Hey, Beer Woman!
2922 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls.; (612) 821-0101
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-1:00 a.m. daily; kitchen closes at 11:00 p.m.; happy hour daily 3:00-6:00 p.m.
My beer-lovingest buddies and I descended on Herkimer on a dead-quiet, early-January Tuesday night. A server greeted the first two of us--she was a gorgeous thing with skin like marble, a sparkling updo the color of molasses on copper and, most memorable, a plunging, backless black top of uncommon brevity.
Gorgeous bent forward to tell us about the beers at Herkimer, saying something along the lines of: "We have four options tonight, a Kölsch, a light German-style beer; Handy's Pilsner, a lager; a Märzen or red ale; and our darkest beer, a porter." She left us alone to decide, upon which my date turned to me with an expression not unlike that borne by those unlucky enough to have been cracked across the head with a two-by-eight, and said: "What? Did she say something? Who? All...all I could see was the butterfly tattoo."
Soon the rest of our party--nearly all men--joined us, and the pattern of the evening became clear. Gorgeous would bend to us, gentle as grass in the wind, so that we might hear her over the jukebox-fed music, and attempt to carry on the business of Herkimer. Once she departed, spirited debates would erupt as to who had the best angle of view and whether the aforementioned design was in fact a butterfly, a flower, a geometric pattern, or merely a mark of the divine, like those miraculous stigmata that appear on saints. And then the beer would be tasted, and the spell broken.
Brew-pub beer tends to be thick and profoundly flavored: If it has hops, it reeks of hops. If it's stout, it's thick as motor oil. But at Herkimer the pilsner is as uncomplicated as a glass of Michelob warming on the TV; the porter as friendly as a Girl Scout with a station wagon full of Trefoils. These see-through (oh, the humanity!) brews left my table of beer snobs shell-shocked, and gossipy murmurs ran round the table: Do you taste corn? In the lager? I mean, corn? Doesn't it taste like corn? For beer snobs, corn is a transgression beyond imagination. You'll see the Gucci family reunion sponsored by Target before you see beer snobs allow corn in their glass.
And you'll see Target greeters in Gucci before you see Herkimer owner and brewmaster Blake Richardson make beer for snobs: "We are a German-style brewery," he explains. "We make a crisper, purer style of beer. There are ale breweries all over the country that make heavily hopped, very sweet and syrupy stuff. That beer is overdone. This is a nice alternative: None of our beers will ever be super-bitter or hoppy, none will ever be hyper-malty. The concept behind a brew pub is to sell beer, so why not sell a beer that will please a lot of people?
"When you're in the business of brewing beer, you're in a business. You can't brew beer for yourself, you can't brew beer for brewers, you can't brew beer for critics. You brew beer for customers: It's the people that pay for it that count."
And pay for it they do: On my last visit to Herkimer's, the pub had run out of all its beer except the Handy's lager, and Richardson had just placed orders for at least six more 250-gallon brewing tanks to keep up with demand for his easy-drinking $3.25 pints. A brew shortage at a brewery? "This is the sort of problem you dream of having," admits Richardson, who goes on to point out that he would rather his light, airy, modern, and jukebox-jumping Herkimer not be compared to beer lovers' utopias like Sherlock's Home or Great Waters, but to neighborhood hangouts like the C.C. Club and Lyle's. "It's supposed to be a great place to hang out," he says, "the common denominator. A joint."
On those terms Herkimer's is clearly a success: The place is packed on weekend nights, and paint-spattered locals are starting to discover the cheap, two-for-one happy hour. The all-day kitchen makes the spot a great meeting place for the artists, entrepreneurs, and self-employed Volvo poets who gravitate to Lyn-Lake. Richardson is even building a following for tabletop shuffleboard: "Some people think it's called shufflepuck," he explains. "But the official name is shuffleboard. We think we're the only place in Minneapolis with shuffleboard--it's a good, noncompetitive game that strangers can play together." (So what's played on the Love Boat? That's also shuffleboard, says Richardson.)
On other terms--fine-dining terms, let's say--Herkimer has a road to travel. After sampling widely from the menu, I'd say the kitchen is only batting about .250--finding tasty food requires some combination of luck and perseverance. A pair of hot pretzels ($3.95) was ordered three times:
Once the duo came dripping-wet with some sort of buttery oil, another time they came merely damp with buttery oil, and once they were hot, chewy, and improved by the spicy-cheesy dipping sauce that accompanied them. (I thought the other sauce, a mustard version, was far too sweet.)
