Desert Island Top 10: Amy Thielen
What if you were banished from civilization and had to choose just 10 local dishes to remember Minnesota by? Heavy Table’s Desert Island Top 10 asks local personalities about the dishes they can’t quit, the soulful stuff they crave and come back to.
To observers of the Upper Midwestern food scene, Amy Thielen appears omnipresent and constantly in motion, writing books, articles, and recipes, making media appearances, and telling food stories in just about every medium imaginable. The upcoming publication of her culinary memoir, Give a Girl a Knife seemed to be a perfect opportunity to pick her brain for some of her best Minneapolis-St. Paul food picks, and her list doesn’t disappoint.
THE PERSON: Amy Thielen is a cook and a writer. She is the author of The New Midwestern Table, which won a 2014 James Beard Award in the Book: American Cooking category and was a Boston Globe, NPR, and Eater.com best book of the year. She was also the host of the Beard-award-nominated Heartland Table on the Food Network. Thielen speaks and writes for radio and magazines and is a contributing editor at Saveur. Her culinary memoir, Give a Girl a Knife, comes out this week. Her book launch event takes place tomorrow night (May 18) at Tattersall and is free to the public. She’ll also be at Cooks of Crocus Hill, St. Paul for an event on Saturday, May 20 (1-2 p.m. ticketed, followed by a public signing).
She lives with her husband, visual artist Aaron Spangler, their son and his dog, and a bunch of chickens in Park Rapids, Minn. She’s on the web at amythielen.com and @amyrosethielen.
10. Bittersweet Chocolate Cookies at Forage
They come from Rustica, actually, but the plush and chewy bittersweet chocolate cookies at Forage taste better here, especially if you eat one while wandering through the Forage Modern Workshop showroom browsing all the beautiful furniture and rugs and the long, elegant, expensive fireplace matches you covet but will never buy. At least you can get a cookie and pretend you’re the kind of person who springs $34 on fireplace matches. At two bucks each, the cookies are almost a steal. With the smell of Dogwood coffee and the ambience, you’re also buying a moment.
9. Hash Browns #1: Hash Browns with Chili and Coleslaw at the Wienery
The hash browns at Lucia’s are the champagne of hash browns, and go down easy, like champagne at an open bar — but there’s a time and a place for everything. If you’re of the mind that you should bury a night of overindulgence with even more overindulgence, then the hash browns at the Wienery in Cedar-Riverside are for you. Better than hangover killers, they’re the nail in the goddamn coffin.
The Wienery is a narrow, old, no-frills diner, the kind of place I think of as a Hash Brown Palace. Like all hash brown palaces, the Weinery knows what matters: French press coffee, perfect fries, and personality. The fries are so good that the guy next to me made me take one from his basket and try it. The counter in front of us was as cluttered as a collage in a zine, with food service supplies, bottles of Log Cabin syrup, punk band flyers, and political bumper stickers. (My favorite: THE CIA KILLED WELLSTONE.) A whirling hipster kid holds the entire thing together at the grill in the back, churning out my plate of nicely browned browns topped with a spicy chili and a runny clump of homemade coleslaw. The salt and pepper shakers are tacky with grunge, but when the breakfast is this good, and this cheap, who cares?
8. Hmongtown Marketplace
The last time I was there, at the Hmongtown Marketplace in St. Paul, I counted three stalls making papaya salad to order. Two of them make totally serviceable papaya salads — the right blend of fish and salt and sugar and lime juice, the papaya strands properly bruised with the pestle so that the sauce settles deeply into the hurt parts. But if you’re looking at the food court in the main building straight on, there’s one on the far right that makes the papaya salad of my dreams.
I spent a day cooking with a Hmong home-cooking whiz, who told me that papaya salad is a Thai dish, something that the mostly rural-dwelling Hmong people adopted into their culture after spending time in the cities. She said, almost mischievously, “Hmong people like to add this,” dipping her spoon into a plastic tub of muddy-looking fermented crab. She dropped a spoonful into her mortar, tiny crab legs and all. The lady on the far right uses the same stuff — same tub and everything. To a Westerner, fermented crab sounds a little suspect, but it adds the funky earthiness that papaya salad needs. After trying it, you’ll think that all the crabless versions taste too sweet / sour. Kind of like dessert.
7. The Seafood Plate at Sea Salt
Sometimes you just want someone to feed you, and this was one of those times. We had three kids between us, had parked at the absolutely wrong end of the park for Sea Salt, and the rainstorm was fierce, water dumping as if from a bucket. By the time we got to Sea Salt, we were soaked, and thankfully, the place was empty. The boys went to play directly under the gutters, and I went to stand in front of the menu. For many minutes I stood in front of the menu. I couldn’t decide. The puzzle pieces weren’t fitting the shape of my hunger. Finally a guy behind the counter, a cook, said, “this is what you should get: the seafood platter with sausage and chimichurri.” I said, “thank you.” And when it arrived, a ridiculously beautiful selection of prawns and scallops and clams and crab for just $18, every other soaked-to-the-skin person at my table said, “was that on the menu?” Yes, it was, but sometimes the gems are hard to find.
