Green Line Checklist: SugaRush to PaJai
Our outings generally take place at night. So occasionally we have to make special runs to check off establishments that operate mainly during the day or at odd hours (and when you’re talking about small, family operated businesses, odd hours are the norm).
We look forward to the perspective these daytime visits provide. There’s no doubt that University Avenue takes on a different hue in the light of day. Things get a little more vibrant and busier.
This time out we hit a few bakeries, we strolled through a giant Asian market, and we revisited 88 Oriental Foods to get a taste of the weekend-only grill special we’d heard so much about on our first visit.
And as usual, University Avenue didn’t disappoint. — M.C. Cronin
ALL 15 GREEN LINE INSTALLMENTS: 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, On’s Kitchen to Tracks Bar and Grill, Caspian Bistro to Playoffs Sports Lounge, Mesa Pizza to Stub and Herb’s, The Dubliner to Ippindo Ramen, Silhouette to Little Szechuan, and T-Rex to Campus Club (the end of the line).
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.
712 University Ave W, St. Paul
Dale Street Station
If you were to drive by SugaRush you’d hardly know it was there, or even that it’s a doughnut shop. On our visit, both the neon “Coffee” and “Bakery” signs were illuminated, but the “Fresh Donuts Daily” sign was dark for some reason. And there was no sign on the outside of the building. They’d placed what looked to be the old exterior sign in the front window, where reflections made it difficult to see.
But don’t be fooled, this is a classic doughnut shop with all the old-school favorites — your pinwheels, your sprinkles, your fritters. It’s also a true family owned and operated business with all the eccentricities that make it so righteously authentic.
The 15-year-old kid playing video games at the PS4 in the front of the store was the owner’s son. He had been up since midnight helping make the doughnuts we were eating. He was also, apparently, the espresso specialist. When the girl behind the register — the boy’s cousin — called him over, he dutifully paused his game and made our latte.
As if to emphasize the neighborhood roots, a photo exhibit of Frogtown during the Green Line construction lined the walls. The cousin talked about the area as if she had the scoop on everyone and everything going on here. She listed her favorite places to eat and told us how they had changed over the years.
The son told us the bear claws grow exponentially on Sundays and they attract a crowd. “Why are they bigger on Sundays?” we asked.
He smiled. “Because that’s the day Mom makes them.” Yep, a family run operation through and through.
Hopefully, the lack of signage was temporary. Perhaps the building was in the middle of exterior remodeling and the sign will be up by the time you read this. But if it isn’t, just trust us that sandwiched between iPho and China One is one terrific little donut shop. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
We tried an assortment of doughnuts (raised and cake, iced and chocolate frosted) at SugaRush, and we can say one thing for certain: The name seems weirdly off base. For while most doughnuts on the market are just abhorrent (or delightful) shock-to-the-brain, shotgun blasts of sugar, the doughnuts of SugaRush were actually quite restrained and lovely, lacking both the massive sweetness and the greasiness that so often mar their cousins.
The apple fritter ($1.60) was particularly nice — crisp exterior, gooey interior, a tart, distinct taste of real apple, and a balanced sugar-meets-spice flavor profile.
The raised doughnut ($1.25) that we tried was also notable, with a chewy, light, almost sourdough yeasty quality to it. — James Norton
Trung Nam French Bakery
739 University Ave W, St. Paul
Dale or Victoria Street Stations
So Vietnam and France have a bit of a past. We’ll leave the backstory to the history books, but let’s just say their Facebook relationship status would likely be “It’s Complicated.” That said, one of the more positive results of their time together is the influence of French cuisine on Vietnamese culture. And that brings us to Trung Nam French Bakery.
If the name and the Eiffel Tower on the logo weren’t enough to convince you of their French focus, perhaps the 10 varieties of croissants, the short and long baguettes, and the palmiers will.
The woman behind the counter won us over with her sparkling enthusiasm and her general concern for our satisfaction. “How are you doing? Please let me know how you like it. Can I get you anything more? What did you think? Thank you for coming in.”
The bakery occupies a former Popeye’s Chicken. The outdoor sign still has the distinct Popeye’s shape we remember from our youth. But inside, the smell of fried chicken has been replaced with the aroma of fresh-baked croissants.
