Recipe for Reinvention: For Doug Flicker, Bull’s Horn is a revolt against his own success—and a return to his roots

Doug Flicker sitting at the bar of Bull's Horn in South Minneapolis // Photo by Tj Turner

Doug Flicker sitting at the bar of Bull’s Horn in South Minneapolis // Photo by Tj Turner

If you walk into Bull’s Horn in South Minneapolis on the right night, and the scene hits you just the right way, you’ll experience a sudden, giddy rush of confusion. It’s not any single thing—it’s all the details taken in at once: the bubble hockey game, the pull-tab station, the plastic water glasses, the occasional little kid running around a room packed with equal parts hipsters and neighborhood lifers.

You’ll think, “Is this Minneapolis in 2019? Or an Iron Range supper club in 1989?” And then, with a sense of relief, you’ll notice the clean air—in 1989, this place would be one big acrid mass of
cigarette smoke.

The details that set the stage at Bull’s Horn aren’t accidental; they’re a Hollywood-level effort to take visitors back in time. “We use very few traditional pints, everything’s that hourglass Pilsner,” says chef-owner Doug Flicker, holding up some of the bar’s glassware. “The ketchup and mustard being in red and yellow squirt bottles, the pitchers and water glasses having to be the amber plastic, and stuff like that… the napkin holders—old school, traditional stuff. We [Flicker and his wife, Amy Greeley] really tried to capture the time frame.” 

This isn’t one of those 1980s restaurants that “throwback” to the 1950s with broad-as-a-barn set dressing and costumed servers. It’s an actual place transported 30 years forward in time. It’s less a theme restaurant than a location in a Coen Brothers movie, recreated with loving attention to detail.

For Flicker, Bull’s Horn represents a return to fundamentals, like old-school hamburgers, Friday fish fries, and crispy chicken gizzards. It’s such a complete thought that you wouldn’t guess that its chef-owner is best known not for his bacon cheeseburger nachos, but rather for helping to transform fine dining not once, but twice during his long tenure in the Minnesota culinary scene.

Inventing the Insiders’ Club

Flicker with writer James Norton in the Bull's Horn // Photo by Tj Turner

Flicker with writer James Norton in the Bull’s Horn // Photo by Tj Turner

“In ’85, I was graduating high school,” recalls Flicker, of his formative years in Rochester. “I had absolutely no ambition in the world besides chasing girls and smoking pot. I had nothing that I really wanted to do.”

A series of chance events bounced Flicker off the couch and into the kitchen. First, his sister started dating a chef. (“He started showing up around our house, you know—white jacket—and that was kind of appealing.”) That chef then moved up to Minneapolis and made an opportunity for Flicker to join up with D’Amico Cucina just as the restaurant group/catering empire was about to take off and leave a permanent stamp on the Minnesota food scene.

“It was this amazing place of all these people who were older than me, and they were cool, and they were listening to alternative music, and I kind of just fell into it and absolutely fell in love,” he recalls. “It was the first time that I felt like I belonged to something. Instead of being a weird kid in a small town, I came to this place and there were all these people who were like me.”

D’Amico wasn’t just another collection of restaurants and chefs—it was a launchpad for much of the next generation of agenda-setting cooks and owners in Minnesota.

“They were at the top of their game, so everybody wanted to work there,” Flicker says. “So from there, you have Isaac Becker, myself, Tim McKee, J.P. Samuelson—all these people who spiderwebbed out from there. Now you see it with Daniel Del Prado [of Martina and Colita]—they’re somebody, and they’ve got the ball, and people are drawn to them. And 10 years later you start to see the snowball effect from there.”

Soon enough, Flicker started to feel the limitations of traditional restaurant cheffing, which was that customer demand drove the menu, and chefs took a backseat to ownership—as had been the case for many years before that. He struck out in 1996 and opened a restaurant the next year that would stay in business for a decade and change the trajectory of dining in Minnesota: Auriga.

“With Auriga, the cooks were going to be in charge,” he recalls. “You ate what I wanted you to eat. Or maybe a better way to look at it is: I know what I’m doing and I know what’s good, so why don’t you come along with me and I will show you this thing.”

Auriga’s experimentation with a chef-led tasting menu won Flicker permanent fans. “I was at the Loring Cafe previous to that, and we started doing that—people started coming in and we would randomly just send them courses. And eventually it turned into: we would cook for you.”

What Flicker was doing at Auriga was forging a Minnesota connection to a global trend that was changing the face of fine dining—establishing a close, personal connection between the chef (a creative entity) and the diner (a willing pilgrim following the chef’s direction) through the medium of food.

“It was kind of an insiders’ club. […] You’d have to call in advance, we would take a Polaroid picture so I could see you and make some kind of connection through the photograph; at that time, chefs stayed in the kitchen. That was the first kind of spark of seeing people, making that connection, and seeing people while I cooked for them.”

From Upper Class Back to Working Class

Flicker in the kitchen making American cheese // Photo by Tj Turner

Flicker in the kitchen making American cheese // Photo by Tj Turner

Auriga closed in 2007, but it led to plenty of other opportunities. First and foremost was Piccolo, a little South Minneapolis spot that quickly rocketed to the top of the “it” list with its chef-forward, haute cuisine–driven menu. 

