By M.C Cronin, Becca Dilley, James Norton, and WASCO of Heavy Table
Okay, confession time. Mostly, we can’t wait to set out on these Checklist outings. But on occasion, if we’re being totally honest, we enter with a looming sense of dread. As much as we try to shed our expectations, it’s difficult to look at the nightly docket ahead and not allow our previous experience to color our outlook. It’s easy to think, after 300+ places visited across these various Checklists, we’ve seen it all and we know what’s coming.
Funny thing is, we also know that every single time we go out, there are unexpected surprises, both good and bad, that make the whole thing worthwhile. Such is the case with the places we covered this time around. So, if you promise to keep an open mind, we will, too. – M.C. Cronin
CAFFETTO COFFEE HOUSE
Caffetto Coffee House | 708 W. 22nd Street | 612.872.0911
Caffetto is the dive bar of coffee joints. It has an old English pub vibe with walls the color of tobacco-stained teeth and paintings of sailing ships on choppy seas scattered about. It’s open until 1 a.m. And many of the patrons we encountered were a collection of true characters, many of whom look like they’d either had—or are heading for—a long night of living life on the edge.
Have we mentioned the pinball dungeon? Oh, there’s a pinball dungeon.
Just follow the creaky stairs down to the dark basement and you’ll find yourself in a room surrounded by stone walls and flickering arcade machines. Every inch of every surface, including the change machine, is covered in graffiti. It’s beautiful and just a tad Blair Witchy.
Now, based on our description, you might think we didn’t thoroughly appreciate Caffetto. But you’d be dead wrong. Caffetto, in all its roughhewn glory, offers something truly authentic (they’ve been around since 1991) and legitimately different to the coffee scene. And for that, we absolutely love it. – M.C. Cronin
As much as we were sold on the ambiance at Caffetto - and we were sold, really sold, truly sold on this weird, dilapidated, distressed, graffitied, beautifully gloomy assortment of bric-a-brac, nautical art, and pinball machines - the coffee left a lot to be desired.
We assumed that The Flaming Mocha ($4.30 for 12 oz.) would have a touch of heat accompanying a robust coffee base and a fair bit of supporting, warming spices. What it was: a blowtorch applied directly to the tongue. Lots and lots of heat, pepper heat, capsaicin heat, the kind of lingering heat that takes no prisoners. The coffee was so overpowered that it was a complete afterthought, and I couldn't tell you for love or money if it was balanced or roasty or bitter or acidic or what. In defense of The Flaming Mocha, it's a hell of a lot of fun to drink it, bug your eyes out, and then make your friends try it.
Less entertaining was the Americano ($3.75 for a double shot), which was watery and bitter, with little body or depth of flavor. Put this stuff on ice, and you'd have the coffee flight at Third Space all over again. – James Norton
SK Coffee | 2401 Lyndale Avenue South | 612.870.6114
With its straightforward name and the generic sign outside, it would be easy to think SK Coffee is just another standard coffee joint. But their Dala horse logo with its simple geometric patterns and bright colors hints at their intention.
Yes, there is a Swedish influence here with a focus on simplicity that belies the complex flavors profiles of their coffee. This is not your typical Swedish egg “church basement coffee.” Instead, the simplicity comes from a dedication to sourcing and roasting single-origin, micro-lots of beans.
Modern Swedish simplicity also carries through in the design of the space. Stark white walls, plain wood tables, simple Swedish designed chairs, and furnishings.
There are pops of bright colors along with a plant wall and cozy nook surrounded by greenery as well. All proof that simple doesn’t have to mean boring. – M.C. Cronin
We've been to SK Coffee's St. Paul location before (and, in fact, we ran a long feature on its founder), and we were impressed by its dedication to sourcing, roasting, and drink-making.
The Lyndale Avenue location is carrying that same torch with pride - our Flat White ($5) was a straight-down-the-middle version that brought a lot of rich, substantial, nutty coffee flavor in balance with the steamed milk.
