Walking into a restaurant on a damp, bone-chilling evening, the last thing the reservation-less want to see is a jam-packed dining room with one empty table right by the door, between the space heater and the entryway curtain. But when this scenario occurred at Hazel's Northeast, the host read our minds and spoke just the right words: "If you can wait a minute for me to clear it, I'd like to put you in a booth in back." Whew!
The host, Andrew Sieve, has a knack for hospitality, as he and his brother/co-owner, Adam, come from a third-generation family of restaurateurs. The Sieves took the former home of Pop! on Johnson Street in northeast Minneapolis and rebooted it as a casual café named in honor of their plucky grandmother, Helen, nicknamed Hazel. The family's foray into the restaurant business began decades ago after the Sieve farm produced a poor crop, and Grandma was forced to feed her hungry children ketchup sandwiches. To make extra money, she started baking pies at a local diner and later decided to open a café with her husband. Adam and Andrew's father, Kurt, and their uncle, Jon, now operate that restaurant, the Travelers Inn in Alexandria, Minnesota.
Adam, 30, and Andrew, 28, grew up working at the restaurant and after attending college at St. John's University they went on to careers in education and finance, respectively. "When you grow up bussing tables and cooking on the line every summer, you think, 'that's the last thing I want to do,'" Adam says. But after having a few other jobs—Adam describes his former assistant principal role as "the Darth Vader of a high school"—they rekindled their enthusiasm for restaurant work. At Hazel's, Adam oversees the restaurant's kitchen while Andrew, who most recently waited tables at Dixie's on Grand, is responsible for the front of the house.
The restaurant's cozy interior retains the previous tenant's layout—open kitchen adjacent to two rows of tables and booths—but the color scheme has been toned down to a more neutral palette. In a nod to the former Pop Art theme, Hazel's also displays original paintings in a variety of styles. And when you visit the restroom, be sure to check out the hilarious—and hopefully doctored—photograph of northern pike so big that it's being carted on a horse-drawn wagon.
The Sieve brothers intended to create an accessible restaurant that could cultivate regulars from among the neighborhood's new young families and proud long-timers. (Of the latter group, Adam notes, "They don't say they're from Minneapolis, they say they're from Northeast.") The menu reflects the intergenerational crowd, with its formula of "one part grandma, one part grandson," Adam says. Say you were to bring grandma to Hazel's, the brothers hope she might feel "hip, but not scared."
The Sieves already had comfort food in mind before they selected their site, so reprising Pop's beloved Swedish meatballs was a no-brainer. Swedish meatballs are what they are, which is often a little light on their sweet "Swedish" seasonings, but still, the Hazel's version is a classic of meaty nuggets and a scoop of gravy-slathered mashed potatoes. Those too young—or old—for teeth can still enjoy this meal.
There's also a turkey commercial (the old-time open-faced sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy) on the menu, but the rest of Hazel's offerings have a more modern sensibility. Of course there's chili and beer-cheese soup, but there are also marinated mushrooms served with baguette slices as well as deep-fried, cream cheese-stuffed olives with a balsamic dipping sauce. The state fair-style snack was inspired by mother Sieve's cream cheese-and-olive dip, and while it won't likely edge out the cheese curds anytime soon, it's still a fun idea.
Modest protein portions keep all the entrée prices hovering around $15, and while some of the compositions feel eclectic, most are still quite tasty. Grilled pork loin pairs seamlessly with a bright green apple-ginger sauce and, a bit more arbitrarily, with sides of green beans and sweet potato fries. Tender, citrus-marinated chicken is slathered with a feisty adobo chili and served with a couple of fried polenta triangles, and a vegetable medley of carrots, peas, and cauliflower. Though the composition of the Mex-Ital-American dish felt like it had been generated totally at random, each individual element was competently executed. A salmon special was better balanced by bok choy and multi-colored rice—though those concerned about sustainable fishing would recommend the kitchen serve Pacific stocks vs. Atlantic.
Alongside risotto and Asian noodles, Hazel's menu also offers several burgers, the most interesting of which is dubbed the Windy City. Shaved ham is sealed onto its beef patty with a skin of melted pepperjack cheese and topped with a zippy giardiniera mayonnaise. After that, indulging in the Brownie Barge—it comes with vanilla ice cream, caramel sauce, and a granola-like crust—will surely leave you moving at a slow boat's pace.
Adding to Hazel's small-town café allure, it's one of the few restaurants in the area to offer a full daily breakfast. During the week, retirees fueling up on pancakes and eggs tend to make up much of the daytime crowd, but several menu items offer more creativity. Ben's black bean cakes are named after the brothers' grandfather—somewhat ironically, because the dense, cumin-laced patties, studded with onions and peppers and topped with a spicy chipotle sour cream, wouldn't likely have pleased their plain-eating namesake. Mom is also honored via Jean's mean fried egg sandwich, a popular snack the boys used to make for themselves when their mother didn't feel like cooking. The basic recipe is simple enough for a kid to replicate, but Hazel's is executed with adult sensibilities: the eggs perfectly runny-yolked, the bacon crispy, and a secret touch of blue cheese adding the barest savory funk.
The most decadent breakfast is the Drunken Banana French Toast, which makes a mockery of most caramel rolls. Thick slices of eggy bread are ladled with practically enough of the sticky goo to fill one of the La Brea pits—a baby mastodon could happily drown in it. Add a smattering of warm banana slices, rum-soaked raisins, and crushed pecans, and regular French toast, with its sparse sprinkle of powdered sugar and light drizzle of maple syrup, starts to look sadly underdressed. The Drunken's portion size could satisfy even the appetites of late-night partying collegiates or teenage boys known to measure their cereal intake by the box.
Speaking of teenage boys, the Sieve household raised four of them, but so far Adam and Andrew's other two brothers are simply Hazel's customers, not employees. But depending on how their careers pan out, perhaps they will some day rejoin the family restaurant workforce.