Hipster meets Midwest culture at this Minneapolis diner
The scene: When you take a classic steel diner and attach it to a defunct Taco Bell, you have an odd combination, and in the case of the hipster trendy Hi-Lo Diner, odd combinations extend deeply within the menu.
The diner in question is an original 1957 Fodero model, built in New Jersey, then deployed for years in Gibsonia, Penn., near Pittsburgh. It was relocated to the Twin Cities in 2016, and attached to the former fast-food restaurant, which now serves as a much larger than normal kitchen for a diner, though customers, who still eat in the vintage section, don’t really notice this — except in the taste of the food. Part of the area behind the counter which used to be for making milkshakes and pouring coffee is now a hip mixology bar, and there is a sizable outdoor seating area with large shared tables, beer garden-style, along the point where the diner and Taco Bell have been joined.
Hi-Lo Diner is in the Lake Street neighborhood, just east of downtown, and while it has only been here a year, it has already made its mark and is attracting a wide range of customers from near and far — when Adele came through town to perform, she went out of her way to eat here. The draw is a mix of offbeat creations, reinventions of diner classics, and a general homage to Minnesota food specialties and traditions. Hi-Lo is getting ready to open a second location in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP).
Reason to visit: Hi-Top, Silo, Hot Beef Commercial, Bloody Mary
The food: The large menu features lots of twists on classic diner fare, things like stacks of pancakes for breakfast, club sandwiches for lunch, and “diner” entrees like meatloaf for dinner. All are substantially upgraded with better ingredients and fancy additions to make them more gourmet. For instance, the French toast isn’t just French toast, it is lavender crème brulee French toast — made with your choice of challah or sunflower seed rye bread. You don’t see that everyday. The Club is not exactly classic either; here it offers your choice of house-smoked beef brisket or turkey on sourdough with spicy horseradish garlic aioli, plus the usual lettuce, tomato, onion and bacon. The meatloaf? It’s wrapped in bacon and served with dried cherries, asparagus and Boursin mashed potatoes.
Just about everything on the menu is gussied up in this creative fashion and just about everything sounds good. But the reason for a first visit to the Hi-Lo is not for a new way to try old dishes, it’s for the new dishes you won’t see anyplace else.
Great American Bites: N.H. diner dishes up comfort food at its decadent best
The diner’s name refers to its two most singular specialties, the Hi-Top (Hi) and the Silo (Lo). Hi-Tops are like nothing you’ve ever had — imagine a bread bowl dish like beef stew, and replace the bread bowl with a deep-fried pastry, sort of a big fritter. That’s the concept, and while all the main course Hi-Tops play off the sweet and savory combination, there are also dessert versions that are just sweet — really sweet. The pastry itself is big, and delicious in a greasy decadent way, and the toppings are very eclectic, with choices including coconut curried shrimp with jasmine rice; Korean braised short rib with apple bacon slaw; fried crawfish with cole slaw, a fried egg and hot sauce; and fried chicken with maple bourbon sauce and creamy country gravy, sort of a doughnut take on chicken and waffles. The top two sellers and perennial favorites are the Notorious P.I.G, citrus-glazed Cuban pulled pork with a sunny side-up egg, black bean and sweet corn salsa, sour cream and micro cilantro, and the Mac Rib, a heap of gooey macaroni and cheese covered with full pork ribs, all topped with a mini grilled cheese sandwich. That’s the one I get, and while I can’t finish the portion, it isn’t for lack of trying, as it is just really good.
In comparison the Silos seem almost normal, but they are not. In Durban, South Africa, the signature local dish (and a favorite of mine) is called Bunny Chow, but it has nothing to do with rabbit. It’s a standard loaf of bread that’s hollowed out and filled with curry, a working-class meal that has morphed into the mainstream. This is the closest thing I’ve seen to the concept here, except it’s a fancier sort of baguette cut in half, hollowed out, and both pieces are stuffed with chopped ingredients based on classic sandwiches — only gooier. So the bestseller, the Rachel, is turkey, slaw and Swiss cheese, mixed up with a creamy remoulade to give it that soupy, curry texture. There is pastrami with Swiss, cole slaw, Russian dressing and chili pepper aioli, and the final choice is a barbecue take on a banh mi sandwich, combining brisket with pickles, carrots, radishes, cilantro. The concept is good, and like the aforementioned bread bowl, the exterior absorbs some of the creamy liquid found in all the sandwiches, and ends up a knife and fork meal, not a sandwich per se. These are really good, and while far from small, more manageable than the Hi-Tops.
That alone would be enough, but among all this craziness, there are also several nods to classic Minnesota traditions. An upgraded rendition of the state’s most famous homegrown dish, the Hot Beef Commercial, or for fans, simply the Commercial is available. This is an open-faced sandwich of hot sliced roast beef with lots of brown gravy over white bread, with mashed potatoes, and it is ubiquitous in the region. Here white cheddar biscuits are substituted for the white bread, in-house slow smoked brisket for the roast beef, and horseradish cream sauce is added to the rich mashed potatoes – though there’s still plenty of gravy.
While the diner has a full bar and fancy cocktails, the Bloody Mary, a Midwest favorite, remains one of the most popular orders. It comes with a 7 oz. “pony” bottle of Miller High Life as a chaser, because in Wisconsin and Minnesota it is normal to get a small glass of beer back with a Bloody, often called a snit, and here the half bottle does the job. More importantly, in an era when these cocktails are served with all sorts of additions like shrimp, cheese and sausage, this one comes with a toothpick impaled “Pickle Roll Up,” another distinctly Minnesotan dish, something you might bring a platter of to a pot luck. It’s a pickle with cream cheese wrapped in meat, usually ham, but here it is pastrami. It’s a slightly ironic touch many out of towners would not recognize, but it is all these nods to tradition, while venturing far from it in so many ways, that make the Hi-Lo a special experience.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: No, but really interesting and a glimpse into hipster-meets-Midwest culture.
Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 4020 East Lake Street, Minneapolis, MN; 612-353-6568; hi-lo-diner.com
Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a barbecue contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there's a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of the venues reviewed by this column provided complimentary services.
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