Eat Street Pizza, West Bank Diner reviewed
A well-known model of learning behavior states that all knowledge can be divided into four categories: 1) things you know you know, 2) things you know you don't know, 3) things you don't know you know (my personal favorite), and 4) the scary one — things you don't know you don't know. Everyone has different and sometimes profoundly entertaining examples that illustrate each quadrant, and if you ever have to make small talk at a party I highly recommend introducing this idea. Anyway, this week brought about two questions that fell squarely into the "things you know you don't know" category. Question 1: Can you get good pizza at a coffeehouse? And question 2: Is a diner really a diner if it doesn't serve bacon? So in hopes of some enlightenment, we ventured out to two very different eateries in two distinct neighborhoods that are both attempting to meet the needs of their unique crossover audiences. Both the West Bank Diner and the Nicollet's new restaurant-within-a-restaurant, Eat Street Pizza, served as little laboratories for our research, helping us discover answers to some tough questions about the world's most perfect foods.
As the former home of the short-lived Tillie's Bean and the original location of the Acadia, the building at the corner of Franklin and Nicollet seemed that it would certainly work as a coffeehouse. So when Jeremy Konecny opened the Nicollet at this location in the summer of 2011, getting the best roast and the choicest beans was his first order of business. Once he nailed that down by sourcing oak wood-roasted beans from Mr. Espresso in Oakland, California, Konecny's coffee-drinking regulars started to wonder, "Where's the food?" The Nicollet's staff responded by developing a short but well-rounded menu, including their own blended cream cheeses in flavor combinations like sriracha mango and balsamic strawberry. They're just perfect when spread on spinach wraps and chewy ciabatta and layered with thinly sliced deli meats. The Nicollet also gained a small following based on its breakfast burritos and its own version of McDonald's sweet-and-savory McGriddle breakfast sandwich, which it serves logo-free on two syrup-soaked wedges of its homemade Belgian waffle and calls, adorably, the NicGriddle. But the people wanted more, so the staff took to the kitchen and started messing around with pizza, mixing dough and shaping crusts. "There's no water in our recipe," barista and resident pizza-maker Allana Carter explains. "There's just four cups of beer in a batch instead. We use local beer, and right now it's from Harriet Brewing. That's sort of our signature."
Using beer in the dough and cooking the pizzas in a high-temperature oven produces a thin crust that is crackly and flaky, without much chew. The flavor is subtle, but it is definitely there, lingering in the background and occasionally popping out with a bonus yeasty kick. Structurally, it's a light crust, so they don't go too crazy with the toppings, but the specialty pizzas still have an element of adventure in them. The Black and Blue pizza, Carter's favorite, is inspired by burger-joint burgers and steak-house steaks. It's topped with slices of deli roast beef, blue cheese, and an olive oil sauce. While the salty tang of the cheese and the sweet balsamic-based glaze were high-note components of all the pizzas we tried, we couldn't seem to get beyond the texture of the beef. There was no avoiding the fact that this was a pizza topped with lunch meat. The Westside Thai was an improvement in interest, with a drizzle of spicy peanut sauce, sweet diced mango, and crunchy bell pepper, but the shrimp was unseasoned and anemic-looking. Though two others were more traditional as pizza concepts, the bacon cheeseburger pizza, containing all the usual suspects, and the zucchini with roasted red pepper and a generous dousing of dried basil and oregano, were superior in execution and tasted even better when eaten cold as the next day's breakfast. Overall, we had to applaud the Nicollet for using locally brewed beer and bringing something different, and still affordable, to traditional coffee-shop fare.
In an entirely different neck of the woods, West Bank Diner owner Ilyas Jama is taking on American diner breakfast classics like wonderfully crusty French toast made with ciabatta and delicate mushroom omelets, with one very notable omission: pork. It didn't take long into our Sunday brunch order to realize that the eggs Benedict were "California-style," in which a slice of tomato and some zingy yet rich avocado salsa replaced pit ham, and that there was no "side of bacon" or "side of sausage" option anywhere on the menu. Further research revealed that the breakfast burrito and the hash with hollandaise both come with angus beef, which is great if you are the type that orders steak and eggs anyway, but if, like many of us, you equate breakfast with the indulge-every-so-often salty breakfast meats, just ask for turkey sausage. It's not on the menu, but after overhearing our hushed tones of disappointment, Jama sauntered over, put down our seriously strong cups of Peace Coffee, and offered up the secret option. Jama, his wife, and his cousin, who all work at the diner, are natives of Somalia, so the consumption and handling of pork is not part of their diet or daily lives, and thus not on the menu. For many residents of the neighborhood who follow the same dietary guidelines, lack of bacon is not a problem, but the student crowd seeking an affordable breakfast that's served all day might have certain pork-related expectations. No matter — the turkey sausage was just the ticket. Jama ensures that it spends long enough on the flattop so it's crisped on the outside and tastes like sage and Jimmy Dean on the inside. You'll hardly know the difference, and you'll save some calories.
West Bank Diner does the basics well. Eggs were never dry and never too runny. Hash browns had all the crispy, salty, hot appeal of a French fry. The stack of oatmeal pancakes successfully struck that fine textural balance between fluff and heft. The atmosphere is bare bones, but it's as welcoming as a ticker-tape parade, and Jama's mission, the opposite of many of the neighboring restaurants in the area, is to introduce American cuisine to his Somalian customers. If you happen to have a hankering for Somali food and can describe the dish you want, Jama will happily whip it up.
So in our quest to answer the unanswerable, we can now safely say that yes, you can you get good pizza in a coffeehouse, thus shifting that knowledge to the "things you know you know" category. And as for whether a diner is a diner if it doesn't serve bacon, well, technically it can be. But I don't like to call a meal without that meat "breakfast."
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.