On my last visit, the Mud House was strangely quiet. Not silent, of course. A barista steamed milk for a latte. A cook rang a bell to signal that an order was ready. The speakers played indie rock and, to fulfill the hipster-irony obligation (this is Cherokee Street, after all), "Invisible Touch" by Genesis. For the most part, though, the Benton Park coffeehouse was the domain of the iPod-people, one per table, wearing earbuds or headphones like conch shells, staring at a MacBook, scrolling through a Tumblr account that I won't hear about until after its author has received a book deal in the low six figures. I wanted to call the manager of my 401(k) account and tell him to move all-in to the chiropractic and hearing-aid sectors.
In other words, that early afternoon the Mud House looked like every other coffeehouse circa 2011: not a café but a convenient spot to build our cocoons of media consumption. This worried me. Someone who walked into the Mud House for the first time right then might think it was just another coffeehouse, rather than the unique place into which it has evolved.
The Mud House was originally known as the Mississippi Mud House. The husband-and-wife team of Jeremy and Casey Miller acquired it at the beginning of 2009. They didn't want to alienate the neighborhood and regulars by changing the name immediately; as it happened they merely shortened it to the nickname that many customers already used.
"It's been such a blur," Casey Miller says of the Mud House's transformation over the past two and a half years. "It's almost like a dream."
The most significant change occurred in the kitchen. Chris Bork, a young chef whose résumé includes a stint at the lamentably short-lived Revival and at the Terrace View, Jim Fiala's restaurant at Citygarden, joined the Millers as a partner. This was a classic case of making the best of an unfortunate situation: Bork was in charge of the Terrace View kitchen when the restaurant opened. Not long afterward he was diagnosed with mono and opted to resign. His friendship with the Millers, and their desire to elevate the quality of the food at their coffeehouse, eventually led him to the Mud House.
"He planted a garden," Casey Miller says when I ask about the changes Bork has made. Right now, she adds, "We have the most beautiful raspberries."
Bork's menu isn't revolutionary. He offers casual breakfast and lunch dishes. (When Bork was profiled by Gut Check earlier this year, he told our food blog that the Mud House would soon add dinner service; those plans are now on hold indefinitely.) The garden — or, more specifically, the enthusiasm for its produce demonstrated by Casey Miller — is indicative of what Bork has brought to the Mud House.
And that enthusiasm is infectious. On one visit a plate of freshly picked blueberries and gooseberries sat on the counter where you place your order. The employee behind the counter insisted — insisted — that I try some.
Even if you know nothing about the Mud House's history, chef or garden, more than a cursory glance at the menu, which is written on a chalkboard and updated frequently as items run out or specials change, will tell you that the fare, though casual, is not run-of-the-mill. Consider the pork-shoulder sandwich. Shoulder, or Boston butt, is best known as the go-to cut for pulled pork, but this town is already lousy with pulled pork. Here Bork prepares a confit of the shoulder. As you might imagine, cooking pork in rendered pork fat yields meat that is sinfully luscious and intensely porky — a purer porcine flavor (he says, nervously eyeing the hordes) than barbecue pork. Atop this, for a contrast in both texture and flavor, is a crisp, tart and lightly sweet relish of apples and cucumber. (The specific relish did change at least once over the course of my visits.) This and the other Mud House sandwiches are served on the terrific bread made by local baker Alex Carlson, a.k.a. Red Guitar Breads, who delivers flavorful and pleasantly chewy rolls.
The "club" sandwich isn't a traditional quartered-and-toothpicked affair but rather a more straightforward presentation of roasted turkey topped with white cheddar, bacon, mayo, greens and, the touch that elevates it from ordinary status to gem, a rich, gently biting onion marmalade. The "Messy Giuseppe" nods to both nostalgia and current trends: a sloppy joe sandwich made with ground grass-fed beef. I liked the sauce, which tasted of freshly plucked tomatoes, with minimal seasoning, but the sandwich needed more meat. What little there was vanished into the bread, taking the sauce with it.
There is a decent grilled cheese, simple and gooey, but those seeking something other than meat will also be pleased with the Mud House's offerings, from a mélange of vegetables topped with a rich, tangy goat cheese spread to the more substantial "Reuben" that substitutes portobello mushroom for corned beef. Sandwiches come with a salad of greens from the garden, simply dressed.
Breakfast is available all day, which is fortunate for those of us whose breakfast is a pot of coffee and would otherwise miss the breakfast sandwich: an egg scrambled and then set into a square, bacon or sausage (depending on what is available) and white cheddar cheese on one of Alex Carlson's rolls. Only the breakfast burrito can rival the confit of pork-shoulder sandwich for both heft and abundance of flavor: egg, chorizo and cheese with sour cream and a moderately spicy black-bean salsa.
"We've had such a great response from the neighborhood," Casey Miller says of the changes that she, her husband and Bork have brought to the Mud House. "The people here are so real, so friendly. We can put anything on the menu, and they'll try it."
She adds, "Everyone is just like family."
Which is why I found that final afternoon at the Mud House so jarring. This isn't a coffeehouse to treat as a commodity, a fueling station for your latest burst of tweets. Yank those buds out of your ears and look around, notice that this is what it feels like when a community, a restaurateur and a chef find themselves on the same wavelength.
Too overstimulated by media to engage with actual human beings? Here's the only question you need to start a conversation at the Mud House: "That looks delicious. What are you eating?"