Eat the Menu: Hi-Lo Diner
There’s a new girl in town and she’s looking good.
There’s a fresh freckled face, in the neighborhood.
There’s a new girl in town, with a brand new style.
She was just passing through,
but if things work out she’s gonna stay awhile…
ba ba bum bum bummmm.
—theme from Alice
The lyrics to the theme song of TV’s Alice, a tribute to the hard-working lives of those who made the classic mid-century American diner an iconic institution, are equally apropos of my latest dining dalliance.
The new girl in question is H-iLo Diner. A 1957 Fodero diner who got her start in Gibsonia, Penn., this hardworking gal put in 50 years of culinary service before deciding it was time for a change. With the help of new owners James Brown (Brownsmith Restoration & Forage Modern Workshop ), Pat McDonough (Blue Door Pub), Mike Smith (Brownsmith Restoration & Forage Modern Workshop), and Jeremy Woerner (Blue Door Pub), this storied hash house boarded two trucks and made for Minneapolis, getting a facelift and a new lease on life in the process. And a tasty one at that.
A fact I learned firsthand a few weeks back after I got the chance to slide into one of Hi-Lo’s brand-spanking new booths with a couple friends for a meal that explained exactly why this steel lady of deliciousness has people routinely lined up out her door.
You can’t begin to tell the culinary tale of Hi-Lo without meeting and instantly falling for the talents of executive chef Heidi Marsh. Heidi makes no bones about the method to her madness (genius), incorporating the diner’s mission (approachable, affordable, mostly scratch-made diner fare) into every dish on the menu. Yes, the diner is a retro-liciously fun romp with its vintage, slightly hipster, but equally historic appeal. But it’s also an earnest expression of honest-to-goodness good and thoughtful food. That doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Fish ‘n’ Chips
Speaking of thoughtful, one of my first bites was the fish and chips. Where most are a heavy, batter-laden gut bomb of deep-fried frustration, Heidi’s tempura-battered filets of fried caper-festooned fresh cod were light and crisp and completed with a remoulade that made my southern roots ache for home.
Perhaps Hi-Lo Diner’s greatest contribution to the Twin Cities foodscape is the Hi-Top. This warm, scratch-made-to-order fried donut (that’s so much more than a donut) is topped with any of an amazing array of eight combinations from sweet to savory. At the Hi-Top of my list was the Gary Coop’er. Buttermilk-soaked, spicy corn flake-coated fried chicken is blanketed with creamy country gravy and a naughty maple bourbon syrup. Think chicken and waffles. Also high up on the list: the Yum Yum Yum. Because it’s good, good, good. Spicy sweet Korean short ribs topped with a tart apple bacon slaw.
Everybody’s doing a burger, but so few are actually doing it right. While most are trying to outdo one another with an overabundance of accoutrements, Hi-Lo has learned the valuable burger lesson that less is more. Quality house-ground beef on a Turtle Bread bun, layered with molten American cheese, a dollop of special sauce and a few house-brined sweet pickles promise a burger experience truly few can offer in this town. Translation: add this to your must-have burger list immediately.
Speaking of things everybody thinks they do better than anyone, but probably don’t, let’s talk chicken wings. Where others fall short, Hi-Lo’s wings are non-hyperbolic flavor bombs. And they don’t need a technicolor aftermarket sauce to make them shine either. These dry rub wonders crunch with a crisp only clever preparation can promise.
Let’s be honest. I’m not a huge salad person. When faced with a menu full of meaty substance, I’m hard-pressed to opt for the lettuce-ier side of things. Unless, it’s a weekday and I’m pretending to watch my calorie intake (which, let’s be honest, never happens). Sometimes you just need a salad. And other times you just want a salad. Like, say, the fiery Southwestern wonder of the Albuquerque? The zesty marinated chicken alone could be a main dish all its own.
Lox and Dam Benedict
Breakfast isn’t just for breakfast at Hi-Lo. Always on the menu, never an afterthought, your first meal of the day can definitely be your best. Whenever you decide to eat it. The Lox and Dam beats any Benedict with a melt-in-your-mouth smoked salmon almost as rich as the hollandaise that blankets it. Best thing about a diner is you get to have breakfast and dessert at the same time! And the desserts at Hi-Lo aren’t just a stale piece of pie on a plate either.
Sweet Tea Pie
Speaking of not just a stale piece of pie on a plate, the Sweet Tea pie is anything but. This homage to the syrupy sweet southern beverage was literally one of best bites of my meal. A tea-infused custardy slice is the perfect kiss on top of an already amazing meal. The chocolate peanut butter pie was another table favorite.
Birthday Cake Malt
Nothing goes with a burger better than a malt and Hi-Lo’s are highly addictive. You can stick to the classic chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry flavors or get serious with the likes of birthday cake (my personal favorite) or mint Oreo.
Drink-wise, Ryan Barott runs a cocktail menu from Dan Oskey of Tattersall Distillery as clever and playful as the menu. Take Hi-Lo’s take on the Harvey Wallbanger. The Harvey Walltanger combines Tattersall’s orange crema, Aquavit, Galliano, and Corazon bitters with that good old orange powder American classic, Tang. An array of ice cream cocktails adult up your dessert options as well.
If you’re mouth isn’t already watering inappropriately and you haven’t yet made plans to carry your fanny as quickly to Hi-Lo as possible, I question your life skills. There’s so much good food waiting for you. And although this is one of the hottest new spots in town, don’t forget that Hi-Lo is, after all, a diner. Like all good diners, it’s open late. And early. Just because there’s a dinner rush, doesn’t mean you won’t get in. They open daily at 6:30 a.m. and stay open until 1:00 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and 2:00 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. And they’ve got a patio that seats 50 for those who prefer their dinner al fresco.
Top to bottom, Hi-Lo is a great concept turned into a tangible reality with a solid foundation of meaningful food created by a talented team committed to preserving an icon of Americana one tasty plate at a time.
Just like Alice, Hi-Lo seems to be working out. Here’s hoping she stays awhile.
Ba ba bum bum bummmm.