Where the Food Is Not a Drag
408 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; 333-7755
We don't have much left from Minneapolis's golden age as a milling boomtown. Sure, we've got the handmade brick storefronts of Main Street on the east side of the river, the Foshay Tower, and the State and Orpheum theaters--and they do stand as proud symbols of our civic character--but aren't they just a bit musty and underused? The tourists can tramp around with their guidebooks as busily as they want (down Nicollet, up the Foshay, over to Dayton's, across the river, back to the hotel) but they'll never see a glimmer of the vitality that once animated this, the flourishing first city of the West.
Unless, of course, they happened to stop into the Gay 90's. The 90's has been in the swift-beating heart of Minneapolis for nearly as long as the Foshay, but, curiously, the 90's never makes it into the guidebooks. It's got a noble oak bar scarred by dancing, it's festooned with wood-carvings and antique brass-panel art from an original incarnation as a Chinese restaurant, and, unlike so many historical icons, the Gay 90's has maintained its relevance: Fully 4,000 people venture through this tower of living history on a busy night.
So what has the 90's got that the Foshay doesn't? You might think it's the best female impersonators and cabaret stars this side of the Hudson, the hopping dance floors, or the legendary strip shows, but you'd be wrong.
It's clearly the onion rings. Hand-cut, heartily battered, perfectly sweet and tart and never oily, these are world-class onion rings, and you get a basket as big as RuPaul's head for a mere $3.75. The french fries are also wonderful; handmade, fresh, with that earthy, potato taste that only emerges when they are made and served fresh.
The burgers are everything a burger should be: meaty, homemade, char-broiled, juicy, perfectly done--and an absolute bargain. For $4.25 you get the basic half-pound burger, a lot of fries, a nice sesame-seed bun, pickle, and cole slaw. Upgrade all the way to the California Supreme--with cheese, bacon, lettuce, and tomato--and you're only in for $5.25. The Grilled Cheese, three layers, for $3.45 with fries and pickle, also deserves raves. And the French Dip, $5.25, takes two hands to hold and is super in more ways than one.
The rest of the menu is of the deluxe supper club variety, and is notable chiefly for how well and how cheaply these standard items are done. The Fettuccine Alfredo, which so often decays into pastiness, arrives from the 90's kitchen al dente, and with a nice garlicky kick--and you get enough to feed a small family, complete with a big dinner salad, for $6.25. The Saturday Night Special, prime rib with au jus, salad, and a choice of potato, is as good as prime rib gets: enormous, nicely seasoned, and, applying the true test of a kitchen's prowess, available rare (and not unpleasantly re-broiled) up until the wee hours. In fact, the kitchen really knows their meat. The Ranch Steak, a top sirloin, is the lowest-fat cut of steak, yet the '90s still manages to serve it tender, for just $8.45. The generous 10-ounce filet mignon, $12.95, is carefully trimmed so that it's as dainty as it's supposed to be. And if you're having a special tête-à-tête, be sure to try their Champagne Dinner for Two--a fifth of champagne, two salads, a choice of their ranch steak or six jumbo shrimp (either broiled or fried), and choice of potato, for $25.
The menu isn't the most inventive in the world, but for what it is it's pretty terrific--except for the desserts and dinner rolls. The rolls are standard-issue soft whole wheat, a deficiency made all the more poignant by the presence of the New French Bakery and all their great bread just around the corner. The desserts are fine--chocolate mousse, chocolate cake--but nothing to write home about. Though it's not like you came to the Gay 90's for the rolls and dessert.
You might have come for the cocktails, however. I've been drinking Cosmopolitans since I discovered them way back in December, and the 90's makes the best I've had. The other mixed drinks are also generous, strong, and perfectly mixed. The 90's bartenders have that air of unflappable competence that makes me want to order all the drinks I've ever wondered about--like the Lemon Drop, the Black Velvet, the Stinger, the Sazerac--and I've always gotten a tasty drink back. The 90's' wine selections are few, but at $9.95 a bottle, there's no shortage of happy customers.
