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Is Andrew Zimmern’s Chinese restaurant as bad as everyone says it is?

Shanghai Fried Chicken & Waffle

Shanghai Fried Chicken & Waffle Lucy Hathorne

There’s a reason the “press” section of Lucky Cricket’s website hasn’t really been updated since the restaurant opened in November.

There hasn’t been any good press.

“Andrew Zimmern’s Lucky Cricket is more than a controversy. It’s also a bad restaurant,” current San Francisco Chronicle critic Soleil Ho wrote for Eater. The Growler’s December review, “(Un)Lucky Cricket,” called the Chinese-restaurant-slash-tiki-bar a “cautionary tale for building a restaurant on a foundation of contradictions.” Eater’s Twin Cities-based division contrasted promotional photos from the website with ones of the food that actually landed on tables—a “spot-the-difference” challenge that would have been the easiest ever published by Highlights Magazine.

For a city where reviews from food media tend to fall between “neutral” and “hyperbolically congratulatory,” it was a departure—especially considering Zimmern’s reputation around town. How did the popular Twin Cities-based TV personality find himself under the food world’s equivalent of an electron microscope?

Well, because of that controversy Eater referred to. The day after Lucky Cricket opened in St. Louis Park’s Shops at West End, Fast Company ran a lengthy video interview with the celeb chef in which he hypothesized that Midwesterners “wouldn’t get” big-city Chinese cuisine. “So what I have to do is I have to introduce them to hot chili oil, and introduce them to a hand-cut noodle, and introduce them to a real roast duck,” he said, proclaiming that his restaurant—the first of a chain he hoped to build—would be of a higher caliber than those other Chinese restaurants.

Then, there was the soundbite that sealed his fate:

“I think I’m saving the souls of all the people from having to dine at these horseshit restaurants masquerading as Chinese food that are in the Midwest.”

Oof, people did not like that. It’s the quote that caught Eater’s eye in the first place, and that later made Zimmern the subject of a scathing editorial in the Washington Post. And while he apologized that same week, his boastful claims almost certainly contributed to the no-holds-barred nature of early reviews in which dishes were lambasted for, among other things, tasting “strongly and unmistakably of cigarette ash.”

But dammit, do we love an underdog. And walking in for lunch on a snowy February afternoon, we couldn’t help hoping that—for the sake of our stomachs and this story—it wouldn’t be as bad as billed.

With the restaurant largely empty, were invited to sit wherever we wanted—and after learning that a table inside a canvas-topped car was an option, we took it. A smiling server appeared instantly to take our drink order and reappeared with tall tiki glasses. At their recommendation, we picked some small plates from the dim sum menu: chicken wings and shrimp toast rolls. We also went for a sandwich each.

So far, so good. We sat and slurped—knees bumping beneath the tiny table we picked for the sake of the gag—and took in the surroundings.

Like a restaurant in the third-floor kitsch corner at the Mall of America, Lucky Cricket is the kind of place that wants to make you feel that fun is mandatory. In fact, with the thatched straw hanging over the tiki bar, dangling fishing baskets in the dining room, a bamboo roof, and a neon-green bartop, it’s all but directly situated at the center of a Margaritaville/Rainforest Cafe/Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Venn diagram. It even has a little gift shop.

Made-for-sharing entrees are a parade of hits and misses.

Made-for-sharing entrees are a parade of hits and misses. Lucy Hathorne

Service was similarly streamlined. Our snacks emerged almost as speedily as the drinks—at least, one of them did. A kitchen mix-up meant the shrimp bites were nowhere to be found, with spring rolls in their place.

Here, we found ourselves hoping against hope that the error wouldn’t be a harbinger. Because when we say “everyone” thinks Lucky Cricket is bad, we mean it’s not just the capital-c critics who have been piling on. On Yelp, people have continued to complain about exactly this kind of kitchen confusion, along with lengthy wait times, limited menus, bad service, high prices, and shitty food. Right now, the not-so-lucky restaurant’s rating sits at three stars—same as the Taco Bell on Lake Street.