6. Hash Browns #2: Hash Browns with Mangalitsa Fat at Lucia’s Wine Bar
The hash browns at Lucia’s wine bar are the best I’ve ever had. A standard bearer. Alan Bergo flattens the shredded potatoes into a perfect rectangle, as thick as a wooly hotpad, and fries both sides in Mangalitsa pork fat. The outside is pure brown lacy crisp; the center is soft and tender, steaming with light pork fragrance.
My husband, Aaron, a hash brown zealot — or activist, you could say — is pretty devoted to the hash browns at the Colossal Cafe, but we’ll see where he stands after he tries these.
5. The Deli at the Wedge
Other cities of our size have begun to catch up to us, but for so long Minneapolis / St. Paul grocery stores were like Disneyland, and they were like Soviet-era Russia. (For example, at the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn, the ID-checking, long lines for bags, and crowded conditions are notorious.) In comparison, at the Wedge, even with a crabby child, you can fly through the store, filling your cart, and get all the groceries in the car before the shit really hits the fan.
And at that moment, when the breakdown becomes real, you can unwrap a piece of taleggio, rip open a freshly baked everything bagel, shove the cheese into the gap, and hand it to him and hope for the best. Even though Hank had been living and breathing American cheese, at that moment he learned that he loved soft, washed-rind cheeses and that there was a whole other galaxy out there.
4. Ann Kim and the Sweet Potato Bonito Dish at Young Joni
OK, so I’m just going to gush on Ann Kim here because I’m a fan going way back. We were thespian nerds together back in our Apple Valley / Eagan high school days. Years later, I noticed a ridiculous number of food photos on her Facebook page: Ann smoking pork butts in her backyard, Ann marveling over her mom’s sprawling Korean feast, Ann on a wild personal quest to develop the world’s best pizza dough. It was like watching a pupa worm out of its larva; her energy was going to have to go external. Soon after, as we all know, she hatched.
Case in point, her steamed sweet potatoes with bonito flakes at Young Joni. Inspired by the yams her mom used to roast over the grill embers when she was a kid, the five soft yellow pucks are warm and soft and almost fudgy. She sets them on a plush carpet of charred scallion cream and tops them with bonito flakes that flutter in the air like butterfly wings. This is what it tastes like when a chef mixes taste with memory, making food that arrives on the table with a backstory. I know I’m biased, but I don’t think I’m wrong to say that she’s our very own Gabrielle Hamilton, and Young Joni is our Prune.
3. The Mushroom Sandwich at the St. Paul Cheese Shop
There’s no corner of the Twin Cities I love more than this one, the back garden behind Dunn Brothers, Common Good Books, and the St. Paul Cheese Shop. It’s like the nexus of three of my main pleasure points: books, strong coffee, and food. I like to sit out there with my computer or a new book and eat a sandwich from the cheese shop. One I particularly miss was a mushroom sandwich with chevre and arugula. The mushrooms were slick, marinated in a tangy vinaigrette, mudded up with goat cheese, and they kind of slid into my mouth. I ate half of the sandwich there and saved the rest for my four-hour drive home, at which point the greens had turned to mush and the dressing had soaked the bread, making the sandwich easier to handle and possibly even more delicious.
2. The Endive and Farro Salad at Esker Grove
I love the Walker, and spend a lot of time there. At Esker Grove, with its wood walls that feel 95 percent New Nordic and 5 percent 1970s Minnesota basement paneling, I am like a cat who’s found a perch in a new room: super content. I had a beautiful dinner there — clams with blood sausage, raw scallop rolled in ash — so it’s funny that the thing that continues to haunt me is a salad. Endive, farro, blue cheese, smoked honey. I had to call Doug Flicker about the dressing, though, because it was the dressing that made this thing sing. A lemon-calamansi vinegar (French vinaigre de citron), he said. Not cheap, I found out, but definitely a Midas touch.
1. The Pig’s Ear Salad at Revival
I’ve tried to prepare pig’s ears before. I’ll spare the graphics and just say this: They’re hairy, and their funk isn’t easy to tame. In the right hands, though, you understand why someone would want to try. At Revival, Thomas Boemer crumbs and fries them into crispy arcs, tops them with a fistful of greens, and floats them on a shallow puddle of spiced carrot sauce, almost curryish. These pig’s ears are so clean-tasting, so crispy, and so curiously light that you almost suspect some sort of food-industry-level meddling. I have no idea how he does it, but they are the Pringles of pig’s ears. And just as addictive.
If you enjoyed this collection of eats, also check out musician and radio DJ Sean McPherson’s picks.