Maruso re-creates street food from around the world
Imagine you're an aspiring restaurateur. You've weighed the risks, appointed a team of trusted talent, secured your funding, identified your target audience, and come up with a pretty solid concept. But then there's the whole property search, and that's where, realistically, you start having to make real compromises. Though the excellent and ever-inventive Haute Dish has managed to become a chic and thriving restaurant despite being essentially attached to Sinners Gentlemen's Club, it's still gutsy for a restaurant to set up shop next door to a strip club. But that is precisely what owners Chrissy Kabanuk and Bill Schweng did when they opened Maruso Street Food and Cocktails on Seventh and Hennepin, sandwiched between Barfly and the Lure Show Club, formerly the Skyway Lounge, an adult hideaway put on the map by Oscar-winning screenwriter (and former City Pages columnist) Diablo Cody when she regularly participated in amateur nights as research for her blog and later memoir. Though it's near a strip club, not in a strip mall, eating at Maruso is a little like shopping at Pier 1: Its going for a bright, global feel (whether achieved or not), the interior aesthetic is completely hodgepodge, and it's affordable enough for someone who has just moved into their first apartment.
Located on a scruffy little stretch of avenue, Maruso is smack dab in a part of downtown that needed more quick, non-chain dining options, and the fact that it serves about as many specialty drinks as it does food items is probably the golden ratio that will help keep it in business. Though the combination of Latin, Asian, Eastern European, and American dishes on Maruso's menu feels a little unfocused, the wide variety of flavors and popular street foods from all over the world should attract groups of indecisive pre-gamers, exactly the audience they should be going for.
Maruso's main problem is that it's trying to do too many things to push its culinary concept instead of doing a few things really well, with the exception of the big, boozy, tropical cocktails. Many of these drinks veered toward the excessively sweet end of the spectrum, like the Tokyo Tea (basically a Long Island but topped with enough Midori to make it turn radioactive green), but others like the Monkey Gland and Penicillin were more balanced by the faint anise of absinthe or the peaty hint of scotch. If the idea of sucking down big pearls of tapioca appeals to you, Maruso also has a handful of alcoholic bubble teas on the menu. Just like the food items, all the cocktails here are under $10, with most hovering around $7, which is really quite cheap considering the area and the number of ingredients that go into each one.
If Maruso decides to extend its hours to cater to the late-night crowd, it could easily become the Red Dragon of downtown, though it seems like it's really trying to emulate a slightly less cheeky Chino Latino. The presence of the bad-hotel-lobby upholstery on the booths and blown-up photos next to the bathrooms of passed-out people with their underoos around their ankles kept our expectations at bay food-wise, but Maruso's head chef, Andrew Garrison, has great experience under his belt, having cooked under Don Saunders at Fugaise and spent time in venerable establishments like Tilia and the Bachelor Farmer.
Overall, dishes were well seasoned and thoughtfully presented, but the ones that missed the mark did so because they were either bad representations of their street food inspirations or were texturally off.
For example, Maruso's banh mi is spot-on, with tender char siu pork, slightly grainy pate, cilantro, and a good amount of kick from the jalapenos and pickled daikon radish. But in the same section of the menu, its "Iron City" Sandwich is a poor facsimile of Pittsburgh's famed Primanti Brothers sandwiches. The original — a messy behemoth of meat (the one occasion where mid-grade bologna, or "jumbo," is acceptable), cheese, slaw, tomatoes, and a fistful of French fries smooshed between two slices of Italian bread — was designed for dock workers and truckers so they could have their whole meal in one hand and keep on packing or driving with the other. Though Maruso's version is considerably neater, it unfortunately gets this classic sandwich all wrong in the execution, and the liberties it takes don't seem to be artistic ones. Instead of crusty and soft Italian bread, it was a bland slice of wheat. Cheese costs extra, there are no tomatoes in sight, and the slaw, though very crisp, was overly vinegary and so chilled that it made the fries go cold and mealy. The one saving grace: The pile of thin-sliced pastrami was surprisingly good, especially considering the sandwich's $9 price tag.
Plates in the "Snacks" section went over well, especially the cheddar-mashed-potato-stuffed pierogies, which were delicate, perfectly browned, and served with a pungent horseradish cream. I wouldn't have turned down a smattering of the traditional accompaniment of buttery caramelized onions, but these little dough dumplings were still crowd-pleasers. Big, whole-joint buffalo chicken wings were not terribly saucy (they don't even come with a wet wipe) but were quite meaty and moist. Shockingly spicier than the buffalo wings was the bowl of large bayou shrimp, served in a bath of peppery Cajun broth with a baguette for dipping. The bread could have been sturdier and the dish more rustic, perhaps with shell-on shrimp, as is more often done in the South, but the spice was bold and welcome and never bored the palate. Vietnamese spring rolls came with all the usual crunchy herb accoutrements: Thai basil, daikon, peanuts, rice vermicelli, and a choice of shrimp or pork. They were well-balanced and made for perfect light eating on the very hot and sticky days we visited.
Maruso does a couple of different things with entree-style bowls. There's a noodle soup, a steak salad, and more of the Asian dishes that Garrison seems to gravitate toward. Though recommended by our server, the green curry tofu bowl contained rice that was so overcooked and had absorbed so much coconut milk it was roughly the texture of rømmegrøt, which I absolutely love, but which obviously has no place in Asian cuisine. The long planks of tofu in the dish made it hard for even a skilled wielder of chopsticks to maneuver around. But we really loved the Korean bulgogi rice bowl. The thinly shaved steak was soy-salty without being dry, and the kimchi was bright, hot, and sour — a perfect complement to the earthy mushrooms and silky, runny-yolk fried egg.
With just about everything shutting down in Block E and many of the other restaurants in the immediate area serving meals at a much higher price tag, Maruso should be a welcome addition for casual bar-hoppers and happy-hour groups. If you go, opt for the Asian dishes on the menu and take advantage of the mostly sunny patio area, a perfect place to knock down a party-starting cocktail before you take down downtown.
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