The Draft Horse in Northeast is the real deal for locally sourced comfort food

Lucy Hawthorne

Lucy Hawthorne

With its dark wood accents, good whiskey and beer, and roasted root vegetable and meat aroma lingering in the air, the Draft Horse begs you to order a pint and pull up a stool for a good, long, raucous chat with your mates. To the untrained eye, this is just a cozy neighborhood bistro.

That is, until a silvery dairy truck pulls up at the curb and starts pumping farm-fresh milk into the creamery next door.

Or until the piles of bread loaves are delivered, still warm from the adjacent mill and bakery. Or until the chef wanders just a few yards down from there, to pick up a couple of racks of ribs he forgot to order. No matter, Red Table Meat Company is a neighbor, too.

Draft Horse resides in the Food Building, a communal space in northeast Minneapolis where a cheesemaker makes cheese, where a baker not only bakes but mills his own flour, where a salumiere (a person who makes salumi, cold cuts made primarily from pork) takes in whole hogs and makes world-class salumi and sausages. These are expert individual makers with a common vision to use ingredients from local family farms to handcraft foods. And Draft Horse puts those foods onto the plate.

Food Building is the brainchild of Kieran Folliard, known to Minnesotans as the magnate responsible for some of our best Irish pubs — the Local and Kieran’s — and the man behind the local booze brand 2 Gingers Irish Whiskey.

Way back when he still had the Local (he’s since stepped aside from the pub biz), Folliard and Mike Phillips of Red Table Meat put their heads together. Phillips wanted to make a world-class Minnesota salumi that could stand up to the great preserved meats of Europe. Folliard was interested in a sausage company. Steven Brown of Tilia and St. Genevieve connected the two.

Fried bologna sandwich

Fried bologna sandwich Lucy Hawthorne

At first, Phillips worked out of the back kitchen of the Local, right next to the guys flipping hamburgers. He brought in just one beautiful hog a week from Pork and Plants, a pastured hog farm in Altura, Minnesota, and put out a world-class charcuterie plate right between the fish and chips and the bangers and mash. It was a testing ground for what Red Table Meat is today.

When I interviewed Folliard all those years ago he spoke eloquently, in his Irish brogue, about the importance of being closer to the source of your food, the reality of taking an animal to table, and the difference it makes in the way your food tastes.

Fast forward several years to Draft Horse. Here, we’re close enough to watch as the milk goes pumping into the creamery while we down our sandwiches on the sidewalk patio. We can see the sacks of grain as they await their time in the mill. We can watch the chefs wander down to see how big the hogs are this week. Have you ever heard of so much trouble just to make a sandwich? It might seem like overkill, until you take a bite.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” says Draft Horse owner and chef Luke Kyle (also of the nearby Anchor Bar). “We’re just trying to do good food well.”

It’s something that all chefs say, but here it’s especially true. Any reinvention would be a crime. The work that goes into the ingredients and the subtlest application of technique results in truly good food done well.

Kyle and his wife and co-owner Katie first dreamed up the Draft Horse menu around their family’s habit of roasting meat on Sundays and inviting friends over to share it. Kyle and Katie live five blocks from the restaurant, and they think of Draft Horse as an extension of their living room. They hope you will, too.

Like Folliard, Kyle is an Irishman. Even if you’ve never been to Ireland, you’ve no doubt been to an Irish pub, and Draft Horse feels like a distillation of all that is great about them. And as Kyle rightly points out, this loose brand of Irish pub fare is a close cousin to Midwestern comfort food.

You’ll recognize it as your fork pierces a diaphanous crust, where they’ve napped those braised meats beneath a blanket of pastry for an elegant pot pie. It has the effect of swaddling your bad mood up in a blanket.

Whiskey onion soup is as rich as any properly done French Onion, but with Peterson Farms beef stock and good brown liquor. It’s not just luxurious, but bright and luminous, too.

A pulled chicken salad is like a composed Cobb, with each pocket of produce set down on the plate sculpturally, while still remaining rustic. The picturesque little piles of the best blue cheese, the best lardons, ripe red tomatoes, chicken from Kadejan farms, and a tangle of frizzled onion on top for texture is like a color wheel for your appetite.

Reinventing the wheel, no; upholding the wheel, yes. The cooking at Draft Horse is all marked with a certain clean purity. You can almost taste each ingredient as an individual note, so strongly does each product stand on its own.

But where Draft Horse really shines is in the modest sandwich.

Fried bologna sandwiches are having their day lately as a squishy, comforting junk food of sorts. But not on Baker’s Field bread, which is as substantial and nourishing as a doctor’s order. When paired with wholesome, fragrant mortadella from Red Table and runny, lightly stinky Lone Grazer cheese, this is the fried bologna sandwich that went to college.

Look to the chili cheese dog for a similarly special take on an old bar favorite. The bun eats like sustenance enough for a week, hulking and brown and gnarled. The frank, also by Red Table, is sleek by comparison to other dogs, but packs more meaty essence than three of a lesser brand. A heap of messy chili edges things back to fun.

Beyond sandwiches and dogs, look to Draft Horse at dinner for serious cuts of meat, braised like they are in the Kyle home. Peterson Farms lamb shanks or short ribs will be wobbling in braising liquid and falling off the bone.

Service is of the casual and familiar brand, and wait staff are happy to bring you just about any drink you like from the full bar. This is a place where a band of retirees can put away Manhattans (using 2 Gingers Whiskey, naturally) in the daytime, and where the draft handles are a who’s who of local suds. Bauhaus, Pryes, Sociable Cider Werks, Grain Belt, they’re all here.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about Draft Horse is that it is the real deal in a world where “local” and “farm-to-table” are often little more than buzzwords. If you’re skeptical about the feel-good name of the farm listed on your menu, feel free to hop next door. Lay eyes on the gleaming stainless milk vats, the flour dusting the mill floor, the bloom on the salamis that hang in the meat locker.

Look, and feel comforted. Then eat.

Check out more food porn-y photos from the Draft Horse here.

The Draft Horse
117 14th Ave. NE, Minneapolis