Respect the Lion’s Crown or Get Out of the Jungle
“You watch those nature documentaries on the cable? You see the one about lions?”
That’s how Christopher Walken’s character kicks off a scene in Poolhall Junkies. Walken, charcoal hair pricked up like the back hair of an agitated cat, suit coat perfectly tailored, walks our hero through an African savannah’s life cycle in less than 100 seconds. The density of his gaze never lets up. The hero walks out and kicks ass.
What does this have to do with Eden Prairie?
There’s a lion resting here. Much like the king of Walken’s monologue, he doesn’t move. Jackals and hyenas have set up just outside his domain, but the lion does nothing. They’re placing weird peppers and mint jam on cheeseburgers, scrambling to bring in the new craft hotness, and getting excited when someone likes them on Yelp. Still, nothing.
The lion sits in his den serving one of the state’s best cheeseburgers, and using two main compounds: cheese and burger. The lion sells it to you for half the price he ought to — in fact, he sells you the secret seasoning for a mere fiver. The lion pours his own taps, lets his patrons buy it in pitchers, and keeps on bedecking his den with a font and color scheme reminiscent of the 1970s A’s.
This is Lions Tap. The pretenders creep toward Eden Prairie, but they’ll only come so close.
The Basics: The website is right here and the history page is worth a read if you’ve got the time. You can find them on Flying Cloud Dr. and County Road 4 in Eden Prairie — “Just west of the Flying Cloud Airport” says the website, because this road apparently has its own airport.
Cheeseburgers and fries are all they have, by the way. That chia seed/kale chip/juice cleanse BS doesn’t fly here.
Monday: This story actually starts outside of Baker’s Ribs, five miles up Flying Cloud. I stopped in their parking lot and saw my friend Logic waddle up to my passenger door. He hurried on in, bringing crisp air and bad news with him: The cold had pushed Baker’s into an early closure.
Instead, we drove toward a landmark visit — of the 10 restaurants in Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine’s cheeseburger league of champions, this was the final uncrossed mugshot (Note: My wife has also eaten all 10, but had Kings Place and Lions brought home for her). With no neighbors on its corner, Lions Tap stands out like a disco suit with its mustard yellow sign and trees wrapped in string lights.
I led the way down the back stairs, over the worn-out welcome mat, and was pointed to the bar by a greeter. Now, am I weird for loving – LOVING – walking downstairs into restaurants? I feel mysterious, alluring, like a seductress making her entrance into a James Bond movie.
You’re right, I am just weird. Anyway, how exhausted was I this Monday? The bartender, Mike, asked what he could pour me and this happened:
“Do you have any stouts, or darker beers?” I asked. He stepped over to his row of pulls, set his hand on STOUT ’77, and let a chortle out.
“The stout is our stoutiest one,” he said.
“I wanted a red, see,” said Logic, “so I got the one with ‘Red’ in the name.” My neck muscles lost my head and my forehead thumped into my palm. Logic shook me out of it, and I began enjoying my stouty stout.
This would be the first of many great exchanges we’d have with Mike and the staff. These guys have fun together, and it’s not fake for-show fun. No, I doubt people relentlessly heckle and plant French fries on each other’s shoulders for show. This is real fun they’re having, fun you can’t help becoming a part of.
So, what would a den built by a lion look like? Wood-planked walls? Of course. A majestic stone wall at the back, with his face on a painting above the fireplace? It’s likely. One random window done in church-style plexiglass with pheasants on it? Listen — when a lion is drawing himself with a green pen, you can’t rule anything out.
Despite being half-full — or, in the bartender’s words, “dead … we’re usually lined up out the door” — trays of cheeseburgers were zipped out from the kitchen. Six would go by, then eight, then four, then like 100, before our two were set before us. Logic ordered a bacon single, and I a California double.
I was turned onto the Cali double by its height, and it is tall. This sucker would make most roller coaster heights, and it’s delicious indeed, but it comes with a price. Ultra-thick tomato slices and generous lettuce hold the beef back from the domination it deserves. The claim on the bar wall of this burger being its own juice bar was proven true, but I wanted to get the cow by itself.
Meanwhile, Logic was shoving his bacon single into every open crevice of his mouth. As he straightened his back and announced his approval, I knew I needed one of those.
BUT WAIT! I had one.
It was my wife’s. It was right there in a little box, in a little bag, untouched and intact.
I unbagged the box, unboxed the burger, and gave my darling back home a couple corners to bite into.
This was like nothing else I’ve had in the Twin Cities, and I mean that. It had that perfect hint of char on the outside, and you could feel yourself chew it a little. The beef by itself had that generations-old-grill-surface taste I love so much, and the secret seasoning has the power to wet your mouth days after eating it (as I’m learning right now). Mike said the plain cheeseburger was the best seller, and I’m not surprised in the least.
I don’t even know how this would stack up against the likes of Vincent and Victory 44. I feel like I’m eating a different item entirely. That Lions Tap can make a cheeseburger in this day and age with JUST THE CHEESE AND THE BURGER and do so this mellifluously blows me away. I promise you, almost anyone else tries this and they flop like Allen Iverson’s rap album.
Just for funsies, have a look at Lions’ front entrance.
That’s a lot of skins on one wall.
A single-pattied bacon cheeseburger is less than $5 and a beer is less than $3. There’s no good reason not to hit Lions Tap. Even if you live on the east side of the metro, its proximity to 494 means high speeds negate the mileage. You’ve got to have this place. Make the drive, wait the wait if you have to. Christoper Walken quotes can’t be wrong. Let the lion show you who he is.