I tried the zucchini fries ($4.95) twice because I thought there was some good vegetarian bar food struggling to get out here. But on one occasion the fries arrived in a scary pool of their own oil, a second time they were just flat and okay, and then I gave up on them. The Big Crabcake was strangely tasteless, and the orangey butter sauce did nothing for it, though the most annoying feature here was the price tag--$8.50 for one cake, $13.95 for two. I fared better with two other appetizers: Calamari ($7.95) was light and tender, and paired well with the five-bean salsa that accompanied them. The chicken quesadillas ($6.95) were nicely rich, cheesy, salty, and zippy--I'd recommend the large serving as an entrée, too.
The actual entrées didn't up Herkimer's batting average any. Vegetable kebabs ($7.95) were the worst--simple, unseasoned skewers of grilled vegetables which arrived on a clump of plain white rice, not sticky rice as the menu promised. (Sticky rice is steamed, glutinous rice that cooks up sweet and translucent.) Almond-crusted walleye was unforgettably pallid ($11.95), but I'd be hard-pressed to say exactly what was wrong with it--aside from the fact that it didn't come with the menu-promised fresh cucumber-onion relish and just didn't taste like anything.
I really tried hard to find something great, but largely struck out: Rotisserie chicken ($12.95 for a whole, $7.95 for a half) was far too salty, as was the dark onion soup ($2.95 a cup, $3.95 a bowl). The "chop salad" ($7.95 for a whole order, $4.95 for a half) consisted of iceberg lettuce with cold cuts and salad-bar-generic Italian dressing. I can mildly recommend the sweet sloppy joe ($5.50), which is nice in a remembering-summer-camp sort of way, and the thick, ungainly grilled cheese sandwich ($4.95) is nice in a truck-stop sort of way. The Herkiburger ($7.95) was decent, though if they upgraded the starchy bun and the spindly fries we'd really have something to talk about. I liked the zippy and simple Thai curry pasta ($7.95), a home-cooking-by-gringos version of cellophane noodles tossed with coconut green curry and lots of fresh, steamed julienne vegetables. And the best thing on the menu is the "Cuban special salad" ($7.95 whole, $4.95 half)--a tasty piece of lime-marinated pork tenderloin cut into strips and laid across a bed of baby greens dressed with zesty citrus-cumin vinaigrette, the ensemble further enhanced by breaded, deep-fried pickled jalapeño slices and strips of fried, marinated red peppers and onions.
But I'll quit griping, since Herkimer really is a joint, not a restaurant. Perhaps the time the spot came most clearly into focus for me was the moment, late on a Friday night, when the bar had run out of all but its palest beers, and everywhere I looked flirting couples were stacked five deep sipping from pale yellow pints of what Richardson fondly calls "lawn-mower beer" and shouting into each other's ears to be heard. Then my banana split emerged from the kitchen--a towering $6.95 worth of ice cream, sliced bananas, hot fudge, whipped cream, and peanuts. As the creamy behemoth made its way through the throng, nearly everyone paused, turned, stared: For a moment I glimpsed a version of paradise, full of postcollegiate kids, tanks of sweet, drinkable beer, and vast portions of ice cream.
UPTOWNERS TAKE HEART! Those long-empty sites at the corner of Hennepin and Lake that once housed the Rainbow Bar and Annie's Parlor, are about to be reborn with Chino-Latino, the newest venture from the Parasole Group (of Figlio, Manny's Steakhouse, and Muffuletta fame). What's that? "The tag line is 'street foods from the hot zone,'" says general manager Michael Larson, best known for his six-year stint at the helm of late, lamented Pronto. "The idea is: If you were to make a 3,000 mile-wide belt around the earth, with the equator in the middle--whatever people eat in that hot zone, that's us. But with an Asian and Latin American emphasis."
Think finger food. Think spicy, seafood, vegetarian, sharing plates, and a lot of flat, kebab-y foods--the restaurant promises a satay bar, in the style of sushi bars, but offering grilled items on skewers. Larson says Chino-Latino draws inspiration from Parasole-funded globetrotting: "In Mexico City we had some interesting things: Lamb-brain tacos, grubworm tacos. One of our chefs is Mexican--he showed us everything." Overall, Chino-Latino promises the most multicultural kitchen in town: There are also chefs from Vietnam, Peru, and China, Larson says--"and we're on the hunt for an African chef."
Larson also admits to stateside influences in the concept for the restaurant, including Ruby Foo's and Asia de Cuba in New York, and Wild Ginger in Seattle. Diners should expect sharing-sized appetizers to run about $5 a plate and full meals to average $15 a person--more if you fall in love with the comprehensive sake menu, or the fancy Polynesian drinks of yesteryear. Larson envisions a "French-Colonial Vietnam kind of feel" and an open front--making two French-Colonial Vietnam kind of places with open fronts within 30 yards of the traffic light above Lake and Hennepin (the other being Chiang Mai Thai). So, to recap: Sometime before the ground thaws you'll be able to do some Colonial Vietnamese barhopping, quaff a mai tai while chatting with your satay chef, and bubble into the midnight movie at the Uptown.
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