And happy customers are what the 90's does best. It's one of the few spots I've ever been to where you'll consistently find twentysomethings and octogenarians drinking side by side. It's the easiest place in the world to strike up a conversation with a friendly face. On my last visit I met Rolf, a sweet man with big blue eyes. Rolf says he's been coming to the 90's for dinner once or twice a week for 18 years, and says a lot of people do, "once they realize they can have dinner here and not be a pervert." He says that the Happy Hour, the bar area directly to your left when you walk in the door, had been a gay hangout ever since he could remember, and that the menu was added and the rest of the bar became predominantly gay soon after the present owner Michael Bloom and Bloom's father bought the business. Rolf remembers the change fondly: "We needed a place to go in the gay community that had a little bit of class, a little bit of style, and that we could go to and be ourselves."
I asked Rolf whether the Gay 90's new prominence on the bachelorette party circuit was disturbing, and he answered: "I'm very proud of this place, and I want all people to be welcome here. The bottom line is human rights." But, he added with a wink, "I look forward to the day when they open their bars to us too."
PRISON LIFE: O we suffer, we suffer, we Minnesotans. It's the season when the rest of the nation is devouring their fiddlehead ferns, drowning in cut-price asparagus, and picnicking beneath the cherry blossoms, and yet we have to content ourselves with the slight swelling of the buds, and the thought that deep within those trees the sap is quickening. In times like this I like to remember my Dr. Seuss, who said in I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew that there were many, many people who had problems muchly, muchly greater than you. For example, consider this in-cell banana pudding recipe that Deborah Hart, of Pembroke Pines, Florida, supplied for the February 1997 issue of Prison Life, the magazine written for and by prisoners.
Bogus Banana Pudding
* 2 fresh bananas
* 1 box Little Debbie Banana
* 2 blocks Philadelphia cream cheese
* 20 sugar packets
* 2 Tbsp. nondairy creamer
* 2 Tbsp. butter/margarine
* vanilla wafers
Separate the cookie part from the marshmallow part of the Little Debbie cakes. Put cookie part in small trash bag and submerge in hot water to soften. Whip cream cheese with sugar till creamy smooth, then add marshmallow part and beat. Blend together, adding creamer, butter, and hot water, whipping vigorously to get the proper consistency. Line bowl with vanilla wafers and sliced bananas, pour some of the pudding over them, add another row of wafers and bananas, more pudding. Cover with remaining wafers and bananas. Chill for several hours to set it properly (I packed it in an ice bucket). Serve chilled. Can be partaken of by four.
(And no, I don't know what you're supposed to do with the soft, hot cookie parts of the Little Debbies, though I'm betting they'd make a great crumbly topping in lieu of those last wafers.)
CHEESY: Guess how many boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese the people at Kraft say they've sold? Five billion. That's more stars than you can see above you in the night sky, more minutes than you have in your life, and enough fat calories to afix cellulite to the world's starving millions. Which is why the trumpets are blaring for the introduction of Kraft "Light Deluxe Macaroni and Cheese," with half the fat and 10 percent fewer calories. According the Kraft, this is a "breakthrough blend" that cheese lovers will be "thrilled to discover" and is simultaneously "indulgent... easy to prepare" and "satisfying." Run, don't walk, to snare that five-billion and first box.
BULLSHOT: Darlings! Are martinis too awfully, awfully 1963 for you? Then consider the "Bullshot" a key drink of 1930, at least according to the good folks doing the cocktail of the week at Hot Wired. The recipe? "1 1/2 ounces vodka, 3 ounces beef bouillon, and a hefty splash of Worcestershire sauce, A-1 sauce, Tabasco, and Angostura bitters--all shaken with a pinch or two of celery salt." It's the drink that eats like a meal.
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