Central Avenue Checklist: Narobi to the End of the Line

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

This was it. One last, nagging place to put this checklist to rest. The plan was to meet at a clothing store that offered an Ethiopian buffet on the weekend. It sounded as crazy as it was unlikely. And it’s impossible to imagine a more perfect way to have wrapped up this journey.

To have traveled the entire stretch of Central Avenue between 694 and Broadway over the course of these 25 weeks and never to have tried Narobi Market would have been a tragedy.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

What bothers us most is that without a tip we received we may never have known about the place. We likely walked into Narobi on our scouting run (which happened a few weeks before they started offering a buffet), but we must’ve quickly ascertained the lack of prepared food, turned around, and walked out sheepishly like bumbling tourists who had made a wrong turn, the way we did at so many other places that day.

As we end this checklist, what strikes us most, is that the checklist never really ends. As with Narobi, there will always be another new place to try. And there is seemingly no end to the earnest, hard-working, passionate people and their families willing to risk all to make a go of it in the fickle and demanding restaurant business.

Many of the places we visited were the kind you might pass without giving a second glance. And if you did take notice, you wouldn’t likely go inside. And if you did make it through the front door, you might scan the place and decide to turn right back around.

Which is to say, it’s hard work getting out of your comfort zone.

But if we learned anything on this journey, it was that by opening ourselves up to new people and food, and experiences that often took us out of our comfort zone, we were rewarded time and again. And if you’re up for the challenge, you will be, too.

Thank you Central Avenue. For everything.

This week’s checklist crew: WACSO, M.C. Cronin, and James Norton.

Read the other installments of the Central Avenue Checklist here: Paradise Biryani Pointe to Flameburger, Dong Yang to Big Marina, New York Gyro to Jimmy’s Pro Billiards, El Tequila to The Heights Theater, The Chilean Corner to El Taco Riendo, the Bakery Edition, Hill Valley Cafe to Ideal Diner, Al Amir Bakery to Fair State, Pico de Gallo to Arcana Lodge, Karta Thai to Tattersall Distilling, Little India to 612 Brew, and Narobi to the End of the Line.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Narobi Ethiopian Market (Buffet on Saturdays and Sundays, noon-4 p.m.)
2518 Central Avenue, Minneapolis | 1.2 miles from Broadway Street

On passing this place, you’d have to be paying close attention to notice they serve food. Based upon the front windows, you’d assume it’s a clothing store specializing in Ethiopian apparel. But inside it is a crazy mashup — a Walgreen’s and a trader’s stall somewhere in West Africa.

In addition to clothing, they sell injera (Ethiopian flatbread) makers, various handmade arts and crafts, fresh fruits and vegetables, pots and pans, stringed musical instruments, woven baskets, leather shoes, bulk spices, makeup, jewelry, generic brand “Peppermint Mouthwash and Gargle,” laundry detergent, and of course Ragu Traditional spaghetti sauce.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

We navigated our way through the hodgepodge to the back of the store, where we found a small seating area next to the dairy cooler. Nothing more than a couple of tables surrounded by low, carved wooden chairs topped with fabric cushions. The buffet consisted of two high tables covered with white linen tablecloths and a few stainless-steel chafing dishes.

A woman emerged from the back of the store carrying another dish to add to the buffet. Up to this point, we hadn’t encountered any workers, and she seemed as happy to see us as we were to see her. She greeted us warmly, said she was almost ready and returned to the storeroom. Then she proceeded to carry out chafer after chafer of food, each more exotic smelling than the next.

She worked alone with patience and care. We asked if she had made all this food by herself. She claimed she’d had help, but there was no help in sight now. And we still wonder if she was just being humble.

James Norton / Heavy Table

James Norton / Heavy Table

When she was ready for us, she approached us like a concerned mother and suggested we wash up before lunch. Then she showed us to a sink behind the counter. At the buffet, she smiled and pointed to each dish, explaining it to us as best she could.

The woman carried herself with pride. And after tearing off pieces of injera and scooping up mouthful after mouthful of her food, we understood why. — M.C. Cronin

James Norton / Heavy Table

James Norton / Heavy Table

*FOOD NOTES*

Narobi’s buffet ($12 a person) is ample enough to make your head spin — lentils, chicken, beef, vegetables, homemade cheese, stewed leaves, and more, all served with spongy, sour injera bread that injects a welcome note of acid into the food while cradling it in an ad hoc tortilla way.

James Norton / Heavy Table

James Norton / Heavy Table

We enjoyed everything we tried, finding that powerful notes of rich spice, pungent depth, smoky heat, and mellow earthiness permeated each and every dish.

