Thursday, May 31, 2012




Masa Restaurant

(612) 338-6272

Photos by Jenny Lunde
Words by Jeff Johnson of Phineasfree Writing

Authentic Mexican food juxtaposed on crisp, white linen tablecloths…
A stunning bar draped in soft orange atmosphere and light…
A front-row seat to the “beautiful people show” occurring naturally on the streets outside…
A giant, scantily-clad and statuesque female hostess who greets you as you enter…
Where in the Twin Cities can you find all that under just one roof?
Masa Restaurant. Located on Nicollet Mall between 10th and 11th Streets, Masa is a member of the uber-successful D’Amico family of restaurants and serves award-winning contemporary Mexican cuisine in a beautiful setting.
I’ll tackle the traits mentioned above in reverse order. So let’s start with that hostess…
As you enter the restaurant, your line of vision is immediately drawn to a stunning statue of a woman. There isn’t anything especially unique about this particular statue other than the fact that I’ve never been to a restaurant where the first person to greet me was a giant, statuesque female form. Maybe that’s how all the restaurants are in Mexico. Color me naïve, but in Wisconsin and Minnesota, I just don’t get to see a lot of that kind of thing. But the truth is, she does a nice job of setting the tone for a unique dining experience.
OK, moving on to the “beautiful people show”…
The restaurant sits on a corner, so giant north- and west-facing windows allow wonderful natural light to spill in and flood the restaurant. The windows also afford Masa’s diners ample people-watching opportunities. My lunch-date on this day told me that while he has always been stuck working in the suburbs, he openly covets for a job in downtown Minneapolis because, as he put it, “that’s where all the beautiful people are.” Seated alongside a window at Masa, we enjoyed the sights and sounds of Nicollet Mall, which is to say we enjoyed the “beautiful people show” occurring just a few feet away. He’s crazy, by the way – there’re lots of beautiful people in the suburbs – you just have to know where to look.
That stunning orange bar…
Lots of restaurants boast beautiful bars. One of my favorites is The Monte Carlo – when you walk into that bar you are immediately jettisoned to a 1940’s Chicago-style gangster hangout. It is wonderful! Though no less wonderful, Masa’s bar induces none of those gangster vibes. If it conjures anything, it is a 1960’s Hollywood vibe. Or better yet, it reminded us of “The Birdcage,” that impossibly funny Nathan Lane vehicle set in 1990’s-era Miami Beach. Regardless of the vibe it conjures, I was really struck by the beautiful aura a little orange light was able to create.
And finally, the food…
When I contemplate going out for Mexican food, I generally think of the family-style Mexican restaurants where stale chips and watery salsa are delivered endlessly to your table, where there are paintings on the wall (not hanging from the wall but actually wall-painted) of Mariaci bands and laughing Mexican children wearing too-big sombreros being chased through the streets by a dog, where every other diner orders #8, the three-enchilada combo served with rice and beans, and where the waitress more often than not has a not-so-subtle quesadilla stain on her threadbare polo shirt that bears the restaurant’s name.
Before Masa, I had never contemplated Mexican food served on heavy, white plates at tables covered in crisp, white linen tablecloths, brought by waitstaff wearing starched dress shirts. And I certainly had never considered that Mexican food could be delivered without the requisite warning, “These plates are extremely hot, so be careful!” But at Masa, you get no such warning – which means your food wasn’t piled onto a plate and then chucked into an oven for 5 minutes just prior to serving it to you. No, at Masa you get fresh food prepared fresh. What a treat!
Masa offers a “tasting menu” lunch special that provides several options from which to select three items. Since there were two of us on this day, we selected six items:

