Thursday, June 13, 2019

My Favorite Place in Superior (So Far)



The Spirit Room is my favorite place.

I tend to start my "every bar in Superior" posts with "_____" is my new favorite place, provided I actually like the establishment.  But The Spirit Room has been my favorite bar in Superior ever since I discovered it.  So "new" gets dropped from the description.

Bulleit Rye Manhattan perfect with olives, up.  That's my absolute favorite drink, and I remember the first time I ordered that at what I consider the best bar in Minneapolis, the Monte Carlo.  The person I would come to refer to as "my bartender" said, "Sir, I'm going to need to see your I.D. because most people who ask for that drink are at least twenty years older than you."

Hey, I know what I like.  So once I moved here, asking for this drink became my measuring stick.  If I could find a place that 1) didn't balk at the description, and 2) actually succeeded in making the drink at least as well as I could do at home, then I knew I'd find my people.  One bartender at a different location said, "So is a perfect Manhattan (it's Manhattan PERFECT. the descriptor comes after Manhattan in this case, and if you don't know that, just give me a beer) one with top shelf liquor?"  Another seemed to understand what I was asking for, but somehow made the drink WORSE than if I'd just gotten rye whiskey on the rocks.  The quest continued.

Until I found the Spirit Room, that is.  They know their brown liquor mixed drinks.  If I'm being honest, I can't say their Manhattans are BETTER than my old haunt, but it's kind of hard to immediately supplant a place that has over a decade and a half of solidly great drinks, food, and memories.  But I asked for my drink, and they didn't make me MISS the Monte Carlo.  Mission accomplished.  Plus, there's just something mesmerizing when it comes to watching a skilled mixologist put together a complex drink.  Forget those cupcake shows, that's something I could watch all day.

The top three (at least) mixed drinks in Superior are all made here.
Which is good, because the Spirit Room has no TVs.  Rumor has it they haul one out on a few special occasions throughout the year, but you won't find the sportsball contest du jour shoved in your face from seventeen wall-mounted screens.  (I know I said this was a positive feature at Shorty's, but not every place has to have it.)  In fact, most of the time I'm there I find little to no reason to even pull out my phone and scroll through the most recent social media notifications.  Bring a cribbage board and a deck of cards, and it's a guarantee that you'll start up a game with either a barkeep or a few patrons.

Why is it called The Spirit Room?

There are three reasons behind the name.  The obvious one is a play on words, spirit being another word for liquor.  The second is that supposedly the building or at least this portion is visited by actual spirits.  The staff hesitated to use the word "haunted," because they didn't have any malevolent paranormal encounters to report.  Even when I asked for specifics, they just looked at each other and then back to me and said, "There's definitely some kind of presence," and that's all I got.  So on the scale of 1 being Patrick Swayze's "Unchained Melody" pottery assist and 10 being "The Shining" twins saying, "Come and play with us...forever, and ever, and ever," I'm going to rate The Spirit Room spirit as Slimer eating hot dogs.  The third reason for the name is a tip of the hat to Mother Superior, as in "The Spirit of the Lakes," and that allusion is depicted in the bar's logo.

Is there anything interesting about the business or the building's untold history?

The building deserves its own post or even series of posts because of its history.  But the cliff notes version is that it was built by famed architect Clarence H. Johnston.  From 1904 to 1970 it was the Superior City Hall.old city hall, and it later fell into disrepair and was at risk of being demolished.  The building was saved through what I like to call "incremental preservation."  If you had taken the whole price tag of what it would cost to bring the building back into full restoration and reuse, and tried to accomplish that all in one shot, you'd say there isn't a way to save it and it's just too bad but sometimes these older buildings just have to go.  A better way to go for larger-scale project like this is to take it in steps.  1. Shore up the failing elements of the structure that put the entire building at risk. 2. Find a use and a tenant or partner for one room or one floor, and restore that.  3. Go room by room or floor by floor and bring back each section of the building as time, money, and partnerships allow.  This building is an excellent example of incremental preservation, and The Spirit Room was an anchor tenant to bring that about.  I'll drink to that.

Is there a specialty drink or menu item?

