Nirvana for the Sippy-Cup Set
1825 University Ave. W., St. Paul;
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 10:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m.; Friday 10:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m.; Saturday 9:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m.; closed Sundays, Mondays
[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]
Can you spot Mr. Potato Head? Here's a clue: He might be sitting on the Wurlitzer, lit up by the whirling candy lights on the jukebox. Or he may be lurking by the dessert towers that stand on the old-fashioned counter, crouched behind the shiny glass and glossy slices of pie. Or he might even be up on the malt machine, standing while the kids mix stainless-steel cup after stainless-steel cup of hand-scooped malts. Still can't find him? Well, keep looking, there's a valuable prize for your sleuthing: Every Mr. Potato Head identifier wins a Tootsie Pop.
This, as you can well imagine, is rather captivating to the Velcro-sneaker contingent. And as if Mr. Potato Head were not enough, youth can also request a small, personal bowling-bag filled with a miniature Etch-a-Sketch and other games to amuse themselves at the table. And as if that were not enough, children can plug the jukebox to hear the Beach Boys and Nat King Cole as they await their meals. Those meals may come from a six-item kids' menu that includes macaroni and cheese ($2.45), grilled cheese ($1.50), peanut butter and jelly ($1.30), a corn dog ($1.55), chicken tenders (for any old and clueless diners those are fried strips of boneless chicken breast, $2.50), or a small hamburger ($2.50). This is to say nothing of the ice-cream treats, the hand-cut French fries, the way that one may amuse oneself between courses by spinning in circles on one's soda-counter stool. Or the fact that, when you check your parents' register tape at the end of the meal, if a red star appears you get a mini six-pack of Coca-Cola in glass bottles to take with you. Ladies and gentlemen: Goodfellow's for the skinned-knee set.
And you ain't seen nothing yet. "We're going to start having special promotions soon," says DJ Traudt, who opened the retro, Forties-themed malt shop and diner this past June with his wife Sande Traudt and daughter Andrea--the Andy of Andy's Garage. "We're going to do a pumpkin-patch thing outside in the fall, and an old-fashioned Christmas both in and outside of the building--frosted windows, old decorations, and plenty of old Christmas music on the jukebox. We wanted to make our place fun for families." Fun for families indeed: On Friday and Saturday nights, enter this garage and you'll find squeaky-clean live music bouncing off the tin walls while patrons sip malts: a cappella groups, jazz, swing, blues, even rock. "We wanted to provide a gathering place for the community," says Traudt.
I don't bother telling Traudt how often I hear that phrase, and how often it's emptily meant: We want to provide a gathering place for the community of platinum Visa card holders, the community of expense-account padders. But at Andy's Garage they really mean it; both DJ and Sande Traudt come from a social-work background. Sande is a social work professor at Bethel College, where DJ is currently the director of alumni and parent relations, but DJ used to do youth programming at the YMCA and has coached teams at local parks. The Traudts actually know how to make a community space thrive.
For example, one of the first things I noticed about this place is its utterly unusual age diversity: It's the only place I know of, besides a McDonald's, where you can regularly see tables of kids and gatherings of senior citizens side by side. I think this stems from the fear-free menu of all-American classics and the unusually low prices: An adult grilled cheese runs $2.80 with potato chips, or $5.20 with fries and coleslaw; a cup of soup is only $1.85; coffee, served in old-fashioned diner cups, is refilled constantly and only costs a buck.
For my money, though, what makes Andy's Garage worth driving across several communities are the French fries: Hand-cut from fresh potatoes, fried to that golden, caramel-tinged stage of perfection, and rushed to the table piping hot, these skin-on fries are the height of the art (a basket runs $2.50).
Amusingly enough, these fries evolved by accident: The Traudts, new to the restaurant world, considered using frozen fries, but realized their teeny, tiny kitchen--the space really used to be a garage--couldn't accommodate that much freezer storage. So they decided to use fresh potatoes, simply because they can be stored just about anywhere. These perfect fries were the outcome. The malts and shakes are the other triumph here--made to order in either a one-glass half-size for $2.95 or a glass-and-a-metal-container size for $3.95--and they're all made with hand-scooped, hard-pack ice cream and real whole milk (not soft-serve or shake mix) and taste delicious. Rich, creamy, and luxurious.
I learned something about shakes at Andy's Garage, namely, that you can order them to taste: Thick, thin, double chocolate (chocolate ice cream and chocolate syrup), with add-ins like a fresh banana or peanut butter. Who knew? A couple of visits to Andy's Garage and I'm ordering malts like a soda-shop veteran: "I want a half malt, double chocolate, extra thin, and throw in a banana."
