This week we checked out two restaurants, both alike in dignity but separate in city and very different in name. While Tacos, Nachos, and Beer in downtown St. Paul tells you exactly what you're going to get, sort of the Snakes on a Plane of restaurants, Zeke's Unchained Animal in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis gives away absolutely nothing. If I had to make a guess informed by recent restaurant trends, I'd say Zeke's was either one more in a long line of housemade charcuterie joints or an eatery for the adventurous, Zimmern-following wild game lovers of our local scene. Or both. But it's neither — unless you never watched Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica and still think buffalo wings are a part of bison anatomy. But we'll get to what turns out is a pretty basic bar-and-grill type setup in a minute.
If Rusty Taco and Jimmy John's had a love child that served breakfast, it would be Tacos, Nachos, and Beer. (Full disclosure: Tacos, Nachos, and Beer does not use any commas in its signage, but the grammar geek in me just cannot abide by that, so from here on out I will refer to it as TNB.) From the layout of the small store to the laid-back style behind the counter, the taqueria, which serves simple meat-and-tortilla Mexican tacos, feels clean and casual, equally suited to a sit-down-and-share dinner with friends and a quick, solo grab-and-go lunch. But TNB's biggest surprise is its breakfast menu, which is served from 7 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. every day the spot is open. You can get a flour tortilla stuffed with either scrambled eggs and slightly crispy potatoes, ham, chorizo sausage, or bacon; just chorizo and potatoes; or the slightly odd-sounding (but definitely the choice for fans of huevos rancheros) combo of scrambled eggs and refried beans with an optional add-in of breakfast meat. Rounding out the list of morning meals is Mexico's best use of leftovers, chilaquiles. TNB's version starts with a pile of tortilla chips layered with chicken, salsa, sour cream, and mozzarella cheese, so the dish is really more akin to breakfast nachos than the chilaquiles at La Loma or Las Teresitas, but they're sort of soft and comforting in the way that chilaquiles are supposed to be.
TNB couldn't be a true taqueria without making its own tortillas, and though all the breakfast tacos (and two of the non-breakfast tacos) are made with commercial flour tortillas, the rest of the tacos are made with housemade hand-rolled corn tortillas. They're thicker, chewier, and sturdier than the ones we've encountered at other taquerias, but the more we ate them and considered their qualities, the more we liked them. As far as the taco menu goes, there are so few opportunities in life to say "I'll take one of each" that you might as well make the most of your visit to TNB and get all of them. The tacos are made to order, modestly stuffed with meat and left unadorned so you can pile on whatever you like from the salsa bar, where there's everything from mild avocado salsa to flaming hot habanero salsa and everything in between. I found that the best complement was the simple mix of chopped onion and cilantro, but however you get your kicks is up to you. The seafood tacos — one with deep-fried fish and the other with grilled shrimp and crunchy cabbage salad — were two of the most memorable, with more textural interest than the others. Everyone loved the barbecued marinated pork taco with sharp and sweet tidbits of pineapple on top, as well as the Iker, a meat lover's paradise of chopped grilled steak, ground chorizo, and crispy little chicharron. The Leo was not as well-received and felt like eating a meat taco where the tortilla was also made out of meat. It's a whole, thin slab of uncut beef with the tortilla folded around it, which would be perfectly fine if the meat weren't so tough and sinewy. Not my favorite taco experience, though it does solve the problem of biting into one end and having all the filling fall out the other side.
Nachos had much more going on in terms of accoutrements — lettuce, jalapeños, black olives, chives, sour cream, queso blanco, and pico de gallo — but failed to leave a distinct or lasting impression. They were nachos. Refried beans and guacamole are available for a few extra bucks, and our counter server graciously threw in a cup of shredded cheddar cheese "just in case." TNB's beer options are all of the appropriately Mexican variety and include Dos Equis, Pacifico, Corona, Modelo, Victoria, and Coors Light if you absolutely must go domestic.
But if you like your beer a little more local, then you'll appreciate the selection at Zeke's Unchained Animal. When it finally opened for business at the end of April, Zeke's caught a lot of flak for its moniker. It's a little unusual, sure, maybe even inscrutable, but it doesn't come close to famously, unfortunately titled restaurants like Crapitto's — an Italian restaurant in Houston — or London's Golden Stool nightclub. Anyway, Zeke's beer list is one of its main draws and features brews from some lesser-known regional breweries such as Bad Weather out of Minnetonka, Central Waters in Amherst, Wisconsin, and Big Wood in White Bear Lake. The work-in-progress, somewhat rough-around-the-edges interior has lots of seating and an area for live music, including a weekly Latin-fusion jam session, something new to a neighborhood where sea shanties and acoustic folk are the staples of the bar music scene.
Zeke's menu focuses on pizza, burgers, fried appetizers, and an apparent lack of fear of calories or cholesterol, as evidenced by the "basket of bacon," which is literally a basket of bacon, cooked until crisp and served with seasoned cream cheese. It's bar food mostly: mozzarella sticks, veggie ragout-stuffed mushrooms, and naked but well-seasoned chicken wings with a range of spicy sauces, but Zeke's team — a foursome of friends and culinary school grads and students — throws in plenty of housemade components. Instead of opening up a bag of Old Dutch, they make their own salt and vinegar potato chips (which didn't taste strongly of either ingredient but were still wispy-thin, crisp, golden brown, and properly drained) and corn chips, as well as their own sauces and hand-tossed pizza crusts. Zeke's pizzas are plate-sized and described on the menu as thin crust, but the result was more like a pita, with heft and stretch but no cracker-like or crisp character at all. The toppings are kept simple and spare — a little crushed tomato here, a little Andouille sausage there, a sprinkle of feta cheese — which is smart on a small pizza, but without a successful supporting crust, toppings are really a moot point.
Much better were Zeke's burgers, especially the signature lamb burger, which was cooked through but still just a little pink, full of that sharp, slightly gamey flavor and dressed very simply with some caramelized onions and a slice of cheese. No aioli, no pickled things, no chutney, no pork belly, and still a really enjoyable burger. Take note, local establishments: Sometimes meat, bun, and cheese really is best.
I can't say that either of these places, whether totally transparent in title or shrouded in mystery, is worth going out of your way for, but in the case of TNB I'm glad to see something resembling a true taqueria in this part of downtown St. Paul (there are some other notable ones scattered throughout nearby Payne-Phalen and the West Side), and as for Zeke's, the pizza needs some tweaking — possibly just more time in the oven — but Longfellow should be very happy to have a friendly neighborhood bar with a good burger and a decent beer list.
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