When we featured The Mint in these pages five and a half years ago, chef-owner Dominic “Mimmo” Lombardo, known mostly at the time for Italian cooking and his family’s restaurant Stefano’s, shared his vision for The Mint—and it did indeed include owning a restaurant in a former bank. He said: “Banks and restaurants have the same agenda. They have street visibility, plenty of parking and are built to last.”
In the case of The Mint, whose name reflects the building’s former use as the Bank of Pennsylvania and was built in 1955, a lot can happen in five years. The restaurant has become a fixture of the neighborhood—something Lombardo does not take lightly. The Mint, after all, remains a pub at heart—with or without the prefix “gastro” applied to it. In five years, a restaurant can open and close. It can sell to new owners. It might switch around its concept entirely. Chefs come and go, servers and bartenders leave through natural attrition. And, of course, the menu changes from time to time, in content and presentation—but also its philosophy.
“We’ve changed the way we change the menu,” says Lombardo. Instead of changing it four times a year, roughly aligned with the seasons, The Mint now has a core menu that changes twice a year. (And they’ve brought back lunch.) Anniversaries often provide natural breaks for reflection. “It was time. It is important to show people that there is no finish line in the restaurant world. There is no champagne or bouquet of flowers, none of that,” he says.
Certainly, restaurants need to innovate to stay fresh, but change is not considered lightly.
Lombardo’s a thoughtful chef; don’t let the vibrant colors, innovative takes on classics and the funky bathroom door fool you. “We don’t change for the sake of change. It’s always with intent,” he says. The menu is the message the kitchen wants to convey to diners, so when it changes, the conversation needs to reflect that, too. Menus that change frequently are typically more aligned with the seasons, so one might assume the inverse: a place that’s changing its menu less frequently is not interested in offering anything seasonal or local. Well, that’s not entirely the case. In fact, this counterintuitive approach makes good sense.
“We always struggled with the dichotomy of sourcing locally and maintaining the consistency of offerings associated with a local pub,” says Lombardo. When offering classic and popular dishes such as mac and cheese and burgers, they don’t necessarily lend themselves to the kind of extensive menu alternations that invite seasonal foods. He mitigates this issue by offering a dessert such as a cheesecake with “seasonal fruit,” which may be peaches, pears, berries—depending. It’s one small measure toward sustainability.
The classic example that he and many other chefs give when talking about this issue of seasonality and sourcing is the humble burger. “You want lettuce, tomato and onion on your burgers all year round, right? You have to be able to accept that it’s not going to be coming locally to you all year round,” he says. Most people would bristle if those items were missing from a plate. “I’d love to get to the point in the winter when we can offer pickled tomato or tomato preserves on burgers and people will understand why it’s there,” he says. “I could do that, but I’d be Sean Brock at $80 a plate instead of my value-driven ideals here at The Mint,” he says, referring to the Southern chef whose commitment to farm-driven, locally sourced cuisine has won him many awards.
“I’ve always pushed the concept of an honest kitchen,” says Lombardo. “I tell you where I get it, how I prepare it.”
But it goes beyond that, this concept of what’s loosely termed farm-to-table. “Why are we killing ourselves trying to do something that isn’t fair to our guests? It’s stressing farmers to produce things and do things they can’t do and it taxes printers by printing new menus,” he says, among other unsustainable practices. Customers, of course, come to expect certain items on the menu, and that’s part of the challenge.
This concern is one shared by many chefs in the Valley—the desire to source foods close to home versus the realities. For Lombardo, he’s done what makes the most sense for him, in order to maintain the consistency and quality people expect from a neighborhood pub. A place that made a splash (and continues to please) with its beloved burger, for example, isn’t going to skimp when it comes to ground beef. It’s one of the areas where Lombardo feels The Mint can consistently source locally. So, he’s partnered with Nate Thomas of Breakaway Farms in Mount Joy, for grass-fed ground beef and its classic ribeye entrée, along with pastured pork products; Lombardo tells you the provenance on the menu. It’s a partnership that works well. “He does some butchering and I do the rest,” he says. Lombardo relies upon Allen Brothers in New York for the roast beef that goes into its beef and cheddar, an ooey-gooey delicious mess of a sandwich akin to its famous fast-food cousin that will remain unnamed, but way better. The roast beef is cut in house, and Lombardo creates a special sauce and tops it with buttered onions and a horseradish aioli. Its cheddar blend is from Cabot in Vermont, and the seeded roll it’s served on is locally produced, from the Wayfare Baker. “His stuff is so much better than anything else I can get, so it’s worth it. If I can’t do it better, I won’t. I will reward another local business with my business. The guest only benefits in the end,” he says.