The incredibly tender chicken floating in a dark, deeply spiced sauce with a rich, rolling heat may have been our highpoint, but the lentils at Narobi are nothing to sneeze at either — they’re creamy, soothing, fully flavored and downright addictive when wrapped in injera. — James Norton

THE END OF THE TOUR

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Master List of Installments
April 15, 2015: Paradise Biryani Pointe, La Casita, Basha, Asia Chow Mein, Flameburger
April 29, 2015: Dong Yang, Jalsa Indian Fast Food, Tasty Pizza, Shalimar Restaurant, Big Marina
May 13, 2015: New York Gyro, V.F.W. Post 230, Filfillah, El Taco Loco, Jimmy’s Pro Billiards
May 27, 2015: El Tequila, Great Moon Buffet, Royal Orchid, Dragon House, The Heights Theater
June 11, 2015: The Chilean Corner, Jeff’s Bobby & Steve’s Chevy Grille, Karta Thai (North), El Taco Riendo
July 1, 2015: Heights Bakery, Adelita’s Bakery, Al Amir Bakery, Aki’s BreadHaus, Durango Bakery
July 23, 2015: Hill Valley Cafe, Valerie’s Carniceria, Ideal Diner, Columbia Golf Club, Eastside Food Co-op
August 5, 2015: Al Amir Bakery, Holy Land, Sabor Latino, Adelita’s, Fair State Brewing Cooperative
August 27, 2015: Pico de Gallo, Sen Yai Sen Lek, Anelace Coffee, Crescent Moon, Arcana Lodge
September 17, 2015: Karta Thai (South), La Colonia, The Mill Northeast, Maya Cuisine, Tattersall Distilling
October 7, 2015: Little India International Market, Kim’s Vietnamese and Chinese, Diamonds Coffee Shoppe, Spyhouse Coffee, 612 Brew
October 28, 2015: Narobi

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The Central Avenue Checklist by the Numbers
Number of Miles Between 694 and Broadway Street: 4.6
Number of Trips It Took to Complete the Checklist: 11
Number of Weeks It Took: 25
Number of Different Guests Who Accompanied Us: 12
Number of Man Hours in the Field, Estimated: 210
Number of Restaurants Visited and Reviewed: 55
Number of Cities Visited*: 4
Number of Individual Types of Dishes and Drinks Ordered**: 222
Number of Food Photos Taken***: 319
Number of Restaurants That Closed Before We Could Get to Them: 3
Number of New Places That Opened Up While We Did the Checklist: 2
Number of Illustrations Published: 198
Number of Words Published: 36,068

*Columbia Heights, Hilltop, Minneapolis, Fridley (thanks to The Vampire Seats for reminding us of Fridley)
**At minimum; excludes non-noteworthy stuff like regular cups of coffee, Coke, etc.
***Becca Dilley only

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The Central Avenue Checklist by Superlatives

Best Non-Alcoholic Drink: Thai Iced Tea at Karta Thai North
Best Rendition (Out of Three) of Bandeja Paisa: El Tequila
Only Food Item Spat Into a Napkin: Maraschino Cherry at La Casita (update: also an un-IDed sea creature at Big Marina)
Most Unexpected Food or Drink: High-Concept Jello Shot at The Mill NE
Best Green Sauce (Out of … Many): Karta Thai South
Classiest Joint: Tattersall Distilling
Greatest Contrast Between Shabby Decor and Killer Food: Dong Yang
Best Breakfast Served by a Masonic-Style Society: Arcana Lodge
Most Types of Business Crammed Under One Roof: Clothing / Appliance / Convenience Store / Ethiopian Buffet at Narobi
Most Intriguing Liquid Consumed: Lactobac 3 Sour Stout at Fair State Brewing Co-op

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Central Avenue Checklist Restaurants Visited, By Ethnicity*:

American (Classic**): 9
Mexican: 8
Middle Eastern: 7
Chinese-American: 5
Indian: 4
Thai: 4
Brewery/Distillery: 3
Coffee Shop: 3
Ecuadorean: 3
American (Contemporary): 3
Chilean: 1
Colombian: 1
Ethiopian: 1
Fun Mex: 1
German: 1
Italian-American: 1
Korean: 1
Vietnamese: 1
*Dual-nationality restaurants counted twice – thus, an Ecuadorean-Mexican place gets two notations
**Burgers, pizza, diners, etc.

Screenshot from thecurrent.org

Screenshot from thecurrent.org

The Checklist on the Radio
The Current: Eating and Drinking, 4-15-15
The Current: Eating and Drinking, 5-27-15
The Current: Eating and Drinking, 6-24-15
MPR News: Appetites, 8-5-15
The Current: Eating and Drinking, 9-16-15

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

Top Five Places You Need to Go To That You Almost Certainly Won’t Go To

Al Amir — Is it a restaurant? A bakery? Both? Neither? That, plus a short menu of Middle-Eastern-only food may keep folks from giving this gem a try. We encourage you to fight through it and enjoy.

