Happy Hour at NOLO’s Kitchen

We want people to feel comfortable enough to come in here three days a week.”

NOLO’s Kitchen co-owner Brett Johnson said that to the Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal prior to the grand opening. It’s a new, any-meal stop in Minneapolis’ North Loop. You could have French toast with salted caramel butter (a fabulous three-word stretch if ever there was one) and Minnesota maple syrup (another). You could have walleye fingers for lunch, then a walleye sandwich for dinner, or you could have carved-out bread bowls full of chili for both meals. NOLO’s head chef Peter Hoff is from Duluth. He might have spent time in California before taking root in the Cities, but he makes his identity pretty clear with his menu.

But is it comfortable? It is in the North Loop, after all. The dining room looks like a living catalog page. The bar seats are situated so precisely when empty, I was hesitant to pull one out of sequence when I came in for the first time.

Come during happy hour. From 3-6 p.m. Monday-Fridays, they run food and drink specials; and drink specials only from 10 p.m.-midnight Sunday-Thursday. Your concerns will be settled, I promise. You’ll get in your seat, the bartender will toss you a coaster, you’ll see the night’s slate of sports games on the TV, and you’ll notice Fulton Standards are being sold for $3. Summit EPA goes for $4.

You’ll learn what I learned: NOLO’s Kitchen is absolutely comfortable enough that you could stop in three days a week, and I don’t say that as merely an impressed visitor. I say that as somebody who has stopped in three times over a seven-day stretch, and will do that again before long.

The Basics: NOLO’s Kitchen (not to be confused with LoLo American Kitchen) opened in October, with an accompanying basement bar – called The Basement Bar – also open. They’re in the Maytag Building, a stone’s throw from the legendary Cuzzy’s Bar on Washington Avenue.

I have some not-really-uncanny connections to members of NOLO’s leadership team. During a visit to Kansas City in 2014, my first stop was McCoy’s Public House. I wrote about my visit after returning. McCoy’s owner, Marty Collins, is a co-owner of NOLO’s with fellow restaurateur Brett Johnson. Johnson’s family has owned Edina’s Hilltop Restaurant for the past 40 years.

Hoff, as I mentioned, is a Duluthian-but-kind-of-Californian. Sound like anybody you know?

Facebook keeps suggesting their assistant general manager as Someone I May Know. She and I have two mutual friends; which, to put that in perspective, is only two more than if we had no mutual friends.

A cheeseburger and fries offered at happy hour at NOLO's Kitchen and Bar in Minneapolis, Minnesota's North Loop Neighborhood

The dining room is a little clean for my liking, but I’m hoping The Basement Bar lives up to its billing as the subterranean late-night Mr. Hyde. The bar counter upstairs is a shiny, white marble. The ceiling light fixtures match light fixtures affixed to a large couch, and those light fixtures match the Happy Hour $6 burger.

It’s a workaday cheeseburger, straight-talkin’ beef and cheese, no BS. If you want spectacle, though, the French fries have it in spades. I don’t want to jump off a cliff and say they’re “like nothing you’ve had before,” but these French fries will set a high bar. I didn’t even use ketchup for them. I just plowed through them like an eager dog through a leaf pile.

Macaroni and cheese offered at happy hour at NOLO's Kitchen and Bar in Minneapolis, Minnesota's North Loop Neighborhood

Look at this macaroni and cheese. Bill Simmons once posited on The Ringer’s House of Carbs podcast that nobody gets macaroni and cheese right. Well, Bill Simmons needs to get out of whatever status symbol-ass phony sports bar he’s eating at and try this macaroni and cheese. There’s so much cheese, you could eat bites with no noodles. Just forkfuls of cheese. It’s … kind of sweet. I kept thinking of candied bacon.

They give you a generous portion for its $4 price point, enough to have a little extra fun with.

A cheeseburger with macaroni and cheese on it, soon to be called "Frank's Idea" at NOLO's Kitchen and Bar.

I really like the chicken wings. They’re the best dry-rubbed wings I’ve had on this side of Loretto, for sure. The seasoning is gritty, and the breading perfectly crispy. You could eat them without any sauce, no problem, but they come with a house-made Green Goddess sauce. You’re not going to pass up Green Goddess sauce, are you? They didn’t tell me what was in it, but I enjoyed it enough to require a second cup. I enjoyed it enough to eat celery so I could have more.

Eight bucks gets you 10 wings, three piece of celery, and all the Green Goddess sauce your mortal coil can handle.*

It was here at NOLO’s where I ordered avocado toast for the first time. It’s not nearly as weird as I’d envisioned, at least not here. I imagined some dainty concoction with little specks tweezed into place on top of it. At NOLO’s, it’s more of a robust guacamole. Hearts of palm, roasted garlic, tomatoes, foccacia and spinach give it some oomph. The bread I got with it was cheesy and chewy, like pizza bread.

How often do you get more topping than bread anymore, am I right? Aren’t we kind of used to having to scrape topping bowls clean with the last half of your bread, eating some pieces raw, then ultimately getting bored of that and leaving the last pieces behind? Not the case here. I hope you’re cool with eating straight-up guacamole because you’ll be doing that  – unless you order a cheeseburger with it and make another off-menu item. We’re talking about a bona fide heavyweight here, and I didn’t think I’d ever say that about avocado toast.

An avocado spread offered at happy hour at NOLO's Kitchen and Bar in Minneapolis, Minnesota's North Loop Neighborhood

My day with that hasn’t come with that bread bowl chili, but it will. They serve popcorn chicken with “airline chicken breast” at lunch and dinner, too. They have a “Hot Beef Commercial Sandwich,” with jack cheese, gravy, and those French fries. For the serial killer, they offer a kale caesar salad.

They start their day serving breakfast bombs that might food-coma you right back to sleep. On the breakfast menu, biscuits and gravy are listed right below that aforementioned French toast. They’ve got a melted waffle with nutella, carmelized banana, and whipped marshmallow fluff; and a three-egg omelet with prosciutto, porchetta, and smoked cheddar cheese. A yogurt bowl stands its ground among them, armed with something called “hippy seed granola.” Here are the whole breakfast/lunch and dinner menus. Of course they have brunch on the weekends.

And I haven’t even gotten down to The Basement Bar yet. They have poutine down there, hot dogs, chicken buckets and darts.

The team at NOLO’s aimed for a comfortable environment and hit the mark squarely. I’ve left every time feeling better than I did when I entered. Is that not the definition of comfort? If it isn’t, perhaps that dictionary page needs a revision.

I’ll be there again this week, and it doesn’t matter which week you read this. That claim will likely hold true.

*Let’s assume your mortal coil can handle two cups.


RELATED: Read about my late-night adventures, like this one on Washington Avenue, or this one all over Minneapolis. My next one will probably start at The Basement Bar.