Little Jack's Big Change
201 Lowry Ave. NE, Minneapolis
The strangest possible thing has happened in northeast Minneapolis. Are you sitting down? Well, get this: Jang Won, the much-beloved and much-missed Korean restaurant that used to be up on Central in Columbia Heights has bought Little Jack's, the classic, much-beloved, frozen-in-the-1960s, Northeast steak-and-cocktail staple, and now the two are one. Yes. Jang Won bought Little Jack's. I am not even remotely kidding.
The two are now fused together as if you had been running down the hallway with a chocolate bar and coming round the corner was someone with an open jar of peanut butter, when kapow!--a whole new taste sensation. Except instead of a peanut butter cup what we've got now is a place to go to dinner where you can order red-chili seafood soup glistening with sea cucumbers while your date has a nice filet mignon and a salad with some homemade French dressing. So strange.
I mean, on their side of the table, a steak, a salad, the classic basket of rolls, the classic gold-foiled pats of butter. On your side of the table, a steaming bowl of seafood soup brimming with chewy house-made noodles. And all about you, little dishes of pan chan, the Korean pickles and relishes that you use to gussy up your food, like spicy cabbage kimchi, cold vinegared potatoes, or sweet pickled daikon radish.
And of course, all around you is the Little Jack's museum-quality ambience: a series of rooms, each more lavishly retro than the next, as if you were in a theme park of Eisenhower-era dining options. There's the Royal room, decorated with a huge, hand-painted wallpaper mural of country hunting life. There's the Bar and Lounge room, which has a medieval feel, where dark wood showcases art of dragons and jolly, ruddy fellows hoisting drinks. There's the Scottish room, papered with forest-green plaid. And my favorite, the Viscount room, where flamingo-colored booths sit sweetly beneath light fixtures that look as if they were fashioned from stacks of Jello cubes, and every table has a tea-light in one of those wide, flat Audrey Hepburn-evoking champagne glasses. (I do, however, profoundly miss the old señorita and bullfighting pictures that decorated the Viscount room--they added so much!)
Yet now when you tuck yourself into one of these pink booths you can order a cocktail and, of all things, hold on to your hats, man doo! Man doo are basically Korean pierogies, dumplings filled with ground beef and caramelized onions that combine in a musky, satisfying, comfort-food way. They were one of the old Jang Won's claims to fame--and now they're back! Sorry for all the exclamation points, but I've now been to the place a bunch of times, and I still feel giddy about it; I just can't get over the fact that two of my favorite restaurants in the state are now glued together this way.
I had pretty much come to peace with the fact that the old Jang Won was forever gone. But it wasn't! It turns out that the chef, Seong Jang, father of Little Jack's new owner Andy Jang, needed rotator-cuff surgery, so the family shut down the old place for a few years to accommodate his surgery and recovery. Now he's back and cooking up a storm, and when one of his big steamer baskets of man doo arrive, plump and glistening, chewy and mild, you'll understand Korean comfort foods in a bone-deep way.
Andy Jang, whom I talked to on the phone for this story, guesses his dad makes a few thousand man doo every month, and has done so for the last 40-some years as a chef and restaurant owner both in the United States and in South Korea. You can taste that history, confidence, and practice in each and every dumpling, they just have that weight and comfort of years. You'll find the man doo in two guises on the Korean menu, either steamed ($8.50) or fried, listed as gyoza ($5.25).
Yes, the Korean menu. There are two menus at Little Jack's now, and basically, two worlds: From what I've seen, Korean people get a Korean server and the Korean menu, while other people get an old-hand Little Jack's waiter and the classic Little Jack's menu. So if you want the Korean food, you have to request the menu specifically, and then you have to search out the Korean sections, which are buried in the back, after long listings of Japanese and Chinese restaurant greatest hits. But if you search these out you'll be rewarded with some of the best rustic Korean comfort foods around.