Jimmy’s Pro Billiards — A billiards hall can be intimidating for the non-pool-proficient, but a quick stroll past 22 tables in order to try one or more of this place’s 22 amazing burgers is well worth the reward.

Dong Yang — OK, it’s not a restaurant so much as a cafeteria. And it’s located in a grocery store. Well, buried in the corner of a grocery store, which in turn is snuggled away in the Hilltop strip mall. But damned if it isn’t the best Korean food we’ve had around here.

Basha — Tricked out like Vegas-meets-Beruit, Basha’s imposing architectural and design glitz can be offputting. Push past it, and get the charcoal-grilled quail and Lebanese Night for dessert.

Paradise Biryani Point — Just about tucked under the apron of the highway, this unassuming spot offers up some of the tastiest Indian food we’ve eaten in Minneapolis. Trust your GPS and make the effort. — J.N.

Top Three Places That Intrigued Us that Had Nothing to Do With Food

Central Sauna Bath / Gene’s Barber Shop: Two businesses owned by the same family for some 40 years. Surely there’s nothing strange going on here, right?

Yafa Hookah Bar: Don’t be fooled by the food depicted on the outside windows. Inside you’ll only find men staring at you skeptically from behind a haze of smoke.

Club Rosa Saludable: It’s a Zumba class in a basement with a taco truck conveniently located at the exit. What’s not to be intrigued about? — M.C.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Best Waitress Interactions of the Checklist

Waitress at Shalimar: She turned the combination eye-roll-with-irritated-heavy-sigh into an art form.

Waitress /chef / bartender at Jimmy’s Pro Billiards: Anyone who can do all these jobs well and still manage a smile is all right by us.

Waitress at both Karta Thai locations: Is she suspicious of all men with dark, full beards or just Dave Friedman? Whatever the answer, she remains suspicious. — M.C.

WACSO / Heavy Table / "Central Avenue crew enjoying tamales at a bus stop."

WACSO / Heavy Table / “Central Avenue crew enjoying tamales at a bus stop.”

How to Eat at Five Places a Night

While researching the Central Avenue Checklist, we visited five restaurants over the course of three to four hours. We quickly found that we needed to manage our appetites in order to make it through each evening; stomach explosion is no laughing matter. If you wish to attempt something similar, here are a few tips that will make the effort far more doable:

1. Don’t skip any meals before you go out in the evening.

You might think that bailing on breakfast and / or lunch will help you with your dinner insanity, but it won’t. If you go in crazed with hunger, you’ll gorge at the first restaurant and then sink like a rock.

2. Stop after one or two bites whenever humanly possible.

Unless a dish is life-changingly good (and we had quite a few of these), eat just enough to evaluate the taste, texture, balance, etc., and then put down the fork. You’ll get enough to eat over the course of the evening no matter what — don’t worry your pretty little head about that.

3. Don’t worry about not cleaning (any) plate.

Related to tip #2 — remember that you can always take home leftovers. Your farm-raised “eat every bite” ethos is only going to doom you here.

4. Get used to sharing food.

Everyone’s going to try a little bit of everything for the sake of efficiency (and smaller tabs / tables full of food.) This is not a voyage for the squeamish.

5. Take an academic approach.

This isn’t dining for pleasure — it’s dining for research. Think about the context, the atmosphere, the value prospect, the overall composition of the menu. Don’t think of things as “good” or “bad” or “delicious” or “disgusting.” Break them down to more objective, elemental qualities. And enjoy the ride — the lows make the highs that much more fun. — J.N.

Top 9 Best Food or Drink Surprises of the Checklist

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Lebanese Night at Basha

A classic trifle combines a dryish carb layer with a flavorful liquid and a creamy component: mix those all together with enough time, and you get a creamy-textured, delicate dessert. And as well as the British and Italians do them (thank you, tiramisu), I was shocked to find a version with such a Mediterranean point of view. A sort of spongy semolina cake layer, something that is maybe yogurt based, and a touch of rosewater (any more than a touch is always the wrong amount). This dish was light, custardy, and a delightful surprise.

karta-thai-pumpkin-curry

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Pumpkin Curry at Karta Thai

Not pumpkin spice, but full-on pumpkin. Pieces of pumpkin, served in a pumpkin. Even that wasn’t enough — the pumpkin was carved out and decorated. Clearly a beautiful dish, and for people who love actual pumpkin flavor served in a savory way, this was a totally fun main course.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The Drinks at V.F.W. Post 230

Instead of pondering what Back to the Future got right about 2015, lets ask what 2015 gets wrong about drinks. Sure, our general level of mixology is WAY better, and the flavor and quality of our booze is the best it has ever been, but where are the bartenders who know your name? Where are the drinks for under $4? They are at the V.F.W. post, along with the atmosphere to make it all feel right. — Becca Dilley

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

The Burger at Jimmy’s Pro Billiards

It’s one thing to have your expectations exceeded, its another to have them left flailing helplessly in the dust. These burgers were so good, it’s tempting to go back and try all 23 of their 22 burgers. (Read the story, you’ll understand.)

