The Nook (St Paul, Minnesota)

Last week’s schedule had me flying to the Twin Cities to give a guest lecture at the University of Minnesota (anyone want a lecture on radioisotope power supplies for space exploration?), and my flight arrived at lunchtime, so I decided to check out one of the area’s better-regarded Jucy Lucy joints; the Nook. First of all, some background for those not familiar, a “Jucy Lucy” is a hamburger with a layer of cheese crimped between two patties. Done right, it’s a nice combination of cheese, crispiness, and juice, albeit with more than a bit of a hazard of hot cheese burns on one’s lips.

As you can read over on my review of another Twin Cities stalwart, Matt’s Bar, there’s always the perennial question of who makes the best Jucy Lucy in the Twin Cities. When I lived in the Twin Cities, there were always two places that claimed supremacy and had their followers, the abovementioned Matt’s Bar, and the 5-8 Club located a few miles south on Cedar Ave. But since I left the cities in 2001, the Jucy Lucy phenomenon has spread greatly, with over a dozen places selling them (and the trend is even national, I noticed a “Juicy Lucy” is on the menu at Richard Blais’ place now). The Nook is a relative newcomer to the Jucy Lucy scene in the Twin Cities, opening in 2000, but in the last few years, their Nookie Burger (their variant of the venerable Jucy Lucy) is now frequently mentioned in Jucy Lucy supremacy discussions, so I figured it was worth dropping by.

Located on St Paul’s Hamline Avenue across the street from Cretin-Durham Hall High School, The Nook is basically one of those cozy neighborhood bars that are all over St Paul, with the central front bar and a healthy tap list (although since they opened, they have expanded, with basement seating, as well as seating in their expansion). But unlike a lot of the other bars, The Nook has a kitchen and a substantial menu, although since they’ve opened, they’ve focused primarily on burgers, and in more recent years, on variants of their Nookie Burger.

Settling down to a seat at the bar with a pint of ale from Lift Bridge (one of the better Twin Cities breweries that has shown up on the local scene since I moved away), I decided on a nice variation on the Nookie Burger (for my love of Matt’s Bar, the minimalist nature of their system means that the menu is limited): the Paul Molitor Juicy Nookie. Named after the baseball hall-of-famer, the Paul Molitor is a Jucy Lucy made with pepper-jack cheese and topped with a slice of roasted green chile, making for a pleasant burger concept lying someplace between a classic Matt’s Bar Jucy Lucy, and another similar burger favorite of mine from Arizona, the Chuck Box‘s Tijuana Torpedo (which I consider one of the finest burgers in existence).

So, on to the burger itself… When my Paul Molitor arrived (with the common warning from the wait staff about hot cheese burns common at Jucy Lucy joints), it was immediately obvious that this is a much more substantial burger than the cousin at Matt’s Bar (which is both good and bad: the bigger a burger gets, the harder it is to properly cook), but this had all the basics in place: A crisp exterior, a moist interior, and a nice, rich layer of oozing cheese (with a consistently that was “molten” more than liquid), a decent amount of green chile, and good layers of raw and fried onion. This was a rather good burger, bringing back fine memories of both a classic Jucy Lucy and the above-mentioned Tijuana Torpedo. It had some crispiness. It had oozing cheese. And for a bonus, it had pepper kick. This was one fine burger.

So, the question that everyone wants to know: how does it stack up to the classic Jucy Lucy from Matt’s? This is always a matter of preference and religion, but for me, this burger was a solid 10. There was nothing wrong with the Nookie, indeed, it’s a solid burger, and head and shoulders above most of the other Lucys out there. Indeed, it even goes the extra mile with some nice specialty varieties. But I’ll still prefer the Matt’s rendition just because, while it’s a smaller burger, it goes to 11: the Matt’s Jucy has an excellent sear on it, the cheese is that much more liquid, and the burger just that much more harmoniously assembled in a tight little package. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be coming back to The Nook (IMHO, it beats the pants of of the 5-8 Club’s burger)… but I’ll also keep stopping by Matt’s Bar when I’m in town as well. And there’s room for both.

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