Cook in Payne-Phalen, St. Paul
On Payne Avenue, in eastern St. Paul, there’s a small storefront that’s been home to neighborhood diners for decades. So when Eddie Wu (who we’ll be profiling in an upcoming story) bought it three years ago, he wanted to hold onto that tradition out of respect for the heritage. But he also wanted to serve Korean food. That led to the creation of Cook, a combo diner / Korean food spot, certainly a unique mix. The building retains its diner feel, small and friendly, although the new ownership removed layers of old paint and brightened up the interior. True to its family-friendly category, there’s a wall for children’s drawings.
Fortunately for the East Side — and for people willing to trek in from the west — it’s a winning combination. Food is sourced locally as much as possible, and everything’s made from scratch (and even the ceramic coffee mugs are local). Breakfast and lunch are served daily, and on Friday nights there’s a special Korean dinner menu.
On our midday visit, we decided to try a couple of things from both the breakfast and lunch menus. You can go traditional in either case; there are pancakes and eggs, cheeseburgers, and BLTs. But the real fun is in the more adventurous offerings.
From the breakfast menu, we went with Breakfast Nachos ($12), which involved braised cranberry beans, cheese, and two fried eggs. Add sausage or bacon ($3 each) to jack up the protein, if you wish. These are heaped over a big pile of “Koritos” — house-made tortilla chips coated in Korean chili powder that pack a good amount of heat. The milder beans and cheese sweetened the dish, and the fried eggs came out nicely runny, coating the whole thing and making it messy to eat, but that’s half the fun.
We also tried the Short Ribs Eggs Benedict ($12). The traditional Canadian bacon now seems like a pathetic substitute for the big chunks of fork-tender braised short rib meat in this version, the beefy flavor a nice contrast to the tangy hollandaise. It comes with hash browns, freshly shredded and perfectly fried so they’re crisp on the outside and melty on the inside. And greasy, in the best possible way.
From the lunch menu, we took our (very friendly) server’s suggestion and tried the Mac & Chi ($11, plus $2.75 to add bacon or sausage). Take a well-made mac ’n’ cheese dish, creamy and rich, and add butter-fried kimchi, and you’ve got a decadent bowl of sumptuous pasta jolted by a puckery kimchi. Frying the kimchi in butter does take some of the sting out of it, but this is a dish that calls for plenty of libations.
Speaking of kimchi, the oddest thing we tried was The Trust Me sandwich ($8). Here kimchi is piled onto thick slabs of fresh-baked bread and combined with house-made peanut butter. Yes — kimchi and peanut butter. Some at our table were rather skeptical of this combination, which is what made it a must-try. But in the end, it was a pleasant surprise for everyone. Unexpectedly, the peanut butter was the more dominant flavor, and in combination with the kimchi, the result was something similar to a zippy Thai peanut sauce.
There’s a limited but creative cocktail menu, and we tried the Drunken Wu ($3.50), a concoction of lemonade, Gray Duck Chai, and sake. For this price, it is a bit of a steal. It’s not heavy on the alcohol, but the spiced chai and the sweetened lemonade made for a nice play on the traditional Arnie Palmer, and it was the perfect drink for the kimchi dishes in particular.
Cook, 1124 Payne Ave, Saint Paul, MN 55130; 651.756.1787; Mon-Fri 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m., Fri-Sat 7 a.m.-3 p.m., Fri dinner 5-9 p.m.