Pat's Tap intersects pub food and high-end gastrofare
A few things I learned at Pat's Tap:
1. Skeeball and darts don't mix.
2. Never underestimate the thirst south Minneapolitans have for local beers.
3. We have come to expect a lot of the Bartmann mini-empire, and most of the time it delivers.
4. Yes, bar food is supposed to be salty, but this can be taken too far.
5. Never order a salad at a bar.
Just before 5:30 on a random Wednesday night, a month after Pat's Tap's opening, the host is looking a little stressed out. The dining room is full. The bar is full. There are two young kids tossing Skeeballs loudly up the ramps and two more just came in. There are darts flying perilously close to their little heads while possibly litigious parents look on. The only empty seats are next to a party of young men on their third round of drinks.
On top of that, every single local beer on the list is completely tapped out. No Harriet. No Surly. No Fulton. No Finnegans. No Lift Bridge. The host adjusts his ultratight tuxedo jacket with the collar turned up and explains with dignity that, uh, a few beers are unavailable. You can hardly blame him for being perplexed by the situation: It is 5:30 on a school night, barely dinnertime, a long way from hard-drinking time, and Pat's doesn't even have happy hour specials. Minneapolis just can't get enough of its tiny, garage-brewing local heroes.
In the dining room, it looks like the clientele is still trying to figure out where Pat's Tap is going to fit in the Twin Cities bar scene. Some couples are dressed for a high-end dinner. The young guys are dressed to get lucky. Some people look like they got up from the couch to grab a beer from the fridge and ended up at a bar.
You can slap the trendy label "gastropub" on the newest outpost of restaurateur Kim Bartmann's mini-empire, but that doesn't tell you whether you can expect to get a table for a traditional three-course meal at the dinner hour, like at her Red Stag Supper Club, or whether you can plan on occupying a seat with drinks and plates of tasty snacks, which is the way to go at Barbette. It doesn't tell you whether those Skeeball-playing kids will be welcomed or merely tolerated (or neither). The nearest Bartmann analog to Pat's Tap is that perennial house of food and fun, Bryant-Lake Bowl, but with more refined food at slightly higher prices. In the end, it's not really up to the restaurateur what will become of her establishment; the various constituencies will come to check out the new place in town, and one or the other will make it their own.
My prediction: At Pat's Tap, the drinkers will win out. The list of 20 taps is a who's who of tiny, trending ultra-local brewers, beyond Summit and Surly to Harriet, Fulton, Lift Bridge, Brau Bros, and Flat Earth, as well as the excellent Tyranena out of Wisconsin. And the 60 brews available by the bottle or can—yes, can—are a fun and creative mix of the beloved (Fat Tire), the underappreciated (Tallgrass), and the flat-out beer-geeky (21st Amendment out of San Francisco and Cucapá from Mexico). And, in homage to Casey's, the dive bar that used to occupy this space, you can also get a Schlitz, Labatt's, or a good old PBR.
The food is good—Kim Bartmann has put her name on it; it could not be otherwise—but the entrée prices are slightly out of line with the environment. And most of the standouts are on the snack and burger sides of the menu—more points for the drinkers over the diners. In fact, this may be the best list of beer snacks in town.
Let's start with burgers. Bacon burgers. Salty, fatty, smoky bacon on a burger is a great idea. Salty, fatty, smoky bacon inside your burger is a nice variation. Ground bacon (salty, smoky, fatty, all that) in a 1:1 ratio with the ground beef in your burger? That sounds like a gimmick. Well, yes, but it's more than that. It's a juicy, indulgent sandwich with a sausagey bite. It's satisfying in a way that makes you grateful it wasn't much bigger than it was, very glad you'd tried it, and convinced that one bacon burger is enough for a year or so. The duck burger is a similar experience: Maybe duck is the bacon of waterfowl, so rich (it's even ground up with a little fatty skin in the mix) that no matter how good it is, it just can't leave you craving more.
Burgers and beer are a classic combination and a good bet at Pat's Tap, but before you order, let your eyes drift to the left-hand column on the menu—it's labeled "small plates," but it should read "high-end beer snacks." This is where the good stuff is. Puffy gougeres packed with cheddar that come warm to your table and disappear before the last one cools down. Batter-fried green beans, a Minnesota pub classic made from scratch instead of a Sysco bag, served with a not-too-hot ginger sauce. Long spears of half-sour pickles dipped in beer batter and served crispy and searingly hot. A bowl of chewy mussels in a thick reduction of a light lager and bacon fat. (I'm no stickler for etiquette, but I really wanted a shellfish fork, and none was forthcoming.) A heaping plate of long, skinny, hand-cut fries that don't challenge Barbette's for the local fries crown (they need to be much browner, crisper, less chewy) but are excellent nonetheless.
Should we go on? I think we should: light and fluffy zucchini fritters, crispy fried goat cheese fritters, even cheese curds that are a step above the State Fair's. Everything is packed with lip-smacking flavor that makes you reach for another snack...another sip of beer... nother snack.
Unfortunately, that ethos of salty excess carries over to the entrées, where it is less welcome. The hand-rolled pasta—in a bar!—is light and chewy and perfectly cooked, but it floats in a good quarter-cup of salty, basil-colored oil in the pesto pasta. And in the pasta carbonara, a cup of heretical cream has been added to the classic egg-and-Parmesan sauce, weighing it down unpleasantly. Both dishes feel a little unseemly for public consumption. And the salt! Oh, the salt.
The test of a chef is supposed to his or her roast chicken. Pat's Tap passes this test with flying colors: a quarter chicken, pressed flat on the griddle to crisp the skin, juicy (and, yes, salty) all the way through, sitting on creamy mashed potatoes with a little peppery arugula on the side. This is the entrée I can imagine coming back to Pat's for. Curry is an unexpected dish at an American bar, and one that I hope catches on. It's good beer food at any heat level. Pat's is fairly mild, a yellow coconut curry, entirely vegetarian, with crisp broccoli and onions. It's good, but doesn't feel special.
And about that salad: over-salted, over-dressed, with a bizarre layer of French dressing lining the plate, in addition to the glop clinging to the chunks of iceberg lettuce. I have a hard time faulting a bar for serving a bad salad. I almost feel like the fault lies with the fool who ordered a salad in a bar. So let's just say: Don't be that fool.
Do, however, join the drinkers for some fun, refined bar snacks and a pint, bottle, or can of an excellent local brew. (I have every reason to believe the perfect storm that drained every local tap on a random weeknight is unlikely to happen again.) If Pat's Tap is in walking, busing, or carpooling distance, I think it's going to become a happy regular part of your life. If not, check it out because it's a good (and new—Minnesotans love new) night of drinky-snacky-drinky, but after that I expect you'll return to a closer-by haunt. This is not (yet?) the jewel of the Bartmann crown.
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