Kona Grill in Eden Prairie, MN

For many diners these days, sushi is the new hamburger. Restaurants like Kyoto in Roseville, and Akita in Woodbury have AYCE sushi specials and there is no shortage of hungry patrons. While those are solid alternatives other days of the week, my friends and I have always had our “Sunday Sushi” go to spot after accidentally discovering it. Our place isn’t where you might expect, it’s not in Saint Paul or Minneapolis, or even out in the Lake Minnetonka area. It’s tucked into a corner lot of a complex, that houses various boutiques, across the street from a mall, in Eden Prairie, yet Kona Grill is “suburbanly superb.” Also the fact that it’s nearly a 35 minute drive from Oakdale, where I live, I wouldn’t make the drive if it wasn’t worth it.

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I do have to hesitantly admit that Kona Grill, is in fact a chain *cringe*, but it separates itself apart from that title. If you didn’t google the name and learn about the national existence, an unknowing person would probably not realize that. While most chains are in every city, and every suburb, on every block, serving up the same tasteless, stomach-ache inducing waste, Kona Grill in Eden Prairie is the only location north of Illinois. That means Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, guess what, you’re missing out on another Minnesota gem.

Like I had mentioned, when myself and guys get a Sunday free and are craving sushi, we all converge to our sushi playground. The atmosphere and color scheme is shocking to first timers as they walk in and are greeted with a bright blue montage, which one would guess is a metaphorical representation of being “under the sea.” The restaurant is nicely divided into 3 different areas to accommodate for an eclectic clientele. For those looking to get a little cozy with their companion, their are lush booths and a nice dining area away from the excitement of the bar. Also in the main dining area there is a sushi bar, where guests can watch their rolls being made up close and personal.

In the bar area, it’s a little less “under the sea” and a little more sports and beer. In between the bar area and dining area though, there is a large bright blue exotic fish tank filled with everyone’s favorite brightly colored ocean fish. If watching the fish swim and do their thing isn’t your forte, you can always just drink like a fish at the bar instead. The bar has an assortment of drinks and liquors that cater to nearly every taste. There is even a bottle of Johnnie Blue on the shelf.

For when the weather gets nice, there is even an outdoor patio with complete with a fire pit. But while the Minnesota weather is still baring her teeth, there is a rotunda dining area secluded off the bar that overlooks the patio.

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Now on to the sushi! Like I said previously, on Sundays, Kona runs an all day happy hour on select sushi rolls, which translates to 1/2 off. 10 to be exact. For this outing, myself and my 3 hungry dining companions decided to push our limits even further than usual. We ordered one of every roll on happy hour and 2 of the fiery shrimp roll just to satisfy our appetites. For those that can do math, that’s 88 pieces of sushi for 4 people. Oh and the other best part, split 4 ways that’s 12 dollars a person.

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The rolls are excellent and satisfying to most, but Morimoto may have a gripe or two. I’ve always been a fan of the Atlantic roll and Philadelphia roll but have never been disappointed with any of the rolls. There is just something about the salmon and cream cheese together in the Philly, that I can’t get enough. Likewise with the tempura flakes on the Atlantic roll. For those who have never had sushi rolls and are looking to steep in slowly, the California is always a good starter. The avocado mellows everything out and the fish isn’t overpowering. Regardless of your taste, the friendly service and wait staff will help you make your decision and find the right fit.

Kona Grill is a family friendly place, but it’s also a place where adults can gather, sip a few drinks, enjoy the game on tv, and relax. Think of Kona as the Rainforest Cafe playground for grownups, only without the screaming kids and mall rats.

Big Wood Brewery in White Bear Lake, MN

Big Wood Brewery in White Bear Lake is the kind of place that reminds you of a hidden saloon during prohibition. The kind of place where you half expect to find a bottle of moonshine tucked away in its cavernous lounge. Where the subterranean set up of the taproom creates a sense of mystery and belonging. It’s the kind of place where the locals flock, and outsiders welcomed. Big Wood’s charm starts the minute you begin your journey to the entrance. It’s tucked away off 4th St, and signs lead the way down a little garden-Esq area off the beaten path.

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Only open for a short time, Big Wood’s taproom is gaining steam and quite a following. On several visits, it’s been full, and scoring a table or a coveted seat at the nice wood bar is tough. Even though there has been quite a crowd, Big Wood never feels constricting. There are smartly placed tables for standing around that increase the community vibe. The dim lighting created with reclaimed growler lights and the brick walls enhance the atmosphere.

But what’s a good taproom without quality beer? Good thing Big Wood doesn’t suffer from that. Big Wood has quite the mouth watering array of beers on tap and even brews some good one-offs that change frequently. Big Wood’s Jack Savage Pale Ale, Morning Wood Coffee Stout and Bark Bite IPA have gained quite the reputation as brewery staples throughout the region. Big Wood offers a little of everything for a range of drinkers. Their Peach Saison is crisp and lightly fruity, a great beer for the female crowd, or those that don’t have a strong palate for beer. On the other end of the spectrum, Forest Fire, a 9.0% Smoked Imperial is not for the faint of heart. It hits hard with earthy flavors and resonates with a smoked flavor.

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Aside from good beer, who doesn’t love a brewery that has built itself up on double entendres. Big Wood’s pint glasses, coasters and even some beer names all have not so subtle references to the phallic symbol. It adds character and the references bring with it humor and conversation starting. Who doesn’t laugh when an attractive woman orders a Morning Wood? Even better when a ginger orders a Little Red Riding Wood, an amber currently on tap.