Hoo boy.  Everything here is a specialty.  Throughout much of the year, they have a bloody Mary and mac 'n' cheese bar on Saturdays.  Betty White Russians on her birthday, complete with a Golden Girls' board game is another experience to put on the bucket list.  They have tapas, a Spanish word that loosely translates into "appetizer," but The Spirit Room context it really means "food that is so delicious you'll wish it came in much larger portions."  My ideal Superior bar food serving size is somewhere between Spirit Room tapas and Shorty's poutine.

And one of their menu items is bitterballen, a Dutch food that is a deep-fried ball of beef, broth, butter, seasonings, and bread crumbs.  A fellow Superiorite friend of mine from the Netherlands suggested this as a menu item, they took him up on it, and added a northwoods Wisconsin twist of wild rice.  Spirit Room bitterballen is a hidden gem in Suptown.

But their pride and joy really is the variety of brown liquor drinks, especially their Old Fashioneds.  (Or is the plural olds fashioned, like attorneys general?)  I've wavered between getting my standby of a few favorites that they consistently knock out of the park, versus trying something new.  No matter which I've chosen, I've never been disappointed.  They even do varieties of a gin old fashioned, which sounds heretical to this aficionado but they pull it off.

"Last Dance with Mary Jane" running total:  no change, but trust me, the next few posts will drive this up by a LOT.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Rose Girls



I'm not sure if "rose girls" is a Superior/Twin Ports phenomenon or if it extends a little farther out into northern Minnesota or northwest Wisconsin.  But the Twin Cities bar scene does not have women who come around selling flowers for patrons to give to their sweethearts.  The Cities do on occasion have people, mostly men, who sell such wares at stoplights.  So that was the immediate connection I made, and was reminded of a terrific song by crooner Nick Lowe called "Stoplight Roses."  That song is all about a lover who knows he's screwed up and decides at the last moment to pick up a rose from the eponymous salesperson in hopes that gesture will smooth things over when he gets home.

Stoplight roses, in their sad array,
Love's promise in cellophane lace, or a dead giveaway,
You'll need time to devise a stylish plan,
And you'll do it driving over to the stoplight roses man.

So whenever I see someone selling these, my mind creates a northern Wisconsin series of events that would cause a guy to buy a bunch of these roses in a panic.

"Oh crap crap crap, I came in for one drink and the guys decided to have a whiskey shot drinking race contest and somehow I lost track of time and missed the piano recital AND the little league game and is it our anniversary?  That particular detail is always kinda hazy.  This is bad.  Think, damnit, THINK!  Ok, it was Brett Favre's last game and - no, I used that excuse six times already and I don't think it'll fly again.  I was on a winning streak on the electric slot machines - wait, I have way less money than when I came in so that won't work either.  The Brewers' game went into extra innings - it's NOT EVEN baseball season so scrap that.  Ah-HA, the RERUN of the Brewers' game went into extra...no, not important enough.  All right, I got nothin'.  Better just go home and apologi--ROSE GIRL saves the day!  I'll take one, no, make it a dozen!  This is PERFECT, she'll be SO HAPPY!"

I'm pretty sure this is the primary clientele for the rose girls.

On a serious note though, from what I'm told, the women who sell these are often in really tough spots.  And so far everyone I've seen doing this has been a woman.  The whole system is geared to make it difficult for these women to do well with the sales.  The flowers are frequently excess inventory and they don't have much time left looking appealing enough for people to buy, even in the dimness of a Superior bar.  The inventory has to be purchased up front, and there's no reimbursement for anything that doesn't sell.

So even though I don't have anyone in particular to bring a rose home to, I find myself occasionally buying one or a few roses because I know it's really helping someone out.

Ooh, that's a good one.  I was being chivalrous!  I'll keep that excuse handy, if I ever need it.  Although the song ends with this sage advice.

And if you believe those same old used-to-be's
will see you through
You'll last about as long as
stoplight roses do.

Superior Talks About Bridges Differently



The Two and the Fifty-Three.

If you're not from Superior and your main interaction with the town has been to drive through it, that's what you call the respective bridges here.  Because Google Maps or Mapquest or the Rand McNally road atlas would label it that way.  (For the kids reading this, a road atlas was where you'd pay someone to print out a statewide Google map and put in a huge book form.)

