Review: Garage Bar and Bowl is an oasis of plainspoken culinary magic

The Buffalo BBQ Wings from the Garage Bar in Waconia, Minnesota // Photo by Becca Dilley

The Buffalo BBQ Wings from the Garage Bar and Bowl in Waconia, Minnesota // Photo by Becca Dilley

What’s in a chicken wing?

Along with burgers and pizza, wings are one of America’s quintessential bar foods, simple to do tolerably well, but surprisingly difficult to get exactly right. The question is: Why shoot for excellence when “tolerable” is good enough?

That’s what drew us out to Waconia (twice) to visit the six-month-old Garage Bar and Bowl. Its co-owner, Dan Madsen, emailed us to pitch his business as a food-forward restaurant masquerading as a humble bowling alley. His earnestness intrigued us, and this line of text from the Garage menu caught our eye:

“UN-BREADED, MEATY HOUSE-SMOKED WINGS ARE A GARAGE FAVORITE! Choose from: Plain, Buffalo BBQ or Dry Rub.”

Those are three food-forward descriptors for wings where, generally, zero will do just fine; and those are three simple, classic preparations where it’s no effort at all to zaz things up with global flavor gimmicks. Also: Why smoke your wings in-house unless you’re sure it’s worth the effort?

The wings were worth the 50-minute drive. They taste like real chicken. They’re big, dense, and meaty, with an exterior that’s beautifully cooked and gently smoked. It’s a tactile joy to rip, pull, tear, and nibble this flavorful meat from its bones. The Buffalo sauce we got on our wings tasted like the real deal, nothing more than melted butter and Frank’s Red Hot, imparting richness and a tangy kick. We thought the half-pound we got for lunch ($6, with fries) would be plenty, but within minutes we regretted not getting the full pound. Or two pounds, for that matter.

Madsen’s wife and business partner, Amy (Peitz) Madsen, is a Waconia native and was the prime motivator behind the restaurant’s founding—she and Dan felt compelled to rescue Waconia’s deteriorating bowling alley and put numerous rounds of renovation into the spot before opening it for business in late 2018.

The renovation was extensive—the Garage looks comfortably modern with dark leather, blonde wood, and high ceilings, and its bowling alley is cheerful, slick, and (based on our visits) already well-regarded by the community.

The updated interior of the bowling alley // Photo by Becca Dilley

The updated interior of the bowling alley and restaurant // Photo by Becca Dilley

“We decided if we were going to try to build a place this unique, we should try to take our culinary interests and put them forward as well,” said Dan Madsen in a phone interview after our first visit.

Wings are the culinary lede of this story, but they just as easily could have taken a back seat to Garage’s equally excellent burgers (mellow but substantial buns from Red Bench Bakery in Chaska; rich, flavorful Black Angus beef; and a perfect mix of toppings to meat to bread) or the light, crispy, well-seasoned house-cut fries that seem inspired (in the most positive way) by McDonald’s.

Also noteworthy: the restaurant’s $5 lunch special Caesar salad. Homemade croutons and tangy, deeply flavored dressing are welcome touches on this balanced, comforting rendition of a classic dish, but the best part is the romaine itself. It arrives lightly grilled, with just a bit of smoke and carbon adding mouth-watering intrigue to the salad.

The restaurant’s pizza ($12 for a 12-inch pie) is also good—while its sauce is too understated, the crust is sublime: carbon-kissed, chewy, and crispy. Its cheese is plentiful, a clever custom mix of good mozzarella, asiago, and parmesan. With a little more bright tomato tang to the sauce and a little less cheese, this would be a great pizza; as it is, it’s quite tasty by any standards, built on a solid foundation of San Marzano tomatoes and Antico Molino Caputo flour.

Sourcing is not an incidental thing at Garage Bar and Bowl. Whatever they’re not making in-house (such as the restaurant’s bacon), they’re generally sourcing locally with a great deal of intent. “We get our bratwurst from Mackenthun’s—it’s the local [Waconia] grocery store that’s been there forever,” says Madsen. “We’re happy to support them by having them make our brats fresh for us. All of our buns come from Red Bench Bakery in Chaska. We can’t make all our buns, but we wanted to use a local baker so we can keep those as fresh and high-quality as we possibly can. Our meat comes from Swanson Distributing. Our hamburgers come from Revier [Cattle Company]—they’re 100-percent Black Angus. Our wings come from Swanson’s—they’re a special type of wing that’s more expensive, but they’re bigger, they’re more plump, they have more flavor.”

The result is a casual eatery in a small town that stands out among its surroundings. “We spent months trying to figure out who we wanted our food from,” says Madsen. “We’ve got probably two or three times the distributors most people have, but I really believe it’s reflected in the quality of the food we put out.”

Garage Bar and Bowl is an oasis of plainspoken culinary magic, heavily disguised as a bowling alley and hamburger joint. What’s important at the Garage Bar and Bowl isn’t the name or the menu or the decor; it’s what’s inside the kitchen and on top of your plate.

Garage Bar and Bowl, 16 W. 1st St., Waconia, MN; 952-442-9999

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