In the aftermath of Campus Pizza’s demise, there rises a new hero of Stadium Village: Bar Luchador. This creation of Stub & Herb’s co-owner Josh Zavadil, former Stub employees Regan Haffele and Angelo Pennacchio, and consulting chef Josh Atwood looks to bring elevated Mexican street food to an area of town better known for its watering holes than its restaurants.
The vibe is low-key; the bar’s newness, school being out of session, and a lack of football contribute to Luchador’s still-secret status. The timing has been much to their advantage, as opening before the madness has allowed them to iron out the kinks. When kids move back into the super block in a couple of weeks, and when both college and professional football are back on campus for the regular season, patrons will have a bar that’s dialed-in and prepared for both occasions.
Pennacchio’s tweaked the old Campus Pizza space nicely, filling it with giant images of wrestlers throwing down and hamming it up for the camera. Flat screen TVs play Back to the Future, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and, of course, football and wrestling. Tunes come courtesy of a turntable behind the bar, all this adding to Luchador’s niche — a seamless blend of low and high culture.
If there’s any issue with the menu, it’s that the list is fairly small — though clearly by design. Luchador has found a lineup its crew can hustle out on weeknights and campus game days alike without sacrificing quality. A handful of appetizers, two salads, seven different tacos, and a few choice entrees all elevate strong Mexican street-food classics without becoming pretentious or unfamiliar. Luchador’s food succeeds as an exercise in subtlety as much as creativity.
Chef Atwood also stresses his desire to “keep things as fresh, organic, and local as possible.” His menu courts a generation increasingly interested in high quality food, but as interested as ever in getting hammered before football games. Here is a place to combine these two pleasures.
In the Vikings’ two preseason games at TCF, Luchador has been packed with purple and gold, and that says a lot, since most pre-gamers head straight to Sally’s, Stub & Herb’s or, gulp, Buffalo Wild Wings. Put down the buffalo wings and pick up pimentón (smoked paprika) wings, a Mexican twist on a football classic. Order up the chilaquiles nachos, easily shareable on a sheet tray with chicken, crumbly cheese, pickled peppers, and both red and green sauces. But save room for the elote: grilled corn on the cob with kewpie mayo, roasted garlic, smoked paprika, and a light dusting of cheese. It’s a dish showing up more and more in the Minneapolis scene, which makes sense given this city’s corn addiction. But why did it take us so long to shellac it with mayo and cheese?
If the bar’s got a signature dish this early in the game, it’s the Luchador fried rice — a huge serving of the trusty ol’ seed mixed with achiote-marinated Duroc pork from Iowa, chunks of grilled pineapple (which surprisingly works), a soft egg, and tortilla crunches. It may seem pricey for the college crowd at $12, but it’s big enough to feed a couple, which evens out for diners on a budget.
Luchador is at its core a taco joint, offering six tacos for three or four bucks each. Standouts are the steak, which features natural Angus choice meat and a thick slice of grilled avocado, and the pastor, plated yet again with that sweet pineapple surprise. And while it might be the last thing you’d think to get from a taqueria, don’t sleep on the veggie. It reads basic on the menu, but that fits the motif of understated and unexpected.
One of Luchador’s most intriguing aspects is its accidental wealth of gluten-free options, a definite novelty when it comes to bar food. While Pennacchio and Atwood didn’t set out to create a gluten-free menu, experimenting with recipes just happened to land them on-trend and into the hearts of celiac sufferers across campus. About 80 percent of the menu is gluten-free, which includes all tacos besides the fish and all apps except the toast...obviously.
Let us not forget the booze, for it wouldn’t be Stadium Village or, you know, a bar, without it. A smattering of taps will excite the sports fans, but Bar Luchador’s strength is the cocktails, which Pennacchio calls “dive bar drinks that are little better.” Homemade rumchata and a Mexican cinnamon bourbon drink that hints at Fireball play off the college atmosphere, and the Bob Marley, three kinds of rum mixed with agua de Jamaica, comes straight from the tap.
Were all that not enough for young scholars to come wet their whistles, happy hour runs from 4 to 7 p.m. and again from 10 p.m. to close, with a dollar off every drink and a third off the price of food. It would therefore be more accurate to call the 180 unholy minutes between 7 and 10 p.m. unhappy hour and lament the poor souls who chance in during that window.
With oh so much upside, Bar Luchador has the potential to fill a need in Stadium Village. However, its greatest gift is also its biggest threat: While it certainly meets the menu and price point of a successful Minneapolis dinner and drink spot, it’s anybody’s guess how the fickle mob of incoming students will react to a new restaurant in their midst; and pre-gaming creatures of habit may pass the spot for old standbys. That said, food culture is changing so drastically, this very well could be the spot people come from the ‘burbs to enjoy. Luchador puts high-class food in a not-too-serious space, and skillfully mixing high and low culture has long been a recipe for success.
825 Washington Ave. SE, Minneapolis