The Rabbit Hole (Minneapolis)

exterior
The Rabbit Hole’s first incarnation, about four years ago, was as the Left-Handed Cook, a counter among many other counters at Minneapolis’ Midtown Global Market. Run by two young, ex-Angeleno Korean-Americans, Thomas and Kat Kim (and named for her nickname for him), the Left-Handed Cook was quite popular when it opened. We never got around to eating there, though we’d always talked about doing it (we just haven’t been eating much at the Midtown Market in recent years). Then in late 2013 they closed it down and re-opened a little later within the Midtown Market as a proper sit-down restaurant, the Rabbit Hole. We talked about eating there as well for a good while and now we’ve actually gotten around to doing it. I wish I could say we liked it as much as we were hoping we would. 

Why were we hoping we’d like it? Well, the missus is Korean-American (and from Los Angeles as well), we eat a lot of Korean food at home, and are always in hope that an acceptable Korean restaurant may one day open up in the Twin Cities. As it happens, the Rabbit Hole is not a Korean restaurant that serves traditional Korean food of the kind we eat at home (and out when in Los Angeles) but that was not the cause of the disappointment. It was not a surprise either.

At least, it wasn’t a surprise at the restaurant. I’d looked at their website when we were looking around for potential places to eat after a friend’s book release very close by on Lake St, and was confused by two things. First, this statement:

“The Rabbit Hole gastropub is our nod to Korean Pogjangmachas, but our food is Korean by way of Los Angeles. It’s not your Halmeoni’s, Omma’s or Imo’s Korean cuisine, nor is it the kind you had while you were in Korea.”

The reason this is confusing is because Korean food in Los Angeles is very much your halmeoni’s (grandmother’s), omma’s (mother’s) or imo’s (aunt’s) Korean cuisine and is very much the kind of food you might have if you visit Korea. As anyone who is familiar with Koreatown (or various other Korean enclaves in Los Angeles) knows, it’s pretty hardcore Korean. It’s one thing to signal that you’re not doing traditional Korean food but to say “Korean by way of Los Angeles” is really not a good way to make that point. Nonetheless, this statement does suggest that they’re doing Korean food of some kind. But when I looked at the menu it didn’t seem like Korean was much of a focus (this was the second source of confusion). If anything, it reads like the menu of a fusion-Asian restaurant: there are plenty of signifiers of Japanese and Thai cuisines on there as well. So they imply they’re doing Korean-American food but seem to actually be doing a broader South/East Asian menu. Now, normally, we stay away from fusion’ish places—as a rule they tend to be for people who don’t otherwise eat any of the cuisines being fused—but partly on account of one member of the marriage’s Korean cultural nationalist sympathies we decided to give it a go: support young Korean-American entrepreneurs, support our fellow transplanted Angelenos and all that.

And…it was a bit of a mixed bag. Most things were executed well and were fine on their own terms but a lot of it fell into a sort of uncanny valley for us—and especially for the missus. That is to say, the Korean dishes we got didn’t taste like some interesting departure from traditional Korean food but like a toned down approximation of it: the kimchi fried rice (“Rice Rice Baby” on the menu) was not particularly kimchi-driven; the pork in the roast pork saam was barely seasoned or roasted and had only the slightest dab of pepper paste to give it a kick; and the kimchi itself was rather mild (which is fine) but more importantly there was very little of it served in the side order we paid $3 for and which was never replenished. In fact, the not particularly Korean (though billed as such) chicken wings were probably the best dish we had. The dessert, a miso pot de creme with candied orange, was also quite good—and not at all Korean. All of this came to $71 which seemed like a lot of money for what we ate.

To reiterate: this wasn’t a disappointment because we wanted more traditional Korean food; it was a disappointment because it was not an interesting take on or departure from traditional Korean food. If this is a possible pathway for a future Korean-American cuisine it doesn’t seem like a particularly promising one. But I fully concede that we—and others like us—are not the target market for the Rabbit Hole. And given how packed they were on a Friday night in early November I’d say they’ve judged their target market’s palate quite well. I’m told that when they first opened there was a lot more Korean food on the menu—maybe they have good business reasons for pivoting from that. As I said, nothing we ate was bad (well, the pork in the ssam could have been quite a bit better) but nothing drove us to want to come back anytime soon, especially at the price. (It should be said though that it’s a very nice space and done up quite attractively with three different types of seating areas.)

However, just a couple of days ago I found myself between appointments in the vicinity of the Midtown Market and while casting about for places to go I remembered that their lunch menu is apparently in the vein of the old Left-Handed Cook, and preferred by some, and so washed up there again. And here I ran into a couple of other problems, one of which, in an echo of our feelings about our dinner, was price. I ate their popular “Appa Goober”, a burger with fries and paid close to $19 for it with tax and tip. And it was not a burger that I should have paid close to $19 for; it used to be $10 on the lunch menu—as pictured from our early November dinner—but is now $14.95, which was the old dinner menu (the website is also out of date). But here’s where things get even more convoluted.

