Standing behind the handsome marble bar in LoLo American Kitchen & Craft Bar in downtown historic Stillwater, co-owner and bar program director Joe Ehlenz chats with customers and mixes cocktails while his business partner, culinary director Brad Nordeen, preps for a busy evening in the kitchen. It seems a fitting glimpse into the mission and daily life at the restaurant, which opened in May 2014.
The two native Stillwater residents provide a community experience between the staff and their customers while serving elevated street food and inventive cocktails. Even the restaurant’s name speaks to the co-owners’ vision: LOLO stands for “locally owned, locally operated.”
“We had the name picked out, partly because when Brad lived in Kauai, Hawaii, his friends called him ‘LOLO,’ which means crazy,” Ehlenz says. “But then we learned that ‘lolo’ is a term used in the Caribbean that refers to a seaside shack where locals seek hospitality, food and drink. It’s a perfect name for two Stillwater guys who are providing gourmet street food in our hometown. It came together perfectly.”
The pair had originally intended to put their heads together for a protein-heavy steak house in Hudson, but changed their concept when they found their current location on Main Street North in Stillwater. The 1,500-square-foot property proved to be a tight squeeze, but inspired their open bar and kitchen layout.
“We knew the big protein idea wouldn’t fit, so we turned to crafting creative small plates that reflect a wide variety of street food—from our own conception of lobster rolls to Korean barbecue,” Ehlenz says. “The layout is great, because when people come in they interact with the chefs and the bartenders. All of our products and food are right up front, so we love letting people try things, ask questions and get a full experience.”
There are many exciting and innovative menu items to try, and the staff is constantly dreaming up new dishes and drinks. “We start brainstorming new dishes a few months before the season changes so we can get it in our heads for a bit. The dish is already there, and you just have to try a few things out until you find it,” Nordeen says.
A few customer favorites include the LOLO burger, which won Stillwater’s “Best Burger in the Valley” contest in April 2015, the hanger steak, roast chicken tacos and the pork tenderloin, which is marinated, pan roasted and served with Korean barbecue sauce.
Nordeen is currently excited about LOLO’s duck-bacon dumpling, which combines Italian and Japanese traditions to create what one customer described as ‘the best chicken soup they’d had that wasn’t actually a soup.’
On the other side of the bar, Ehlenz and his staff are crafting elaborate new cocktails that are often inspired by the community. One such drink is a cocktail named “Coffee and Cigarettes... A Joe Goulet Story,” an homage to a local icon who has been a bartender at Meister’s Bar & Grill in Shoreview for more than 20 years. The cocktail comes to life with Joe’s cigarette brand of choice made into a tincture, doughnut- and vanilla-infused bourbon, bacon bitters, coffee and artichoke liqueur, and a bitter Italian liqueur. It’s finished with a cinnamon sugar infused rim and a flaming orange. “It’s the coolest drink ever,” Ehlenz says.
Those looking for a more traditional cocktail will find a full list of high-quality drinks, including “The Marlboro Man” (pictured above), the 2015 winner of the Minnesota chapter of the Maison Rouge Old Fashioned Cocktail Competition.
With a successful year and a half under their belts, the business partners are constantly on the lookout for new ways to flex their restaurateur muscles and they already have ideas for the future. For starters, the duo is planning to open a location at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport in Terminal 1, Gate E, later this year.
“As our business grows, we are able to expand upon what we do, whether that’s catering, new locations, working on the process of standardizing our prep process to bring to new locations, and more,” Nordeen says. “Right now, we’re bound by the space and business of this restaurant, and we have a lot more ideas than we have time for in the day. As we grow, we want to move forward.”
“With our great operation, we can adapt to whatever situation we want to,” Ehlenz adds. “We’re constantly learning.”
That search for something new is a source of inspiration for LOLO’s menu. “With food, there’s always more to know,” Nordeen says. “You are humble in what you do and come in every day to do the best you can. I love learning and getting better. The open kitchen allows us to see the joy in our customers, or to see how we can continue to improve in the future.”
Ehlenz and Nordeen credit their early success to their team’s creative vision, talent and strong work ethic, as well as the support of their family and friends. “Everyone goes above and beyond. They’re at the top their game,” Nordeen says.
“I’m so thankful to our staff for all their hard work, and to Brad’s wife and mine,” Ehlenz adds. “It’s been a lot of late nights and early mornings, and without their support, we would not have this restaurant. We have met some of the best regulars that any restaurant could ever wish for—they’re the best.”