  • Guacamole Picado – mashed avocado with white onion, tomato, chile serrano, cilantro, and lime, served with raw vegetables and chips. If you like guacamole – and really, who doesn’t? – this will knock your socks off. So tasty!
  • Ensalada with de Jicama y Mango – mango and jicama salad, cilantro, lime vinaigrette,and cotija. The jicama, which was presented beautifully alongside the mango in long, thin slices – tasted like a cross between potato and green apple. A very interesting taste that you’re not getting at your family-style Mexican restaurant!
  • Sopa de Tortilla con Pollo – tortilla soup with chicken, avocado, chile pasilla, and Chihuahua cheese, served with lime and tortilla strips. This was a very hot soup – and I’m not talking about the temperature. Whoo! Very tasty, but too much spice for my Wisconsin palate!
  • Taco Pescado – taco with pescado, pico de gallo, lettuce, and guacamole. I was very excited to try this taco, but… come to find out that “pescado” is Spanish for “fish,” and as a rule, I don’t eat fish tacos. Nothing against Masa – I just don’t believe in mixing tacos and seafood. I blame myself for this mistake – the menu includes a glossary in the back. You’ve been warned!
  • Half Torta con Pollo – grilled chicken breast marinated in salsa verde, served with cucumber, chile serrano, pickled red onion, cilantro, and tomato. This was a fairly ordinary chicken sandwich. Certainly tasty, but hardly the most remarkable of our six selections.
  • Half Torta al Carbone – marinated skirt steak, roasted poblano peppers, onions, and sals rojo. Upon tasting this, my dining partner immediately lamented not just selecting this for all three of his dishes. Excellent and tasty marinated beef! We highly recommend this one.
In short, the food was excellent. The fact that we might order differently next time (read: Torta al Carbone x 3, Taco Pescado x 0!) is simply a matter of personal taste. And that’s why Masa’s lunch special is so cool… you get to try three different items every time!
Like other D’Amico restaurants, Masa offers its guests a memorable dining experience that is difficult to find in most restaurants. With that in mind, I recommend visiting Masa to judge for yourself. Maybe you won’t be moved by the statue, excited by the beautiful people, struck by the orange aura, or intrigued by the juxtaposition of Mexican food and white linen, but I’m pretty sure you will find your own reasons for loving Masa. Just remember that “pescado” means fish!

I almost for got to talk about Date Night at five different D’Amico Restaurants.
3 course dinner for 2 plus a bottle of wine for $50 on Sunday night.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Recent job - Itasca Leathergoods

Written by Jeff Johnson ( and Paul Kirkman

Itasca Leathergoods

I recently was hired by the new owners of Itasca Leathergoods (formerly Itasca Moccasin) to photograph the 10 or 12 styles this storied Minnesota outfitter hand crafts. As my readers know, my passion is food photography, but hey, first and foremost I am an artist, and if my canvas one week is beet salad at D’Amico and the next week hand-stitched moccasins from Itasca Leathergoods… well, let’s just say it’s that kind of diversity that makes me love my job! And the things I learn because of my job? Icing on the cake!

If you just glance at a pair of these moccasins you might miss what makes them so special. And if you don’t know how the company operates you’re ignoring a key part of the story.

First, the company: they could easily manufacture these overseas – it would be a heck of a lot less expensive, but they don’t and won’t operate that way. The moccasins are manufactured in Lake George, Minnesota, near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. And there they will stay, as the new owners are committed to supporting the economy in which they operate.

To ensure the company’s heritage isn’t lost, they insist on US-sourced leather hides. Again, they could buy it cheaper elsewhere, but Itasca Leathergoods stands for much more than profit margins and cheap labor.

They offer custom-fit moccasins and they are the only ones who do. Customers can provide them with a foot tracing and Itasca Leather Goods will custom design it to fit the exact contour of the customer’s foot. How cool is that?

Second, the moccasins: they use different kinds and colors of leather hides, which allows them to offer moccasins in several different styles. Some of the moccasins are designed with multiple hides, which really accentuates the subtle nuances of the individual leathers and each moccasin’s design. These are beautiful pieces of footwear!

The company has bold plans for growth. It won’t be long before you see a new Itasca Leathergoods website, and as they begin manufacturing additional products like handbags, wallets, totes, backpacks, and belts, they plan to open several new retail stores in Northern Minnesota resort towns.

This was a fun and challenging assignment for me. Capturing the subtleties of moccasins is not as easy as you might think. Lighting and angles were critical aspects of the photo shoot. And I’ve got to say, prior to this gig, I probably wouldn’t have looked twice at a pair of moccasins. But now that I’ve seen them, touched them, photographed them, and just really noticed them, I’m hooked. They’re beautiful!

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Putka Pods

Putka Pods

Restaurant Picks

Restaurants Picks

Time to time people have asked me what restaurant are my favorites.  Well that is hard to stay because it depend on what I am looking for in a restaurant.  The list keeps changing depending on new restaurant we visit or hear from others that we must check this place out.  If someone tells me "you have to check this place out", I'm check it out for sure.  I life for food.  
Asain – Sen Yai Sen Lek
Beer - Happy Gnome
Tasting menu – Happy Gnome
Dessert – Café Latte
Burgers – Blue Door
Mix Drinks – Psycho Suzi's
Small Plates – Solara Restaurant
Green Restaurant – Sen Yai Sen Lek
Using local farms – Modern Cafe
Up scale bar food - Joe’s Garage
Fine dinning – Vincent A
Great Price bar food – Stanley's Northeast Bar Room
Romanic dinning – Forepaugh's
Itailian food – Amore Victoria Ristorante
Modern restaurant – D’Amico Kitchen
Ecuadorian  – La Colonia Restaurant
Bakery – Chez Arnaud Bakery