A Nice Day to Start Again: Testing the Reboots of 3 Minnesota Restaurants

This quote from Anurag Ray hangs prominently in the Lucky Cricket dining room // Photo by Tj Turner

The food industry is famously brutal and when a restaurant closes up shop, it doesn’t typically rise to fight again another day.

But 2019 has seen a number of high-profile restaurants shut down, retool, and then give it another go. We tested three: Lucky Cricket, JUN Szechuan Kitchen & Bar, and the Delicata to Foxtrot Burger Spot pivot.

Lucky Cricket

Our first outings to Lucky Cricket 1.0 were memorably messed up. Shambolic service, hit-or-miss food, and fat tabs made for one of the weakest high-profile openings we’ve experienced, and a whirlwind of controversy over project partner Andrew Zimmern’s comments about Upper Midwestern Chinese restaurants didn’t help calm the storm.

The restaurant shut down for several weeks this summer for a hard reboot of its menu and staff. When it reopened, the scope of the menu was widened (it now offers everything from Filipino sisig to Korean kimchi to Vietnamese banh mi) and an unfamiliar but welcome calm was imposed over the dining room.

At Lucky Cricket 1.0, the fried rice we ordered was bad in two radically different but equally serious ways. At Lucky Cricket 2.0, the Kimchi Black Fried Rice ($9) we ordered was… delicious. Seriously so. The texture was charmingly tender without being mushy, and the dish had an overall earthy depth of umami that was seriously pleasing. Our second starter, Chinese Broccoli and Pea Shoots ($10), was served with oyster sauce, scallions, and ginger. The greens were still crisp and tasty, and they stood up to similar dishes we’ve ordered at local Chinese mainstays.

Our Bao Pick 3 ($13) was similarly strong across the board—the duck filling was pleasantly crispy-chewy and (unusually) not swamped with sugary-sweet glaze. The pork belly bao was also understated—crispy without being tough, full of flavor, and neither drowning in seasoning nor starved of it. And the fried shrimp were delicate and crispy.

We’ve had Filipino sisig before, and the Lucky Cricket pork belly-based rendition of the dish ($19) doesn’t really line up with the real deal, which typically uses chewier bits of pork coming from the pig’s head. Lacking that textural punch, you’d hope for a bold flavor, but the Lucky Cricket version of the dish was understated to the point of shy. Not bad, per se—just a bit too soft-spoken.

The restaurant’s Singapore Rice Noodles ($15) went the other way, with big, bold, full-flavored curry dominating the dish and bringing real depth and interest to the plate. The noodles themselves were delicate and pleasing, a nice medium for the shrimp they contained and the curry that gave them flavor.

As for cocktails: the drinks were drinkable. The non-alcoholic cocktail we tried, The Skipper ($6), was remarkably good—a mix of pineapple, coconut milk, and lemon that managed to balance sweetness, tart citrus, and coconut flavor in ideal proportions. Our rye-based yuzu and ginger-spiked Yukuza Sour ($11) was a pleasant balance between sweet and sour without either the excessive sugar or unpleasant artificial sour mix aftertaste we often discover in these cocktails. On the downside: The menu touted a brandied cherry and an edible “Szechuan buzz button flower,” and neither arrived with the drink. When we asked our server about it, he explained that the restaurant was out of both, although he did helpfully (?) bring us a skewer of two maraschino cherries. The Triad ($11), a spiced Cognac Manhattan, was similarly balanced, but the margarita-like Golden Triangle ($11) leaned toward being watery and tame.

Over the course of the generally enjoyable meal, we encountered two strikes against Lucky Cricket 2.0. The first: Service still seems to be a muddle. Pacing was off (we asked for our first dishes to not be rushed out of the kitchen, they arrived in three minutes), getting the right number and types of plates / serving utensils was a constant challenge for our waiter, waters sat empty for much of the meal, and … well, point #1 ties into point #2.

Point #2: Our mango sticky rice dessert ($7) consisted of a small piece of stringy, underripe mango nesting on what tasted like plain white rice. When we mentioned this to our server, he confirmed that he also thought it was terrible, and… did nothing else. We paid full price for the almost entirely uneaten dessert. A Pineapple Upside Down Cake ($7) was considerably better, resembling an inside-out pineapple-spiked Twinkie.

Is Lucky Cricket 2.0 a slam dunk? No: it’s still a bit rough around the edges. But it’s far better than its initial iteration and on course to find a niche for itself in the St. Louis Park ecosystem of eateries. If you were looking for pre- or post-movie fare in the neighborhood, a platter of black fried rice and a cocktail might just hit the spot.