The wings turned out to be hefty, meaty little numbers, but with a glaze that lacked the addictive oomph you want from finger foods. In the words of my companion: “God, I wish they’d just inject these babies with MSG.” Shrimp toast rolls, when they arrived, were tasty little tubes of seafood in a shell fried to crispy perfection. But inside—perhaps because they were rushed—uncooked batter congealed into a less-than-satisfying squish. (We still ate them all; do with that information what you will.)

Sandwiches fared somewhat better. A pork-and-shrimp patty on the Shu Mai Burger is clever, even if it does leave you feeling like you ordered a health-food burger, and a fried chicken sandwich positively piles chicken and cabbage atop a squishy bun. But our favorite thing about lunch might’ve been the chips served on the side: eye-catching little discs of fried lotus root.

Dinner at Lucky Cricket is similarly hit or miss—something “yay,” something “boo,” something “okay,” something “ew.” Hot and Cold Cucumbers are a slimy mess; Szechuan Style Eggplant is a lovely mix of sweet and savory. Dan Dan Noodles were all oil and no flavor; Hand Cut Noodles danced deliciously in a stir fry of braised lamb and bean sprouts.

There’s salt-and-pepper calamari that doesn’t appear to have touched either of those spices, but we’d drizzle its garlicky, honey-laced “dragon dipping sauce” over anything, and accompanying Shishito peppers were a nice touch. We unequivocally caution against the menu’s priciest offering—the $25 Roast Half Rohan Duck—which was a tasteless, flaccid letdown. Go for the nicely spicy Shanghai Fried Chicken and Waffle instead.

It makes more sense to order a fried chicken and bubble waffle combo here anyway. This is a restaurant that wants you to have fun, and that’s a meal that screams, “No, seriously! Have it!”

The weird thing about Lucky Cricket is that we knew what Zimmern wanted was to make an over-the-top Chinese restaurant/tiki bar chain. They’re selling T-shirts! There’s a giant head spewing out slushies behind the bar! They’re playing ska, for chrissakes! It didn’t need to be so serious.

Double Happiness—a fruity rum punch—serves two to four. More importantly, it's served in a bright-blue puffer fish.

Double Happiness—a fruity rum punch—serves two to four. More importantly, it's served in a bright-blue puffer fish. Lucy Hathorne

But he fucked up when he positioned himself as Lo Mein Jesus and made this a battle for our souls rather than what it is: a pretty average place, food-wise, where you can have a slightly above-average time. In a world where that interview doesn’t exist, we might all have sipped shareable cocktails from fishbowls, shrugged at the underseasoned entrees, and left—indifferent, but not enraged. There’s nothing wrong with a restaurant that exists for fun—I love Margaritaville. It’s also not exactly what I’d pick if someone asked where to get the best food in town. I don’t think Jimmy Buffett would, either.

As for whether Lucky Cricket will save your Midwestern soul... I mean, of course not. It’s a restaurant in a suburban shopping center, and its owner hopes to someday make it a chain of several hundred. Three out of five stars—well, that seems about right.

Is it as bad as it’s made out to be? I don’t think so. There are good dishes: a savory and serviceable Kung Pao Shrimp, those hand-cut noodles. The boozy slushies are sweet (and strong) as hell, but in a nice way—like you’re busting out the blender during spring break. You can get Bia Saigon here, a treat for beer drinkers who likely haven’t seen it at a ton of other Twin Cities restaurants.

Is it worth going out of your way for? Eh, probably also no. If you’re looking to down a Mai Tai or two before a movie, or need to stop for a bite somewhere after you return a shirt to Anthropologie, you could do worse. The curious can dine during happy hour—it runs from 3 to 6 and 8 to close Monday through Thursday with a 9 p.m. start on Fridays, so you almost have to try to miss it—and glug from a selection of $7 tiki drinks while munching on $5 to $8 dishes. If the food is only fair, well, at least the prices are too.

And those seriously seeking redemption with a side of hoisin... well, maybe worship at the altar of Tea House on University instead.