The soups filled with homemade noodles are particularly worth seeking out. These noodles have roughly the same diameter as golf pencils, and are a couple of feet long. They're glossy, chewy, substantial, and sturdy, and once you slurp a few down you can't help but feel strengthened: I really like them in the cham pong ($7.25), a tureen-sized bowl of chili-laced seafood broth loaded up with fresh shrimp, mussels, mushrooms, vegetables, and pale sections of squid tube crosshatched and curled into festive straws. The sam sun cham pong ($8.25) is amped up with even more deluxe seafood, including crisp slices of glossy sea cucumber. In either of these, the broth is spicy and kicky, the noodles are chewy and soothing, and the vegetables and seafood add variety and interest. It really is a world in a bowl.
The Korean miso soup ($7.50) is another winner; order it and you get a bubbling-hot tureen of thick miso broth filled with bobbing cubes of tofu, mushrooms, and wilted greens. It tastes so earthy, healthy, and comforting it's going in my Top 10 Cold-Busting Soups of the Greater Metropolitan Area.
I really liked the sweet and tender bulgogi, in which slices of pork are cooked in a sweet and nutty sauce until they become sticky little slices of potently flavored, irresistible barbecue. At $13.95 it costs a little more than the bulgogi you'll see at other local Korean restaurants, but the portion is huge and easily serves two. Mr. Jang's cooking is different from that of a lot of Korean cooks in that tender, plump textures and mild, unified flavors are his hallmark. If you think of Korean food as all salt and fire--this is not that, this is robust country comfort food.
You'll find no more excellent example of his tender cooking than in the bi bim bop ($8.25). His version is a prettily composed warm salad with tender, salty beef slices dusted with sesame nestled in a pocket of wilted greens, nuzzling up against a soft-fried egg and sweet steamed vinegared carrots. One side of the bowl is given a crisp garnish of crackling nori strips. The dish comes with a mellow bowl of eggy soup, and it's just comfort in a bowl. That you can get it alongside a scotch from the bar, and that you can get out the door for under $20, I consider to be two of the most civilized things to ever happen to a Minnesota winter's night.
Meanwhile, at the same table, the Little Jack's menu merrily chugs along. The filet mignon ($24.95) is what it ever was: a good cut, tender and rich, presented with your choice of potato, a basket of rolls, and a generous green salad topped with one of Little Jack's famous homemade dressings. (The Roquefort is irresistible, as creamy and tangy as could be.) I tried only a few things from the old Little Jack's menu for this review, but found everything I tried to be right in line with how it used to be. The peppered rib-eye ($19.95) was a good cut of steak cooked to perfect temperature. As usual, it would have been better without the gummy mushroom sauce, but this is as it ever was. The old Little Jack's was more a cultural experience, with steaks, than a great restaurant.
Likewise, the new Little Jack's is a cultural experience, with steaks and Korean comforts. I must admit that some integrations of the two cultures have been a little rocky: One night the shrimp in the shrimp cocktail ($10.95) seemed to be the same ones they used for soup, and it just didn't work. They were too small for the price and tasted awful, all wet, sodden, and cottony. Most servers at Little Jack's still don't know much about the Korean dishes, even though the switch happened three months ago. And the menus are way too long; there are at least--literally--200 dishes on the two menus here, and it would be a far better restaurant if they narrowed it down to, say, 50 options.
Still, I think you should go. For the Korean comforts, for the classic Little Jack's choices, for the cocktails, and of course, above all, for the sheer astonishment. Hey, did you hear me already, there's a Korean restaurant in Little Jack's! Heavens! Northeast is changing, drastically, fascinatingly, and right before our eyes. I am telling you, I have been there tons of times in the last month, and I just cannot get over it. Every single time I enter that place it's like I'm running down the hallway with some peanut butter when kapow! Hey, you got Korean restaurant on my Little Jack's! No, you got a mid-century Midwestern steakhouse on my Jang Won! Hey, can't we all just get along? These are two great tastes that taste great together. Or, side by side, anyway.
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