Even better was a 3Leches Coffee Kombucha ($7), a coffee-fed, lightly carbonated kombucha that managed to evoke iced tea, a nutty brown ale, and the mildly sour bite of yogurt, all in one shockingly refreshing and compelling drink. This thing was, functionally, an N/A cocktail - the sort of beverage you can sip and enjoy and talk about with your friends. – James Norton
KUNG FU HOTPOT
Kung Fu Hotpot | 3016 Lyndale Ave S | 612.208.1552
It was October, and the first cold tendrils of autumn air had begun working their way down our spines. Through the front window, we saw a group of people leaning over a cauldron in the center of their table. Steam clouds billowed from the bowl fogging the cold outside glass. It was a surprisingly cozy and welcoming scene considering just how low our expectations had been set.
Not long ago, this space was occupied by a sit-down American Chinese restaurant that the pandemic had reduced to serving takeout through a slot in the front door. It closed before we could get there, and we suspected we’d dodged a bullet. That same strain of jaded skepticism had us wondering if this place would be little more than a skin-deep attempt at a reformat to drum up business.
Thankfully, it was more than that.
Chinese lanterns dangled from the open, black-painted ceiling. A few simple pieces of Chinese art graced the walls. The room was all freshly appointed in deep earth tones. The chairs—very likely the same chairs from the previous restaurant—were now encased in velvety fabric shrouds with gold piping. It’s not going to win any interior design awards, but at least someone cared enough to give the place a decent face lift.
Hot pot is a group effort. That’s the fun of it. An induction burner in the center of each table keeps your party’s hot pot, well, hot. After your hot pot arrives, you get up and approach a vast, self-serve, glass-fronted refrigerator case filled with an assortment of raw ingredients.
Choose anything your heart desires from bok choy to green beans to pork strips to fish balls to potatoes. Throw them in the burbling broth (also, of your choice), fish them out a few minutes later, add a sauce or two, and voila.
Hot pot is an all-you-can-eat situation, so you can keep going back for more, but be aware there are two rules at Kung Fu clearly outlined in both English and Chinese on a sign above each table: 1.) there is a 2-hour limit and, 2.) there’s a $20 surcharge on food waste. So, your dream scam of paying for a single buffet at lunch and hanging out until dinner is officially dashed. – M.C. Cronin
If you've not experienced a Szechuan hot pot meal, you could find many starting points worse than Kung Fu Hotpot, which takes the ritual quite seriously.
The first salient fact: It's not cheap. The hot pot experience (which truly is an experience, for once the word is sincerely applicable) ranges from $17 for a three-year-old at lunchtime to $37 for an adult at dinner. Fear not: Your $37 gets you a hell of a lot. For starters, you get to choose two different broths from a menu of four and these are brought to a lively simmer on an induction plate in the center of your table and refilled throughout your meal. We tried the spicy beef tallow broth and the restaurant's original broth. More on these in a moment.
Beyond your broths, you are granted an all-access pass to the restaurant's sprawling refrigerator case of meats / tofus / noodles / shrimp balls / etc. / etc. / and so forth. The selection is overwhelming to the point of being a little humbling, and the fridge experience doesn't even include the salad-bar-like bunker full of diced scallions / grated garlic / soy sauce / various flavored oils and more. Simply load up trays with everything you want to simmer, and go to town. Grab gingerly, make multiple trips. It's all you can eat and there's no rush.
Also: You'll want to give yourself a bit of time to acclimate to the spicy broth, if that's the direction you go. I took what I thought was a reasonably sized spoonful of the spicy beef tallow broth and felt immediately like I'd smushed the top of my head directly onto the surface of the sun. My throat closed up and I became concerned that I was having a medical event. I enjoyed the experience so much that I spent the rest of the meal playing around with spicy broth dosages so that I could experience searing little droplets of pain without actually having to take a ride on Charon's moped.
