Thursday, April 28, 2011

A few links

We were just featured in METRO Magazine's "Blog Love" section on their website yesterday: check it out! For those of you coming over from that post, welcome!

For anyone who has ever been curious about the photography on We Got Served, I recently wrote a post answering some common questions I get about photography, and gave some tips on how to get photos in dimly lit restaurants - here it is.

Monday, April 25, 2011

128 Cafe

Visited on Thursday, April 21st

Outside Cafe 128

Ben's Review
Around 3pm last Thursday my mom offered to take Annie for the night and have my dad take her to their house on his way home from work. We jumped at the chance to use a gift card they gave me awhile ago to 128 Cafe for an impromptu date night.

I quickly checked the menu online, but since they change it so often there aren’t many details to be found. I did see that they have a weekday special for $25 per person that includes an entree, soup/salad, and a dessert, which sounded promising. We arrived around 7pm with plenty of tables available. 128 Cafe is in the basement of an apartment building on Cleveland Ave., across from St. Thomas. You could drive by the nondescript entrance daily and not notice that it even exists. The inside is as simple as the exterior, with simple but elegant decorations.

The $25 special that night was a fettuccine in a white wine sauce. That wasn’t floating my boat that night, so I passed on the special and opted for the braised pork with polenta and kale. I tried to convince Erin to split a bottle of wine, but as usual she persuaded me that a glass was all she wanted. I got an unpronounceable red wine that was supposed to have a medium body, which it did.

Ben's wine

Soon after ordering we got our wine and a plate of bread, which was awesome. I could easily fill up on warm bread and butter and wine at these places, they should offer that as an option. I would totally pay $3-$4 :)


All the components of my dish were fantastic, the pork mixed with polenta well and I’m a big fan of kale to begin with and with the butter in this dish you couldn’t go wrong. I just got sidetracked writing this review to go look up how to braise pork (it looks easy) and I will be trying this out soon. The portion was actually reasonably sized as well, I didn’t feel disgustingly full as I sometime do at restaurants, even after the bread.

Braised pork with polenta and kale

Because Erin got the $25 special, she got a preset dessert of Izzy’s vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce, but since she really wanted the lemon pound cake, she ordered that and I got to eat her ice cream. I don’t believe I’ve ever had Izzy’s before, but it was damn good, I’m going to try to remember to stop over there this summer sometime.

Izzy's ice cream

I had a great time at 128 Cafe on our unplanned night out, thanks Mom and Dad!

Service: Great service, everyone was knowledgeable and professional.
Food: The food is excellent, everything we had was delicious.
Drinks: They have beer and wine, no booze. I recall the beer list being just so-so.
Ambiance: Being in a basement is interesting, but they do a good job of making you forget that. The surroundings make it difficult to be totally isolated from your neighbors, but I’ve certainly been to worse places as far as that goes.
Convenience: Plenty of street parking in the neighborhoods and they have valet available.

Erin's Review
We are definitely very lucky to have both sets of grandparents nearby, and even luckier when they send a text that they want to take Annie overnight! After we set up the details of the transfer of the child, Ben and I consulted our ever growing list of gift cards and coupons. We chose 128 Cafe since it was going on a whole year since Ben got it for his birthday last June.

128 Cafe is one of those places that we've passed time and time again (although, unlike Ben, I always notice it - it's a huge awning sticking out from an apartment building - how could you NOT notice it??!) and always said we should go there, but never got around to it. There are a lot more flashy options if you're looking to have a nice evening out, but I would call 128 Cafe a quiet underdog among the mid-range but not necessarily top tier restaurants in the Twin Cities.

The one area where this restaurant is lacking is in ambiance. Admittedly, they don't have a ton to work with, and at least they do have a few windows, but it could certainly stand to have a makeover. Even a bit less stark of a paint choice could make a huge difference. Different lighting would be nice, although they are working with slightly lower ceilings. Anyway, the physical look of 128 Cafe leaves a bit to be desired. There are 2 rooms, the smaller front room, and slightly larger back room, where we were seated.

