Hi-Lo Diner elevates our food scene by staying close to the ground

Fried chicken on a doughnut? You betcha!

Fried chicken on a doughnut? You betcha! Alma Guzman

“I’m always gonna make food that the ordinary diner is gonna eat and get a value out of.”

Chef Heidi Marsh is fresh off a meeting with a South Carolina-based grits purveyor, and sitting in the vintage yet futuristic confines of Hi-Lo Diner on East Lake Street.

The silvery capsule looks a bit like a spaceship dropped from on high, out of some other, far more stylish place than Earth. In fact, it came from only as far away as Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, where it stood successfully as the Venus Diner for half a century.

Since finding its new home in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis, the diner is packed nearly around the clock. Its fans line up for the real-deal diner pedigree and price structure. When it adheres as closely as possible to an ordinary diner for the ordinary diner, Hi-Lo offers an experience that is tough to beat.

Two of Hi-Lo’s owners, Mike Smith and James Brown, are also the owners of Modern Forage Workshop across the street. They say they got tired of looking at the lot’s former tenant, a defunct Taco Bell, every day. 

As purveyors of designer ottomans and beard oil that “leaves behind the deep leathered richness of a cobbler’s apron,” they might have been tempted to go full-fledged hipster with Hi-Lo’s menu and sensibility. But they didn’t. They wisely partnered with Pat McDonough and Jeremy Woerner of the Blue Door Pub empire, re-inventors of the Jucy Lucy, which manages to keep classics classic while simultaneously, ever-so-slightly agitating the waters.

The vintage yet futuristic confines of Hi-Lo Diner

The vintage yet futuristic confines of Hi-Lo Diner Alma Guzman

Hi-Lo mostly manages a similar equilibrium.

Marsh knew there had to be pancakes, because when you get to a diner, you want to be able to exclaim, “I smell pancakes!” So she started there. Here they’re crepe-like, floppy, and fragrant as pie, not the inch-thick leviathans that seem to mock you from the plate. “I didn’t want them so thick you couldn’t even walk down the street afterward.” Check.

The burger is another standard Marsh has knocked out of the park. She tinkered with a custom blend of chuck, short rib, and brisket until she was happy with it, using celebrity butcher Pat LaFrieda’s blend (the blend that made Shake Shack famous) as inspiration. It’s as perfect as any burger gets.

The fries are crinkle cut, a diner classic, and I could have sworn they were hand-cut. They’re not. “Ours are crinkle cut, out of a bag, because that’s something that diners do. But,” Marsh adds, “there’s always a little secret thing.” That little secret thing is these fries get a dose of potato chip spice that they grind and mix in-house.

The Hi-Tops, the diner’s signature dish of fried dough piled high with either sweet or savory accompaniments, were one of the few menu ideas suggested by the owners. The secret to these is that Marsh spent weeks watching videos of how they make doughnuts in the South. She even took inspiration from American Indian fry-bread tacos, and also from Mojo Monkey Donuts, arguably St. Paul’s finest doughnut purveyor. Once she was happy with the result, she began working on toppings. They now crank out about 1,500 weekly.

While a few of the Hi-Top flavor combinations work, to my mind they don’t work well enough to justify taking up eight menu slots. One that does deserve your attention is their biggest seller: the Gary Cooper. This Hi-Top gets bombed with buttermilk fried chicken, maple bourbon syrup, and country gravy. As we speak, a lone diner waves off an offer of a menu, and orders a Gary Cooper. She knows what she’ll be having, thank you.

It works because it’s in the chicken-and-waffles family, and fried chicken just goes naturally well with the sweetness of the pastry and syrup. But others, like the Yum Yum Yum, don’t pass muster, with braised Korean short rib, apple-bacon slaw, and wasabi microgreens looking like they got invited to the wrong party, riding awkwardly on top of a doughnut. Others, like Argentinian shrimp with adobo or a take on a BLT, seem even more out of place. My advice would be to keep the Gary Cooper, and 86 the rest.

The Commercial sandwich is as close as we can get around here to the legendary scratch-made, countrified truckstop cooking of middle America. White cheddar-striated biscuits form the base, then prime rib, mountains of classic potato puree straight out of the spring-loaded scoop, and a generous pour of rich beef gravy. Ribbons of racy horseradish cream finish things like a mic drop. It’s powerful.

Hash Stuffed Hash is a flash of genius straight off the farm, from when the owners worked as farmhands. You can taste the sincerity in it. Hashbrowns bed down with big nuggets of corned beef, Hollandaise, griddle-frizzled peppers and onions, and the crowning glory of two runny eggs. It’s everything a hard worker longs for in a morning meal and nothing she doesn’t.

But when the kitchen strays too far from the standards, you want to toss a lasso around its torso and reel it in. The Pastrami Silo is a good example of a lasso-able offense. The already perfect pastrami sandwich gets flipped on its head: Meat is stuffed into a crispy baguette, Hot-Pocket style, and then blasphemed with sweet chile aioli. Marsh admits that it’s an “ugly duckling” and will probably come off the menu soon.

But happily, the menu isn’t too changeable at Hi-Lo, nor do they need it to be. Among other things that remain the same are the cheerful staff, the diner-style coffee service that can have you all but guarding your cup beneath the table, the boozy ice cream cocktails that are gloriously more booze than ice cream, and pie. So, so much pie. Pie is technically the only dessert on offer. And this detail alone — the belief that a good pie is good enough — is the sort of thing that will land Hi-Lo in the realm of the Good and the Real and the Here to Stay.

Hi-Lo’s highs come from their willingness to stay grounded in the best possible ways.

Check out more succulent food porn-y photos from Hi-Lo here.

Hi-Lo Diner
4020 E. Lake St., Minneapolis