Whisky Park, Ugly Mug, and Be'wiched Deli: Downtown delights
On a Thursday night, just before 7 o'clock when the drinks go full price, the cavernous new Whisky Park in downtown Minneapolis is as empty as an echo chamber. Along the perimeter there's a sparsely inhabited bar, a few unoccupied lounge seats, and an unwatched television the size of a theater screen.
But on weekend nights, when the hip hop is loud enough to cause physical vibrations, the Whisky warehouse is full of people crowded around a mechanical bull, penned in by a padded ring. The beast twirls and bucks the brave souls who want to experience the adult equivalent of a tire swing "spinny."
Whisky Park was conceived by Gene Suh, who owns Lyndale Tap, a neighborhood bar known for its beer list and pit beef sandwiches. The design firm Shea turned the former home of Banana Joe's nightclub into a country bar by bringing in a few whiskey barrels and black-and-white portraits of Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. Except for the length of the waitresses' jean shorts, the place is fairly clean-cut. With just one shuffleboard table in the corner, there shouldn't be any pool cue-incorporating bar fights like the ones Patrick Swayze broke up in Roadhouse.
The whiskey cocktails—Dolly-Would, Ring of Fire, and the Bull Rider, among others—sweeten up the reputed old-man's spirit with the likes of sour mix, orange juice, and Red Bull. The drinks are served in pint glasses, sometimes with maraschino cherries, and are generally inoffensive, especially during the two-for-one weekday happy hour (food is half-price, too).
Whisky Park won't entice or develop whiskey connoisseurs, but it sets its more modest sights on simply getting the younger generation to sip something they'd normally bypass for Bud Lights and Appletinis. There are 34 whiskey selections on the menu, helpfully grouped by origin (Irish, Canadian, Scotch, etc.), and few are unusual or rare—nearly all the brand names would be recognizable to anyone who's ever set food in a liquor store. There are no tasting notes, or prices, for that matter, to orient or educate a newcomer. The waitresses are unlikely to offer more information beyond what brands are popular.
It's too bad that the Whisky Park experience doesn't replicate what Barrio is doing with tequila—educating drinkers and broadening their horizons. (If you want to drink Wild Turkey, Canadian Club, or Glenfiddich, why not just pick up a bottle at Hum's?) But perhaps the demographic Whisky Park is courting thinks learning should be restricted to the classroom, not mixed with partying.
While the beverage program at Whisky Park is disappointing, there are a few hits among the food offerings, including homemade beef jerky sticks, shaped like grissini and served in a paper-lined pint glass. They're not great date food, being characteristically tough to chew, but their kick is spicy enough to make one nostalgic for the gas-station snacks of cross-country road trips. Pizzas have wisp-thin crusts but stay crisp under the weight of their toppings (the Buffalo chicken pizza is a safe bet). But the barbecue beef brisket sandwich is a better one. The thick stack of juicy meat, accented with a few raw onions and a swipe of mayonnaise, is wedged between two slices of browned Texas toast, and giddy up, is it good. (Oddly, the pulled pork sandwich was a disaster, combining bland, barely sauced pork with dry, stale-tasting toast.)
The "XXX" hot wings, which the menu describes as being served "with ranch and tears," are coated in a thick, fried-chicken-style batter. When I had them, the vibrant hot sauce, served on the side, seemed carefully calibrated, with a vaguely Asian sweet-and-vinegary tang and a long, smoky burn. The accompanying celery sticks not so much, being gray and dry at the ends, as if they'd been cut days ago. But I suppose it was nothing that a few sips of Grape Ape—adult Kool-Aid—couldn't rectify.
IN CASE YOU NEED to "check yourself before you wreck yourself" at the Ugly Mug, one of downtown's barely distinguishable First Avenue bars, look no further than the wall-mounted Alco-Buddy between the arcade versions of Big Buck Hunter and Golden Tee. Alco-Buddy turns breathalyzing into a game: Blow into a straw and a green or red light will indicate the severity of your intoxication level.
