If the restaurant’s name doesn’t conjure up visions of elegant tables and exotic delights, then owner Joe Kaplan is quite content, thank you very much. Joe’s Garage attracts a different kind of crowd: sophisticated, yet wholly unpretentious. They’re the sort of foodies who secretly prefer braunschweiger to foie gras, believing that good food seldom derives any benefit from being stacked vertically or processed into foam.
It follows that Joe’s Garage indeed offers a healthy wine list, but to be quite honest, my dining partner and I plunged right into the signature cocktails, and didn’t look back. We started off with Absolut Bootleg ($8), a summery citrus refresher that nevertheless packs enough vodka to thaw a grinch in January. In perfect contrast was Sleazytini ($10): Its moniker may suggest some Mall of America bachelorette party, but this little devil just might grow hair on your chest, thanks to a healthy dose of sriracha hot sauce—better still, it pairs wonderfully with most of the appetizers.
Brisket Sliders ($7) were intensely satisfying. Melt-in-your-mouth smoked brisket, barbeque sauce, and slaw are tucked into a soft, buttery bun—an apt introduction to Kaplan’s food philosophy. Fried Oyster Po’ Boy Sliders ($9) followed. One must be dexterous to dip the cornmeal fried darlings in chipotle remoulade first, then comport them into one’s mouth intact, but, hey, that’s part of the fun. Spicy Lamb Meatballs ($8) are a little more decadent, baked with tangy goat cheese and a rich tomato sauce. Lastly, Spicy Cream Cheese Eggrolls ($8) are an unexpected treat that point to a flexible, smart kitchen.
Following our apps, we sipped Espressotini ($10). The coy Stoli Vanil vodka doesn’t quite conceal a healthy bite of espresso, and I, for one, am glad. I always have liked my cocktails on the kicky side, but if you prefer yours ultrasmooth, Joe’s Margarita ($8) may be more to your liking.
After our second round of cocktails, we were primed to try Kaplan’s burgers, which did the gourmet hamburger “thing” before it was at its zenith of food trendiness. Spicy Asian Pork Burger ($9) manages to straddle the line between uniqueness and tradition—it is still a burger, underneath the Asian slaw and peanut soy dressing, which satisfies like the old American favorite, while offering something altogether new. However, Pate Burger ($10), served perfectly pink in the middle, is absolutely a must-order item, with Nueske’s smoked liver pate and caramelized onion. Remember that bit about the foodies and the braunschweiger? If you identified with that, this burger is your new Wednesday night sweetheart.
All the burgers are served with chips, but one can substitute fries, mixed greens, or mashers for an additional $2.50. For my money, I recommend going with the fries upgrade—they are perfectly salted, with a nice crispy exterior combined with soft, potato-ey goodness on the inside.
If you simply are not in the mood for a burger, Joe’s Garage also offers a healthy host of pasta or risotto dishes. We tried Red Thai Curry Risotto ($11), which combines potatoes, shiitake mushrooms, and peas with a downright decadent curry sauce, but still manages to showcase its base of dainty, al dente risotto. My dining partner was especially pleased with the gourmet-inspired Mac and Cheese ($12), which bears no resemblance to the mass-produced boxed version, thanks to an aged cheddar, asiago, and blue cheese blend, kicked up with apple-smoked bacon and sun-dried tomatoes—Minnesota comfort food at its best.
After all that, it’s a small miracle we had much of an appetite for dessert, but I long have made a practice to accept such small acts of divine grace as they appear. Strawberry Shortcake ($6)—a pretty little presentation of sweet biscuit, mascarpone and caramelized cream, and fresh strawberries, trussed up with raspberry sauce—is the perfect ending to a delightfully casual evening. For chocolate lovers, Ice Cream Sandwich ($7) offers the perfect bite of chocolate cookie, vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, and whipped cream.
However, if you wish to bypass dessert altogether, but still would feel incomplete without a little bit of sweetness or an after-dinner coffee, Oil and Sand ($5) fits both bills, as a combination of Starbucks coffee liqueur and Godiva white chocolate.
It was at this point in the evening that attention turned to the ride home. The Loring Park area that’s home to Joe’s Garage never has offered easy parking. Admittedly, in the years I have lived in the Twin Cities, I have acquired a bit of Minnesotan parking sloth. However, if you’re debating the value of hoofing it across Loring Park, I promise you, Joe’s Garage is worth the runny nose and flushed cheeks. Keep in mind that once warmed with comfort food, the bracing walk back becomes much, much easier.
1610 Harmon Pl., Mpls.