Sylvia Kaplan of Minneapolis is convinced that she has the original Charlie’s Cafe Exceptionale potato salad recipe.
And she has proof.
From the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, Kaplan’s parents, Bob and Helen Silverman, owned a small neighborhood market, Bob’s Grocery, on Plymouth Avenue in north Minneapolis.
“And I remember that a bartender at Charlie’s was a customer,” she said. Kaplan believes that he’s the source of the recipe. Neatly typed and copied on a mimeograph, it was folded and placed among her mother’s recipes.
“My mother was very well organized,” said Kaplan in a recent interview. “But she didn’t have a typewriter, and she didn’t know how to type, so the bartender at Charlie’s — or the chef — must have typed it up for her.”
Helen Silverman made the recipe “all the time,” recalled her daughter. It differs from the version that the restaurant shared with Taste in 1975 and that was republished a few weeks ago.
A major change is that it doesn’t call for homemade mayonnaise, but instead mixes sour cream with store-bought mayo. Kaplan’s version also makes all kinds of assumptions, skipping details about how the eggs and potatoes are cooked, and how the potatoes are diced.
“It’s how you like it,” said Kaplan.
Genuine or not, the recipe raises the question: What was it about this particular potato salad, and why are people still talking about it? After all, the restaurant, which enjoyed a 48-year-run, has been closed for 37 years.
“The important thing is that it was on their tray,” said Kaplan, a former owner of the late, influential New French Cafe. “There was herring, and shrimp, great big ones. Maybe there was some cottage cheese, and some vegetables. That sort of represented what gourmet cooking was at the time.”
But that’s the magic of restaurants and the power they have on our memories.
“Charlie’s was a very special place,” said Kaplan. “It’s where deals were made over lunch, and dinner. There were others, too: Murray’s, and Harry’s. But there was something about Charlie’s.”