The original broth was fine. It was nicely seasoned. Trying to talk about the original broth after talking about the spicy beef broth is like trying to remember details about your first snowball fight moments after being evacuated from the trenches of Verdun.
Things cook very quickly in whatever kind of broth you choose. I ended up liking the ramen a surprising amount; likewise the frozen shrimp balls , which had a delightful chewy texture and mild sweet flavor. Thinly sliced bits of beef and lamb were perfectly pleasant, but the tofu brought a sponge-like absorbency to the situation that was exciting.
Because Heavy Table's budget doesn't allow four people on a five-restaurant crawl to spend $40 each on soup at one spot, we also got a number of ala carte items from Kung Fu.
The Chicken Fried Rice ($12) was underseasoned and forgettable, but inoffensive and actually pretty tasty when sampled with some of the other, more flavorful items.
Items such as: the Szechuan String Beans ($15) which had a great fresh snap and an insistent but mellow heat.
We really liked the Pork and Chive Dumplings ($7), which had that hand-made, rough-hewn rustic quality that makes for a really hearty, satisfying dumpling experience. The only dumplings we've had around here that give these a run for their money are the pan-seared pork dumplings at Mei Inn, and those are just terrific. And everybody's bubble teas ($6)were pleasant and acceptable. – James Norton
FOOL ME ONCE
Fool Me Once | 3006 Lyndale Ave S | 612.503.9350
Let’s talk about the name for a minute. No, we don’t know what it means either. And we certainly haven’t figured out how it relates in any way to the “cosmic cantina” theme. But we’re talking about it, and that’s likely the point. Also, strange as it is, the name clearly sets the stage for what you’re walking into. This is a local with a specific sense of humor and a clear idea of how it wants to present itself.
Someone put care into the details. The ceiling is painted with a mural of cowboys on horseback riding across a rocky western landscape. This is left over from the Cowboy Bar which used to occupy the space, and it clearly influenced the design aesthetic. Virtually every wall is painted with stenciled art blending elements of the American West, eastern religion, and alien mythologies. There are cacti, scorpions, mountain ranges, UFOs, stars, snakes, hand of Fatima, and an underground cave with an alien skeleton…oh, my.
There’s also custom-made, cheekily written, vintage-looking posters advertising their food and drinks. They left a raw brick wall untouched with the remnants of an old, faded painted drug store billboard. Classic antler chandeliers add to the old-west vibe. And, behind the bar, the clincher: a giant lighted diorama featuring their logo—a cowboy on bucking bronco surrounded by cosmic planetary rings—hovering over a dramatic western landscape.
We wish the diorama was on a dimmer, as it lit up the entire place in too bright a light. Regardless, all the well-considered touches blend into a strange cocktail that—while we can’t pinpoint why—just works. Giddyup. – M.C. Cronin
The Hamm'ss at Fool Me Once cost $3 at happy hour and are served in iced glass mugs . And if that seems like faint praise, it isn't - these things are refreshing, tasty, and quite possibly one of the best alcohol values in the metro at these prices.
You might be expecting that intro to serve as a set up for a takedown of otherwise indifferent bar food, but you'd be wrong - Fool Me Once offers a surprisingly lively and well-executed collection of slightly twisted comfort foods.
The fire-blistered Tequilia Shisitos with queso were snappy, bright, and snackable, which was good because they also arrived in a bucket-served portion. A fine deal for eight dollars; during happy hour, they were $5, which was absurd.
The bar's Crunchwrap Supreme ($12) was stupidly good. Nice crispy exterior. Terrific ratio of tortilla to ground beef to cheese sauce, sour cream, and lettuce. This is the sort of food that lives and dies based on the details, and the details here were dialed in.
Not so much with Double Smashburger ($16), which was a perfectly OK burger that suffered from being disgustingly huge. If the bulbous mass of beef, cheese, and bacon could be cut in half and re-bunned into two half-sized burgers, the proportions would be just about right and the whole thing would be a lot tastier. As it is: quality was fine, it works as drunk people kibbles, it comes with a lot of fries.