On a recent visit to the Mug, signs of last night's debauchery were everywhere: The women's restroom had a broken stall door handle and the men's room had a hunk of broken glass on the floor. Near the video games someone had left behind a broken plastic tiara—hopefully the only goods damaged at that bachelorette party. Nothing about the scene boded well for a good breakfast.
The Ugly Mug is among the last places you'd expect to order an omelet made with duck confit and manchego cheese, but it's a rich, salty meal with more swagger than the usual bacon, mushroom, and cheddar-stuffed versions. At the Mug, eggs Benedict can be ordered with bison sausage. The meat is dense and a little dry, but its flavor melds well with a chile-and-roasted-tomato-spiked hollandaise. There's also a bar version of migas, a sort of nacho-style take on the Tex-Mex breakfast with scrambled eggs courtesy of an Owatonna farmer, crumbled chorizo, pico de gallo, and melted jack cheese on triangular chips cut and fried from whole, locally made La Perla tortillas.
Chef Nick Bullick, most recently sous chef at the Happy Gnome, arrived at the Mug last spring and decided to start serving daily breakfasts in October, after finding other breakfasts downtown to be lackluster or expensive. Coming from a fine-dining background at W.A. Frost and 20.21, Bullick has injected the entire menu with more fresh, seasonal, and upscale ingredients, along with scratch cooking and practiced culinary techniques. There are venison burgers, chicken strips beer-battered with Summit EPA, and poutine with white cheese curds from Ellsworth Creamery. You'll also find salads made with arugula, spinach, strawberries, and chevre, and entrées such as pan-seared duck breast with sweet corn flan. Dusty Monroe, formerly of the 112 Eatery, offers the house-made desserts you'd expect from a more upscale eatery, like port-wine-poached pears and pumpkin trifle.
But let's get back to breakfast. There's free coffee, from the boutique roaster Bull Run, offered serve-yourself from a thermal pot near the door, next to an assortment of mismatched mugs. Whatever happened, you might wonder as you sip your steaming brew, to Peggy, the Illinois State Redbirds alum?
Your waiter might be wearing a T-shirt that reads "In Heaven There Is No Beer," but he'll be far more attentive than the bartenders at most of the other downtown watering holes. No need to lose your voice hollering over the tap handles. And by the way, having beer for breakfast is totally legit. The menu features a MugMosa—a surprisingly tasty, shandy-like blend of orange juice, Goose Island 312, and a splash of raspberry Lambic—alongside a bloody Mary and a breakfast martini.
BUT FOR ONE OF THE BEST morning meals in downtown Minneapolis, try the new Sunday brunch at Be'Wiched Deli. For three years, the Washington Avenue shop has earned rave reviews for its gourmet sandwiches, created by fine-dining alum Matthew Bickford and Mike Ryan. And if you want to stick with the deli's namesake, the P & E is no ordinary fried egg sandwich. The "P" stands for Be'Wiched's famous house-cured pastrami, layered on soft foccacia with a mess of roasted peppers and a spice of spicy-smoky harissa, and it's just as excellent as any of the shop's lunch and dinner offerings.
Most run-of-the-mill French toast relies heavily on syrup, whipped cream, or fruit toppings for flavor, but Be'Wiched's fluffy, eggy, house-made brioche version is good enough to eat solo. It's as spongy and sweet as bread pudding without anything else on it—though a simple dusting of powdered sugar and a few sliced dates don't hurt.
Biscuits and gravy is another breakfast dish that often goes wrong—too many recipes range from blah, pasty, and bland to so salty they're downright inedible. But at Be'Wiched, the eggs are blessedly runny-yolked and the biscuits are flaky but not too crusty on top. But the soul of the dish is the gravy, which is light, frothy, and tastes a little like whipped potato leek soup, studded with bits of spicy pork sausage.
The only thing to bypass at Be'Wiched is the beer bloody, which, if it can't come with vodka, is probably better off virgin. Otherwise, every brunch item save one costs less than $10, and all the details are exacting, right down to the fresh fruit bites—crisp apples, pineapple, kiwi, and grapes—that surpass the usual underripe or soggy fruit-cup standards.
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