Sparky the seal gets fresh fish. The giraffes get alfalfa. And the humans at Como Zoo get hickory burgers.
When the Como Zoo and Marjorie McNeely Conservatory opened the new visitors' center in 2005, it included Zobota Cafe, a cafeteria-style restaurant that serves sandwiches and salads as well as meals cooked to order on the grill. (The name, by the way, is a combination of zoo and botanical.)
The restaurant is run by Lancer Catering, the same company that does the food at the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Minnesota Zoo and the popular Zooper Foods, also at Como Zoo. Zobota offers burgers and kids' fare along with gourmet touches like coffee from Caribou and homemade croutons on the Caesar salads.
We stopped by for lunch on a recent weekend with our three young children. The boys had worked up an appetite screaming on the Screamin' Dragon roller coaster at Como Town. They wanted to eat at a concession stand, but Mom and Grandma wanted better food, real silverware and a chance to regroup.
There were about 30 people in line, and it was so busy that when the family in front of us grabbed the last tray, it took us a couple of minutes to find someone who could locate more. The boys quickly decided on kids' meals ($4.59), one mac and cheese and one chicken strips, both served with fries and soda or milk.
"It says milk or soda," said eldest son, whose ability to read a menu at age 7 is a mixed blessing. "I want soda!"
"We're getting milk," I reply.
"But it costs the same!"
The line moved at a reasonable pace, considering everything is cooked to order. But it was slow for antsy kids. After we finally got our food, we carried our trays to a table by the long wall of windows that overlooks the bird exhibit. There are also about 30 tables on a patio outside, but it was a little chilly for the kids that day.
As befitting a zoo restaurant, the atmosphere is casual and family-friendly. Perhaps too much so. A family next to ours let their toddler dance on the table.
My 7-year-old loved his chicken strips. The 5-year-old couldn't finish his generous bowl of mac and cheese. My mother had the cheeseburger ($5.29), a third of a pound of juicy and flavorful ground beef, served with a pickle and gourmet potato chips. We also shared a half-pound basket of crisp onion rings ($3.99). It was the first time the baby had ever seen them, and she tried to wear them like bracelets.
My barbecued pork sandwich ($5.89) was rich, smoky and delicious but almost too much food. I enjoyed it, but next time I want to try something better suited to warm weather, maybe that San Antonio Club sandwich I saw on a neighbor's plate - roast turkey on a ciabatta roll with homemade chi-potle mayonnaise on the side.
After finishing up, we bused our own trays. Then, we wandered outside to see if we could catch a glimpse of the tigers - and see what they were having for lunch.
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at mbeckstrom@pioneerpress. com or 651-228-5295.
Kids' Cuisine is a one-time take on how restaurants handle kid customers. It's written by a rotation of Pioneer Press staffers with children - the real experts for this column.