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Dining with Dara: The Twin Cities' soda fountain renaissance

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Pouring a drink
Eat Street Social head bartender Nicholas Kosevich makes a Bronx egg cream Wednesday, March 21, 2012 at the new restaurant at 26th Street and Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis. The non-alcoholic drink, which includes neither egg nor cream, is made from Dutch chocolate syrup, milk and seltzer and is topped with a pretzel stick. Eat Street Social's drink menu, which Kosevich helped develop, includes a variety of soda fountain drinks.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Ever asked the soda jerk for a ginger yip, an egg cream, or a green dragon phosphate? For generations soda fountains were an integral part of American life — President Harry Truman's first job was in a Missouri soda fountain and movie star Lana Turner was discovered in a Hollywood soda fountain. 

But if you thought soda fountains had gone the way of the telegraph and the Edsel, think again.

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine's restaurant critic, joined Tom Crann Thursday on MPR's All Things Considered and said that soda fountains are back — in a big way.

Below is an edited transcription of their conversation.

Tom Crann: First, we should say that soda fountains never completely went away.  

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl: That's right. St. Paul Corner Drug, on the corner of Snelling and St. Clair in St. Paul (map), has had an operating soda fountain since 1922. They have Kemp's ice-cream, chocolate syrup, and you can sit at the counter at one of the six stools and have a chocolate-soda-chocolate float while you wait for your prescription.

Crann: Soda and medicine — I know that's a traditional connection, but still it seems odd. 

Moskowitz Grumdahl: Yes. Legend has it that the first sweet sodas were invented essentially as chasers for yucky, yucky medicine. This was back in the 1800s, when pharmacists were making medicines from things like kola nuts — where all the colas come from. There's actually another soda fountain at a drug store in tiny Olivia (map), which is due west of the Twin Cities, about half-way to South Dakota. 

Crann: But that's not what you're here to talk about. 

Moskowitz Grumdahl: No. I bring news of the new soda fountain renaissance. Let's talk about two places. One in St. Paul, one in Minneapolis. Let's start in St. Paul. 

I spent my morning at the construction site which will soon be Lynden's Soda Fountain, in the space that used to be Kopplin's, next to the Nook on Hamline Avenue (map).  

It's going to be beautiful. White marble counter, eight stools, a classic St. Paul soda fountain which was rescued from a St. Paul church, the Christ Household of Faith near Cathedral Hill, brought to Chicago and full rehabbed, then brought back here. They're going to have all the classic glass service-ware, and are sourcing syrups and such from a Brooklyn artisanal soda supplier called P&H, so they'll have classics like lime phosphates, but also new-fangled flavors like hibiscus. It will open this spring, possibly as early as mid-April. 

Crann: Okay, so should I presume that Lynden's will have the best Twin Cities egg cream? 

Moskowitz Grumdahl: No. You should presume that you're going to have to do a serious artisanal egg cream taste-test.  Your other destination will be in Minneapolis (map), at the brand new Eat Street Social, where a couple of famous local culinary-cocktail bartenders, Nick Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz, have engineered a total from-scratch soda fountain. 

They also run a bitters company, Bittercube, in Madison, Wis., and so they have sources for all the crazy things that pharmacists at the turn of the last century used to use. For instance, they cook down two sorts of cocoa nibs (roasted, shelled, but otherwise unprocessed chocolate beans) into an alcohol-free liquor, and then blend that with powdered Dutch chocolate, for their egg cream.

Crann: If I remember correctly, an egg cream has neither egg nor cream? 

Moskowitz Grumdahl: Right, it's chocolate, milk, and bubbly water. What's genius about Eat Street Social is that they installed a special super-charged bubbly water dispenser, the kind that soda jerks used to use a hundred years ago, and that super-charged water allows them to suspend more flavor compounds in their sodas. The egg cream is deeply chocolatey, the Green River Phosphate is ultra-lime-flavored, and their house-made cola has more cola flavor, because it's literally made from Kola nuts.

Crann: I guess everything is new again. 

Moskowitz Grumdahl: And if you've always wanted to be soda jerk, the job opportunities have exploded.