Reporters are known to work through lunch and dinner, so we appreciate having people willing to cook for us. It has been a rough year for restaurants, but things are starting to change, and one sign of that is the return of Eat Downtown Week, with specials being offered this spring for two weeks. Find more details at downtownduluth.com. What follows is the News Tribune staff's take on some of the offerings.
Tacos Tacos Tacos
107 E Superior St.
Why this place: New restaurant, who dis? Tacos Tacos Tacos opened in late March, so I was jazzed to jump on it for Eat Downtown week, on the clock or not.
What I had: Al Pastor Street Tacos, Frijoles Charros and agua de jamaica (Hibiscus flower water)
Thoughts: Tacos Tacos Tacos leads with the house special for its Eat Downtown debut, and it’s clear why.
The dish comes with four tacos encased in two corn tortillas each, with a modest layer of tan, Jalisco style, rotisserie-cooked pork, diced onion and torn cilantro — perfect proportions for a street taco, made for moving with you.
And, everything seems chopped with care here, in small bits for a nice distribution of goods in each bite.
The stew-like frijoles charros (charro beans) was a very savory and delicious side. Each spoonful is packed with bacon, ham, pinto beans and dots of diced jalapenos and garlic. The spices and flavor lingered, and this dish felt perfect for a summer picnic or a cold Minnesota night.
For a bev, Eat Downtowners have their choice of agua de jamaica or agua de horchata (water made with rice, sugar and a touch of cinnamon and nutmeg).
I went with the former, which was plum-colored, refreshing and mildly sweet. It's not like anything I’ve tasted before, but one I’ll gladly revisit.
Vibe: Walking in, it was easy to recall the space’s former businesses, but the folks behind Tacos Tacos Tacos are making it their own with Spanish-language tunes playing overhead and large photos of authentic Mexican food on the walls. Their chalkboard menu teased to an upcoming weekend-only dish and some sold-out items.
The empty bar and dining room say there's more to come, and I look forward to seeing what’s next.
— Melinda Lavine
The Boat Club Restaurant
600 E. Superior St.
Why this place: When looking at the Eat Downtown menus, I was instantly drawn to The Boat Club Restaurant because they always have something unique to offer during this twice-yearly event. This year was no different. I took advantage of the lunch options.
What I had: There are two options: fried chicken in a spicy honey glaze with two crepes filled with whipped sage goat cheese, and a caprese grilled cheese with basil pesto, mozzarella cheese and tomato on cranberry wild rice bread served with house-made chips. You can’t go wrong with either option.
Thoughts: The honey glaze on the chicken was more sweet than spicy, which is complemented by the savory crepes. The sweetness of the cranberry wild rice bread did the same with the savory items of the grilled cheese.
With each option for lunch, you get a choice of dessert, an ice cream sundae or a mini lemon thyme crème brulee. I was hoping to enjoy a lunch by Lake Superior but April weather in Duluth had other plans, so I ended up doing takeout which limited me to just the ice cream sundae for dessert. But I wholeheartedly believe it’s never too cold for ice cream. But if you want to try the mini lemon thyme creme brulee, you’ll have to dine in.
— Adelle Whitefoot
Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar
394 South Lake Avenue
Why this place: Listen. It has been a long time since I've had food prepared by another human while sitting in a public space. I needed 100% assurance that my socks would be blown off by my meal, and I knew that Lake Avenue was a great bet for that sort of physical response.
What I had: Cajun shrimp pasta, which comes with toasted focaccia, with a banana bread cheesecake cup
Thoughts: True story: I haven't been to a restaurant since Eat Downtown in March 2020, when I sat by the fireplace at Restaurant 301 with one of my best friends, and we wondered if maybe we had passed the comfortable date for in-public dining. I wouldn't see her again for months. The Cajun shrimp pasta at Lake Avenue was creamy and spicy-sweet that warmed but never overwhelmed. It had a perfect number of perfect shrimp, and have you ever literally cooed at a server? "I forgot your food is so amazing," I drooled. The dessert was squares of banana bread with a dollop of frosting-like cheesecake in the shape of a scoop of ice cream. I also tacked on a pint of raspberry booch by Uffda Kombucha and felt so alive. What's next? Concerts? Air travel? Hugs?
Vibe: It was very chill in the post-lunch hours with tables spaced well and masked servers.
— Christa Lawler
Holiday Center, 207 W. Superior St.
Why this place: I’m one of a handful of News Tribune employees who have been staffing the downtown headquarters in this new virtual world of ours. Reporters are notorious for trying to scarf down meals between assignments, so proximity and speed of service are big pluses.
What I had: $12 lunch special consisting of Sarnano chicken salad, cold muffuletta wrap, hot porketta sandwich, pomodoro penne and a mini German chocolate cake.
Thoughts: It was a lot of food, with good variety, and worth the price. Prepare to save some leftovers or plan a small dinner.
It was advertised as a pick-four special, and I attentively studied the sandwich board menu in the Holiday Center hallway for several moments before deciding to just head inside and wing it. If you’re like me and you often have trouble settling on one item at a restaurant, the “little of this, little of that” sampler is a nice option. The staff at the counter was quite affable, patiently displaying a series of ready-to-go options, several of which weren’t even listed outside. They kept offering me more, and it wasn’t until I got back to the office that I realized I somehow ended up with five selections.
The Sarnano salad mixes some unexpected ingredients — romaine, grilled chicken breast, pineapple, grapes, strawberries and craisins, topped with candied almonds, crispy wontons and a raspberry vinaigrette — in a sweet appetizer. You can never go wrong with penne and tomato sauce, especially topped with one of Valentini’s signature meatballs.