All those little things add up to create what’s hopefully a superior dining experience. Lombardo has always taken extra steps when it comes to ensuring that everyone feels welcome at The Mint, including those who don’t eat meat, gluten or dairy. But Lombardo goes further and actually does chickpea French fries with a curried house-made ketchup. Sometimes vegetarians don’t want to order fries because often meats have also been cooked in the fryer’s oil. They don’t become nearly as crispy and aren’t as salty as fries, but they are a flavorful and nutritious twist. Lombardo is a whiz with veggies—the roasted butternut squash is unexpectedly paired with oven-dried tomatoes, along with goat cheese and roasted pumpkin seeds. The veggie burger is always tricky, but Lombardo made his vegan and worked for three months on perfecting the combo of red beets, chickpeas and black beans. “It needed a crust on it; so many veggie burgers don’t get that,” he says. “It’s fun to experiment with things outside of my comfort zone.”
Lombardo is deliberate about this in multiple ways. For the past three years, he has made it his policy to not read any online reviews; his staff checks on them instead. “If I think about all of those things, I won’t be bravely trying new things,” he says. And that means no new fun things will arrive on the menu. Take for example, the MGP Doritos. Lombardo says he and his staff were tossing around ideas in the kitchen in a process they call “food pong” one day and thought about doing a spin on the famous tortilla chips. (“I love Doritos but they give me heartburn immediately,” he says.) They settled on the ranch flavor, which was easy enough to pull off, and accompanied it with an avocado aioli. The taste is spot-on, but better; the chips are pure white corn, for example, and there aren’t any preservatives. Like everything you consume at The Mint, the dish is slightly familiar, but with some unexpected moves. Ramen Dixie is another such example. Ramen dishes often deliver a kick, but don’t typically run south for it. This one does, with a sous-vide pork belly, ramen noodles, a potlikker broth, kale and, of course, that 60-minute egg that makes all the difference. You can count on sriracha making an appearance. It works.
The menu evolution has happened gradually, and Lombardo is pleased that people are finally asking “What’s new?” as opposed to “What’s still on?” They’re on board for the ride; they trust him and his staff and know that whatever the kitchen comes up with, it’s worth exploring.
“You have to find who you are, make no excuses and apologies, and just cook,” he says.
1223 W. Broad St., Bethlehem | 610.419.3810 | bethlehemmint.com
Lunch and dinner: Tues.–Sat. 11:27 a.m.–10 p.m. (Yes, you read that right; Lombardo has a thing for numbers. Ask him for the story about 27.); Bar: 11:27 a.m.–midnight.
Recommended for the weekend
Ample; lot on premises and street parking
Visa, MasterCard, American Express
What to Order
It’s hard to decide what to do with this menu, because so much of it tempts and it’s all intriguing. Try out the Bank Burger, the Ramen Dixie or the Oysters Rock-a-Fella—the meaty bivalves are sourced from Virginia, fried and served with pickled onions and tobiko atop a spinach-Parmesan fondue. And don’t think you’re exceptionally cheeky by wondering if he copied his “Crack Pie” from David Chang. “I guarantee you we both stole it from the same little place in Texas that makes it,” he says.
“We’re happy every hour—we don’t need a happy hour,” says Lombardo. The Mint tends to inspire a loyal crowd, and a craft beer-loving crowd, too. The specials here are geared around that. Look for exclusive beer releases; he tries to work with and feature as many local breweries as possible. (Hint: They offer beer from Tired Hands, a microbrewer near Philly.) Sunday brunch takes place the second Sunday of the month (except August) from 10 a.m.–2 p.m. “The menu is different every time, but you’ll always find some variation on familiar things such as Eggs Benedict and steak and eggs and our burger is always there.”