Skip the Punch: Did Eagan Really Need More Pizza?

     Another new restaurant chain has opened in Eagan: Punch Neapolitan pizza, the latest addition to the city’s new Central Park Commons shopping mall.
     We’ll get right to the bottom line: we paid $28 for dinner for two that included two small pizzas that were burnt on the bottom. Not toasty, not a little overdone, but burnt black, as black as Paul Prudhomme’s swordfish. So burnt the charred flavor permeated every morsel of food, and not in a good way.
     We can see how this could happen. Punch boasts of its 900-degree pizza oven. The goal is to cook a pizza in 60 seconds, which prompts us to ask Why?
     The result, on our visit, were soggy on top, burnt on the bottom pizzas. We would have been complained, but thus revealed another mystifying aspect of Punch: the service.
     Although there were plenty of servers on duty, their sole function seemed to be to bring food to tables after people ordered it at the counter. They did not return to check-in. The rest of the servers’ time during our visit was spent in a corner talking to other staff and carefully avoiding eye contact with seated customers. There was no way to send back unsatisfactory food and, frankly, no one working at the restaurant seemed to care if we were satisfied or not.
     Although the décor of the restaurant was pleasant, it’s not reason enough to visit. There’s no shortage of pizza in Eagan. If you’re looking for decent pizza, head to Carbone’s up the street or pick some up at Sarpino’s on Cliff Road.
     We did not enjoy the pizza or the overdressed salad, but those were not the most troubling events of our visit. As part of its apparently narrow agenda to bring more restaurants to the city, the Eagan city council has eased the city’s liquor restrictions in recent months, allowing small casual restaurants such as this to serve alcohol. So there are few places left in town where you can take your kids to dinner and not be assaulted with alcohol ads the moment you walk in the door. As a result, during our visit, we saw more than one parent bring kids in for a pizza, grab a quick drink, then head back out to the minivan with the kids.
     The convenience of drinking and driving in Eagan particularly disturbed us in this location where, less than a mile up the road, sits a non-alcohol-serving family business that suffered a catastrophic loss when the family patriarch was killed by a drunk driver who broadsided his car when he was driving to work. That occurred long before this restaurant opened, but, if the city is going to allow alcoholic beverage service with fast food, to quote Mrs. Loman, attention must be paid. 

Pride of the Yankees--if you can find a spot to park at Eagan's popular new restaurant