It’s clean and open, if a bit stark. Morning light pours in through the slanted atrium windows under which you can sit and soak up the sun while savoring a coconut croissant and sipping your Trung Nam special coffee (French press, combined with sweet, creamy condensed milk).
We’d heard rumors of croissants being sold out by late morning, and given the foot traffic, we wouldn’t be surprised if that was a regular occurrence. Business was steady, with hardly a break in the people-watching. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Trung Nam Bakery is known for its baguettes ($2), and no wonder. With their crispy but tender exteriors and light, chewy interiors, they’re tailor made to serve as vehicles for delightful banh mi. They’ve stood the test of time: We praised them seven years ago in a feature called Banh Mi Basics:
Of all of the banh mi sampled for this story, Trung Nam’s baguettes had the crispiest crust, which would shatter pleasingly with every crunchy bite.
We liked all the croissants ($2.25) that we tried. While they lacked the crispy flakiness and “oh my God, I’m eating pure butter, but I love it” richness of really great examples of the form, they were light, chewy, and clean tasting. The coconut variety offered a gentle sweetness and just a hint of coconut flavor. We would’ve liked a bit of gritty, grainy real coconut flavor, but the overall baked good was still quite enjoyable. A blueberry croissant was similarly understated, with just a trace smear of blueberry filling inside a cavernous interior.
Finally, our Almond Cookie ($.85) was, for all its humility, perfect — extremely crunchy, intensely almond-flavored, and sweet without being a sugar bomb. — James Norton
544 University Ave W, St. Paul
Dale Street Station
The pork case was twenty feet long and spanned the whole hog. It seemed every part of the pig was available for purchase, from snout to hoof and everything in-between — not to mention everything contained within. Each delicacy was displayed separately in neatly stacked, plastic-wrapped foam trays.
The seafood department had everything from catfish heads to baby octopus. There were huge live tanks and random fish parts on ice. It went on and on. An endless ocean of variety.
In addition to “hot cereal” and “bottled drinks,” there were aisle markers for everything from “pork skin” to “fish balls” to “quail eggs.” There was even an aisle labelled “ethnic food,” which given the context, seemed hilariously absurd.
There was even a jewelry case and a barbershop.
A woman with high heels and a radio earpiece clomped about the store keeping employees on task and generally keeping things in order. This was a well-run, well-oiled machine with ridiculously low prices on fish and meat. It was the Costco of Asian markets.
After poking around, we grabbed a few items from the deli case and ate them in a glass-walled bunker next to the barbershop with a smattering of tables for deli patrons.
If you can’t find the specialty Asian food you’re looking for at Sun Foods, you’re clearly not looking hard enough. Maybe try the “ethnic food” aisle. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
One never knows what to expect at a grocery store deli on the Green Line. 88 Oriental Foods (see below) has become one of our favorite stops, but the much bigger and more impressive Sun Foods grocery store has a deli that, while not bad, per se, left us wanting more.
The Sun Foods French Sandwich ($3) was a tremendous letdown. The name, the stapled paper bag with plastic window packaging, and the setting led us to hope we were going to get yet another stellar University Avenue rendition of what has fast become our favorite sandwich. No such luck — this thing was bland, bland, bland, lacking any of the lovely pickled flavor that a classic banh mi boasts, and supplying heat only through giant, unevenly distributed slices of jalapeño.
The deli’s Shrimp Pad Thai ($5) qualifies as our least favorite version of this stuff we’ve had on University Avenue — far from the worst we’ve had anywhere (it wasn’t a slimy sugar bomb), but lacking in any of the citric punch or funky depth or chewy soulfulness we’ve come to love from Green Line Thai eateries.
Our Sesame Ball ($.50) had a starchy interior and a chewy exterior. That is all.
The Steamed Banh Cuon ($3), or steamed sausage cake in a rice wrapper, badly needed some accompanying condiments. Soy sauce would’ve worked wonders. But they weren’t too bad, overall — tender and satisfying, if simply made. — J.N.
