“A lot has changed since my last time working in a restaurant kitchen,” Andrew Zimmern said in what might be the understatement of the year. His first restaurant, Lucky Cricket, a Chinese restaurant with a Tiki bar, opens today in the Shops of West End mall complex in St. Louis Park.
When his first show, Bizarre Foods, launched in 2007, he was a fine dining veteran chef and a regular on local TV cooking segments. The world and the restaurant industry have changed drastically since he began a career of traveling the world preaching the gospel of eating other parts of the animal. Zimmern has become one of the most recognizable faces in food media, with three books, four James Beard Awards, web series, and countless other side hustles.
The idea for a Chinese restaurant with a Tiki bar is surprisingly an old one. “I loved Trader Vic’s,” he said, the classic Tiki bar that launched the Polynesian-themed Tiki craze into American the consciousness in the 1950s and ’60s. While Zimmern launched a food truck and sports stadium stands under his AZ Canteen brand, this is his first full-service restaurant.
Walking into the restaurant, the thatched-roof Tiki bar is the first thing diners will see.
Parked in the middle is a little tuk-tuk that’s mostly a photo op, but also a tiny table for two.
Behind the bar is Dean Hurst, an expert in Tiki cocktails who temporarily moved to Minneapolis to consult on the project. Cocktails are made with a myriad of rums and syrups. “The bold flavors in the drinks should match the bold food flavors,” said Hurst. The Mai Thai is a blender drink, dispensed out of a massive carved Tiki head’s mouth, and made from a recipe based on Trader Vic’s original: rum, orgeat, and lime juice.
Many of the bar drinks come in decorative glasses that are available for purchase, along with a selection of other swag.
As much as he is still a chef, Zimmern is aware of the power of consumerism, and the restaurant is primed for duplication. Lucky Cricket is stocked with products, from T-shirts to sauces that food tourists can take home to commemorate the meal.
The menu comprises snapshots of places Zimmern has traveled during his years filming the show. It was at New York’s Happy Stony Noodle that Zimmern fell in love with the cang ying tou, a mix of pork, tofu, and budding chives with just a bit of fermented black beans that are said to look like little fly heads. There are zero flies in this dish.
Other dishes were made up for the restaurant, like a salad made with all kinds of hearty greens, topped with whole shrimp and dressed with a reduced pineapple vinaigrette. It’s a riff on the Asian-ish salad that pops up in other suburban chain restaurants.
Zimmern chats about the chicken and ducks drying in the cooler with obvious pride. He speaks eloquently about a wide range of topics, from parenting to #MeToo, with the easy charisma of someone used to the attention, but the pressure of what this restaurant means is apparent. When a writer steals a bite of a just-photographed dish, his anxiety over one missing piece spikes until the guilty party confesses. The picture was perfect. The dish was served correctly. Zimmern relaxes back into his usual charm.
Zimmern addressed a shift in time schedules on his television shows on Instagram last week, saying the Travel Channel has “decided to go in a different direction as a network, like a rock station going to a hip-hop format, and is no longer airing food shows in prime time.” New seasons of his shows will air on Saturday mornings, with Zimmern List debuting December 15.
Zimmern is swinging for the fences with ambitious items that are built to please crowds and critics alike: dishes like hand-torn noodles, sheng jian bao, balanced by with a Minnesota safe-word dish like the walleye sandwich. Whether everyone will fall under the Lucky Cricket spell will be determined in the coming months.
Lucky Cricket will be open daily for lunch and dinner.