Inside Cafe 128

At first, I thought their $25 special meant you had a few choices of salads, entrees, and desserts, but it's only one entree and one dessert choice, and likely is vegetarian most of the time. I decided to go with it because the entree sounded pretty good to me - a house made fettucini with portobello mushrooms, caramelized onions, and asparagus in a white wine sauce. I picked the ceasar salad, since the other option had goat cheese, of which I am not a fan. I also ordered a glass of the Malbec, which was perfect. I know, not the best pairing with a light pasta, but it worked for me.


The ceasar salad was one of the best I've had - the dressing was clearly homemade, and it was topped with an anchovy and lots of parmesan. I could definitely taste the hints of anchovy in the dressing, and the croutons were delicious and crunchy.

Ceasar salad

I loved the pasta - it wasn't too heavy, but just rich enough with a delicious white wine sauce, and again, topped with lots of parmesan. Although I usually don't like mushrooms, these were very thinly sliced and weren't too mushy. It was a pretty big portion, and I actually had the half I got boxed up for lunch today and it made great leftovers.

House made fettucini with white wine sauce, portobello mushrooms, asparagus and parmesan

As soon as I looked at the dessert menu, I knew I wanted the lemon pound cake - I am a huge fan of lemon desserts! It was a pretty large piece with fresh whipped cream, a few blackberries, and a raspberry puree on the plate. The cake itself was just a bit on the dry side, but still quite tasty. I liked that the whipped cream wasn't overly sweet, it was a good contrast to the sweet cake and flavored well with the berry puree. I also had a bite of the ice cream I had turned up my nose at, and it was quite good, but I'm still glad I went for the cake.

Lemon pound cake with whipped cream and raspberry coulis

I wasn't sure what to expect with 128 Cafe, but I was very pleased with the experience. The food was excellent and the service was perfect - not obtrusive at all, but very friendly and prompt. Thanks to my in-laws for the $63.50 gift card :) If you are looking for a quiet and lovely evening, 128 Cafe is definitely a perfect option!

128 Cleveland Ave N
St. Paul

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Black Sea Restaurant

Visited on April 5 with Josh, Mindy and Abby

Black Sea Restaurant

Erin's Review
Black Sea is one of a few restaurants near Snelling and Minnehaha in St. Paul - none of which look very appealing from the outside. I had heard about it a bit from my stylists at Moxie Salon, which is across the street, and always meant to try it out, but never got around to it. Josh's coworkers recommended the place to him, so he decided to go there for his birthday. Due to the proximity to our house, we were invited along.

Inside Black Sea

I actually had a haircut at Moxie the night before, so I asked for recommendations. I was told that the gyros are great, and that the cheeseburger is surprisingly good as well. The website leaves JUST a little bit to be desired, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. When we got there, we found a tiny place with maybe 10 tables total, and a take-out counter. It was super cramped, but somehow we managed to squeeze 4 adults and 2 babies in there.

There was only one server there, but he was very friendly. I ordered a lemonade, which was actually some kind of specific Turkish lemonade and was a bit too sweet for my liking. We got the falafel and hummus for everyone, but mostly for Annie, and I ordered the Doner Combination plate, which is chicken, beef and lamb gyros with rice and pita.

One thing I was a bit confused about was the distinction between Turkish and Greek food here - I didn't really notice a huge difference from the menu, but that could have been the dishes we ordered. Maybe there isn't a difference at all. They are really close to Hamline University, so need to cater to a student crowd and may be why they also offer fries and burgers. I'm curious to know if anyone has been to Black Sea before, and what you thought of the experience?



