High Steaks Gambit

Top shelf: Server Brennan Carlson with a sampler of offerings from Mojito's stylish bar
Raoul Benavides
4656 Excelsior Blvd., St. Louis Park

St. Louis Park is the new Nordeast. Brazilian barbecue is the new downtown steakhouse. And above all, Mojito is the opposite of Chino Latino. And if you don't believe it, you can just go stand on line some night in front of Mojito for an hour or two, and twiddle your thumbs till you come to accept the hottest North and South American restaurant ever to grace Excelsior Boulevard.

I mean, if you would just talk to Chris Paddock for a minute, you'd get it. Paddock is one of Mojito's co-owners, and has certainly earned the right to make whatever bizarre pronouncements he likes, because he is the man who turned a fading old funeral parlor in dying old northeast Minneapolis into Bobino--the hip, romantic bistro that anchored the neighborhood's transformation into a land of Panera Breads, parking ramps, and upscale townhomes.

So, see if you can follow along. St. Louis Park is the new Northeast because, as a first-tier suburb, it's in the same battle for its future that Northeast was in a decade ago: The original settlers are aging out, the infrastructure needs redoing, and in comes Paddock to open a defining restaurant in a previously blighted block--the exact story of Bobino and Northeast. Furthermore, Mojito is leading a weekend farmers' market and craft market in the green space in front of the restaurant, giving St. Louis Park even more of a cultural anchor.

Brazilian barbecue is the new downtown steakhouse because Paddock et al. are providing the same sort of coddling to wine connoisseurs that places like Morton's have been known for. For example, say you have $300 a quarter to rent a wine locker at Mojito. You get a key, and the restaurant keeps a key. You can then special-order cases of wine through the restaurant at mere wholesale prices, and sometimes when they get special allocations they'll tuck an extra bottle in there for you, as a gift. For instance, the restaurant has a longstanding relationship with super-prestigious Turley Wine Cellars and one day when you bring in clients--voilà! a secret chardonnay. Can't imagine it? Picture one of those cardboard advent calendars, except the people folding back the doors are CFOs.

Finally, Mojito is the opposite of Chino Latino because, says Paddock, "They're the hot zones, foods and flavors on the equator, and we go up and down--a latitude of flavor." Which means, I think, that if you imagine a latitudinal net of parallel lines that stretch from Antarctica to the North Pole, you will come to understand that the pastureland of Argentina is like the pastureland of Kansas, and that Mojito serves the flavors of Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, Denver, New York, Minneapolis, and, if they feel like it one day, Canada. Paddock and the company he founded for this project, Hospitality Management Services, have even trademarked a phrase for this: "Crossroads Cuisine."

And if you think that all of North, South, and Central America is an influence base that is so broad as to be meaningless, well, then you are obviously thinking like a restaurant critic, and this is the sort of sour little rain that you can expect to live in forevermore, because people stop inviting you anywhere.

Which is to say, adept readers will have noted that I've been doing the sort of tap dance I do when I don't much care for a place, and feel bad about it. Which I do in this instance because the place is undeniably competent, cheerily conventional, and well liked by the neighborhood. So who am I to grouse?

The restaurant bills itself as a modified churrascaria, a Brazilian open-fire barbecue. But a real churrascaria is a meat orgy, hunks of skewered beast served in an atmosphere where men are men and women tumble voluptuously from their blouses because of flamenco dancing, reckless drinking, or brief but enthralling childbirth. Which is not very St. Louis Park. So Mojito is less a churrascaria than a nice upscale restaurant, and is exactly as good as, and exactly comparable to, nice local places like Ciao Bella, Coco ChaCha, and Three Fish.

Steaks come in a few guises, the most popular being the herb-rubbed sirloin "picanha" ($16), a thin slice of unremarkable meat, served with a chimichurri sauce that has the olive-drab color and distinctly twiggy aspect of being made from dried herbs. Chimichurri is the South American herb sauce based on fresh parsley, olive oil, vinegar, garlic, salt, and a chef's choice of other herbs or spices, and I can't think why the chimichurri here isn't fresh. The steaks come from the "open-flame" grill, from which are also available forgettable pizzas, a range of higher-quality-cut steaks, other meats, and excellent house-made sausages. The best barbecue thing is the lamb, which is simple, fresh tasting, and rosy.  

The way to try Mojito's best is to go for their mixed grill ($23). On it you'll get good, local, Pipestone Farms pork, marinated with honey; the lamb; and the steak. You'll get a couple of cute little puffs of cheese-filled rolls. You'll have a glass of wine, and feel like a success, in Miami! Do not get the chalky and tasteless rice-based stews, the dreadful mofongo, the awful Cuban short ribs. If you're really rolling in dough, and meat-loving friends, for $29 a person, minimum four people, you can get a family style meal built around a gargantuan platter of different meats, big bowls of sides like the excellent sweet corn mash or grilled planks of zucchini tossed with grilled red bell peppers, and a salad. This is fun. Though the food isn't as good as in a local Mexican dive, or in a comparably priced, more chef-driven restaurant, it's festive and lively, and you'll look across the throbbing room and feel like the center of a fun world.