Of all the foodlike things I tried, the best was the tuna melt ($3.65, or $6.05 with fries and coleslaw), creamy tuna salad crisply grilled between thick blankets of white bread (or wheat or rye on request), it was perfect. Grilled cheese on rye was good, and a cold shaved-ham sandwich ($5.25) was a perfect three-inch stack of sweet, salty ham, lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese. The kids' chicken tenders were crisp and not greasy.
Many of the other items could use a little of the good luck that struck the fries. The hot roast beef and turkey sandwiches ($5.10 each) are marred by gravy that tastes metallic. The mashed potatoes that accompanied them had a strange, granular texture, as if they had been overwhipped. The chili ($1.95 a cup, $2.75 on a chili dog) is so bland it seems unseasoned, and consequently the chili dog lacks any oomph. A Friday blue-plate special of a fried cod fillet sandwich ($6.95) was characterless--the fish bland, the bun sweet and starchy, the tomatoes unripe. Most surprising is how weak the hamburgers have been: although the plump patties looked great, something critical was missing from the preparation, and they always were served terribly dry.
On the other hand, desserts were very good: Ice-cream cones ($1.50 and up) and sundaes ($2.75) are picture-perfect; a square of fresh-baked blueberry coffeecake ($1.85) was buttery and airy and boasted a crumb topping of the first order. Unfortunately, exactly how one is supposed to eat one single, solitary thing after a malt and fries is completely beyond me.
It was also beyond one young pair of brothers whom I witnessed deliriously spinning on the stools one Saturday afternoon, oblivious to the entrées that followed their shakes, oblivious to the father who tried to steer them toward half, just half, just try, just try to eat, just eat one bite, one bite, that's all, just taste it. It would seem that for certain members of the sippy-cup community, Mr. Potato Head may have to be hidden at the end of a very, very strenuous, very appetite-stimulating hike.
DO YOU WANNA KNOW A SECRET? Zander Café wine dinners are incredibly exclusive affairs. Not only have I never been to one, I can't even remember ever having heard of one's approach; I only hear about them at parties, à la "The greatest dinner I've ever been to..." Why are they so secret? According to Sam Haislet, Zander's wine buyer, it's simply because the people who attend them are so avid: "We try to do one every month, or every month and a half, and we have groups of people that have come to every one. As soon as one of them hears about it, we get 12 reservations, and that's how it goes. Every once in a while we hear from someone whose feelings are hurt: 'Why didn't you tell me about this? I'd love to have come.' And then--whoops!"
Basically, it seems you have to be in the restaurant to hear about the events, and the Zander Café doesn't care how many people show up for these multicourse festivals during which they shut down normal operations: 30 people and it's an intimate event, 75 and it's a party. It's all good. Don't take this invitation lightly (I stumbled upon it simply by calling the restaurant and asking if anything new was on the horizon): This Tuesday, September 19 the Zander Café will host a Ravenswood wine dinner. "Ravenswood's slogan is 'No Wimpy Wine,' so we're doing a dinner under the banner 'No Wimpy Wine Means No Wimpy Food,'" says Haislet. "There will be a lot of courses, probably five or six, and we're going to serve 12 different wines, so two wines with each dish. It's going to be a very robust and exciting dinner." Haislet added that Ravenswood's sales and marketing director plans to attend. The dinner costs $75 per person, not including tax or tip, and starts at 6:30 p.m. Call for reservations: Zander Café, 525 Selby Ave., St Paul; (651) 222-5224.
PATIENCE, MY CHILD: Remember when we first heard of the Loring Pasta Bar, which would be coming soon to the old Campus Drug space in Dinkytown? I think I remember where I was, I think I was rolling an iron hoop down Hennepin Avenue, my petticoats brown with the dust kicked up by the constant stream of ox carts. Well--even though I probably just jinxed it by writing this--the date finally seems nigh. A conversation with Patrick Atanalian, chef at the Loring Cafe, revealed that we can look for an opening date in October for this casual, low-priced pasta bar where all the pasta is cooked to order, and everything is made from scratch.
Correction published 9/13/2000:
Dara Moskowitz wrote that the Loring Pasta Bar would soon open in the Dinkytown space now occupied by Annie's Parlor. Reports of Annie's death are greatly exaggerated: The Loring replaces the defunct Campus Drug. The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.
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