The food came out quickly, and tasted pretty good, although the gyro meat was pretty dry. It wasn't even close to the best Greek (Turkish?) food I've had in the Twin Cities, but it was a quick, filling and friendly meal at a place that is within walking distance to our house. If I'm in the mood for Greek food, usually I'd want to eat at Christos just to reminisce about our wedding there. The falafel and hummus were delicious - Annie and I both loved them. The ambiance leaves much to be desired, and the food wasn't THAT good, so I wouldn't recommend it. Despite it's proximity to our house, I'm not sure we'll be back more than a handful of times. If someone comments and tells me that there are better dishes to try, however, I could be persuaded. (After reviewing the photos, I notice the key "delivery" notation on their sign - maybe we WILL be eating more of this after all! 4 blocks is just too far sometimes :)

Combo Gyro

Ben's Review
Our friends Josh and Mindy were going out for Josh’s birthday and being that Black Sea is about four blocks from our house, we decided to join them.

We’ve known about Black Sea for awhile but never seem to make it over there, and I’m really glad that we did! Black Sea is a Turkish restaurant (supposedly the first in the state) crammed into a small space right on Snelling just north of Minnehaha. We walked in and for a moment thought that we’d have to leave - it just didn’t look like there would be enough room for four adults and two little kids. Then I noticed some more space where Josh was waiting for us towards the back. It was still cramped and luckily nobody sat at the table next to us while we were there.

Inside Black Sea

The menu is mostly Mediterranean items, with some burgers and fries thrown in there. I saw that they had gyros and knew what I was getting, it was just a matter of which platter to get. I went with the “Doner-(Gyro)-rotisserie beef and lamb” (#23 from the menu), with fries and an iced tea. There isn’t any beer or wine at Black Sea so it forces you to save a little money that way :)

Gyro plate

The portions are enormous. I got my plate and was delighted by the pile of gyros atop my french fries. They also give you an entire bottle of Tzatziki sauce for the table, which was great. The platter also came with a couple pita pockets to make sure you get extra full.

My gyros was delicious and I managed to eat it all. Josh got chicken gyros with some sort of Buffalo sauce, which was also excellent. Annie enjoyed her hummus, pita, and falafel VERY much. While it was a tight fit with two children, the staff were actually very accommodating about having kids around (though there is only one highchair). Later on Erin and I were talking about what makes a restaurant “kid friendly” and decided that it’s a mix of having food that is appropriate for kids and having an environment that welcomes them. While Black Sea doesn’t have a kids menu and lacks several high chairs, I do give them credit for taking the little kids in stride in their small space (and dealing with the mess they made).

Annie eating pita

I’m glad we finally made it to Black Sea and I look forward to eating there again and getting take out for home. Next time I think Erin and I could split a platter which makes it that much more affordable.

Service: Excellent service, everything came out quickly and they were very friendly.
Food: Delicious gyros and fries.
Drinks: No alcohol but they have an assortment of Turkish coffees and teas to try.
Ambiance: “Cozy”, as owners of small houses would say.
Convenience: Extremely convenient for us because we can walk :)

737 N Snelling Ave
St. Paul

Friday, April 1, 2011

Pizzeria Lola

Visited on Saturday, March 19th with Jake, Allison and Newman

Front of Pizzeria Lola

Ben's Review
Since our friends Jake and Allison live three blocks from the new pizza place in south Minneapolis, Pizzeria Lola, we had been meaning to make it over there to try it out. Last Saturday we finally got together, and Newman was even in town for the WCHA playoffs, so he joined us in trying it out.

Erin, Jake, Allison and Newman
The server commented on our "diverse" table because of our varying state shirts

We walked to Lola from Jake and Allison’s as it was a rather nice day out, and after the winter we’ve had, it felt good to be outside. Annie enjoyed using the Ergo again after a long hiatus. [Editor's note: Not really that long of a hiatus since we used it in some stores and in Mexico, but whatever - she still enjoyed it]

Dad and Annie walking back to Jake and Allison's house from Pizzeria Lola

Since Lola doesn’t open until 5pm, Jake had called around 4:45 to try to get us on the list, since there were five adults and one toddler. It is amazing to me how busy this place gets so early in the evening. We arrived a few minutes before five and they were already open and I would estimate that one third of the tables were full. Fifteen minutes after we arrived the place was packed and people were starting to line up behind the bar. Jake mentioned that the bar/waiting area resembles Al’s Breakfast in Dinkytown; people awkwardly have to stand directly behind someone sitting at the bar. Not the best environment for the people waiting or the people at the bar, but what can you do? It will certainly be better in the spring/summer/fall when people can wait outside instead.

