For a very long time, St. Paul's Lowertown was a downtown in name only. It was the butt of jokes. Punchlines involved tumbleweeds and streets that rolled up at dark.
No more. To date, Lowertown can boast Heartland, one of Minnesota's first farm-to-table restaurants; Handsome Hog, an upcoming fancified BBQ place; Saint Dinette, a Frenchified neighborhood powerhouse that could be the best St. Paul restaurant of the moment; Tanpopo, the most authentic Japanese restaurant in either city; Barrio, Mexican cooking that's much better than it gets credit for; Ox Cart Ale House, a pub where everything down to the wieners is made from scratch; Big River Pizza, a top contender for best pizza in either city; and more, too many to list here.
The new Dark Horse joins that roster as one of Lowertown's, and St. Paul's, most accommodating bars. Housed in a former magic store on East Seventh Street, Dark Horse strives to give you what you need, when you need it. "What do you want us to be?" it seems to ask. "We can be that!"
What you need is booze. Lots of it, at all times of day and night. At brunch, lunch, dinner, and twice-daily happy hours, marvel at Dark Horse's entire wall of brown liquor. This is the place to turn if what you're after is not a bourbon list, but a bourbon library. Same for scotch, Irish whiskey, and rye.
Dark Horse and sister restaurant Muddy Waters in Minneapolis are also two of the industry leaders in beer. There are about 40 on tap plus all the cans and bottles you know and love. They even do wine reasonably well, with a short list of interesting labels instead of the usual throwaway junk beer bars use to placate wine people. Many of their good, drinkable bottles can be had for under $25, a rarity just about anywhere.
You can certainly have a mint julep or a Manhattan if you like; the bar does mixology, too. And with a can of Hamm's going for $3, dudes spilling over from the divey Gopher Bar across the street may even find something to like. (No Coney Island served here, though. The Gopher's signature meat sauce dog is one of the few things Dark Horse doesn't do.)
St. Paul has always been Minneapolis' more practical, somewhat boozier sibling, and we're glad Dark Horse has kept this in mind. With drinks thusly situated, turn to the food menu. Six hours' worth of happy hour daily means you'd have to try hard not to score a deal on food or drink. Food specials in the $5 to $11 range include global favorites like fried fish tacos, Korean BBQ, and two-topping pizzas.
Even at full price, bar snacks are too varied not to land on something amenable. Baozi (Chinese steamed dumplings) are little handmade bundles of dough, the size and shape of golf balls. Rustic pastry reveals braised pork belly and kimchee within. Set upon a sauce duo of yellow pepper coconut emulsion and Sriracha, they're like igniting your mouth with fiery little cannonballs.
We also like the chicken wings, done three ways: berebere (African spice), salt and pepper, and our favorite, the Dark Horse house wings. These arrive cloaked in a deceptive, clear glaze, Carolina Reaper chiles (a cross between habanero and ghost chiles) lurking to singe off your face. You can cool things down with the attendant pot of creamy smoked gouda sauce. Both the wings and the sauce are inventive and spot-on.
Sadly, neither the pizza nor the classic burger could stand up to comparable items at surrounding places. Both had under-seasoning issues, and while likable enough next to a beer, they weren't lovable enough to seek out independently. This is a shame, as Muddy Waters has some of the most underrated pizza in Minneapolis. We had hoped its sister kitchen would follow suit.
The pizza, with nubs of Italian sausage, roasted wild mushrooms, and roasted peppers could have done with a more flavorful marinara or better seasoning in the toppings. The crust had reasonable crispness and chew, good wood fire blister and char. But at $18, it's a tough sell with distinguished Black Sheep and the Original Red's Savoy pizzerias both available downtown.
We had similar feelings about a classic burger that wasn't really classic at all, as it arrived not atop its familiar soft white bun, but on a shiny pretzel bun. Though cooked to proper medium rare temp and sporting a nice slick of melty cheddar, it could have used a dose of salt and pepper. With Saint Dinette's now legendary cheeseburger available in the neighborhood for just a buck more, Dark Horse will want to beware of competition.
Classics are difficult to master unless one is a specialist, and Dark Horse is most definitely a generalist. In one evening a person could eat Middle Eastern, Chinese, Irish, Turkish, Mexican, Indian, Italian, and Thai. This is to say nothing of the brunch menu, which meanders from biscuits and gravy to bulgogi tacos.
It's unclear whether to feel annoyed or charmed by this all-things-for-everyone approach. Sometimes we felt both in the same visit. A side of roasted Brussels sprouts with kimchee relish and bacon should have been a flavor bomb, but instead fell relatively flat. But then a meal-ender of apple pie encrusted in melted cheddar cheese and served with a pillowy dollop of spiced whip was a delight, a sign of both technical prowess and whimsy.
This see-what-sticks approach seems to be a coup — the place is packed every night. And when it shines, it shines.
Too much of a good thing is a decent problem to have, and Lowertown is on its way to having it. If Dark Horse wants to gather that sentiment up and tie it with a bow, we will graciously take it. Even if that bow sits slightly askew.
250 E. Seventh St., St. Paul