Restaurant Review: Little Tijuana Is an All-Star Dive Bar

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Who floats an artichoke amaro on top of a slushy-machine piña colada? Cynar, the amaro in question, is bitter, intense, and the color of old blood. When it floats on top of a drink, it spreads out for maximum fragrance dispersal, sending up notes like pipe tobacco and green tomato. In stark contrast, a slushy-machine piña colada is something sweet that smells a little like a beach vacation when you were 12, prompting memories of the fake coconut fragrance in Coppertone sunscreen and shuffling up to vending machines in sandy flip-flops. I’d tend to guess that most people who want an artichoke amaro imagine themselves on the Italian Riviera in Prada, and consequently wouldn’t want it on top of a slushy piña colada. Most people who enjoy slushy piña coladas, I’d theorize, see themselves as ideally chillaxing on a pool float and don’t want bitter botanical aperitifs showing up to demand thoughts about Italian drinking culture. But for the very thin slice of humanity that finds this pairing of amaro and slushy hilarious and delightful, behold the new Little T, the greatest thing to happen to Minneapolis bar culture since the pandemic first appeared.

Little T! Little Tijuana. Our sin, our soul. “The tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth,” to quote Nabokov. Little T! The name of having a very good night. The name you have uttered in this town since 1964, after the show, after the party, when you wanted something vaguely Tex-Mex to fix you up, settle you down, help you out. “I definitely went to Little T,” says the new Little Tijuana’s chef Dan Manosack. “I think everyone has a similar Little T’s story. I remember being in a booth, falling asleep, opening my eyes, and there’s rice and beans I don’t remember ordering. Then I made it home with something besides booze in my stomach, and I was grateful someone nourished me and cared for me when I was drunk.”

Manosack is one of the four all-stars who have taken over Little T—repainting, reimagining, and opening a new dive bar in the shell of the old. Let’s do a roll call.

First, there’s Dan Manosack doing the cooking. He is known in town for his years at the stove at Blackbird; for helping open James Beard–nominated Petite León; for running sold-out pop-ups called Broken English; and most notably for his time helping  Portland star chef Gabriel Rucker run nationally lauded spots, including Little Bird. “I knew I was good for Minneapolis, but it was always in my mind: Am I really good?” he recalls of his decision to head west. “I worked for Gabe, I worked at Nong’s Khao Man Gai, I got my confidence.” Little Tijuana is Manosack’s first restaurant as chef/owner, and it shows his unique combination of love for Northland drinking culture and true kitchen expertise.

The pelmeni, for instance, are hand-rolled pasta filled with a hand-piped potato filling, served in a bowl and united by a warm, saucy covering  of caramelized onions, butter, curry, and sour cream. Each bite-size dumpling is gloriously sturdy, tender, and rich. They’re a tribute, says Manosack, to drinking in Madison and ending up at Paul’s Pel’meni, and they’re also just what happens when a chef gets to do whatever he wants. “I was nerding out,” he admits, noting he got his pelmeni molds straight from Ukraine. “It takes me forever to make two orders, but it just feels right to have a shitty dive bar that has handmade pelmeni. I want to show a little technique.”

More technique plays out in what is now one of our town’s greatest steam burgers. This gooey creation made with seared patties of brisket, chuck, and short rib is constructed and warmed within a dome of steam, buns becoming squishy, with caramelized onions and a real heavy-cream-based cheese sauce adding to the saucy luxury. This burger reminds me a bit of an inside-out soup bun, opposite textures that somehow vanish in a blur of delight as they trip past the tongue. Another must-try for dive-bar-food fans: the fried chicken sandwich. For this, Manosack dips into his family’s Lao foodways, pairing the crisp chicken with a bright papaya salad. Vegetarians have to try Little T’s take on mapo tofu, made with Impossible Burger bits instead of meat and served on rigatoni.

“Our fryer is completely gluten-free; the fried-chicken is gluten free; we have a ton of vegan and vegetarian,” explains Manosack. “I just want everyone to be able to enjoy that sloppy sandwich, that grubbing drunk food.”

Manosack’s fried cauliflower appetizer is another good example of the high-low impulse you see everywhere at Little T. On the one hand, it’s just a plate of fried crunchy stuff for people who want more than waffle fries. On the other hand, it is served with the full complement of okonomiyaki toppings you’d find in a Japanese restaurant: It waves with bonito flakes, is perked with pickled ginger, brightened with scallions, and speckled with furikake. Try it with the Sazerac-analogue. What’s a Sazerac-analogue? Please meet Bennett Johnson, another of the stars on the new Little T’s team.