Line of people waiting

They serve wood fired pizza at Lola and the oven is right in the middle of the restaurant. It’s a beautiful centerpiece as it’s lined with soft looking copper that fits in well with the wood-lined walls. The can lighting is interesting as well, they used tomato sauce cans to house the bulbs, and I thought I heard someone say that Lola got the cans from Punch Pizza.

Inside Pizzeria Lola

tin can lights

The pizzas at Lola are on the small side, so for five adults we ordered four pizzas to share. We got a plain margherita pizza, the Lady Zaza, the Boise, and the Sweet Italian. The pizzas came out in a reasonable amount time, enough time for us to chat a bit and enjoy our beverages (they had Furious on tap, always a plus). Newman was excited about the Mexican coke, but then proceeded to order a regular fountain coke, justifying it because he was going to have several refills (he drank probably three cokes).

Lady ZaZa
Lady ZaZa

Sweet Italian
Sweet Italian

I tried the Lady Zaza first which has kimchee sausage, peppers, and green onions. This was surprisingly spicier than I thought it would be, but it was delicious. The crust is excellent and reminds me of Punch Pizza, which is to be expected. Next I had the Sweet Italian, which looked like a more traditional pizza with red sauce, sausage, onions, peppers, and cheese. These two were definitely my favorite, though none of the pizzas were bad. The margherita was good, but they are too sparse for my liking, Annie seemed to enjoy it. The Boise is a potato pizza, as the name implies, and it was tasty, I actually had several of these pieces because we all ate our fill and they were still on the table. That was my cue to help out.

By the time we had finished our pizza it was even fuller than before, with a large line of people at the bar and people milling about outside. Jake, Allison, and Erin all ordered dessert while Newman and I watched them eat it. I tried a bite of Erin’s vanilla ice cream (Mexican vanilla, not that inferior Madagascar vanilla) and it was absolutely fantastic. I was amazed at how good it was, and now I’m reminded to seek some of that out at the store sometime.

We headed out the back entrance to give the photo booth a try. You can buy a ticket for $3 which gets you a photo booth session. The booth takes three pictures and then prints them on a strip for you to take home, or you can cut it down the middle and hang one of the sides on the wall, where they have a sizable collection growing. We opted to leave one of ours, we’ll have to find it next time we go back.

Ben and Annie in the photobooth with creeper Jake in the background

I enjoyed Pizzeria Lola very much and I intend to go back this summer when it’s nicer out, since we have friends that live so close anyways.

Service: Service was great, the manager stopped by to check in on us as well.
Food: Great pizza, excellent vanilla ice cream.
Drinks: The bar is just beer and wine, but they have a good selection of beers. I’m not sure how they got to have Surly, I had heard there is something like a three year waiting list or something.
Ambiance: Certainly a family place, as it’s located right in the middle of a residential area. People were friendly and welcoming.
Convenience: Lola is located right on Xerxes, so there is some bus service. Plenty of parking in the blocks right around the restaurant and easily walkable.

Erin's Review
I am a big fan of pizza, and would eat it for most meals if I could. I kept hearing about how great Pizzeria Lola was, but it being completely across town from us, we hadn't gotten over there yet. We finally set a date to go over and visit Jake and Allison and their pups Bella and Lola and then to go on to Pizzeria Lola. Jake has met the owner of Pizzeria Lola, who named the place after their dog. The owner apparently did not care at all that Jake also had a dog named Lola and lived 3 blocks away, which made Jake a wee bit sad, but not sad enough to not go there.

