The Cooper Burger
I’d gone to Nashville for the music, came home with an even tastier passion: Nashville hot chicken. Crusty fried chicken for the gods—or, more than likely, for the devil, because at Nashville food shrines like Prince’s and Hattie B’s, they add hot-hot pepper to the batter coating.
The good news is, last summer Nashville hot chicken hit the Twin Cities, thanks to a couple of savvy entrepreneurs (not from Nashville; rather, Africa) who launched the Nashville Coop food truck, which by now has morphed into a brick-and-mortar on St. Paul’s Snelling Avenue.
Well, one good turn deserves another, right? Last month, the fellas went on to open Stepchld, a bottle’s toss from Surdyk’s. And no, that’s not my bad typing: The name is meant to indicate something a bit off-balance, which, turns out, is just what the restaurant scene needed in Northeast. They took over a small bar and grill, leaving intact its mural of a joyous Black woman and the vine-y plants that dangle from the ceiling’s pipes, freshening a small clutch of tables and the counter’s dining stools. Please engrave my name on one of them in memory of a glorious brunch.
A brunch that celebrated that glorious fried chicken, among other weekend temptations. But its heat level has been geared for more modest palates. Called Bless this Mess ($13), the bird’s enrobed white meat, juicy and tender as Grandma’s, shared space with its traditional Southern accompaniments, starting with plenty of cream gravy. An iconic buttermilk biscuit—toeing the fine line between substantial and tender—completed the MDR of a Georgia kitchen, accented also by a dollop of sweet red cabbage slaw and generous toss of peppery micro-greens to perk up the comfort plate.
We also split an order of the Texas Shrimp Boat, ($15)—named, I guess, for the slab of Texas toast that supported the medley of nubile shrimp of modest size but major sweet, fresh flavor. They bobbed amid a puddle of rich (yes!) Creole hollandaise, which also lapped the edges of a gently, perfectly poached egg. The appealing menu also celebrates beignets (next time, for sure!), oatmeal with fancy add-ins; pork belly fried rice with Brussels sprout kimchee and more, an Ethiopian birra honoring the owners’ heritage, and the Cooper burger, a fave from the kitchen’s former inhabitant.
Dinner again provides offbeat tweaks on familiar items, starting with eight small plates ($9-15) sized for sharing. The hit of the evening was a heap of sautéed Brussels sprouts dressed for success with slivered almonds (nice crunch and touch of richness), apricot bits for occasional hits of sweetness, and curry. Delicious. So were the sweet potato fritters, mealy and robust, abetted with maple syrup (perfect marriage), cayenne’s lively spark, and a suave, smooth sauce of goat cheese for balance.
A composition of asparagus spears presented them lounging in a creamy crawfish bisque scented with garlic (ever so mild, appropriately here) and dill. Good, for sure, along with the beets. They’re served cold and diced, scented with cardamom, and accented with understated bits of pistachios and pomegranate. We were prepared to order the lamb meatballs, too, but they’ve been replaced on the menu by chicken wings, elevated from bar food by their mango-black cardamom barbecue sauce.
The menu continues with a selection of large plates ($25-42)—delicious-sounding and inventive in description.
But wait, there’s dessert! Mango cheesecake, crème brule, and chocolate cake. We went for the one that promised the most interest, the chocolate number—a petite rectangle of ultra-moist, deep, deep, far-from-over sweet chocolate, served with a smooth puddle of sesame butterscotch sauce and a crunchy top note of honeycomb brittle.
Bravo to this cheeky new team brightening our food scene. Can’t wait to see what they do next.
24 University Ave. NE