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The Football Pizza at Crescent Moon

The night we tried it, I thought this pizza was just fine. Two days later I thought of it in passing and felt a small pang in the back of my stomach. By day four, I was like a slobbering zombie craving brains. Football shaped brains covered in that wicked green sauce.

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

The Tamales at Valerie’s Carniceria

They were plucked out of a steel pot, served in a paper towel and eaten on a bus bench. Even under these humble circumstances these tamales easily outshone any I’ve eaten anywhere.

M.C.

James Norton / Heavy Table

James Norton / Heavy Table

Kebab Dinner at Al Amir Bakery
I’ve been to the Middle East (Israel and Jordan) a couple of times, and while I’ve had food in the States that closely approximates what I’ve had over there, nothing has really nailed it. Nothing, that is, until the fire-grilled kebabs at Al Amir. There’s something about the way the meat is seasoned, the chew of the bread, and the acid kick from the vegetables on the plate that nails the Middle Eastern experience, and it’s glorious to taste it on Central Avenue.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Stuffed Grape Leaves at Basha
Dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) are so often a downer. These rice-stuffed leaves can become a starchy and / or sour mess after stewing too long in a vinegar bath, and they’re often nigh inedible. The dolmades we tasted at Basha were perfect — fresh, light, delicate, and kissed by the perfect amount of bright acid.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Carniqueso at Pico de Gallo
This south-of-the-border parallel to a Philly cheese steak was a revelation: tender, flavorful bits of meat, a gooey, salty cheese sauce, and big, tasty pieces of cactus to round the dish out and provide a novel twist. I’ve never tried anything quite like this before, and it was a lovely discovery. — J.N.

WACSO / Heavy Table / "Regular customer that told us what to order and how to eat it."

WACSO / Heavy Table / “Regular customer that told us what to order and how to eat it.”

Fifty-Five Restaurants Later

We didn’t know what we were going to find.

That was the plan. That was our hope, and that was our fear. We had 55 restaurants in our sights, and while we’d eaten at a handful and knew another 10 or so by reputation, most of Central Avenue was a question mark: a seemingly random jumble of independent restaurants strewn up and down a street that transitions from highway to parkway to city as it travels from I-694 south to Broadway.

We weren’t prepared for how jarring the trip would be. Each restaurant is its own life form — a living, breathing, irreproducible combination of people, culture, ingredients, and decor. Within minutes, you can go from scarfing hamburgers in a sprawling pool hall to eating bibimbop out of a stone bowl in the back corner of a Korean grocery to feasting upon charcoal-grilled quail in a restaurant that feels like Beirut by way of Las Vegas.

And so we spun that roulette wheel, again and again and again: another dish, another drink, another server, another restaurant, another country, another world. The funny thing is that the more we ate and drank, and the more we traveled, the more the picture we had of Central Avenue came into focus.

Central is layer upon layer of immigration; it’s a dozen different mercantile approaches to dining; it’s places that are old and tired and dying, and places that are young and vibrant and thriving. It’s the stuffiest of stuffy and the coolest of cool. If you want to get a sense of America — where it was, where it is, where it’s going – eat and drink at Flameburger, and Dong Yang, and Tattersall, and Aki’s, and marvel at the gifts that have been brought to this big avenue in a river town in the center of America.

The controversy over immigration will never go away. But if you want to get a sense of what immigration means, and looks like, and tastes like, cruise this remarkable strip of pavement, and check out all of the world’s reflections. That we have the privilege of doing this is a remarkable gift.

The flavor of Central Avenue is the flavor of the world, and the world tastes damned delicious.

— James Norton

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

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WACSO and M.C.Cronin

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5 Comments

  1. Angela 10/28/2015 Reply

    What a great series! These deserve to be put together into a book. I know I’d buy one.

  2. Joseph 10/29/2015 Reply

    I agree with Angela! I’d buy multiple copies (Hello, Kickstarter?). Well done! So proud to live in NE.

  3. Surprised to see Basha mentioned so positively in the wrap up. We had one of the worst restaurant experiences there. Food, service, everything. I could not recommend this place to anybody and feel compelled to add a warning.

  4. We really did have a great experience at Basha – but we’ve heard negative stuff from other folks, too. It may be that consistency isn’t their strong suit.

  5. tongatom 08/24/2016 Reply

    I’m heady after reading this article. It’s so well written, and it’s inspired me to discover this stretch of the city… Keep up the incredible work!! Two thumbs up!

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