Inside Canterbury Park's new fine-dining venture: 'Little Chicago Chophouse'

Yes, there’s a gangster booth.

Yes, there’s a gangster booth. Sarah Brumble

Once upon a time, a legendary bar director training me to do little more than polish glasses shared a bit of hospitality wisdom as an aside: When it comes to selling drinks, the name and story behind each is as important—if not more so—than the ingredients and execution of the thing itself. The name is where the dazzling begins.

The folks at Canterbury Park’s new fine-dining venture, Little Chicago Chophouse, know this. They’ve taken a kernel from a legendary period in American history and blown it into a larger-than-life, Shakopee-centric story visitors will want to become part of. Whatever’s ordered off the menu at this decadent, East Coast-style supperclub becomes secondary to the experience of inserting oneself into a debauched winner’s circle.

According to Shanti Jensen, Canterbury’s director of restaurants, “gangsters would come to Shakopee to have fun, gamble, and drink” throughout the Prohibition era thanks to an arrangement between the St. Paul police and Shakopee’s local law enforcement to “look the other way.”

Corroborating this was the story retold by John Groen, Canterbury’s vice president of marketing. He says a journalist from the Saturday Evening Post (possibly Rufus Jarman, to whom many quotes about old Shakopee are attributed) once referred to the town as “Little Chicago”—and the name stuck. Jarman went on to describe Shakopee as a place where Twin Citizens sought drinks they couldn’t get at home, while dining “at one of several restaurants that featured thick steaks and slot machines.”

The evening’s standout: a deconstructed lobster chowder.

The evening’s standout: a deconstructed lobster chowder. Sarah Brumble

From these yarns was spun the entire vibe of Little Chicago Chophouse.

Located off the back of the casino floor in a sunken spot that had been an outdoor smoking section for card players, Little Chicago is unmistakably masculine in decor but exudes an air of respite amidst frenzy thanks to turf-green booths and dark tablecloths. It’s also the only place in all of Canterbury with no televisions. Instead, a little tug on the drapes reveals the perfect (analog) view of the track’s finish line. Working most in its favor is its capacity; at only 65 seats, it feels cosy like a fine, private clubhouse—maybe even a speakeasy if you squint.

A roast duck/chicken liver amuse-bouche

A roast duck/chicken liver amuse-bouche Sarah Brumble

By Groen’s estimate, 60 percent of the historic photos mounted on the walls are images from Shakopee; the rest are filler from elsewhere, like Big Chicago. His favorite is a photo of a sheriff smashing a slot machine with a sledgehammer, pulled from the local records. “That’s actually the grandfather of our VP of Human Resources. She’s not too thrilled about that [hanging there],” Groen laughed.

Though the slots may have been demolished, forfeiting their spot to live card tables at the casino within earshot, those thick steaks Jarman mentioned nearly a century ago remain the focal point of Little Chicago’s menu.

“Say you just won thousands on a trifecta,” Groen suggested. “Here’s where to spend it.”

Ricardo Lopez and Seth Teiken (sr. director of beverage and hospitality and executive chef, respectively) signaled to guests that they’re ready to please high rollers and big winners, beginning with an amuse-bouche of roast duck, chicken liver pate, and lingonberry, while Moët flowed for the restaurant’s christening toast.

In one of the evening’s great ironies, an elite guest spent the meal across our table providing a lovely reality check to chefs’ dreams as they’re put into practice. Repeatedly forgoing wine pairings, he stuck to Bud Light, ordered his steak well-done, and graciously offered anything from the sea to my dining companion and myself.

After learning an uncomfortable amount from the distributors about what it takes to raise the highest quality Angus beef, including DNA testing and knowing the cow’s precise maternal lineage, this same guest neatly summarized the educational experience.

Chef Eric Teiken provides a bit of so-called “dinertainment."

Chef Eric Teiken provides a bit of so-called “dinertainment." Sarah Brumble

“I think I’m gonna feel guilty eating this, but I’m gonna tear that shit up anyway,” he said, laughing.

An early appetizer trio of short rib and horseradish, crab cake with house remoulade, and cold poached shrimp atop a bright cocktail sauce were simply classic and done to perfection. The angus fillets of the entree were, indeed, as thick as legend purported, though the quarter-portion of seared ahi stole its thunder in execution. The evening’s standout was a deconstructed lobster chowder, half of which was poured tableside. The last detail hinted at something Jensen repeatedly called “dinertainment,” which would really come to fruition in dessert. Tableside-shaken chocolate martinis arrived while Teiken torched caramel for bananas foster mid-dining room, and for a literal hot second, Little Chicago took on an awkward Benihana-esque atmosphere.

Subtlety isn’t really Little Chicago’s thing; all night, everything from the flavors presented, to the staffs’ personalities, was big.

But that, I think, is kind of the point of Canterbury as a whole. Anyone who sits down to dine here and leaves unsatisfied probably also doesn’t “get” the allure of dropping cash a horse track -- a place where one gambles on unknown outcomes, and celebrates by indulging in absurd, undeserved extravagances as a reward for such gambits. Little Chicago is a reasonable outcome for that experience.

It’s nice to find it in-house, finally.