If you play Russian Roulette long enough, eventually you’re going to get the bullet. This was our bullet.
We try to maintain an objective and respectful point of view because we have a deep understanding that the places we visit are, for the most part, operated by decent, well-meaning, hardworking people. Our job is simply to recount our experiences.
But sometimes, there is just no way to overcome the awful. There is no new lens through which we can view things to make the night look any better.
Our best option at this point is to simply push on and muddle through.
Fortunately, the night started on a high note. — M.C. Cronin
GREEN LINE INSTALLMENTS THUS FAR: 88 Oriental Foods to Thai Cafe, Ha Tien Deli to Hook Fish and Chicken, Family Lao Thai to Cheng Heng, iPho by Saigon to Los Ocampo, SugaRush to PaJai, Pinoy Fusion to The Best Steakhouse, Johnny Baby’s to Ngon Bistro, Flamingo to Trend Bar, Midway Pro Bowl to Big V’s.
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
The Green Line Checklist is the Heavy Table’s follow-up to our 55-restaurant survey of independent eateries on Central Avenue. We’ll publish five-restaurant installments biweekly until we’ve documented every nonchain spot between the University Avenue and Rice Street intersection in St. Paul and the Green Line terminus on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis. (We’re estimating 75 spots, but we’ll see how it shakes out.)
This series is made possible by underwriting from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative. Heavy Table retains editorial control of the series — as with Central Avenue, this tour will be warts-and-all.
On’s Kitchen Thai Restaurant
1613 University Ave W, St. Paul
Snelling Avenue Station
From the outside, it’s not much to look at. Just your basic, squat, stucco-and-brick building with an aluminum-trimmed red-shake roof. But we’ve been to enough places to know not to judge a book by its signage.
When we opened the door, a wall of sticky, humid heat took our breath away. Seriously, the ice water couldn’t hit our table soon enough. It was hard to imagine how the cooks could still be standing. But soon our bodies became acclimatized to the new, Southern-gothic-novel-inspired environment, and we had a chance to look around.
With its black drop ceiling and a curtain wall separating the dining area from the kitchen and buffet area, the place is not going to win any interior design awards. But judging by the constant influx of patrons, the sheer number of tables occupied (virtually all), and the toppling stacks of take out orders piling up, a posh experience isn’t what people are looking for from On’s. They’re coming here for the food. And on that front, On’s was totally — and appropriately — on. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
On‘s Thai enjoys a glowing reputation on University Avenue, and the cheerful throng crowding its tables on a Tuesday night was pretty encouraging. But then we got to the food, and we really understood what all the excitement was about.
The least remarkable thing we ordered, spring rolls ($4.50), was quite good — an even distribution of ingredients, rice paper wrappers that held together without becoming gluey, and a lovely, piquant, flavorful sauce that turned a merely edible dish into a delightful one that was eagerly devoured.
Even better was the Haw-Muk ($7). We really enjoyed the ho muk (the more typical spelling) at Cheng Heng but On‘s version easily holds its own. This minced tilapia and coconut-milk red curry dish was creamy, rich, and blessed with an incredible funky depth of flavor and just the right level of heat. And as an appetizer, it was perfect — sharable so that none of us overdosed on this remarkable flavor bomb.
Our Pad-See-Ew ($10) was a classic, beautifully executed rendition of the dish. Mediocre pad see yews are a dime a dozen, a safe way for inexperienced diners to eat bland noodles and chicken. This pad see yew, on the other hand, had all the great contrasts that make Thai food so remarkable: sweet and sour, spicy and salty. Unlike in many renditions we’ve had, the noodles weren’t cooked to the point of falling apart; neither were they undercooked. They were perfect.
Quixotic Coffee in St. Paul has tapped into the burgeoning chilled-coffee trend with its Nitro! Cold Brew ($4). Not for the light-of-palate (we’re looking at you, Frappuccino lovers), this robust-yet-smooth, nitrogen-infused coffee is poured from a tap like a pint of craft beer.
The nitrogen in this cold brew produces a caramel color and a creamy, stoutlike texture as the beverage is pushed through the tap and served clean (not over ice). In addition to creating a velveteen texture, the process yields a drink without the bitterness usually associated with cold coffee. The beans themselves are imported from Brazil and lightly roasted by the Blackeye Roasting Company.
Quixotic Coffee also offers a nitro cold brew solution for those craving a sweeter beverage. The White Lighting ($5) is a creamy blend of nitro cold brew, half-and-half, and homemade vanilla simple syrup. This combo cuts the strength of the coffee without totally masking its flavor. With the addition of the sweet and creamy elements, however, the importance of the nitrogen infusion lessened; this was still a delicious drink, but it could have been just as good with regular cold brew coffee.
If you travel the 35W corridor north of Minneapolis and are on the lookout for a place to get a quick bite that doesn’t involve golden arches or maniacal kings, we have good news for you. Hop off at Highway 10 in Mounds View, and you’re only a minute away from Arepa Bite.
Oddly, it shares a parking lot with a Taco Bell, and it, too, is decorated in bright, cheerful colors. The comparison stops there, though. Arepa Bite is doing quick-service Venezuelan food using a method somewhat similar to that of Chipotle: There are precooked ingredients waiting to be assembled as you watch, although there are also menu items that are completely cooked to order. This quick-service trend is something we’ve been seeing more of lately (at places like Catrina’s). Arepa Bite’s menu focuses on arepas, which are little cooked cornmeal patties that are split open and made into a sandwich, and parrillas, food cooked on a grill (parilla in Spanish).