But try and say that in reference to either bridge to someone in town and you're likely to bet met with a blank stare.  I've spoken to more than a few Superior lifers who say they couldn't even tell me which highway goes on which bridge because no one here refers to them that way.

"The Bong and the Blatnik."  That's what you'll get.  And if you ask which one is which, you'll be met with a blank stare or a "well, one of them is the high bridge."

Okay y'all, Ive been on both of them and let me tell you, they're both really high.  I mean, I think one is higher than the other, but at the point when I'm driving, there is really only one height I'm primarily concerned with.  I'm really high above the water and I would prefer not to find out exactly how high.  I'm not trying to look across the bay and ascertain which one is highest so that I know what the locals are talking about.

I guess the high bridge is the Blatnik.  Which I can never pronounce correctly either.  I have had this conversation at least a half dozen times.

"Blaaatnik?"
"No, Blaht-nik."
"Ok, Blot-nik."
"No, Blet-nik."
"Can I just call it the fifty-three?"
"Nobody calls it that and I'm not even sure if that's right anyway.  It's the high bridge."

Which brings me to another point.  I used to kind of snicker at the name "Bong bridge."  Once I learned about the heroism of Richard I. Bong's service to our country, I refrain from such juvenile behavior.  So this is my one and only time I will stray from that commitment here.  From the perspective of an outsider who's having trouble keeping the bridge nicknames straight, it would be a LOT easier to remember if the one the locals designate as the "high bridge" was the Bong.

As it turns out though, the Bong Bridge replaced the Arrowhead Bridge, which used to be pretty much right at the level of the water.  So from that perspective as you'd drive on it, the Blatnik was easily the higher of the two.  It's little tidbits like this that fascinate me.  "The high bridge" is a local parlance that made its way into our lexicon based on something that doesn't exist in the same form anymore.  It's one of those pieces of local jargon that, if you're from here, well everyone knows this.  But if that hasn't seeped into your consciousness from lifelong cultural osmosis, then there's no way you'd get the information unless it's explained to you.

Ah, the life and times of trying to understand this town.  So it goes.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Shorty's Pizza and Smoked Meats


Shorty's is my new favorite place.

This is another bar I've frequented on multiple occasions prior to the culinary and drinking odyssey I've decided to undertake.  Being new in town, I was unaware of its back story upon my first visit.  And one of my best friends and I have a running inside joke about trying in vain to find authentic Philly cheesesteak sandwiches outside of Philadelphia.  So I tagged him in a Facebook photo that said:

This is what Superior calls a Philly cheesesteak. It is, without question, the best we-don't-understand-what-a-philly-cheesesteak-is-so-this-is-what-you're-getting sandwich you will ever have.
As it turns out, I didn't know what Shorty's is most famous for, which we'll get to momentarily.

Shorty's quickly became a destination for me when there were multiple NFL games I wanted to watch simultaneously, because not only are there TV's across the entire bar, but most tables also have their own screens.  In theory, you could have a dozen or so different sporting events viewed at the same time.  It's like The Matrix Reloaded if Neo and the Architect were watching sports instead of spouting bad philosophy.


"Concordantly, while your first question may be the most pertinent, you may not realize it is also the most irrelevant."
"What do you want to drink?"
"What kind of beer do you have on tap?"
"You haven't answered my question."
Why is it called Shorty's?

There are multiple rumors floating around about this.  One server just didn't know.  Another friend posited that it's because a fire at the location meant that the top floor was demolished while the rest of the building remained standing.  (This is an unconfirmed rumor, but I'd love to know if it's true.)  But Guy Fieri got to the bottom of this.  The owner, who is not short at all, just wanted a fun, simple, easy name to remember.

Is there anything interesting about the business or building's untold history?

Another rumor that gets repeated is that the owner won some money in a Canadian lottery, and used that to start the business.  That part is true, but people turn it into a tall tale by exaggerating the amount and then say that it doesn't even matter if the place makes money because the owner is so rich.  The firsthand accounts I've come across downplay that aspect of the story.

The building previously housed a VFW or American Legion, accounts vary, and later was the CC Tap night club.

