated: At Soda Works' first meal of 1999--lunchtime Saturday, June 5--the place was packed with a crowd featuring two distinct subdemographics: Bargain-minded dads with kids (kids' meals cost only $2.69 and include a 12-ounce root beer, fries, and a hamburger, cheeseburger, hot dog, or corn dog), and a number of devoted soda fans who had been haranguing the Haidoses with phone calls ever since the snow melted, waiting anxiously for the summer day when they'd throw open their shiny glass door. Recognizing that soda is best in warm weather, the Haidoses only keep their little spot open for about four months a year, starting sometime around June 1, closing before Halloween. They got a bit of a late start this year, a delay for which Georgia apologizes profusely: "That's the thing with us, everything has to be just right, so everything takes us a little while longer. I guess you could say we're perfectionists. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing I don't know."
DRINK SODA...DON'T DRINK SODA. Drink soda... Holy cow, working on this article I learned a lot about the current state of soda in the U.S.--and friends, it's enough to strip the enamel from your teeth. Remember the dark days of 1997? What were you up to? Well, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, you were spending $54 billion dollars to buy 14 billion gallons of carbonated soft drinks! What were you thinking? That's 576 12-ounce servings a year--a number that's getting awfully close to two sodas a day for every man, woman, and child. Hey, don't laugh! We're counting the Unabomber here! I guess the Unabomber's lower-than-average soda consumption is statistically eclipsed by the 5 percent of teenage boys who drink five cans of soda or more every day.
Soft drinks--the biggest source of refined sugar in the American diet, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture--provide the average consumer with seven teaspoons of sugar a day. Teenage boys, who ordinarily have about 34 teaspoons of sugar a day (!) get 44 percent of that from soda. Other bad news for youth: Hardly any of the impressionable under-20 set are getting enough calcium, partly because the more soda they drink, the less milk crosses their lips. Even worse, caffeine can cause the body to excrete calcium--so, youth, a couple of caffeinated sodas can actually move you two steps backward on your path to efficient bone-building. Soda pop is also linked to kidney stones, heart disease, tooth decay, and--surprise!--obesity.
I don't know what we should all make of this. The CSPI report boldly comes out and says soda should be treated as an occasional treat and not as a liquid interchangeable with water--this we needed to be told? Were we raised by vending machines? I deputize each and every one of you in the name of common sense: The next time you see some malnourished teen pick up his fifth Jolt of the day, tackle him and feed him some milk, water, and broccoli.
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