Lucky Cricket, 1607 West End Blvd, St Louis Park | 952-206-6830

JUN Szechuan Kitchen & Bar

JUN’s Szechuan Wontons & Sesame Balls // Photo by Tj Turner

If Lucky Cricket surged thanks to its reboot, JUN Szechuan Kitchen & Bar has treaded water. When we went to JUN not long after its 2017 opening, the dining room was chaotic, quality inconsistent, and the general impression was of a restaurant without a clear identity or service plan. JUN touted its dim sum program, but the experience fell far short of more established dim sum brunches in the area (Yangtze and Pagoda among them.)

Our recent visit to the rebooted JUN revealed a more consistent restaurant, but one that was also—frustratingly—underdelivering on the Szechuan cuisine its name promises.

Diners at JUN might hope for deep, complex Szechuan flavors presented with a liberal application of North Loop gloss. What we received instead was relatively wan interpretations of dishes we’ve had richer, bolder versions of on University Avenue in St. Paul and at various suburban Chinese-American spots, plus overly insistent service.

Our spread of happy hour apps was largely off-the-rack. Competent egg rolls ($5), greasy, under-flavored, and overly damp Xiang La wings ($7), and reasonably tasty but predictable cream cheese wontons ($5) set the pace. Our order of Szechuan Dumplings ($9) was the star of the show—the dumpling wrappers had some legitimate springy freshness to them and their flavor was mild but pleasant. Spicy Cucumbers, which were nothing more than a small plate of cucumbers slivers tossed in mildly spicy and lightly garlicked sauce, were a nice snack but felt dear at the non-happy hour price of $10.

Our mains were similarly muddled. Our Beef Dry Pot ($18) in no way resembled the barely moist, Szechuan pepper tingle-inducing, and deeply flavorful dry pots we’ve enjoyed at other Chinese-American spots; it was a damp, mellow, classically presented beef stir fry, plain and simple. At $11, it would be acceptable comfort food. At $18 in the North Loop, it’s a wasted opportunity.

Dan Dan Noodles on the reopened JUN menu // Photo by Tj Turner

Likewise, our Ma Po Tofu ($15) had some heat, but its texture was an undifferentiated slog with more fattiness than we’d been expecting. We’re used to the meat for Ma Po Tofu being browned, crumbled, and sprinkled throughout the dish to provide texture, and we missed that in this dish, which featured a few sparse larger chunks of meat. The dish had some real heat, but it lacked the fiery depth and fermented bean-driven complexity we’ve come to love at places like Tea House on University Avenue.

The best of our mains were the Dan Dan Noodles ($12). These had the crumbled meat / springy noodle texture contrast that we craved, and the noodles tasted fresh and housemade (as advertised.) We’ve had more dynamic versions of this dish, but the JUN version had real charm and was a reasonable value for the asking price.

The unexpected highlight of the meal was a dessert order of Sesame Balls ($6), which were prepared fresh to order and had a perfect crispy/chewy/piping hot thing going on. We’ve become fans of the sesame balls at Ha Tien on Suburban Ave. in St. Paul, but these were better.

Seeing through the fog and hype of North Loop to predict JUN’s success or failure is impossible. But an aggressive injection of spice, heat, depth, and funkiness would do the menu a great deal of good.

JUN Szechuan Kitchen & Bar, 730 N. Washington Ave., Minneapolis | 612-208-0706

The Foxtrot Burger Spot

The Foxtrot Burger Spot in the former Delicata space // Photo by Tj Turner

 

We never had a problem with The Foxtrot Burger Spot’s predecessor, Delicata—tasty pizza, gelato, and ridiculously good coconut cake seemed like a no-fail combination—and we’ve always admired the spot’s lovely patio and comfy indoor dining space. But the formula didn’t connect with locals in the Como neighborhood of St. Paul, so owner Matty O’Reilly took another bite at the apple by converting the spot to a new restaurant that swapped an emphasis on pizza for a burger-driven menu.

We tried the restaurant’s November special, The Big Rip-Off ($12) and dug it. This play on a Big Mac had all the expected elements (two thin patties, three buns, American cheese, a house “whizbang” sauce, pickles) and was lovely. It was defined by well-cooked beef, substantial brioche buns, and zippy sauce that complemented the whole without overwhelming it.

Our Cry Fowl chicken sandwich ($11) was even better. The fried chicken thigh was absurdly tender and juicy, the coating crispy and bathed in a Buffalo sauce that was exactly the right balance between rich and spicy. Blue cheese and pickled onions helped cut against the crunchy fattiness of the sandwich, and added more interest to an already compelling offering.

We brought kids, so we ended up getting an order of the Chicken Strips ($7). They were shockingly good—the same tender-crispy perfection that we got from our Cry Fowl sandwich, simplified down to a strip form.

And that lovingly-made coconut cake? Still on the menu.

The Foxtrot Burger Spot, 1341 Pascal St., St. Paul | 651-756-8123