Is there a specialty drink or menu item?

The sign outside and the menu make it clear, the smoked meats are the specialty.  Those meats infuse and influence almost every menu item.  Their Rueben sandwich, for instance, doesn't include the usual corned beef, which is replaced with their smoked beef.  It's delicious, but like the Philly above, if you're in the mood for more traditional fare, this is the wrong place.

The owner brings his Canadian background to the fore throughout the menu as well.  I don't know what "Canadian style egg rolls" are, but I do know I'm trying them the next time I go.  The serving sizes are humongous!  Sandwiches come in a regular and a jumbo size, and the smaller size is so filling that with two beers and an entree you'll be loosening your belt notch and waddling out after the game.  I've honestly been afraid to find out what they think "jumbo" is.  Because here's their poutine.


This photo does not adequately capture the mammoth quantity of poutine on the plate (topped of course with Shorty's smoked meat).  When we ordered it, our server narrowed her eyes and cautiously advised us, "You've HAD the poutine before, right?"  There were seven of us dining that night, and this was one person's entree that he shared for the other six to take as much as we wanted.  After all that, the leftovers STILL filled two plate-sized take-home containers.  If memory serves me correctly, the dish costs about $14 and could feed you for a week.

I'm convinced Jesus didn't feed the five thousand with loaves and fishes and a miracle.  He had an order of Shorty's poutine that he'd been nibbling on for a few days and told his disciples, "Pass this around because it's going to go bad if no one eats it."  And remember that according to the book of Matthew, the five thousand refers just to the men; it didn't include women and children.  Yet there were twelve baskets of leftovers when everyone was done eating.  Once you see this massive culinary feat, you'll say, "Yeah, that sounds about right."

"Last Dance with Mary Jane" running tally:  3.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Every Bar in Superior - Seven West Taphouse




7 West Taphouse is my new favorite place.  I have a feeling I'll be saying that a lot throughout town.

The beer selection is among the most comprehensive that I have seen in Superior, and includes a Bent Paddle selection of a brew stored in casks used for brandy.  It's like if you had a brandy old fashioned and a beer at the same time, and just as glorious as that sounds.  (The Spirit Room has a brewski old fashioned, and now a life goal of mine is to stop by both places on the same night and have these drinks back to back.)

And the beer menu pulls no punches on what's "real" beer and what is not.  Once at a craft brewhouse in St. Paul, my dad who is not a beer snob in the least, looked at the menu and after some consternation said to our waitress, "You know what?  I'll just have a Miller Lite."  Her perfect response was, "No you won't," and she proceeded to give him their bar's closest proximation to a lite beer.  On the house, to make up for her abruptness.  So I brought my folks here too.

Want some flavored water, Dad?
The burgers are also done at a very high level.  I don't have the vocabulary to describe what they do to my taste buds, but even in a town with lots of quality hamburger options the patties here stand out.

The staff is friendly and fun, and plenty of big-screen TVs are tuned in to important sporting events but aren't overbearing in their presence.  Every aspect of the bar is a solid experience.

On to our series of questions.

Why is it called 7 West Taphouse?

The owner tends to name his bars after the addresses where they are located, and though this one is on Tower Avenue the original is at 7 West Superior Street in Duluth.  As a point of Superior pride, we really should convince them to put our street name out there.  I'm going to start a change.org petition for this, just as soon as I have another beer.  Hey, did you know that Duluth sometimes has TWO directions on their street names?  Like, North 50th Ave West, as if they were naming Kardashian kids instead of streets, and man this beer is good and what was I talking about again?

Is there anything interesting about the business or building's untold history?

The location used to house a dentist's office, and one window in the rear is left over from their remodeling of the spot.  I pointed out that the ceilings look like those in plenty of other bars that were built in the early 1900's.  The server and I couldn't decide whether these were part of the original structure or a feature of the renovation to turn it into a bar.  Better architectural eyes than mine could probably determine that for sure.

Is there a specialty drink or menu item?

The taphouse sauce is what they brag about.  I tried that as a dipping sauce on their french fries and cheese curds and found it to be good but not great.  But their taphouse burger has the sauce mixed with a cream cheese topping and THAT is a party for your mouth and everyone's invited.  Superior is home to a lot of great burgers, but this one quickly goes somewhere near the top of my list.

