Photo by Caitlin Abrams
A bowl of the noodle version of the chicken soup at Nighthawks
Here’s the best chicken soup in Minnesota: The broth is a deep gold, a spoon-obscuring gold, a rich velvet gold with weight and depth to it and, holding deep within it, the mineral tracery of bones and time. Plump discs of sweet carrot bob, tender wee rafts of chicken, handfuls of herbs, crunchy, bright ribbons of celery, and magnificently thick rounds of a sort of matzo and herb dumpling made knee-weakening savory with chicken schmaltz and garlic. It’s a soup to make the proudest chicken soup maker throw in the towel and never make soup again. It’s a soup to drive across town in the rain for.
I had it recently at the counter of Nighthawks, the hotly anticipated new diner from chef Landon Schoenefeld, of downtown’s HauteDish. My third grader sat beside me, profoundly uninterested in my soup but deeply enmeshed in the theater before us, as cooks worked a classic diner line, popping pancakes onto a vast flat-top griddle, smashing burgers so they achieved the tasty char spots along with the creamy steam spots, wedging foot-long hotdogs into foot-long buns and burying them under toppings piled as high as peaks on a sandcastle. It was a profoundly moving meal, not just because of the staggeringly great soup, but more because my kids have never had that all-American scratch-diner experience—and when I thought about it, I realized I never had either.
When did the average American scratch diner die? Logically, I know it had to be the minute the price of bagged, factory-made, preservative-laden, artificially colored, and dough-conditioned bread plunged past the cost of flour and one human’s labor—some time during the 1960s? I grew up on gravy made of inexpensive industrial oils ladled from cans, and French fries shaken from bags into fryers. This diner issue might be one of the defining generational questions in America; Baby Boomers and earlier generations grew up in a world where mashed potatoes were cheaper to mash from scratch, hamburger patties were cheaper to make by hand, and the entire economic logic of a small restaurant was that you buy flour, and make hamburger buns. For Gen-Xers and Millennials, with every year since the pivot point of World War II, it is more likely that the world you grew up in was one in which diners were a machine, where food-service giants transformed buckets and pallets into something hot on a plate. What did we lose when buttermilk was replaced by artificial buttermilk flavoring? Among other things, we lost a reason to leave the house, and a common culture.
Those are two of the things I’m crazy about at Nighthawks. The place has pancakes until close (midnight), and for only $6 for a short-stack with real maple syrup and whipped cultured butter, it’s a wonderful dinner for little ones. (Add-ins like bananas and pecans are included in the price.) The pancakes are delicious: fluffy and fresh, a wee bit tangy, a wee bit sweet, bearing none of the chemical bitter taste of baking soda or old flour. The French fries are hand-cut and taste like the ones my grandma used to make once or twice a year, sweet and robust and potato-tasting. The hot dogs are hilarious and fantastic, foot-long Kramarczuk dogs (or house-made vegan carrot dogs) piled sky-high with your choice of different themed ingredient piles, like a chili, cheese, coleslaw, and frito mountain; or a spicy giardiniera summit crowned with a haystack of shoestring potato crisps. “They call that being dragged through the garden!” I explained to my kids, who had never much seen such a thing, because when would they have?
Speaking of growing up without diner culture, Schoenefeld grew up without it too, and came to the idea of his own diner through a path that makes absolutely no sense, and yet total sense. He went to chef-driven restaurants inspired by diners in New York City (M Wells) and Chicago (Au Cheval). Is this like being inspired to start a family by running across a Norman Rockwell painting? Yes. Aside from Mickey’s Dining Car there are no notable historic diners in the Twin Cities—the Uptown Bar, with its house-roasted turkey, is gone, the Modern which was itself a revival of something bygone, is gone. We’re far enough historically from American diner culture that the whole game is now speculative.
Schoenefeld, of course, does have a great deal of lived experience in another sphere of food: fine dining. At HauteDish he has spent five years giving form to the idea that midwestern-vernacular cuisine is not nothing, and in fact, is capable of great heights. That’s why he makes a type of Tater Tot by an exhausting French technique. Because he doesn’t know any other way in to diner food, he comes to all of the diner classics on the Nighthawks menu through fine-dining technique. The chicken in that soup is cooked sous vide first, the stock made through a multiple-stage process that involves pouring a blonde stock over roast bones and pulverizing it all together, then straining it. And the matzo balls are actually a variety of Parisian gnocchi—it’s complicated. The pastrami, beefy and rich, and now I say the best in the Twin Cities, is Niman Ranch brisket, subjected to a two-week brine and then smoked until it’s dewy and resilient, and echoing with layers of pepper flavor.
The burger is a stunning little beauty, an easy entry into the Cities’ top 20 if not the top 10, with a house-baked bun, milky sweet and light as air. The meat is mild but just right, simple and tender and beefy. Of course, Schoenefeld knows his way around a burger, having arguably kicked off Minnesota’s modern burger obsession when he opened The Bulldog Northeast, and since creating one of the local burger legends, the Flavor Country Burger at HauteDish. This one, however, is totally the opposite, with a small patty that’s typical of a diner, made with a house ground of rib eye and chuck and brisket, with a silly and lovely topping that’s made of tomatoes, lettuce, mayo, pickles, and every other typical burger topping thrown into a high-speed blender—including the bun. It tastes kind of like Big Mac sauce, but lighter, so much lighter.
Yes, I’m crazy about this place. There’s a hot open-faced turkey sandwich covered with mashed potatoes and real house-made giblet gravy, and peas, and carefully cut carrots that’s Thanksgiving come to life. I liked the steak tartare and Caesar salad very much, but frankly we live in a world now with so very many steak tartares and so very few real giblet gravy and turkey plates that I found the well-cooked modern restaurant fare (a very nice chopped liver puree with anchovy butter and radishes on toast) less riveting than the diner classics. Nighthawks has a BLT, for instance, that I could eat every day, with fluffy clouds of light bread and intensely flavored bacon and tomato jam.
The desserts, by pastry chef Tlanezi Guzman-Teipel, are also all-American classics, like a beautiful peach pie with fresh peaches, a buttery crust, and feather-light whipped cream, or a modern take on a cream pie, made fresh with carefully cut, pithless jewels of red grapefruit. I predict Guzman-Teipel’s line of Blizzard-like shakes, called Frostbites, are what will be her claim to fame. The “Elvis,” with bacon, chocolate, peanut butter, and bananas, had that special mix the creates a different flavor in every bite. It makes you want to lasso people from neighboring tables to make them taste all the surprise in the classic silvery malt cup.
Yet that’s hardly the biggest surprise at Nighthawks. The big shocker is how cerebral it all is. The place is named for Edward Hopper’s classic picture of a diner at night. Chef Thomas Keller has inspired the food far, far more than any childhood memories of mom’s meatloaf or the corner hot dog stand. Of course, like every part of America, diners must be refreshed by every generation, or they will fade and decay. It’s awfully good to see this bright and alive version, and even better to eat it with a spoon.