Sweet, Sweet Liberty
5401 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis
Obviously, there are a lot of trucks. Dump trucks, tow trucks, big trucks, small trucks, and, in the ultimate flourish of the genre, fire trucks. On the other hand, there are a lot of planes. Red planes, blue planes, thick gray planes that look too heavy to fly, and, of course, planes that make white stripes behind them as they go. And yet, even when you consider those facts in their enormity, you are nevertheless forced to conclude that buses are another thing altogether.
Still, even taking all of that into account, most local restaurants are an unmitigated nightmare. Enter them and you will find almost nothing but adults using their inside voices to prod at ghastly topics such as their jobs, the news, and kissing. Meanwhile, they eat plate after plate of squid, spinach, and such a variety of animals' livers that all a reasonable person can do is put a colander on your head and retreat to a distant room to make a pillow fort.
Have our leading restaurants ever considered that a significant portion of the population would far prefer restaurants that were less like Milanese design studios and more like nice places where you could watch fire trucks, airplanes, and buses while eating nothing but frozen custard? No, our leading restaurants have not. But Vicky and Steve Uhr have, and so have debuted Liberty Frozen Custard, the best thing to happen to boys of a certain age since playing cards first met bike wheels.
The first thing you need to know about Liberty Custard is that it's got location to burn. For one thing, it's directly across from a real live fire station, and on a good day, fire trucks come and go, sparkling like fireflies on a heroic mission. For another thing, it's directly below a well-traveled landing route for airplanes; on a busy weekday evening you can count on seeing at least three dozen planes so low overhead that you can read their flight numbers. Liberty also sells a $5 laminated guide for anyone interested in definitively distinguishing their DC-10s from their Nicollet Avenue busses, which stream by with a gratifying regularity.
Which is to say that not only is Liberty Frozen Custard on Nicollet Avenue in south Minneapolis, but it is just a few short blocks from the shady bike paths that flank Minnehaha Creek. If people keep insisting on bundling you into a fluorescent yellow trailer and pedaling you in Sisyphean circles around lakes, there is finally a really interesting destination to suggest.
Liberty first came on the scene last summer, the work of husband and wife Steve and Vicky Uhr, who bought a 1950s Standard Oil station that had been degraded by years of "updates" and brought out its original glory, and then some--the place gleams, literally, inside and out. They polished all of the porcelain enamel steel panels that make up the building's interior and exterior. (The structure shares much with the famous Lustron steel-panel homes that date from the same post-WWII era.)
They filled the interior of the former gas station with sparkling 1950s chrome chairs and matching kidney-print tables. They dotted each table with vintage napkin holders and crowned a magazine-sharing table with copies of 1950s Look and Life magazines. The end result is a domestic castle as hygienic as a space capsule and as welcoming as the Emerald City.
The menu at Liberty can be viewed both at the outside takeout window, perfect for bike-ups, or inside, in the air-conditioned interior. Happily, the menu has been refined to the absolute essence of American summertime: frozen custard, malts made with real malt powder, Nathan's hot dogs, Chicago beef, veggie dogs, pizza, and nachos. There are three frozen custards on offer daily--vanilla, chocolate, and a flavor of the day, such as pistachio, peanut butter swirl, or drumstick, made with waffle-cone pieces and peanuts.
So what's the difference between frozen custard and soft-serve ice cream? They're about as different as seatbelt swings are from regular swings, which is to say they're very different, but also rather the same, the difference being that frozen custard has some egg yolk in it, just like gelato does, to make the texture and "mouthfeel" richer and creamier. (Vicky Uhr says Liberty's custard mix, trucked in from a special dairy in Illinois, is 1.4 percent egg yolk, so you probably won't be able to convince anyone to substitute it for your morning omelette.) This also allows frozen custard to be served a little warmer than ice cream, which means you can taste it better.
Personally, I found Liberty's custard to be nice and plain, but more, I think it provides a perfectly adorable canvas for the many real old-fashioned additions they offer, such as sweet and salty toasted pecans, cashews, peanuts, fresh bananas, rich caramel sauce, and the like. Conversation with Vicky Uhr has revealed that the reason these add-ins are so good is because she and her husband spent a year taste-testing nuts, caramel, hot fudge, and such from various suppliers all over the country. So now the nuts come from one special roaster in Chicago, and many other toppings come in from New York.
Does this mean Liberty's custard is the best in the country? Maybe. There's definitely an argument to be made that it unites the best parts of the nation's best custards: Try the turtle sundae ($3.75), made with that sweet Illinois dairy custard, along with substantial and richly distinct New York hot caramel and hot fudge, and the toastiest, crispiest, sweetest, and saltiest pecans that Chicago has to offer, and you'll feel like the king of the world. Or the winner of a spelling bee, science fair, hockey game, or soccer tournament.
Myself, the last time I was in Liberty Custard, I ordered a banana split ($3.85). A whole banana, two scoops of vanilla custard and one of chocolate, plenty of chocolate, strawberry, and pineapple toppings, and chopped roasted peanuts, all surmounted by a towering cloud of whipped cream, and, of course, two cherries. Absolutely charming. So bowled over was I by receiving such a huge prize that I spent the rest of the day entirely convinced I had won a major spelling bee.
Being such a winner, I felt perfectly entitled to treat myself to a few rounds of the vintage arcade games that make a little quarter-driven museum in the rear of this timeless new spot. I worked as a "sidewalk engineer" from about the 1940s, moving scoops of lentils with a crane by means of a silver push button. I played a wooden pinball machine from the 1960s with an urban subway theme: It was Gottlieb's Crosstown, and I found the mechanical thud of the heavy chrome ball and the sound of metal and wood extremely gratifying; it was like getting permission to handle something ancient and precious, an old wood-block engraving, say. I wished I could have taken a turn on the old bowling game, played with a metal figure that looked just like Ronald Reagan, but sadly it was broken. Actually, to be perfectly honest, it was really only the degrading limitations of physical mass that prevented me from climbing into the painstakingly restored vintage red Austin Healy kiddie car, putting a quarter in the slot, and jostling around like Mr. Toad on his Wild Ride while getting a good picture for Grandma.
At this point, you are probably saying, "This is all well and good, but you fail to answer the one question that would really bring this together for me: When exactly is my birthday?" To which I must reply that I do not know. However, long experience on this subject has taught me that the tallest people you live with will almost certainly have this answer, and can also, on certain summer days, be persuaded to admit the importance of looking at airplanes and watching for fire trucks while sharing a sundae.
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