The cream cheese on a burger is not common outside of the Twin Ports.
You've been holding out on me, Superior.

Last Dance With Mary Jane running tally:  1.  There is no jukebox here, but the song has come up once in my visits.

Update:  And within minutes of publishing the post, it was confirmed that the ceiling and other parts of the bar were added or upgraded as part of the remodel.  Finding out this kind of information is one of the reasons behind the "every bar in Superior" project.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Thirsty Pagan, Round One





Since this is the last weekend before The Thirsty Pagan closes temporarily for its big move, I had to get the current location in for the "Every bar in Superior" series.  It may well be the only one that gets two entries.

I am a huge fan of both their pizzas and their beer.  "I'll be bock" is, for my money, the best name for a beer that I have ever seen.  I love this location and the newly restored Soo Line building is going to be even better.

I have one complaint and one complaint only about TPB.  They call their pizzas za's.  To my ear, it sounds like a dad who's trying way too hard to be hip in front of his teenage kids' friends, drawing a collective eye roll in the way only obnoxious children of a certain age can manage.  "Hey fam, I hope you're hungry for some za's because this shiznit is on the fleek ya heard?"  And the kids are all thinking, "He's being embarrassingly stupid here, but at least there's pizza involved."

Also, the apostrophe is in completely the wrong place.  An apostrophe connotes either possession or the contraction of a word.  Think "of the clock" shortened to "o'clock," or "the pizzas that belong to Jeff" as "Jeff's pizzas."  There is no s at the other side of the apostrophe and there is nothing on the menu that indicates something belongs to the pizzas.  So the apostrophe there serves no purpose.  The word is shortened, but then we should see it written as 'za.  The menu has a paper insert for periodic specialties, and this errant punctuation is consistent.  Somebody's doing this on purpose or no one has bothered to correct them.

My parents were in town a few weeks ago, and I brought them to the Thirsty Pagan.  With no prompting from me whatsoever, my mom looks at the menu and says, "What the heck is a ZA?"  "It's short for pizza."  "Well then shouldn't the apostrophe be on the other side?"

What the heck is a za?


What can I say?  I am my mother's son.

But if the only downside to a place is the menu punctuation, I say go with it.  Now, on to the three questions.

Why is this place called the Thirsty Pagan?

TPB was the first craft brewery in Superior, all the way back in 1996, then called Twin Ports Brewing.  (The brewery was called that, not the city.  I think.)  The company went under new ownership, but getting the rights to use that name was not entirely possible.  So the new owners wanted to keep the same initials but come up with a different name.  The staff served as a focus group of sorts and Thirsty Pagan Brewing won out as the best name.

Is there anything about the building or the business that's a bit of untold history?

I could go into detail about how TPB did craft brewing before anyone else in Superior, and the next time the place gets covered, it'll have a rundown on the restored digs at the new location.  For now, the history is much more personal.  It was at the Thirsty Pagan that I first decided I wanted to move to Superior.  Some friends had moved here a year or two prior, so I began visiting the town and doing more than just stopping at a Subway while going from Minneapolis to Upper Michigan.  I came up to celebrate a birthday, and we had some beer and za'.  I met new friends and connected with old ones, and since I didn't see the menu at the time, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  I left the next morning feeling like I was drawn to Superior, and ever since then I started looking for ways to move here.  If Superior were a significant other, and you asked, "When did you just know you were meant to be together?" I'd trace that back to the night at TPB.

Is there a specialty drink or menu item?

The beers rotate out, and so do the pizzas.  I tend to stick with the same beer because I get to order it in an "Ahh-nold" accent and that's awesome.  And then I usually try the za' du jour.  I've had a potsticker pizza, a shepherd's pie za', and most recently a jalapeƱo popper pie.  Those have all been great, although I put corn and not peas in my shepherd's pie.



"Last Dance with Mary Jane" running tally:  0.  There's no jukebox.  Live music is a staple, and a sign instructs patrons to not request several songs.  Among them are "Freebird," and "Stairway to Heaven," but this song is not yet prohibited.  So there's hope.