Johnson is the man you’ll often see behind the tiny six-seat bar with the back wall of obscure liquors bartenders love. Johnson, a former touring musician, started his bar career at Café Maude, went on to bartend at Minneapolis cocktail landmarks Hola Arepa and Tattersall, and is now a co-owner of Little T, where he gets to play around making a Sazerac out of not-Sazerac ingredients. The Sazerac Thing is created by cooking a syrup using bundles of the fresh Mexican herb epazote and combining it with locavore aquavit from tiny Minnesota distiller Ida Graves, along with different bitters and liqueurs. Why do that? Because it’s weird and cool. “When I travel, the bars I love are delicious, consistent, fun, and weird,” says Johnson. “We wanted Little T to be low-pretension, a place where the neighborhood can hang, a place where bartenders and service industry can hang and turn it off—you’re not at work anymore; you don’t have to talk about drinks—but also keep it craft and keep people excited.”

It’s a tall order, to keep off-work bartenders excited and also serve the neighborhood—keeping in mind that Little T is in an artsy neighborhood, roughly down the street from the state’s most important museum, Mia, and art college, MCAD. The Little T drinks menu, not much bigger than the size of an iPhone, shows what happens when some of the smartest in the business turn their mind to doing the most possible with a dive bar. There’s $5 Schell’s on tap but also two rare natural wine pét-nat rosés. You find California artisanal liqueurs in the wine-spritz but also cocktails that are pre-batched, bottled, and chilled in the afternoons so night service is quick. Also, you barely notice all the professional hospitality expertise, because it feels like you’re just in some cool basement with Christmas lights on the ceiling and a hand-painted mural of funny space aliens.

The operations and vibe derive from the two other stars behind Little T, Travis Serbus and Ben Siers-Rients. Serbus helped open Petite León and two other local drinking titans, Meteor bar and the beer garden at Butcher and The Boar. He is driving the vibe at Little T, reupholstering the booths himself, stringing the lights, bringing in friends from Blackbird Revolt to hand-paint the walls. (“We tried to be really intentional with our DIY,” explains Johnson. “Keep it funky, and don’t Google. Phone a friend. Everyone’s sick of subway tile with extra birch logs. Phone a friend. It’s a better way to live.”)

“To me, Little T is Travis’s restaurant,” says Siers-Rients. “He’s like a burrowing animal, but for coolness. He cannot live in a space that’s not cool. He just has this eye for detail. So he burrowed in there, and now it’s cool as hell.”

Vinyl records and cassettes spin behind the bar; DJs are coming, and so is karaoke and brunch. “Every cook hates brunch, so I have to be the opposite,” says Manosack. “I will cook you awesome eggs and potatoes and enjoy the awesome margin on cooking you eggs and potatoes.”

Serbus and Siers-Rients remain owner-operators of Petite León, so I asked Serbus how that works. Little T is not a sister restaurant to Petite León; they have different chefs, very different ambitions. “Think of it like a band, how a band can play together, a couple members go off and do something—the first band still exists, and the second one does too,” says Serbus. “This place is glued together by dreams and paint—you run the dishwasher and the lights dim. For some people, they want more polish, so for them, they’re only going to like Petite León. I like both.”

The money and operations guru at Little T is Siers-Rients, who cooked for many years beside legendary chef Alex Roberts at Alma and then went on to open Lyn 65, Centro, and Petite León. Today, Siers-Rients sees his role as building spots where he can lend his know-how and share equity with rising talent, as he is doing as one of the four co-owners of this one dive bar with benefits.

“We’ve been looking at the restaurant industry and the Twin Cities market, and I think it’s pretty oversaturated,” says Siers-Rients. “Sure, you can take out a one-, one-point-five-million-dollar loan, but eventually that huge bill catches up to you, and I don’t think you can get a return. But a second-chance space like Little T, where you clean up the slushy machine and reupholster the booths yourself? It’s like hot-rodding a car. The group of people I work with are so talented; it’s like putting a 700-horsepower engine into an old jalopy. It doesn’t look like much, but watch it fly.”

17 E. 26th St., Mpls., 612-315-3245 

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