The porketta, despite being wrapped in foil, wasn’t so hot by the time I got around to it, but it nonetheless provided a savory and filling hit, as did the muffuletta wrap. And you can never go wrong by washing down a meal with a bit of chocolate.
Vibe: The deli occupies a pleasant space inside the Holiday Center, a once-thriving lunch hub for downtown office workers. Unfortunately, like many formerly crowded places, the skywalk is a bit desolate these days; it was almost eerily quiet when I visited just before 1 p.m. on a weekday.
But Valentini’s is counting on a downtown rebound, that I, too, hope occurs soon. The deli just reopened Monday after a long pandemic closure, and staff told me they’re hoping to eventually get back to their old self-serve model. It’s a nice re-addition for downtown workers who want a quick and decent meal on the go.
— Tom Olsen
405 S. Lake Ave.
Why this place: From the plating to the service to the imposing wine list and walls of bottles, Bellisio's has considerable heft in the Duluth dining scene. As Eat Downtown Week is the quintessential occasion to connect some of the city's finest dining to local folks who might want to give it a try, I often make a point to stop by this time of year.
What I had: $25 three-course dinner special: Caesar salad, chicken marsala over mashed potatoes with seasonal vegetables, and tiramisu with amaretto cream.
Thoughts: My goal was to focus on taste, and there were so many, and thoroughly balanced. Though the Bellisio's special includes two other options (fettucine alfredo and pasta all'arrabbiata with Italian sausage), I wanted to think a little bigger than pasta. I was impressed with how the chicken marsala gave equal weight to the chicken and the marsala sauce, instead of just letting the latter run rampant. The vegetables (in this case, carrots and edible-pod peas sauteed with red pepper flakes) had a little zing to make sure they could not be ignored. But the most memorable part was the tiramisu. I am not a big dessert guy, but this delicate combination of textures and flavors could change anyone's mind.
Vibe: Visiting Bellisio's without taking on the wine list seems like going to Canal Park without ever seeing Lake Superior. I'm not very wine-literate, but it's always nice to have many options to complement the meal, and staff who are willing to point you in the right direction. In this case, I had a flight of cabernet sauvignons from the West Coast (purchased separately). At the bar-top, there was a background of light Italian-language hits and American standards, which seemed apt for a restaurant that works so hard to skillfully bring the two worlds together.
— Brandon Veale
7 West Taphouse
7 W. Superior St.
Why this place: I’ve been to 7 West many times in the past and enjoyed each trip. But I’d always gone for the avocado chicken tacos and cheese wontons or cheese curds. I’d yet to try a burger.
What I had: The $15 special with a starter of pretzel bites with cheese sauce and a Sugar Daddy burger with fries for the entree.
Thoughts: I’m not usually a big soft pretzel fan, but it turns out one of the main reasons for that could be having to rip it apart. In smaller, manageable, dippable pieces, it was really nice. The cheese sauce had a little bit of zip, but not too much. All in all, a satisfying appetizer.
I’ve been watching a lot of “Bob’s Burgers” lately, so a burger and fries with a fun name sounded delicious. I could really taste the brown sugar in the bacon, and I appreciated how the cheddar cheese melted nicely on top. The fries left something to be desired. I tend to like crisper fries; these were more on the limp side. Next time, I’d probably go for the chips as a side instead.
No dessert, but I added a glass of root beer from the tap to finish the meal. Honestly, having root beer on tap is a big reason that I keep coming back to 7 West. It comes without ice in a solid glass, the way root beer ought to be served.
Vibe: It’s been over a year since I’ve eaten a meal at a barstool, and it was nice to be back. I felt well-spaced in the restaurant, with enough distance to be comfortable. It wasn’t crowded for noon on a Monday, but I also wasn’t alone.
— Teri Cadeau
Cloud 9 Asian Bistro
308 S. Lake Ave.
Why this place: Hibachi, what else?
What I had: Hibachi shrimp.
Thoughts: My brother Phil was eating at a Hibachi-style restaurant in Sun Valley, Idaho, in the early 1990s when the chef said, “Hey you, big mouth.”
Never mind there were multiple people at the table. Phil was the one to naturally turn his head and get a big ol’ shrimp, right in the mouth.
Now don’t get me wrong. Phil has a big mouth, Neanderthal-like in appearance — so some might say that was as skillful as a fisherman casting a line from a boat and finding water — but a hell of a shot, nonetheless.
You can’t expect that entertainment anywhere, let alone for $10.99 in Duluth on a Monday afternoon. Cloud 9 Asian Bistro doesn’t have Hibachi chefs cooking the food right in front of you — their sister restaurant, Osaka, does. But what you’re going to get is a solid Asian meal at a great price — $3 Blue Moon beers in Canal Park … c’mon, man — with friendly service and an appetizer to boot.
Whenever I’m at an Asian restaurant, I start with the rice. If you can’t even do that well, might as well join the Peace Corps. Cloud 9 does that well, very well, almost too well if it was (presumably) loaded with soy sauce (my doctor wouldn’t approve), and there was plenty of it. The fried pork gyoza were delicious, some of the shrimp were charred, intended or not, which I don't have a problem with. I actually like a touch of that. The vegetable mix, solid. My friend had the steak Hibachi, every piece, tender, no char. And of course, yum yum sauce. For 11 bucks, yum is right.
Vibe: Eat Downtown. Greatest. Week. Ever. We normally get to enjoy this twice a year, but this past year has been nothing but normal. And — bonus! — it’s extended this time around.
We deserve this, and so does downtown Duluth.
— “Taco” Jon Nowacki