      We have experienced enough of this great land to know this:
      There was a time in America when, if you wanted to open a restaurant, you had to name it some combination of the following words: Ye, Old, Olde, Colonial, Yankee, Post, Tavern, Inn. Having travelled through New England, we discovered there are enough combinations of those words to impress even Alan Turing. And, whatever the combination of Ye Old Olde Colonial Yankee Post Tavern Inn, there’s one highlight of the menu: pot roast.
      So we were surprised to hear someone was opening a restaurant called Yankee Tavern here in post-millenial Eagan, Minnesota. We were more surprised to hear the focus of the Yankee Tavern menu:  fried chicken and ribs. And when we heard the location, an infamous dive bar on the wrong side of Highway 13, our editorial juices were flowing.
      So, let’s get this straight: they’re renovating an infamous dive bar on the least travelled side of Yankee Doodle Road and turning it into a colonial-themed restaurant that serves fried chicken and ribs? As a wise man named Kenny Bania once said, “That’s gold, Jerry! Gold!”
      Now, we understand, in the current political climate, you can’t open a restaurant called The Confederate Tavern unless you want it burned to the ground by a mob before opening night. But fried chicken at a place called the Yankee Tavern just seemed a contradiction. So we ventured out across Highway 13 on the Friday night of opening week and discovered we weren’t the only ones curious about the new place.
      The parking lot was full, even though the restaurant wasn’t on Yelp or Open Table yet. The wait for a table was a half hour. At first, we wondered if it was worth it because, frankly, the amount of motorcycle parking, the ATM that greeted us in the breezeway and the huge, crowded bar that consumed most of the space in the small building made us wonder how much of a transformation from that infamous late-night haunt had occurred.
      Our question was answered during a table-wait chat with a customer who had been to both renditions of the Yankee Doodle Road watering hole. “This is way better,” he said. “I can’t believe they got rid of the smell. That place was like, if you bought a 1950s house and had people in there who smoked, peed, and puked in it all day. That’s what it smelled like.”
      With that imagery in mind, we headed to our table. It was surprising, given how crowded the Yankee Tavern was, that we didn’t feel cramped at our table for four. Another credit to the space planners and architects who transformed the place, even though the room is small, you don’t feel servers are having a hard time getting through or people are brushing past your table. Despite the crowd, it wasn’t hard to hear others in conversation at the table.
      Once there, we scanned the menu. It wasn’t as overwhelming as the online version, which includes all three meal services. The dinner menu had an interesting array of appetizers, soups, sandwiches and meals. There was something for every appetite. There was also a kids’ menu far more interesting than most.
      This being the Yankee Tavern, we felt we had to start with the New England clam chowder. Although the kitchen is a good distance across the long and crowded bar from the tables, it arrived very hot. So hot, we had to wait before we could eat it. It was worth the wait. The Yankee Tavern’s clam chowder was far superior to what we were served at Legal Sea Foods the last time we were in Boston. The Yankee Tavern’s clam chowder was buttery, smooth, creamy and delicious.
      Then came the ribs and chicken. We first noticed the manageability of the portion sizes. This isn’t a rack-of-ribs place where the server shows up at the table with something that looks like it was pulled from a Flintstones cartoon through the miracle of modern filmmaking. The ribs were well-seasoned and not overly sauced. We did find both the chicken and the ribs slightly dry on the inside, but that’s not unusual at a new place with new equipment and health inspectors lurking about.
      There are three varieties of fried chicken at the Yankee Tavern, all of which looked great. For review purposes, we stuck with the traditional. It was nicely presented and very crisp, not the least bit greasy. As previously mentioned, it was slightly dry on the inside and also a bit saltier than we like. But, overall, it was very good, far superior to anything else available in the area and we look forward to returning to try the other varieties. Since the Yankee Tavern doesn’t serve Coca-Cola products, we washed it down with iced tea, which was excellent.
      Not to be ignored here are the sides. Sides are a la carte at the Yankee Tavern so you can have your fried chicken and ribs with anything you want, or nothing at all. The sides are reasonably priced, so you can order as many as your budget allows. Typically, the sides seem like an afterthought, but not here. We ordered two traditional sides, potato salad and cole slaw. Both were excellent, noticeable without being overpowering. The cole slaw was not the dressing-soaked mess you see at many places. It was crispy and surprisingly interesting, with red cabbage and blue cheese. The sides were so good you could happily order them alone.
      But save room for dessert, because, like everything else, it hasn’t been neglected at The Yankee Tavern. It’s hard to choose from the dessert menu, but we selected the cookie dough and cheesecake cones. The cookie dough was served as a sundae in a waffle cone bowl. The cheesecake was served in a cone of caramel and nuts. Need we say more?
      Overall, the experience at the Yankee Tavern was very good. We give it a solid seven out of ten. No, wait, we'll up that to a solid eight out of ten for not assaulting us with purple and the logo of a certain professional sports league taking over the northeast quadrant of our city and for the quality of the restaurant staff.
     Our server, Erin, and all the staff were phenomenal, hard working, and deserve a big holiday bonus for getting this place off the ground. The food was very good, but downsides include limited parking, a huge bar consuming most of the space that makes this more tavern than restaurant, and a lack of Coca-Cola products. There should also be some dedicated space for smokers outside, as they tended to congregate at the front door, making it necessary for non-smokers to walk through the smoke as they enter.
      In the spirit of the traditional colonial taverns, which served as a necessary respite for all travelers along the way, the Yankee Tavern has something for everyone. Nothing seems out of place here. You could come for breakfast, lunch or drinks after work into late night or bring the kids for dinner. Dressed in shorts or suits, everyone seems to fit in, and Yankee or Southern, that’s genuine hospitality.