We tried some of each on a recent visit and were pleased with the results. The Pabellon Arepa ($7) had layers of shredded beef, black beans, white Cheddar, and fried plantains, served on a white-corn arepa. The meat was tender and juicy — indicating that it had not been sitting on the line for long — and had mild flavors of cumin and garlic nicely offset by the sweeter plantain. An accompanying “Venezuelan sauce,” which appeared to be similar to Mexican crema, had bright notes of parsley and cilantro and was as good on the arepa as it was as a dunking sauce for the mildly sweet Fried Yuca ($2.35).
Each Friday, this list will track five of the best things Heavy Table’s writers, editors, and photographers have recently bitten or sipped. Have a suggestion for the Hot Five? Email email@example.com.
The Hot Five is a weekly feature created by the Heavy Table and supported by Shepherd Song Farm.
Spicy Tuna On Crispy Rice from PinKU
PinKU is one of our favorite new destinations, boasting beautifully prepared, simple Japanese-inspired dishes served up quickly from a super-focused menu. The Spicy Tuna on Crispy Rice is a hallmark of the restaurant’s style — a dish of just a few elements, but deep and subtle in flavor and stunningly lovely in terms of the light, crispy texture of its rice.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted from a review by James Norton]
Babka Ring from Brake Bread
Brake Bread is doing some lovely work at its newly opened bricks-and-mortar location (which we reviewed here), and that extends into the realm of sweet baked treats like the babka. Beautifully layered and not overly sweet, and smitten generously with cinnamon, this is a perfect accompaniment to coffee and a newspaper, or whatever your favorite digital equivalent might be.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted from an Instagram post by James Norton]
Plantains and Ice Cream at Jefe
A recent dessert at the newly opened Jefe was one of those transcendent moments. This dish ($7) was just salted caramel ice cream (granted, from Sebastian Joe’s), sweetened condensed milk, and roasted plantains, but somehow the combination of caramel (in both the caramelized plantains and the ice cream), salt, and the dairy of the milk and ice cream made it a perfectly harmonious jam session.
[Last Week on the Hot Five: #1 | Submitted from a review by James Norton]
Maitrise Imperial Farmhouse Ale from Fulton Brewing
The Imperial Farmhouse style was a new one for us, and we were intrigued by the suggested contradiction — an easygoing, everyday nature crossbred with regal power and bearing. But all is explained after a few sips. The rustic approachability of a farmhouse ale is definitely present, but the volume’s turned up, and this 9.5 percent ABV brew packs a bold, bright mango and pineapple booze-bomb of initial flavor tempered by a sweet, almost mild finish that lingers without fading. It’s an aftertaste with depth that you can pleasantly chew your way through.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by James Norton]
Asam Laksa from Peninsula Malaysian Cuisine
A friend returning from Malaysia to New York City tipped us off to this dish. He noticed that he couldn’t get it in NYC, but that Peninsula was serving it in Minneapolis. Populated by fat, short rice noodles, boldly flavored anchovies, a light broth, and a level of spicy and sour flavor that puts it on the extreme end of local soups, Asam Laksa is a pleasant kick in the head, a whole lot of flavor packed into a compact little container.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by James Norton]
On July 16, a Foraged Feast was held for the benefit of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters. The event was just as much a victory lap as it was a fundraiser: A petition to prevent sulfide-ore copper mining by Twin Metals (the Minnesota branch of a Chilean mining concern) in the watershed that contains the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wildereness garnered 67,000 signatures in just 30 days, exceeding the expectations of the campaign, which seeks to preserve one of Minnesota’s most celebrated natural sites for future generations.
The feast was held at the Hawkins Family Conservation Farm on Amelia Lake in Lino Lakes. Purchased by Art and Betty Hawkins in the mid-1950s, the land, which had held a small decrepit dairy farm, was restored to native prairie grasses and forest. Art Hawkins, who died in 2006, was a student of Aldo Leopold at the University of Wisconsin, and he was a pioneering conservationist in his own right through his life’s work as a wildfowl manager and researcher at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Hawkins’ daughter, Amy Donlin, hosted the event at her home on the farm. Donlin’s daughter Piper Hawkins-Donlin, a staffer for Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters, organized the event. For the Hawkins family, conservation is a matter of heritage. And so it was for most of the attendees.
The evening started with cocktails prepared by Deb Gallop (former director of the Wargo Nature Center, master gardener, and forager) and hors d’oeuvres prepared by Gallop and Lukas Leaf, the former chef at Al Vento in Minneapolis. In keeping with the foraged theme, Gallop prepared a tincture for each of the two cocktails on offer using lilac flowers and elderberries. The drinks were garnished with black raspberries from the farm. The lilac cocktail was well balanced, floral, and fruity. The elderberry cocktail must have been good too, because by the second round (delayed for this guest by conversation and the aforementioned hors d’oeuvres), it had disappeared.
Picked fiddlehead ferns, labneh, and a smoked lake trout spread made by Gallop were highlights of the hors d’oeuvres and hinted at the foraged delicacies to come once we adjourned for dinner to the long white table nestled in a narrow clearing between the forest and the restored prairie grass.
Dinner opened with a duo of chanterelle mushroom dishes: crostini and soup. Both the charred bread with meaty mushrooms and the lemon-scented, richly creamy soup paired well with a stony Château de Chamilly Côte Chalonnaise pinot noir. Leaf said that he finds the best mushrooms in wildlife management areas, which are open to the public for recreational (and hunting and foraging) use.