If there is any question that Ox Cart Ale House has put together the exact bar that Lowertown ballpark-goers want to be at, all you need do is look around at the crowds. A quick Wednesday-night bite meant this: They were down a host, our server had twice the tables she should have, and an ass occupied just about every seat in the house. And yet, they still managed top-notch hospitality.
If you've been in the service business at all, you know that everything doesn't always go perfectly. In fact, it rarely does. Restaurants just have too many moving parts. Too many pieces of silverware, too many bugs in the thermostat, too many opportunities for smudges on the glassware, too many personalities. Things are always going wrong, and it's how you handle those glitches that either get you somewhere or get you nowhere, fast.
While we found ourselves a seat without the help of a host, beverages and kids' meals were whisked onto the table in record time, even before we saw a server. Genius move. Get a glass of rose in front of a lady and a bowl of mac and cheese in front of the kid, and all will be well for long minutes. While we did indeed wait long minutes for an entree and a forgotten salad (which garnered a comped vino), we enjoyed just sitting in the natural light and the cool breeze allowed in by the floor-to-ceiling windows.
Ox Cart Ale House is a perfect place to watch the world go by, and it seems like all of St. Paul agrees — the place is neither pretentious nor divey, not upscale nor downscale. Just right, enough to soothe the Goldilocks of bar-goers, a comfy neighborhood space we could see standing the test of time.
Ox Cart is the handiwork of the owners of Eagle Street Grille; their other most recent project, nouveau steakhouse Salt Cellar, fell relatively flat according to critics and audiences alike. It appears Ox Cart is more in their wheelhouse.
The menu is by Andy Lilja, a longtime local talent formerly of Heartland, Colossal Cafe, and Osteria I Nonni, and is a tightly focused compendium of greatest hits that doesn't rely on snooze-worthy preparations. A gem lettuce salad isn't the old blue cheese and tomato, but instead sees a new cast of characters: ham, baby green beans, pecorino, mint vinaigrette, and fried shallots. A house burger is there, naturally, but also two others, including a lamb burger with arugula, cucumber, Aleppo pepper, Greek farmer’s cheese, and mint all piled on a milk bun. A short list of entrees includes three-cheese ravioli, not in a tired marinara, but instead a caper-brown butter sauce, with spinach and baby carrots.
The half dozen or so sausages are all handmade, and we can't recommend enough the smoked cheese brat with aged cheddar oozing from within, like the cheddar dogs of our childhood all grown up. It arrives with kraut and beer mustard on one of those toasted-to-precision Texas toast buns. All happiness, here.
Handcut fries too, but things took a serious dip when we smelled the tragic Indian-spiced house ketchup that we suspect has been carried over from Salt Cellar. Nobody wants to bite into an All-American cheesy brat slathered in curry. Nobody. So strong is the aroma of this stuff, I'd ask to have it removed from the table, wholesale. Happily, Heinz is on site, so request it, get it, and be happy once again.
The interior is plain, yet handsome, with TV screens for those who want to see them, but not so overwhelmingly placed that those who don't can't easily ignore. A jillion beers on tap, and while prices trend a little on the high end (averaging around $14 for starters and up to $22 for an entree), a sausage can be had for $8, a burger for $12.
We're looking forward to another look when the place is less slammed, if indeed that day ever comes.
255 E. Sixth St., St. Paul