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
For dessert, why not try the Twinkie "Maki" ($5)? Some of us loved the way the dehydrated coconut Campari, lemongrass, and ginger diametrically opposed and dramatically counterpointed the sweet fluffy cream in the deep-fried snake cake; some of us found the intensely bitter aftertaste to be an absolute non-starter. Either way, this is one of the most interesting things we've eaten all year, and at this price, we'd make a case for everyone trying it once. — James Norton
CASABLANCA RESTAURANT AND LOUNGE
Casablanca Restaurant and Lounge | 626 W Lake St | 612.822.2905
Sadly, It’s Greek to Me closed shortly after our visit this Spring. So, when Casablanca opened in the same space, we figured it would be an interesting exercise to see how things had evolved. Right off the bat, the multicolored lights flashing in the window and the bouncer at the door hinted that we were in for a much different experience than the quaint one provided by It’s Greek to Me. We were right.
We were escorted through a dining area with tables and chairs shoved haphazardly against the wall behind a pedestrian barricade (to make room for dancing or a VIP section perhaps?). A PA speaker propped up on a table pumped bass-laden pop bangers directly into the main dining room/bar. It was a surprisingly low-tech but effective solution for making us question if we should immediately turn around and skip this one.
Casablanca was clearly more nightclub than restaurant. But they had a dinner menu, and we are nothing if not committed soldiers in the fight to accomplish our Checklist mission. So, we carried on to the patio, where the party vibes continued.
The fountain at the heart of the patio survived the transition from It’s Greek to Me but was now crowned by a bottle of Moet & Chandon approximately the size of an emperor penguin. Around this were high backed booths, each with a VIP rope and pull-down shade for privacy. Rope swings (with a sandbox underneath) dangled in front of the outdoor bar.
A stable of hookahs sat in the corner of the patio ready to be called into action when necessary. While there were few people in the place, we were clearly a few hours too early to experience what we expect is an interesting late-night scene here.
But as for the dining experience, well, yeah, it’s a nightclub. – M.C. Cronin
After visiting Casablanca Restaurant and Lounge and marveling at the nightclub-ready decor, champagne-themed outdoor fountain, bar-side wooden swings, and roped off high-sided booths, we were ready for the menu to confuse us. And confuse us it did. We steered clear of some obvious pitfalls (fried lobster mac and cheese, a $22 cocktail involving a lot of gold leaf) and went for three solid favorites that seemed executable even under wartime conditions. We went about 1 for 3.
Let's start with the one: the restaurant's Catfish Nuggets ($12) came out in a collection of sizes and shapes, one of the key hallmarks of a house-made food. The taste clinched it - these had the earthy depth that is the calling card of real catfish, and they were nicely fried to boot. Our only complaint is that only about one third of our Catfish Nuggets plate was full of catfish nuggets; the rest was full of indifferently prepared seasoned French fries.
The restaurant's Halal Spicy Chicken Sandwich ($16) seemed like a no-brainer, but, as it turns out, even something as straightforward as a fried chicken sandwich with a spicy sauce is at least a part-brainer. The Casablanca version brought heat via the untamed and mostly unwelcome power of jalapeño pepper slices, and its cheese had a remarkably aggressive funk along the lines of a gouda or a French brie that did no favors for the understated - but, to its credit, very moist - chicken.
Last and probably least is the Lamb Chop Plate ($30), which came with three very modestly sized, overcooked chops, a mass of cheesy ... root vegetable ... stuff ... and a motley collection of miscellaneous vegetables dominated by moderately edible Brussels sprouts that could have used more direct heat and more seasoning. In defense of this dish: the sheer number of components gave the impression that someone tried pretty hard to provide diners with value for their money. We appreciated that emotion more than the food itself. — James Norton
 EDITOR'S NOTE: Spheres.
 EDITOR'S NOTE: Sincerely my best attempt at pluralizing Hamm's.