However, do not venture from the world of meats cooked on the grill, because that is where things get dicey. The shrimp cocktail is a soupy Mexican version; whenever I had it the shrimp were overcooked and falling apart. The three times I tried the empanadas they seemed to be made from widely different recipes. The best time, the cheese empanadas were gooey and melting, with a touch of scallion and herb, and the meat ones were full of caramelized bits of red pepper, beef, and piquant green olive. The worst time the cheese ones seemed to be made of unflavored cottage cheese, and the beef unadorned chopped meat.

Desserts were a disaster: One time banana-stuffed crepes arrived as three chilled crepes folded on one side of the plate, a pile of sliced bananas on the other, and piles of dulce de leche caramel and ice cream between them. It was like, "Now, if you only can get some butter, and a stove, you have all the ingredients for banana-stuffed crepes!" Servers kept telling me that the Brazilian coconut custard was the thing to get, but twice it tasted like jellied sugar. The tres leches cake is also like sugar out of the bag, without the richness you hope for in the dish.

I made more than my usual run of visits to Mojito, and I was in despair until I blundered on the oysters and the carnitas, which I can wholeheartedly recommend. The carnitas ($10) is a brimming plate of slow-fried, tender pork served with grilled corn tortillas, a pile of pickled onions, carrots, jalapeño, and ramekins of thinned guacamole and red chile sauce. It's one of the best taco plates in town, the rich meat contrasting perfectly with the freshness of the avocado, the piquant vegetables, the spice of the chile, and the grill-striped tortillas. The oysters on the half shell are bluepoints covered with chile and lime juice, served with cilantro and more limes. At $15 a dozen, they should go into your file for evenings after a movie at the St. Louis 6: Oysters at the stylish bar with its high ceiling, low chairs, and light-box art of sexy Miami moments is Mojito in its best aspect.

Unless you really care about wine, because the beverage selection is the one thing that is indisputably impressive at Mojito, besides the nightly waits. In fact, I defy you to come up with a family member who couldn't be delighted here: guanabana juice, Grape Nehi, Red Bull, and Mrs. Kelly's Cozy Chamomile tea are only the tip of the place's nonalcoholic list, and once you hit the hard stuff, hold on to your hats: I'm talking two dozen beers, just as many top-shelf sipping rums, scads of whiskies, and so many signature cocktails it makes the head spin. The best I tried was the Anejo Highball ($7), made with spicy Jamaican ginger beer and bitters.

The wine list is the most exciting component of the restaurant--even if it is priced a little high. (Yes, here we are again with my pet peeve of Cristalino cava priced at $29 bottle when it retails for $7! What is with all you people? I'm not going to write about this every week! Or maybe I will until you all quit it!) There are a few of those four-times-retail stinkers, but we'll ignore those for the time being to concentrate on the virtue of the list: its strong showing of South American wines, including what I think is Minnesota's first Uruguayan section. I find South American wines, with their fruit glut habit of selling tankers of grape juice to North Americans for rebottling and constantly changing players, to be maddening to track, and the idea that there is now a place staying on top of this is thrilling to me.  

For instance, I tried a glass of Argentinian viognier one night, from Don Miguel Gascon, and it was clean and austere, a little green and piney, a little floral and peachy, and so all of a sudden I have a new $10 viognier to search for. Ideally, this is how a good wine list works, searching and sifting to make your life fun and easy.

On the next level, a great wine list should increase your prestige and subtly lend itself to helping you execute your goals, be they business or social. Mojito does that too, if you ask for the constantly changing Captain's List of reserve wines. This thing is filled with the Guccis and Ferraris of the wine world: a Gaja super Tuscan, a Kistler Chardonnay, Plumpjack and Silver Oak cabernets. (These are at very reasonable markups, by the way, even if they're not the best vintages.) Put one of these on the table, and you should be able to shock and awe your way to whatever you want.

Of course, Bobino was one of the pioneering wine bars in Minnesota, so the fact that Mojito nailed that part of its identity isn't too surprising. That its creators made the leap so successfully from artsy, gay-darling, chick-magnet Bobino to the steak-and-cocktail world of the suburbs is a lot more surprising. When I talked to Paddock on the phone, he was charmingly giddy about Mojito's success thus far, the hour-long waits, his role as savior to St. Louis Park, the shower of praise from the flood of customers, the way his various intuitions, alliances, and aspirations seem to be bearing fruit.

And I am very happy for him, even if I can't really see myself, or any of you confirmed Uptown types or gourmands making the trek across the golf course too often--unless, of course, you need to meet the Edina, Plymouth, or otherwise Highway 100-oriented family for dinner, in which case Mojito is a very nice variation on a theme, with free parking from here to eternity, for when you're sick of Italian.

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