If you’re from Los Angeles and into the food scene there, the description of the “Appa Goober” will sound very familiar: a beef patty topped with blue cheese, gruyere, arugula, bacon, tomato jam and caramelized onions. Yes, this is the famous Father’s Office burger. And, of course, “Appa” is Korean for “father”. So it seemed quite obvious to me that this was a tribute to the most famous burger in the city they’d moved from. And that’s a good burger. Accordingly, I ordered one. And what showed up was manifestly a take on that burger, with one problem: when I cut into it it was massively, grey’ly overdone (see below). The chef/owner who had taken my order—at lunch you order at the bar and take a seat and they bring you your food in a recyclable container—was passing by and I asked him politely if they chose to do their burgers north of medium. His answer was roughly as follows: yes, they do them on the medium-well side because they do their own grind in the kitchen and it has a lot of fat in it and so does not take well to being cooked at medium or below and really it’s not a burger, which is why they don’t call it one on the menu, it’s really more of a meatball sandwich.

I was a little taken aback by all of this and so let it go. But let’s be clear: 1) it’s a burger—the “Goober” part of the name is apparently a contraction of “good burger”; 2) just look at it, it’s a fucking burger!; 3) it’s certainly not a meatball sandwich; 4) in what world does it make sense to make a special grind and then cook it so that it loses all character?; and 5) when I got to the second half of the burger it was actually at medium and quite decent (how they managed to overcook one side of the patty and not the other, I have no idea). Other possible responses to my inquiry could have included, “I’m sorry, that is overdone, let me get you another” or “next time let us know you want it a little pinker” (though he had not asked when I was placing the order); the actual response was mystifying.

Also mystifying, but also an echo of our dinner, was the so-called kimchi aioli that was served along with the fries: I could detect no trace of kimchi flavour in it; it just tasted like generic spicy mayo (Father’s Office also pioneered serving aioli with fries accompanying a burger). The fries themselves were good. But even if the burger had not been overcooked this is not worth the effective price of almost $19 (which is about what you’d pay for the original burger done a damn sight better at Father’s Office who pay rent in Santa Monica). Elsewhere in the Midtown Market two can eat better than that for not very much more money (and probably less).

If you’re still interested, pictures of the restaurant and the food are below.

So, not the best return to the Midtown Market. While walking around after my Rabbit Hole “burger” fiasco, however, I happened upon a Moroccan counter that seemed to have a lot of promise. If anyone reading can pass along any intel on that that would be great.

7 thoughts on “The Rabbit Hole (Minneapolis)

  1. Your review matches my impressions from roughly two years ago. Went expecting a Korean restaurant, but found it’s Asian-American fusion. The food wasn’t bad (not burger fiasco), just not what we were expecting.
    There’s a relatively new cook-at-the-table Korean restaurant in Uptown, Hoban. It’s related to the Hoban in Eagan. The only cook-at-the-table Korean restaurant in Minnesota that I’m aware of! And, decent, too! The decor/atmosphere is not great and I had to keep asking them to turn off the annoying, flashing strobe light. Apparently, that’s what they think they need to have since they’re in “Uptown”. Food was good.

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      • For Korean, my second favorite is King’s in Fridley. First favorite is Korea Cafe in Stadium Village. It’s definitely a hole in the wall and has that poor student, cafeteria vibe, but the food is best Korean around. Not as good though as Korea town in NYC or Geary St in San Francisco.

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  2. It’s frustrating when you make an effort and take the time to visit a place and come away with no good reason to return, and drop a huge wad while doing it.

    On the issue of burgers: What I’ve noticed (and you’ve experienced) this last year is that you can’t get a burger at any of the now ubiquitous “gastropubs” in the Cities’ that costs much less than $15. Come on – 15 bucks for a damn burger! Fine if it’s all cheffy and contains four custom cuts of beef ground daily, a custom baked bun and house made cheese. But I can count on one hand the places that offer that, and it’s a fair price.

    So I surmise, once the rest of the area’s pub proprietor’s got wind of this, they figured, hey, I can get 15 bucks for a burger too (that used to be $9), and I’ll just use this burger and bun from Sysco, what the hell. (At least Rabbit Hole apparently grinds their own custom blend – they just don’t know how to cook a burger properly.)

    Makes me mad! So I’ll cook my burger at home.

    Good write-up though.

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  3. Well, Thomas Kim’s history apparently includes running a burger place in Los Angeles. So I suspect he knows how to cook a burger. My guess is whoever was on the line screwed mine up and rather than own it he made up some story. Unless, of course, others who’ve eaten it confirm that that’s how it always is and that it really is supposed to be a “meatball sandwich”.

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  4. Based on the current menu on the website, it does seem they’ve ‘toned down’ the Korean influence quite a bit from when they first opened. I remember quite liking the Duk, Duk, Duk which was dukbokki as you may have guessed with duck confit and duck breast.

    Our current favorite Korean place is Sole Cafe in St. Paul, but I’m curious to try the new Sum Dem Korean BBQ in South Mpls https://www.facebook.com/Sumdemkoreanbbq/

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