“Piccolo was the first restaurant [locally] that was tasting-menu-only, or structured so there wasn’t hamburgers and fries—nothing to fall back on,” recalls Flicker. “There weren’t appetizers and entrees, the normal constraints that people understand when they look at a menu.”

Piccolo’s run from 2010–2017 was marked by press acclaim, including a four-star Star Tribune review and numerous celebrity diners. It could have run for longer, Flicker says, except that the intense nature of the place demanded 100 percent of his attention, something he couldn’t maintain indefinitely. The experience of Piccolo, he says, is what brought him to the project of taking a beaten-down neighborhood bar near his and Greeley’s home in South Minneapolis and breathing new life into it.

“The Sunrise [Inn] was, whether you loved it or hated it, an institution,” he says. “The Sunrise was a drinking bar. The way that people went to Piccolo to eat food, people went to the Sunrise to drink beer and not be judged. So, you know, people felt comfortable drinking 3.2 beers out of pitchers at 9 or 10 o’clock in the morning. And you know, they did that because there was no judgment here.”

After acquiring the bar, Flicker and Greeley set about to reform the charming neighborhood haunt without ruining its appeal. “From the standpoint of it’s just a simple, working-class drinking bar, there’s a certain beauty to that,” he says. “We tried to keep it to that—‘no judgment, everyone welcome’—but we kind of cleaned it up and brought some legitimacy to it.”

Flicker’s path—from D’Amico to Auriga to Piccolo to the 2017 opening of Bull’s Horn (with other stops along the way, including Esker Grove at the Walker and the seasonal restaurant Sandcastle) might look as random as the events that brought him from Rochester to Minneapolis. But as he sees it, the trip has been a seesaw, a constant search for balance that has carried him forward year by year.

“Every action has a reaction,” he says. “Auriga was a reaction to people telling me what I can and can’t cook. Piccolo was a reaction to not letting me cook innards. […] And in that regard, Bull’s Horn is a reaction to anti-fine dining, anti-hype of the restaurant industry […] and a reaction against the toll [it takes]. With Piccolo, there was a point where I could no longer devote 99 percent of my attention to it. And once it dropped down to 90 percent, I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

So instead of slaving over polished, Instagram-ready bites driven by chic ingredients, Flicker is presiding over a family-friendly gathering place that slings simple—but beautifully made—bar food. One of the keys to the new approach hides in plain sight: the humble American cheese melted atop the burgers of Bull’s Horn is made in house.

“It’s shredded cheese, milk, butter, buttermilk, powdered milk, salt, and sodium citrate,” Flicker says, that last ingredient being an additive that makes for a smooth, supple melt. “It kind of goes back to being comfortable with who you are. I grew up with Velveeta cheese, and I honestly believe that American cheese is the only cheese that should go on a burger. Processed cheese melts, […] cheddar gets oily, gorgonzola gets gritty; […] American cheese is the cheese that goes on a burger.”

Recipe for Bull’s Horn American Cheese 

By Doug Flicker

The butter, whole milk, buttermilk, salt, sodium citrate, whole milk powder and Colby or Cojack cheese Flicker uses when making American cheese // Photo by Tj Turner

The butter, whole milk, buttermilk, salt, sodium citrate, whole milk powder and Colby or Cojack cheese Flicker uses when making American cheese // Photo by Tj Turner

Produces about 12 to 15 thick slices suitable for topping a burger or making a grilled cheese sandwich

Bull’s Horn American Cheese is a wholesome reinvention of a mass-marketed staple—a perfectly melty burger topping and grilled cheese–maker that you can make in your own kitchen with a few common ingredients (plus sodium citrate, available plentifully and inexpensively online). If the mass of stuff in the saucepan looks like it’s not melting cleanly, take heart, Flicker says: “It kind of melts and looks like it’s broken, but then all of a sudden it becomes cheese. Don’t freak out!”

A good metric scale will help you execute this recipe.

Ingredients

60 grams butter (2 ounces, ½ stick)
160 grams whole milk (5½ fluid ounces, .7 cups)
50 grams buttermilk (1.7 fluid ounces, .2 cups)
8 grams salt (1 teaspoons)
18 grams sodium citrate (3 teaspoons)
10 grams whole milk powder (1¾ teaspoons)
625 grams shredded Colby or Cojack cheese (22 ounces or nearly 1½ pounds)

Directions

A grilled cheese sandwich made using the American cheese from this recipe // Photo by Becca Dilley

A grilled cheese sandwich made using the American cheese from this recipe // Photo by Becca Dilley

1. Melt butter with the liquid milks in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently.

2. Stir in the dry ingredients.

3. Add cheese and stir until mixture is evenly melted and consistent. The whole process should take about 5–7 minutes.

4. While still warm, spread mixture out evenly on a baking sheet liberally greased with baking spray. Refrigerate until chilled and then divide into 12–15 squares, each should be about 4–5 times as thick as a commercial American cheese single slice.


Read more chef profiles and get other great recipes in The Growler’s Minnesota Spoon column here.