Sandcastle remakes the concept of lakeside concessions
"Well, they have some food you like, but it's all a little bit fancy," a mom says to her young son while perusing the oversize stand-up menu boards outside Sandcastle, the new seasonal concession stand near Lake Nokomis's main beach. Over the course of several visits, eating my way through Sandcastle's cold openers such as a refreshing watermelon and pickled radish salad, Castle Rock cheese curds with a smooth and sweet honey-Sriracha sauce for dipping, puffy American Indian fry bread filled with lean ground bison, white cheddar, and shredded lettuce, and the various ice cream novelties that are served at this brightly colored beach shack, I kept thinking about this anonymous mom's explanation. In one succinct sentence, she'd managed to describe the concept of Sandcastle with awesome accuracy. It's food that, at its core, is recognizable and familiar to a kindergartener — tacos, hot dogs, frozen bananas — but made with integrity, high-quality ingredients, and the interpretive skills of Doug Flicker, a chef renowned for his ability to keep diners on their toes.
Along with Flicker, Sandcastle is owned and run by Chele Payer, a business manager who also worked at Piccolo (Flicker's outstanding East Harriet small-plates restaurant), and Amy Greely, Sandcastle's general manager, who also happens to be married to Flicker. Compared to some of the other popular lake-adjacent or in-park restaurants, Sandcastle is aiming to be more eclectic and not so niche, Greely says. "We do have some seafood items — the fish tacos, the ceviche — but we aren't necessarily seafood-focused like Sea Salt or Tin Fish. Bread and Pickle is heavy on the burgers, and we have more of a range of sandwiches. I think we are setting ourselves apart by being more diverse."
Healthy options, beer and wine service, and a sustainable eco-friendly business model were all part of Sandcastle's original proposal to the Minneapolis Parks Board, a plan that was met with great enthusiasm by residents of the oft-overlooked Nokomis area. But the food selection seems to be a result of both Flicker's design and, interestingly enough, the limitations of the minimally equipped kitchen. "When we first started working out what to serve, it was not what should we do, but what can we do," Greely says. Despite the workspace restrictions, Greely is quick to point out how much prep and scratch cooking are done onsite. "We braise the pork for the pulled pork sandwiches for 18 hours. We make the sweet pea falafels and dill yogurt sauce in-house. The cheese curds are dipped in beer batter that we make with the same Fulton we have on tap. It's a little kitchen, but I think we've figured out how to get the best food possible from it."
Indeed, many of the dishes exceed expectations for the kind of fare you usually get from a concession stand. There's shrimp and octopus ceviche with pico de gallo, salty tortilla chips, and plenty of lime that should be enjoyed almost as a very hearty dip, with the chips lending a touch of extra salt and textural contrast to the firm and acidic seafood. Similar flavors and ingredients are used to make a light and refreshing gazpacho and some scantily filled but still well-balanced fish tacos. I loved the tortillas they're using, and the salsa verde made for a nice accompaniment, but such a mild-tasting protein could use a little more dressing up. Another well-received lighter side dish was the watermelon salad, which had wonderful, peppery flavor from the arugula, punch from the pickled radishes, and a bit of salty chevre, all offset by the sweetness and refreshing properties of the watermelon. Though the big round-cut watermelon chunk made for pretty presentation, it might have worked more harmoniously in the dish if it were interspersed throughout. Still, the option of a non-iceberg, non-carrot shreds salad makes it much easier to resist the temptation of some of the less-healthy dishes at Sandcastle. Among the standouts in that category were the buttermilk-soaked, five-spice-rubbed chicken wings, which Greely says are Sandcastle's take on the sorely missed staple from Shorty & Wags; the chewy, crispy, deep-fried wonder that is their Indian fry bread taco; and the "Dog Flicker," an all-beef hot dog topped with kimchee, an over-medium fried egg, and a few sprigs of cilantro. And who could resist the sweet, sloppy, only slightly smoky pulled pork sandwich? It's a generous portion of meat and slaw, so beware that the onion bun does have a tendency to disintegrate a bit — it's more of a knife-and-forker.
Speaking of cutlery, that's about the only thing coming out of Sandcastle's kitchen that's not compostable. "We fiddled around a lot with how we were going to work toward a goal of being a zero-waste facility," Greely says. "As much as is humanly possible, we use packaging materials, bottles, and servingware that's either recyclable, reusable, or compostable." Even the oil used in the kitchen is getting a new lease on life. Sandcastle has partnered with an organization called Community Homestead, in Osceola, Wisconsin, where adults of different capabilities are working on a number of ventures, one of which is a small farm they hope to run completely on waste oil-powered equipment.
A few other jobs have been outsourced too. The fantastic Monkey Bars, a Flicker-Greely creation that's dipped in rich dark chocolate and rolled in a pine nut brittle that originated at Piccolo, are made by local confectioner Jules Vranian. Healthy, preservative-free, whole-fruit frozen treats in flavors such as coconut-pineapple and summer strawberry come to Sandcastle via JonnyPops, a company run by a group of enterprising students from St. Olaf. These novelties, along with items like chips, pickles, fresh fruit, and popcorn, are all available from the to-go window, but Greely says that side of the shack has quickly evolved. "We noticed more and more people wanting to get whole meals to go on their way home or wanting to get a sandwich wrapped up to take on a bike ride and eat later. We got the proper takeaway bags and utensils, and so we are doing a lot more of those orders now."
What it seems Sandcastle lacks right now is a little more flair and accommodation in the dining area. Nokomis's four or five old clunky wooden picnic tables and the current makeshift beer garden area leave something to be desired, but Greely says that's the first order of business in getting ready for next season. "The tent that is up right now will be gone, and we'll add a big permanent pavilion in its place," she says. "The trees will be pruned so you'll have a view of the lake while you eat. We're also adding high-top bar seating and a patio that should help define the area a little bit more."
Just as Sandcastle is being responsive to the needs of its diners, customers seem to be appreciating what the restaurant is bringing to the neighborhood. "In the beginning it seemed like we had two camps of people," Greely says. "Half were sort of shocked and maybe disappointed to see we didn't have chicken fingers and nachos, and the other half were expecting full-blown Piccolo food." To me, it seems like Sandcastle has already managed to strike the difficult balance somewhere between those two camps, familiar but, just like Mom says, "a little bit fancy."
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