Superior Bars - Gotta Catch 'Em All!




Well, that was way too long between blog posts.

In order to get this blog back on track, I began looking for somewhat of a raison d'etre, a reason for existence, if you will, that could keep on even after I became more acclimated to my new surroundings.  Or barring that, at least a certain je ne sais quois even if I don't know what that means.

As it so happens, I like beer.  And Superior seems to really like its beer too.  Now instead of sitting around at home while I take down a pint or two without interacting with anyone, I usually prefer to go to a bar and drink a pint or two without interacting with anyone.  For Finlanders, this counts as being an extrovert.

And Suptown, in case people aren't aware, kind of has a LOT of bars.  I have some OCD tendencies that brought about this aspiration:  has anyone visited EVERY bar in Superior?  Because I want to be the first to accomplish that.  Not necessarily in one evening.

What would it take to hit up every bar in Superior?  First, "Superior" in this case means the city limits.  A hidden gem dive bar in, say South Range or Hermantown, might be noteworthy but wouldn't count towards "every bar in Superior."  A possible exception would be on the outskirts of town if there are establishments outside city limits that have a liquor license administered by the city.  Otherwise, the geographic definition is pretty well set.

Ah, but then we're left with the existential question all Superiorites have on some level always asked themselves.  Like Trinity said at the beginning of The Matrix, "...And when he found me, he told me I wasn't really looking for him.  I was looking for an answer.  It's the question that drives us, it's the question that brought you here.  You know the question just as I did."

Just what IS a bar, anyway?

A bar, for the purpose of this project, has to have several characteristics.

  1. It must serve beer, wine, and/or mixed drinks/cocktails containing some degree of alcohol.  Ok, that one is pretty obvious.
  2. You must be able both legally and practically to consume the alcohol on site.  Just so you know, downing as much of the 77-pack of Natty Light as humanly possible inside the Kwik Trip beer cooler does not make that a bar, even if you promise to tip your server.
  3. It has to be open until 9 p.m. or later on weekdays and 10 p.m. or later on weekends.  There may be some flexibility in here, but in general a coffee shop or a family restaurant with a beer menu is not necessarily a bar.
Armed with my definitions for what I will seek out and where, I wanted to give this project some degree of consistency by asking a few questions at each location.
  1. Why is the bar called ______?  Sometimes it'll be an obvious answer.  "Wide World of Wings" is called that because they serve what exactly?  But even then, there are plenty of names for a chicken wing joint, so why that one?  If the waiter or bartender says, "Hell if I know," that will make it into the post as well.
  2. Is there anything about the location or the building that is a bit of untold local history.  I live for this kind of stuff.  "The barstool you're sitting on is the very spot where, after a long and busy day for the manager of The Anchor, the ghost of Calvin Coolidge appeared and told him to email Guy Fieri so he (Fieri) could tell the rest of the world about the olive burger." is the kind of story I'm looking to hear.  It doesn't even have to be true, as long as it's something people tell each other there.
  3. Is there any specific beer, mixed drink, food item, or experience here that you think sets you apart?  If they say yes, I will try that thing and write about it*.
*With the caveat that the item has to be something a single person or the group I'm with can safely consume.  "Our specialty is a 55-gallon Long Island ice tea, served in a life-size replica statue of Brett Favre, perfect for parties of three or more!" is not something I'm taking on by myself.

And finally, although my beer consumption is exhausting but not yet exhaustive, I've noticed at least one thing about Superior bars that's different than other places.  You all play a certain song by Tom Petty A LOT.  It's really your city's unofficial anthem, whether you realize it or not.  In fact, I would not be a bit surprised if at my first sporting event in town the broadcaster calls out to the crowd, "Please rise and face the flag, and gentlemen remove your hats as the high school seniors brass quartet leads us in a rendition of 'Last Dance with Mary Jane.'"

So each post will conclude with a running total of how many times I have heard that song in a Superior bar.

My frequent haunts tend so far to be The Spirit Room, Jack's, Shorty's, The Anchor, VIP, Keyport, and Aces.  Those may get their posts more quickly than others, but I'm open to suggestions too.

Oh my my, oh hell yes...