The Cherokee Tavern has changed its name, changed its name back, and changed owners twice since it first opened in 1933. But has the food changed over the years? Has the experience of dining there changed, or that of just popping in for a drink?
For the sake of past generations, I certainly hope not.
The Cherokee Tavern stands watch in West Saint Paul, on Annapolis St. and Smith Ave, as it has since Franklin D. Roosevelt first took office. The menu says you can still see rail tracks in the street on Smith Ave. I can’t say I’ve seen them, but I can tell you about a couple of huge potholes on Annapolis Ave.
Rick and James Casper, and their parents before them, owned the Cherokee Tavern for 47 years total. The run ended last year, when they sold the business to Mollie and Brian Rubenzer. The menu suggests Rick and James Caspers’ parents had Manhattans with the Rubenzers’ folks in Heaven when the transaction was finalized. Assuming this didn’t play out like a Mission: Impossible-style triple betrayal, we can assume the transaction was friendly.
The Rubenzers officially became owners on July 19, and went right to work changing nothing about the Cherokee Tavern experience. If you loved it before, you’ll love it today.
The Cherokee Tavern has been modernized in its presentation – symmetric logo, snazzy website, etc. – but the joint is no less classically charming. Four-person booths in the bar remind us how much smaller we were in the early days. Big, round tables in the dining room are the kind of spacious you just don’t see anymore. You can even walk between tables without disturbing anyone! I’m glad to see at least one restaurant missed the memo about communal tables and two-seaters being set up in supply closets.
Hanging on a brick wall in the dining room is a big CHEROKEE SIRLOIN ROOM sign, an homage to its previous name. Originally named the Cherokee Tavern, it was renamed back in 2009. It’s the tavern again, but still very much a room for sirloin enjoyment.
I’ve got an ego when it comes to steak. I really believe I cook the world’s second-best steaks, and that the number one steaks are also cooked by someone named Frank Haataja, but the Cherokee Tavern? The Cherokee Tavern makes a hell of a steak. I lately stopped back in for a New York strip steak, and it came calendar-ready. It had that wobble when cut, and came cooked perfectly on the rare side of Medium Rare. It tasted like meat, nothing more, nothing less.
Filet mignon (5-or 8-ounce), a 16-ounce ribeye, and 21-day aged limousin sirloins from Osceola, Wisconsin-based Peterson Farms round out the steak menu. Every once in a while, pictures of New Zealand racks of lamb and salmon bearnaise pop up on social media.
And surely you know this by now, but just in case: if you dine at the Cherokee Tavern on Thursday night during the week of a birthday, you can get a free 10-ounce steak.
Steaks come with your choice of one potato, and your choice of a soup or salad. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a soup or a salad at the Cherokee Tavern in my entire eight years of patronage. If you’re like me, you’ll eat a small upcharge happily and then eat a second potato even more happily.
I like my mashed potatoes hot and dirty, and that’s how they come at the Cherokee Tavern. You can have them lubed up with butter or truffle oil. You can’t miss the mashed potatoes.
Cherokee Tavern’s 1933 au gratin potatoes are chewy, steamy, and cheesy. They could be cheesier, but I say that about everything. They come in a bowl, covered in a soft layer of cheese that looks like magma. Take a bite too soon and it’ll feel the very same way. You can’t miss the 1933 au gratin potatoes.
A full rack of ribs (because why would you ever get a half-rack?) escalates quickly, whether you’re getting it slathered in house barbecue sauce or caked in dry rub. Meat pulls off the bones with no resistance at all. The barbecue sauce is tangy, and thick; the dry rub has an earthy grit that might take you back someplace woodsy.
My play? Get the dry rub, and make sure you’ve got a really nice hot sauce at home. Just a couple of drops per bite and you’ll be onto something extraordinary.
Oh, and my wife says the Cherokee Tavern offers the best side of bread in the Cities. As the Side of Bread Expert around here, she has an opinion you can trust.
They know cheeseburgers, too. The Ward 2 Burger comes with barbecue sauce, bacon, and cheddar. Nice and simple. The Blue Line Burger is done up with cajun seasoning, Gorgonzola cheese, and caramelized onions. This one is extra special: police, firefighters, EMTs and armed services veterans get 50-percent off this burger.
The community returns the favor during Thanksgiving, where dozens of volunteers help prepare free Thanksgiving meals for those in need. Last year, according to the Cherokee Tavern’s Facebook page, 4,000 meals were prepared. The staff hustles, night in and night out. We’ve left happy, no matter who we’ve come with and what we’ve had. Similar to how Diana and Greg Ehlenz bought Ronnally’s in Woodbury and didn’t try to get cute, the Rubenzers have not tried to get cute. It’s the right strategy.
If Robert and Dorothy Casper really are having Manhattans with Marianne Rubenzer and James Murray in Heaven, they’re drinks justly earned. In fact, I trust the barkeep is pouring them a few more on the house.
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