We are not without our preconceived notions. After so many years, we have a bead on the tells. Menus with 55-plus items can scare the appetite right out of us. You just know it can't be good. It can't. Toss in an odd, retail no-man's-land location, a space that's more "Um?" than "Wow!" and just like you, we want to bolt.
But instead of wanting to cry in our beer, we happily, heartily ordered a second after the superior bar food started to stream out of the kitchen at Peppers and Fries. Color us pleasantly surprised, as when the awkwardly shaped box really did contain that Red Ryder carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle we wanted for Christmas!
The place is the brainchild of the son of Boca Chica owners Guillermo and Gloria Frias, Steve Frias, a fact that solidifies the moment when I tasted the salsa and thought, "West Side, circa 1980." Because it is! It is that very same salsa recipe — the one from when Boca Chica and a few other West Side institutions were the only thing going in local Mexican, and the salsa was tomato, ripe or not, heavy on the garlic and cilantro. It's a in-stereo sense memory from when a flock of bees was chasing me through Dodd Park trying to get at that salsa. Never mind.
So, the place is known for the burritos, but also the burgers, a fact that rankled me right out of the gate — why not just get known for one thing? But you know, they're both really good! Though if I could only order one thing, I'd go for... the burgers!
These are hand-pattied six-ouncers, so none of this double patty as-big-as-a-hubcap stuff, just reasonable, everyman burgers done to medium precision and so juicy they drip happily onto the paper-lined basket. You know how certain places are always going on about butter burgers and you think, "Hey, butter in my burger — that sounds like a good idea!" And then you bite into it and think not "Where's the beef?" but "Where's the butter?" These patties have a distinctive richness; it could have been butter, or just really high-quality beef, and I can't recommend them enough. Next to a pile of distinctive, hand-cut fries, I'd put them up against any burger in town. Really. And for around a $10 price point, I like them better than a lot of places in town. When I mentioned to our server how good it was, she crowed: "They're hand-pattied! They're not frozen. And they're done right — medium, not well-done." Now this might seem self-evident at a lot of cheffied-up places, but this is no cheffied-up place. This is an everyman's bar/ restaurant, in a good, solid, working person's neighborhood on the cusp of St. Paul. And you know, the more I think about this place the more I like it. Maybe you should't go. This is my secret gem of the moment.
But if you get a burger, that means you won't get to taste the salsa of my childhood, so consider a burrito, too. They're big, but not too big, not Chipotle big, but big enough, flour tortilla-wrapped. We liked a steak with blue cheese, sweet onion jam, and shredded lettuce. Not out of this world, not overwrought, but good enough. Put on that salsa, and the going gets better. And, fries come with the burritos too — you can also choose slaw, but why would you do that? Why?
The place is a converted service station, which means that yeah, it could be more attractive. It's covered in bric-a-brac baseball memorabilia that sometimes looks authentic and sometimes looks like it was culled from Target, and it's probably a little of both. But at happy hour it was starting to fill with comfortable regulars, who hung out at the bar like an extension of the living room, and by dinner was filling with the same sorts of folks — folks who looked hungry, folks who look like they like to eat, folks who use this place regularly because you can. It's affordable, the servers treat you like neighbors, and the food is damn good.
The whole deal is the sort of place you wouldn't be embarrassed to take your gruff-acting but sweet Midwestern grandpa. The one who can't stand to go out because it's a waste of money. He'll like it here. Or, he'll think it's good enough. High praise, coming from him.
3900 E. Lake St., Minneapolis