The walk over was pleasant on that nice spring day - now if only the temps would creep up to the 50s again so this dang snow would all melt! We got there RIGHT at 5, so thankfully got a table right away. Waiting a long time at restaurants really isn't an option for us anymore with Annie, so I'm glad we had the intel to get there so early and avoid what looked like very long waits later! We were seated in a booth, and placed our drink orders quickly. I asked if they had kids cups for milk, and the server said yes - they aren't little cups though, they are just full plastic cups with lids and straws - this worked ok but I had to watch Annie and help her hold the cup lest it go everywhere. We had a sippy cup but forgot it in Jake and Allison's fridge, of course! I am going to add a "kids welcome" label to the blog so people can click that to see the places we've been that I would consider toddler appropriate. Obviously you CAN bring them anywhere, but these are the places I think are better suited to the wee ones.

Examining the menu at Pizzeria Lola

Annie drinking her milk

I really loved the decor at Pizzeria Lola - it was very centered around their pizza oven, which kept the place toasty warm. Hopefully they have powerful A/C for summertime! The oven had some fancy birchwood in the bottom, but we discovered their secret stash of oak in the back when we left through the back exit near the photobooth. Along with a few other places we've visited lately, Lola uses mismatched plates which lends a homey vibe but seems to be not that unique anymore.

Sunburst of lights

Inside Pizzeria Lola

Inside Pizzeria Lola before the rush of people arrived

Plate at Pizzeria Lola

Ben details which pizzas we ordered above - Annie ate mostly the Margherita, which she seemed to love, and some of the Sweet Italian. I also ate these 2, along with one piece of The Boise, which was actually my favorite of all of them. The pizza tasted completely different than it looked - cheesy and almost sweet from the thinly sliced potatoes and carmelized onions. I loved it! Annie had one bite of that one and liked it as well. She'll eat pretty much anything, though, so isn't too tough of a critic. I didn't even try the Lady Zaza because of reports that it was spicy - I figured I'd leave that one to people that would actually enjoy it.

The Boise
The Boise


Jake told me about the ice cream sandwich they had gotten on their last visit, so I was already planning on giving that a try. They now offer it as a "deconstructed" ice cream sandwich, so the cookies and ice cream are separate - Jake mentioned that the one he had tried before was nearly frozen solid, so this is a great move on their part so they can keep the cookies somewhat warm and the ice cream soft. They have 2-3 ice cream flavors daily, I went with the vanilla and I believe Allison went with hazelnut. Ben mentions above that they were very specific that this was MEXICAN vanilla. I previously haven't been picky about my vanilla ice cream, but perhaps I should be??

The ice cream was great, but I was disappointed in the cookies. I don't know why I bother to ever order cookies at a restaurant, when the ones I make at home are absolute perfection in every way, AND I can get them fresh from the oven since we keep the dough balls in the freezer. The cookies weren't warm or chewy, which is a cookie fail in my book. The ice cream sandwich was fine, but with crunchy cookies, you're basically just getting ice cream everywhere since you can't successfully bite through both cookies AND ice cream without squeezing the sandwich completely together, thus you don't get much ice cream in a bite. It wasn't all bad, just not what I prefer.

Deconstructed ice cream sandwich

Constructed ice cream sandwich

On the way out, we had to try the photobooth, since Ben worked on the software for it. At $3 a pop, it's a bit pricey, but was a fun souvenir for us to have, and we are now forever immortalized on Pizzeria Lola's wall o' photos.

Photobooth ticket, $3

Our photostrip

Despite the disappointing ice cream sandwich, I really liked Pizzeria Lola. The pizza combinations were unique and tasty, and the atmosphere was fun. Because there are a number of similar pizza places much closer to our house, I don't know that we'll be back too often, but it is a welcome addition to the skimpy SW Minneapolis restaurant scene!

5557 Xerxes Ave