Restaurant review

Restaurant Review: Little Tijuana is an All-Star Dive Bar

Who floats an artichoke amaro on a pina colada at the fondant machine? Cynar, the amaro in question, is bitter, intense and the color of old blood. When it floats above a drink, it spreads out for maximum scent dispersion, sending out notes like pipe tobacco and green tomato. In stark contrast, a machine-melting piña colada is something sweet that smells a bit like a beach vacation when you were 12, reminiscent of the faux coconut scent in Coppertone sunscreen and transitioning to vending machines in sandy flip-flops. I would guess that most people who want an artichoke amaro imagine themselves on the Italian Riviera at Prada, and therefore wouldn’t want it on a gooey piña colada. Most people who love melty piña coladas, I think, see themselves as ideally chilling on a pool float and don’t want bitter botanical appetizers showing up to demand thoughts on the drink culture Italian. But for the very thin slice of humanity that finds this pairing of amaro and slushy hilarious and delicious, here’s the new Little T, the biggest thing to happen to Minneapolis bar culture since the pandemic hit. .

Little T! Little Tijuana. Our sin, our soul. “The tip of the tongue making a trip of three steps in the palate to tap, three times, on the teeth”, to quote Nabokov. Little T! The name for a very good night’s sleep. The name you’ve been saying in this town since 1964, after the show, after the party, when you wanted something vaguely tex-mex to fix you up, settle in, help you. “I definitely went to Little T,” says Dan Manosack, Little Tijuana’s new chef. “I think everyone has a similar Little T story. I remember being in a cabin, falling asleep, opening my eyes, and there’s rice and beans that I don’t remember not to have ordered. Then I came home with something other than alcohol in my stomach, and I was grateful that someone fed me and took care of me when I was drunk.

Manosack is one of four stars who have taken over Little T – repainting, reimagining and opening a new dive bar in the shell of the old. Let’s do a roll call.

First, there is Dan Manosack who does the cooking. He is known in town for his years in the kitchens of Blackbird; for helping to open Petite León nominated by James Beard; for launching sold-out pop-ups called Broken English; and especially for his time helping starred Portland chef Gabriel Rucker run nationally acclaimed spots including Little Bird. “I knew I was good for Minneapolis, but it was always on my mind: Am I really good?he recalls his decision to head west. “I worked for Gabe, I worked at Nong’s Khao Man Gai, I had my trust.” Little Tijuana is Manosack’s first restaurant as chef/owner, and it showcases his unique combination of love for Northland’s drinking culture and true cooking expertise.

Pelmeni, for example, are hand-rolled pasta filled with a filling of hand-fried potatoes, served in a bowl and united by a hot and spicy coating of caramelized onions, butter, curry and sour cream. Each bite-sized dumpling is gloriously robust, tender and rich. They’re a tribute, Manosack says, to drinking in Madison and meeting up at Paul’s Pel’meni, and they’re also what happens when a chef can do whatever they want. “I was nervous,” he admits, noting that he got his pelmeni mussels directly from Ukraine. “It takes me forever to place two orders, but it feels good to have a shitty bar with handmade pelmenis. I want to show some technique.

More technique plays into what is now one of the best steam burgers in our town. This gooey creation of pan-fried brisket, chuck and short rib patties is built up and warmed in a dome of steam, the buns getting spongy, with caramelized onions and a real heavy cream-based cheese sauce adding to the luxury impertinent. This burger reminds me a bit of an upside-down soup bun, opposing textures that somehow disappear in a blur of deliciousness as they pass the tongue. Another must-have for dive-bar-food lovers: the fried chicken sandwich. For that, Manosack dives into his family’s Lao dishes, pairing the crispy chicken with a bright papaya salad. Vegetarians must try Little T’s mapo tofu, made with Impossible Burger pieces instead of meat and served over rigatoni.

“Our fryer is completely gluten-free; the fried chicken is gluten-free; we have a ton of vegans and vegetarians,” says Manosack. “I just want everyone to be able to enjoy this sloppy sandwich, drunk food.”

