Lucky Cricket is a cautionary tale for building a restaurant on a foundation of contradictions
There may be no less lucky way to launch a major new Midwestern Chinese restaurant than categorically describing your mom-and-pop competition as “horseshit.” But that’s the tack world traveler and TV personality Andrew Zimmern took while launching his St. Louis Park-based mega-eatery Lucky Cricket, which brings us to where we are today: Zimmern has used his name and reputation to bring into the world a sprawling new restaurant that can’t put out a decent bowl of fried rice.
To put a finer point on it: we ordered the rice ($6) at dinner, and it tasted strongly and unmistakably of cigarette ash. (So much so that before we tasted the rice, one of our dining group was looking around to figure out if we’d been seated next to a heavy smoker.)
We returned for lunch the next day. We ordered the fried rice, and when it arrived at the table, the taste of Parliament 100s was entirely absent. Instead, the dish was room temperature and undercooked—as in, the first steaming of the rice was too brief, giving the whole bowl an agonizingly chewy texture.
This review could stop right here, and you’d know everything you need to know. Going 0 for 2 on something as fundamental as fried rice—in two differently memorable ways—tells you that there is sand in some of the gears at Lucky Cricket—gears that are missing teeth, and probably mechanisms that are missing gears entirely.
Fried rice is a cornerstone dish—sublime when done with real skill but still really tasty when done with basic care. Zimmern’s declared ambition for Lucky Cricket is to copy-paste 200 shops across the Midwest to teach the local dum-dums what they’re missing by not dining at real Chinese joints, like those in San Francisco and New York.
But here’s the thing: The flagship Lucky Cricket, the first Lucky Cricket, the Lucky Cricket proximate to all the talent and ingredients available in the Minneapolis–St. Paul metro area, is—two weeks after launching with King Kong-level chest-pounding—a veritable roadkill raccoon of confused service and goofed-up dishes. If it can’t execute its ambition here, how will this play out when the Red Wing branch opens? Or Hibbing? Or Rhinelander?
The answer, of course, is that those branches are unlikely to ever open unless the flagship is effectively repaired and relaunched.
Good intentions located inconveniently somewhere inside a tornado
That Andrew Zimmern is immensely talented in many realms shouldn’t be questioned. He’s hilarious, he’s knowledgeable, he’s courageous, he’s generous with his time, and he’s always up for whatever: the next adventure, the next argument, the next big meal. He swashbuckles with such conviction that you’d be hard pressed not to want to charge right in after him.
That shows on the menu. Dishes like hand-torn noodles, a Peking-style roast duck, and a cumin-and-Szechuan-peppercorn-forward toothpick lamb tell you that Zimmern wants to go big with Lucky Cricket and share with his diners the tastes he loves. In theory, these are great dishes, and we’ve eaten them locally at some of the many excellent Midwestern Chinese restaurants that we love: the Peking duck at Peking Garden in St. Paul; a close approximation of the noodle dish at Tea House in Minneapolis; and many of Lucky Cricket’s dumplings at spots like Grand Szechuan and Rainbow Chinese.
In practice, Lucky Cricket’s execution falls well short of the mark. Let’s take a look at the lamb noodles for a moment. At Tea House on University Avenue, a similar dish, Kudai Lamb Noodles, features flowing, ribbon-like, supple, elegant noodles that are glowing with heat from chili peppers and warm with seasoned lamb. At Lucky Cricket, the Hand Torn Xi’an-style Noodles ($16) arrived at our table dead in the water: far from looking or feeling “hand torn,” the noodles were perfect rectangles, many of which were stuck together like playing cards on a humid August afternoon. The lamb was properly cooked but under seasoned, and it came swimming in a broth-like substance that was profoundly oily without offering warmth or complexity. The finely sliced scallions topped the dish as a tumbleweed-like tangle, more of an impediment than a garnish or supporting player.
Dumplings should be dead simple once you get your processes in place, and here is a very serious question for Andrew Zimmern and anyone else who opens a restaurant: Why would you launch and start selling food to the public before you can execute your basic culinary processes? Our Sheng Jian Bao ($13)—pillowy pork buns with a crisped-up exterior—were too doughy by half. They all contained dough that was somewhere between undercooked and raw. The Szechuan Wontons ($10) had some of the delicate, supple texture we’d been hoping for from our hand-torn noodles, but they also had an unwelcome gritty texture and a general lack of seasoning.
Our Half Roast Duck ($25) seemed to have been prepared “correctly” as per house style, which is to downplay most of what’s interesting about a roast duck—the thin, crisp, lacquered skin; the unctuousness; the interplay between meat and bone. The bulk of the dish is presented in dry medallions ready to be drowned with sweet hoisin and pushed into doughy buns, a sorry substitute for the savory pancakes that typically accompany the dish.
Try this dish back-to-back with the exquisite version at Peking Garden in St. Paul or even make your own from an inexpensive roast duck from Tai Hoa and you’ll be stunned at the contrast. And if you’re like us, you’ll wonder: Why is a restaurant that wants to expand like Texas Roadhouse trying to push a complex dish like roast duck into the hands of inexperienced line cooks? How does this scale up?
The unfamiliarity on the part of Lucky Cricket with roast duck was driven home by how the dish arrived at our table. The waiter misidentified our dish—but not merely by cut or species of bird. First, it was announced as pork belly. “We didn’t order the pork.” Then, as beef brisket. “Or that either.” A manager eventually ran over to resolve the mystery. And we should be crystal clear: the waiter’s not to blame here. He should have been trained to the point where every dish—from the showstoppers to the marginal outliers—was something he was comfortable delivering and announcing.
We also tasted dishes that worked: the earthy-and-sweet “3 Cup” Caramel Chicken ($18) had much of the richness, flavor, and meat-from-the-bone soul we largely missed in our roast duck.
Peter Chang’s Dry Fried Eggplant and Szechuan Eggplant ($12) was billed as crispy-spicy and sweet-savory, but the fried half was under seasoned and not cooked evenly—many pieces were soggy and none packed much spice. The Szechuan-style, by contrast, was lovely, with full, bold, deep flavor that led us to crush the dish and mop the sauce.
Crispy Toothpick Lamb ($18) came recommended by our server, and he was right—the dual kicks of cumin and Szechuan peppercorn made this plate a collection of tasty morsels, particularly when dragged through the savory remains of our Szechuan Eggplant. Even better: One of our friends vouched for the lamb as being much like what he’d enjoyed during visits to China.
Also fully functional is Lucky Cricket’s workmanlike tiki cocktail program. We tried a half-dozen different cocktails at Lucky Cricket (including the $28 two-person fishbowl affair) and they can all be summarized like this: They’re competent, enjoyable, almost completely interchangeable tiki drinks that cost quite a bit ($10–15), pack a restrained but reasonable punch, and arrive in some aggressively fun themed glassware.
At Lucky Cricket’s scale, decent-but-unmemorable drinks and inconsistent food won’t hold the line. There is no problem at Lucky Cricket that can’t be solved with training, time, diplomacy, and money. But the questions that trouble it are existential—what is the real soul of a place created by a man who is a capitalist, storyteller, gourmand, journalist, instigator, and cook? Is the end goal a white-man’s Benihana or taking the long way around to a Rick Bayless-like authority? In the same way that Andrew Zimmern wants to be everything—and sometimes succeeds—Lucky Cricket’s soul is being tugged in multiple directions with great force. Only one can prevail.