The tap room has definitely been welcomed by the White Bear community, and even draws an older crowd making it a great place to hang out. Let’s be honest, with the amount of business it’s drawing, it seems everyone loves Big Wood.

http://www.bigwoodbrewery.com/Big_Wood_Brewery/Minnesota_Craft_Beer___www.bigwoodbrewery___AGE_CONFIRMATION.html

Shantytown Bar and Grill in Bloomington, MN

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I have a good friend who used to live in East Bloomington. She would always tell me about the neighborhood dive bar that was tucked away in her quiet neighborhood, and often overlooked. I would hear about the crazy nights that took place and the homey atmosphere that existed. Most people haven’t heard of it, much less know where to find it, but to those that know about Bloomington’s little secret, its a great time to be had.

A friend and I were in Bloomington on St. Patrick’s Day, and decided to venture off the beaten path from the usual shenanigans that accompany a bar like the Liffey, or McGovern’s on St. Pat’s Day. We decided it was the perfect opportunity to check out the Shantytown Bar. It’s nestled off the beaten path near 86th and Pilsbury and if you didn’t know where you were headed, you may miss it. After pulling into the parking lot and seeing the bright glowing sign, that reminds you of the age of diners and 60’s Corvettes, we knew we were in for a treat.

When you enter the bar through an age old screen door, it feels like you are walking into a place shrouded in mystery, where you just don’t quite know what to expect on the other side. The door opens and you’re transported into a cozy nook where good music is playing, the bartenders are laughing, and food is slinging. Bartenders greet you with humor and sarcasm and it feels like the familiar place you’ve visited a hundred times.

The menu is simple but with good variety. Shantytown is known for it’s burgers but other options are available from salads to wings.

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The bartender informed us Monday’s were .50 wing night at Shantytown. I was craving wings and decided to see how they stacked up. Shantytown offers your normal standards for wing flavors: plain, buffalo, bbq, cajun, or teriyaki. I chose to go with the bbq and teriyaki. My friend went with the buffalo.

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The wings came out hot and steaming and were large and juicy. The flavor was good and not too overpowering. The bbq had just a slight kick that you would expect from a good homemade sauce. My friend was equally satisfied with the buffalo wings.

One of the cool gems about Shantytown is that when you order a mixed drink, you get a lot of bang for your buck and for cheap. Monday’s are usually 2-4-1 from 8pm-close but because of the holiday they were offering $2 rails and taps. I ordered 2 whiskey / 7ups and they transported me back to the days of college bars and all you can drink nights. If you order a mixed drink, expect about 80% booze and a splash of whatever your mix of choice is. The tap list is very simple and what you would expect at a small bar. The usual offenders (Mich, Bud etc) with a tap line of Honey Weiss and Summit EPA to add a little craft into the mix.

After talking with the bartender, she said Saturday’s are karaoke nights and they draw quite the diverse crowd of “entertainers.” If you’re looking for a great neighborhood bar to try out your vocals and fit in with talents of all ranges, then Shantytown is the place to be.

Whoever has said Bloomington has no nightlife, has obviously never been to Shantytown.

Check out the Shantytown review on Heavy Table: http://heavytable.com/shantytown-in-bloomington-mn/ or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Shantytown-Bar-Grill/57795833634

Reads Landing Brewing Company

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to revisit my old college stomping ground, Winona State. While visiting with old friends and sharing our interest in the upcoming beer scene, we decided to trek up the highway to a little hidden gem tucked away on the Mississippi River- Reads Landing Brewing Company.

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Reads is tucked down just off Hwy 61 in between the highway and the Mighty Miss. The building is historic and atmosphere inviting. One can immediately notice the two quaint benches perfectly situated out front for prime scenery. The brewpub itself feels open and non-constricting. There is a nice wood bar and several tables for dining. The real strength is the configuration of the few bar stools near the front entrance that allow for a stellar view of the nature outside.

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The restaurant has a small line up of dishes and appetizers to sample that are made in the kitchen in the back. My friends and I had already eaten and chose to stick to the beer list. Reads Landing featured four of their own brews on tap, with a rotating selection of 2 guest taps. It was nice to see that Lucid Foto and Lucette Double Dawn on the tap list. Lucid, a local beer out of Minnetonka, and Lucette out of Menominee, WI are both local respected breweries. Reads also features quite a selection of local craft bottles.

I opted to try the Pullman Porter, Reads Landing version of a Mocha Porter on Nitro. I was pleasantly delighted. It was a smooth approachable porter that wasn’t too heavy on the palate but still had great flavor. The coffee taste was distinct but not overpowering and lingered at the finish. Also on the tap list was a cream ale, a brown ale, and a dunkelweizen. My friends tried the cream ale and brown ale respectively, and appeared delighted.

The bartender, who I believe was one of the owners, was friendly and approachable. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the place had a steady flow of patrons even on a Sunday afternoon.

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For more information on Reads Landing, check out the website. http://www.rlbrewingco.com/about.asp

Cinnamon Roll Ale at Moosejaw Pizza and Brewing

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While out and about this weekend, I also made a stop at one of my favorite places in the Dells area- Moosejaw Pizza and Brewing Company in Lake Delton, WI. I was delighted to see that the beer list was long as usual with definite changes on it.

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I am a fan of beers with a lot of flavor and unique character that show a little risk taking. Immediately, I saw the Cinnamon Roll Ale listed on the menu and went for it.

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I was not disappointed. It was breakfast in a glass. After further inquiring, I learned that the brewer had acquired some non-kitchen grade cinnamon, which of course is code for potent. He explained that is similar to what distillers use for cinnamon whiskeys and schnapps but rarely has it been used in beer brewing. The unlikely combination worked well and brought out a strong biscuit flavor with a kick of cinnamon. If you like breakfast, and you like beer, this is one of those you should probably try.

View the Moosejaw website at http://www.dellsmoosejaw.com/