88 Oriental Foods (weekend BBQ)
291 University Ave W, St. Paul
Western Avenue Station
On our first visit, when we were told about the special grilled skewers available only on the weekend, we knew we’d be back.
We saw the telltale trail of smoke rising up into the sky and began to detect the distinct aroma of charred meat from a half block away. The grill, set up in the parking lot under a small aluminum shelter, was manned by a cook who rotated and reorganized skewers of mouthwatering meat over the flame with skilled precision. When we asked about buying one, he pointed us into the store.
Inside, we were greeted warmly by the same crew of kids we met the first time around. They promptly introduced us to their mother, who we heard all about on our initial visit, but didn’t get to meet.
She wore a nice dress protected by a homey red apron. Her hair was pulled back and held in place with a lavender-colored, rose-shaped bow. She peered over her glasses at us and smiled. She looked as though she could be stern and sweet in equal measure. A necessary skill when trying to manage a small market and deli.
We grabbed a Fanta soda (which tuned out to be surprisingly good, given it was the color of maximum-strength NyQuil), and ate our bounty of meats off the hood of our car. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The Barbecue Skewers ($5 for three) are the main attraction of 88 Oriental Foods on the weekend, and it’s pretty obvious why — they’re simple, wholesome, and ding dang delicious. All of them had a good char and balance between lacquered exterior and tender interior. The chicken skewers probably came out on top for their mild, mellow flavor, but all three varieties we tried were up to snuff.
The lycheelike fruit of the toddy palm plus rice flour, coconut cream, yeast, and other ingredients are what go into the mysterious and luminescent Toddy Palm Cakes ($3.50 for six) that we tried at 88 Oriental Foods. They’re like nothing we’ve had before: incredibly mellow, tender, a bit gelatinous, with a coconut kick.
We washed our lunch down with a Fanta Pineapple Banana Orange ($.80), a flavor we’ve never before heard of or tried. Verdict: You’ve gotta like banana to like this anti-freeze colored, neon-green drink. It is, in essence, liquid artificial banana kissed with just a touch of pineapple. — J.N.
PaJai Fruit Arrangements and Bakery
712 University Ave W, St. Paul
Dale Street Station
PaJai is tucked into the side of a University Avenue commercial building, just off the parking lot. The interior was sparse. Aside from a couple of tables with a few seats, the store is dominated by two bakery cases flanking a cash register.
While humble, the space was sunny, cheerful and clean, and it seemed recently updated. Everything was freshly painted, and photographs of colorful cakes and fruit arrangements decorated one wall.
When we first arrived, the bakery cases were fairly bare. There were just a few plastic-wrapped day old items to choose from. The owner emerged from the kitchen to let us know that there were a bunch of fresh goodies coming if we wanted to return in 40 minutes or so. She seemed very sweet, and we had other places to visit, so we had the time and inclination to come back later.
By the time we returned, the formerly bare cases were filled with a crazy variety of baked goods from green tea cake to meat-roll balls, from sweet red bean buns to sticky rice with jackfruit.
We picked out a few items that looked interesting and dug in. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
PaJai’s bakery case was a lovely mixture of rustic (the coconut bun, the meat roll ball, etc.) and cultivated (slices of well-presented, classically composed cake.) We found ourselves entranced by both, so we dove into the situation head first.
The bakery’s Green Tea Cake ($4) could easily have been an oversweet nightmare, but it was subtle as you could please. Its icing tasted like sour cream with just a sprinkling of confectioner’s sugar and green tea powder, making it subtle, light, and creamy. The golden spongecake itself was equally soft spoken, making a dish that was a mere melodious whisper of a thing.
The batter-fried Meat Roll Ball ($1.50), by contrast, had a gamy assertiveness and gummy texture that made it showy and memorable. This is likely to be a love it / hate it kind of thing for most diners (although we respectfully enjoyed it without veering too hard to either side of the divide).
Our freshly baked Golden Coconut Bun ($2) was, in a word, enchanting — light, not overly sweet, blessed with real coconut kick and just the right amount of gently grainy texture to remind you what you are eating. This is a truly tasty baked good, and one we’d like to see pop up in cafes and restaurants more often. — J.N.