Manosack’s Fried Cauliflower Appetizer is another great example of the high-low pulse you see everywhere at Little T. On the one hand, it’s just a plate of fried crispy stuff for people who want more than waffle fries. On the other hand, it is served with the full complement of okonomiyaki fillings you’d find in a Japanese restaurant: it ripples with bonito flakes, is spiced up with pickled ginger, brightened with green onions and speckled with furikake. Try it with the Sazerac analog. What is a Sazerac analogue? Please meet Bennett Johnson, another of the stars of Little T’s new team.

Johnson is the man you’ll often see behind the tiny six-seater bar with the back wall of obscure liquors that bartenders love. Johnson, a former touring musician, began his bar career at Cafe Maude, later bartender at Minneapolis cocktail spots Hola Arepa and Tattersall, and is now co-owner of Little T, where he can have fun at craft a Sazerac from non-Sazerac ingredients. The Sazerac Thing is created by cooking a syrup using epazote packets of fresh Mexican herbs and combining it with locavore aquavit from small Minnesota distiller Ida Graves, as well as different bitters and liqueurs. Why do that? Because it’s weird and cool. “When I travel, the bars I like are delicious, consistent, fun, and quirky,” Johnson says. “We wanted Little T to be low-key, a place the neighborhood can hang on to, a place bartenders and the service industry can hang on to and put it out – you’re off the job; you don’t need to talk about drinks, just keep it crafty and keep people excited.

It’s a tall order, keeping the off-work bartenders excited and serving the neighborhood, bearing in mind that Little T is in an artsy neighborhood, roughly down the street from the most important museum in the state, Mia, and the art college, MCAD. The Little T drinks menu, not much bigger than the size of an iPhone, shows what happens when some of the smartest people in the business decide to make the most of a dive bar. There’s $5 Schell’s on tap, but also two rare natural wine pet-nat rosés. You’ll find California craft liquors in the wine-spritz as well as pre-mixed cocktails, bottled and chilled in the afternoon for quick night service. Also, you hardly notice any professional hospitality expertise, as you feel like you’re in a cool basement with Christmas lights on the ceiling and a hand-painted mural of funny aliens.

The operations and atmosphere derive from the other two stars behind Little T, Travis Serbus and Ben Siers-Rients. Serbus helped open Petite León and two other local drinking titans, Bar Meteor and Butcher and The Boar’s beer garden. He animates the atmosphere at Little T, reupholstering the cabins himself, putting on the lights, bringing in friends from Blackbird Revolt to hand-paint the walls. (“We tried to be really intentional with our tinkering,” says Johnson. “Keep it funky, and don’t Google it. Phone a friend. Everyone is tired of subway tiles with extra birch logs. Phone a friend. It’s a better way to live. “)

“To me, Little T is Travis’ restaurant,” says Siers-Rients. “He’s like a burrowing animal, but for the coolness. He can’t live in a space that isn’t cool. He just has that attention to detail. So he buried himself in it, and now it’s cool as hell.

Vinyl records and cassettes spin behind the bar; DJs are coming, as is karaoke and brunch. “All cooks hate brunch, so I have to be the opposite,” Manosack says. “I will cook you awesome eggs and potatoes and enjoy the awesome margin on cooking your eggs and potatoes.”

Serbus and Siers-Rients remain owner-operators of Petite León, so I asked Serbus how it works. Little T is not a sister restaurant to Petite León; they have different leaders, very different ambitions. “Think of it as a band, how a band can play together, a few members go off and do something – the first band still exists, and the second does too,” Serbus explains. “This place is glued together by dreams and paint – you run the dishwasher and the lights go out. For some people they want more polish, so for them they will only like Petite León. I love both.”

The money and operations guru at Little T is Siers-Rients, who for many years cooked alongside legendary chef Alex Roberts in Alma, then opened Lyn 65, Centro and Petite León. Today, Siers-Rients sees its role as a place of construction where it can lend its know-how and share its capital with emerging talents, as it does as one of the four co-owners of this profit bar. unique.

“We looked at the restaurant industry and the Twin Cities market, and I think it’s quite oversaturated,” says Siers-Rients. “Sure, you can take out a loan of one, one point five million dollars, but eventually that huge bill catches up with you, and I don’t think you can get a return. But a second-chance space like Little T, where you clean the fondant machine and reupholster the cabins yourself? It’s like hot lapping a car. The group of people I work with are so talented; it’s like putting a 700 horsepower engine in an old clunker. It doesn’t look like much, but watch it fly.

17 E. 26th St., MPs, 612-315-3245