"This isn't authentic," my friend from Wisconsin said, about the green-bean hot-dish appetizer ($4.95) at Zayda Buddy's, a newish venture by Joel Radin, one of the folks behind Top Pot and Bauhaus. His latest culinary endeavor is actually a step back in time for Radin, a native Minnesotan, who's using Zayda Buddy's to educate his adopted town about the joys of his beloved childhood cuisine. The casserole was rich and luscious: tender green beans enrobed in a cream-of-mushroom base with a tinge of garlic and a nice, peppery kick. "It's got way too much flavor," my friend said. "There's garlic and shit in it. It's really good." We paired the beans with alarmingly hot deep-fried cheese curds ($5.95), which were served with a decidedly nontraditional marinara. The question of authenticity was raised again. With my friend's mother's Lutheran casserole cookbook as our benchmark for the meal, we determined that Zayda Buddy's willingness to experiment a little with traditional dishes elevated its cuisine far above the level of that served at an authentic Zumbro Falls church potluck.
The decor in Zayda Buddy's is a mix of a 1976-era basement and, well, 21st-century Seattle. The wooden booths, mirrored beer signs, and photos of Radin's grandfather (Buddy), Tom Selleck, and Farrah Fawcett in the restaurant give way to a slick little bar that wouldn't look out of place at some downtown hotel. Although I was intrigued by signature cocktails made with fresh-squeezed juice, Zayda Buddy's cuisine demands beer, so it was beer we ordered.
My friend downed a traditional Wisconsin brew, Leinenkugel's ($4), which had a rusty sweetness to it that recalled crisp, clear, football-studded October evenings. I sampled something lighter, but also sports related, a snappy Grain Belt Premium lager ($4) that would be perfect on a hot and steamy August afternoon at Miller Park.
The food side of the menu focuses on Minnesota-style pizza (thin crust, rectangular slices) and Midwestern comfort food, so we ordered some of each. I'd heard there had been some issues early on with the service, but our food arrived promptly and was brought to us by a professional, amiable gentleman who seemed genuinely concerned with how we were enjoying our meal.
My Erik the Red pie ($14.95) boasted a light, crisp, and tasty cracker crust and a plenitude of toppings. The rectangular slices allowed me to focus my attention on the edges and corners, which boasted a higher-than-average ratio of crust to topping. The sauce was a spicy-sweet tomato paste that had a faint undertone of ketchup, while gobs of cheese covered huge portions of salami, Mama Lil's peppers, and fragrant white onions. Overall, I thought there was a bit too much going on all at once, but I generally like my pizza simple. The flavors, however, were striking, spicy salami going toe to toe with briny peppers and slightly sweet onions. My only criticism, really, is that the amount of toppings prevented full enjoyment of the buttery crunch of the crust.
Overabundance, however, is the foundation of Zayda Buddy's cuisine. My friend's tater tot casserole ($9.50) comprised about a pound of tender beef, gravy, and cheese, dotted with 8 to 10 tater tots. "The ratio of tot to beef," he said, "would traditionally be reversed." Happily, he plowed through the zesty hot dish, ignoring the small salad that cringed on the side of the plate. He stopped only to allow me a few savory, satisfying bites, and to make small exclamations such as "mmmmnhmhmm" and "damn." After it was over, he laid his fork down and looked a bit stunned.
His wife's tuna casserole ($9.50) with egg noodles was a touch lighter, though still studded with lumps of tuna and chunks of pungent celery. French-fried onions baked on the top gave the hot dish a welcome frisson of crispiness. She made her way happily through half of it before surrendering and returning to the remains of the green beans, which remained the highlight of the meal.
When it was all over, we slumped in the booth and allowed the mellifluous chords of "Don't Do Me Like That" to wash over us as we sank deeper and deeper into postprandial stupors. I felt both satisfied and guilty. The comfort of the Midwest, it turns out, may be too much for a simple East Coast transplant. I resolved to redeem myself by eating nothing but sashimi and organic greens for a month. But I'll probably sneak in a Grain Belt Premium or two every now and then, and maybe just one more plate of those green beans.