Desert Island Top 10: James Norton
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.
We weren’t able to prevent our own editor from jumping in on the irresistible Desert Island Top 10 topic, so without further ado, a bio and some favorite local bites.
THE PERSON: James Norton got to his current position of Heavy Table editor through a circuitous and illogical path, serving as editor-in-chief of the Daily Cardinal at UW-Madison, editing Middle East news for The Christian Science Monitor, and helping to produce The Al Franken Show. He’s leaving the site at the end of the month and starting a new job as food editor for The Growler.
In addition to editing the Heavy Table, he’s one of the partners behind Chef Camp and the author of Lake Superior Flavors. He’s a committed author of fiction, with one completed unpublished novel called Knife Skills, a Kickstarted collection of fiction called The Wendigo’s Credit Card, and another novel on the way. He’s also an obsessive home cook and a founding member of a porron-swilling Basque-inspired men’s cooking club. Coffee Order: Dark roast, cream and sugar. Drink: an Old Fashioned, either Wisconsin-style or tastefully made, it’s all good.
THE DESERT ISLAND TOP 10 LIST:
Beef Roll at Tea House
Sometimes a restaurant gets so comfortable it starts to feel like an extension of your living room in a really good way, and that’s how my family regards Tea House, which slings some of the nicest, most consistently executed Chinese-American fare around. The chewy, earthy, soft-and-yielding beef roll is one of the highlights of a menu full of highlights.
Baklava at Pita King
Good baklava has real honey flavor, nearly infinite and delicately volatile layers, and does not immediately send you into sugar shock because the sweetness of the honey is mellow and balanced, not sugary and insistent. Pita King makes beautiful baklava daily. (For two other great baklavas: Gyropolis and Filfilah.)
Blueberry Pancakes at Al’s Breakfast
If you look at this list, over and over again you’ll see the adjective “chewy,” and I guess that’s a thing I find really pleasant – some fight, some substance, some elastic grace. That’s what the pancakes at Al’s are all about, plus some tiny flavor-bomb legitimately good blueberries. Add a bunch of history and gritty atmosphere and you’ve got one of the best breakfasts in the state, if not the country.
Pastrami at Cecil’s Deli
Periodically, I jones for deli food – corned beef, Dr. Brown’s, egg bread, and so forth. It’s a comfort thing. The pastrami at Cecil’s is rich and delicious cold and even better steamed and served with a smear of mustard on some toasted egg bread or rye. It makes a bad night OK, and makes a good night fantastic. It has also proven to be the best possible way to feed a bunch of hungry poker players.
Sticky Rice at Ha Tien Market
Back to chewy: the sticky rice at Ha Tien is cheap (about $4), and although it’s shrink-wrapped and presented on a little styrofoam tray, it’s almost always still quite warm when I buy it for lunch. It is mind-bogglingly glutinous, nutritionally dense, and packed with little meaty and herby bursts of flavor. You want comfort? Here’s your comfort, warm and wonderful.
Shrimp Cocktail at Meritage
Before trying the wild-caught shrimp with house-made cocktail sauce at Meritage, I thought shrimp cocktail was a mug’s game – a way to dump bad seafood on gullible diners. But this stuff – shrimp that’s as full and meaty as a cold-water lobster, and bright, fresh-tasting cocktail sauce that plays well with the shrimp without smothering it – is another league of flavor. No matter how often I order a couple of these Goliath shrimps, they still manage to delight.
Iraqi Flatbread at Al Amir Bakery
Yes, these massive pieces of Middle Eastern flatbread are chewy, but they’re also crispy, and they’re often warm when you stop by the bakery to buy them. They’re exceedingly popular and it’s easy to see why: they’re cheap (four massive pieces for $3) and brilliant for breakfast sandwiches, wraps, or just eating out of the bag resting on the passenger’s side of the car, as I often find myself doing immediately post-purchase.
Carne Asada Burrito at Taqueria Victor Hugo
This is the burrito I crave: perfectly balanced between meaty / carby / veggie fillings, aggressively seasoned but not too salty, substantial but not disgustingly huge. If forced to nominate a best burrito in the state, I’d feel comfortable offering this emperor of Asada up for consideration.
Puppy Dog Tails at Isles Bun and Coffee
Cream cheese icing never tasted so good – or arrived in such luxurious profusion – as it does at Isles Bun and Coffee. The soft, sweet, super cinnamon-blasted pastries called Puppy Dog Tails are like homemade Cinnabons shrunk, twisted, and enchanted by some kind of beneficent god of breakfast. They’re small and tender but oh-so-sweet, so two’s a good limit.
Any Given Slice of Pizza at Hello Pizza
I only lived in New York City for a year and a half, but I got habituated to regular access to a big, foldable, chewy New York street slice and it’s frustrating that they’re not available on every other corner any more. Along with Andrea Pizza, Hello Pizza is one of the few places to really nail the experience, although purists might say that Hello’s slice is a little too classy and cleaned up to qualify. Whatever, it’s delicious, and it hits that spot.