Green Line Checklist: iPho by Saigon to Los Ocampo
Over the course of these checklists our goal has been to dig a little deeper and appreciate the places we visit for what they are at their core rather than what they appear to be. It’s been about shedding light on restaurants that generally don’t get much love from the critical press either because they don’t meet the foodie standard that we critics fawn over or because they haven’t yet made a list of acceptably hip dives.
So far, many of the restaurants we’ve visited in Frogtown have been too humble and too focused on serving the neighborhood to look outside for validation. Don’t get us wrong; they hang clippings of reviews and tout readers’ choice awards when they get them (which in many cases was 15 to 25 years ago). But for these family run businesses, validation comes mostly in the form of patrons who return, out of love, just often enough to keep the lights on.
All of this is to say that the heart and soul of these places almost always overcomes any notion we might have had about them based on appearances. The key word being “almost.” Occasionally, things are, sadly, exactly as they seem. The best we can do is leave as quickly as humanly possible, get to the next place on the list, and hope they have a good stiff margarita on the menu. (They did.) — 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.
iPho by Saigon
704 University Ave W, St. Paul
Dale Street Station
First, let’s address the elephant in the name. Yes, you could say iPho … um … borrows heavily from a certain smartphone manufacturer with a fruit-bearing name. But while a restaurant named iPho might seem a bit hokey (and somewhat foolhardy considering Apple is rumored to have one or two lawyers on staff), you have to hand it to the place for doing something to stand out from the abundance of other Vietnamese restaurants in the area. And so it does. We challenge you to pass by the sign and not, at the very least, smirk.
OK, now about the restaurant.
The walk-up banh mi counter caught our eye as we entered, so we asked our server about it as we were seated. He said the banh mi were popular here, and warned us that they had only enough bread to make about a dozen more. If we wanted one, we should put in an order right away. That seemed a bit overcautious to us. The odds of a dozen banh mi disappearing over the next few minutes, while we settled on the rest of our order felt decidedly slim. But we took our server’s advice and reserved one anyway. That turned out to be a wise move. By the time our order was in, the rest were gone.
The dining room is long, with steel gray walls and corrugated wainscoting. There’s plenty of seating. It would take a small-to-medium sized convention to fill the place. And even if you ended up here the same night the 2016 Shower Curtain Technology Summit was in town, you wouldn’t have a long wait. The table service is ludicrously fast. From the time we placed our order to the time our bowls hit the table, our butts had only just begun to warm our seats. It was easily under three minutes.
If you’re up for it, try the Pho Challenge. It’s a bowl of soup roughly the size of Des Moines that you’re supposed to finish within 45 minutes. If that sounds crazy, consider that your reward is a T-shirt that reads “I am the pho-king!” So it’s totally worth it! (Then again, we’ve already admitted to being reduced to giggling adolescents when it comes to pho puns.) — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The key joy of iPho, beyond its name and interior design, is that the speed of its food’s preparation is matched by the quality of its flavor. Within minutes of ordering, we were enjoying warm, fresh spring rolls ($4) that tasted legitimately fresh — no gummy, chewy wrappers hardened by hours of exposure to the air. Our only beef was with the internal distribution of mint leaves: three halves of our two spring rolls lacked mint flavor, and the last was a mint bomb.
Our Banh Mi Sai Gon ($5) contained all the pork. Not literally all the pork, as we could probably brainstorm a variety or two not included in the sandwich, but surely most of the pork: red roast pork, pork loaf, grilled pork, meatballs, and pate (plus mayo). The bread (baked fresh daily to the restaurant’s specifications) was crackly and delicate and tender, and the overall balance of filling versus roll was on point.
A grilled chicken and shrimp plate ($8) was clean and simple, and — here we also shout out Cheng Heng for their efforts — featured that unicorn of foodstuffs, properly cooked shrimp. Our Pho Tom (shrimp soup) was enhanced by a clean, light broth that was flavorful but nimble and simple, a shift from some of the sweeter, more anise-driven broths favored by many restaurants.
Smooth, satisfying, delightful, adequately caffeinated — that describes iPho’s cappuccino bubble tea ($5). We’ll be back for this again come summer … which, at this rate, will be here very shortly. — James Norton
647 University Ave W, St. Paul
Dale Street Station
The building resembles the name. It’s made to look something like a ramshackle outbuilding topped with a red shingle roof and awning. In other words, it gives a solid first impression for a wings-and-ribs barbecue joint.
A sign outside announces that Hickory Hut features “Art Song’s Original Recipes.” Art Song is apparently famous enough to have earned his very own logo that incorporates a prominent illustration of his own goateed, smiling visage. (Apparently there is an … ahem … colorful history to Art Song’s logo.)
Inside the building, the stark, napkin-white counter and tile walls are set off by accents of reds and oranges and yellows and browns: all the colors of the barbecue rainbow. Without question though, orange is the predominant color. The color scheme is so well coordinated, you almost get the feeling that the Hickory Hut is the last remaining outpost of a once-prominent chain of fast-food restaurants started in the 70’s.
There may have been as many as two simultaneous Hickory Huts at some point in the past, but it’s no chain. It’s a straight-up, family-owned business. We know this because the night of our visit, the owner’s son was running the show from behind the register. He told us the place was started by his grandfather, who passed it on to his mom and dad. Then he smiled and said he and almost all his siblings have worked here on and off as “cheap labor” at some point or other in their lives.
We talked to a couple who were waiting in one of the booths for their take-out order. They’ve been together for more than 25 years and have been coming here regularly for virtually all of them. That kind of dedication is rare these days in both marriage and eating.
We ordered entirely too much for five people, and on top of that they threw in more than a few extra items for us to try. So when our order hit the counter it looked ridiculous — a mountain of white foam containers, each labeled with black Sharpie. The couple laughed and watched with some amazement as we made a futile attempt to make a dent in our pile of food. If you want leftover barbecue, we probably still have some in the fridge. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Exactly what is that flavor on the chicken wings? It took a while to pinpoint it, but we landed on cinnamon (definitely) and something herby like marjoram (probably?). In fact, Hickory Hut uses the wing recipe made popular by Minneapolis restaurateur Art Song in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. He attempted to take his wing empire national, but the Hickory Hut is one of the last holdouts using the 17-ingredient seasoning recipe. It’s delicious, and the wings themselves seem to come from chickens the size of baby pterodactyls. (If you’re really, really intrigued: a young writer named R.T. Rybak wrote these wings up for Mpls-St. Paul magazine in 1981.)
The other attraction here, of course, is the barbecue. We liked the smoky, tender pork tips and beef ribs, but some of us really wished we had ordered the smooth, red barbecue sauce on the side — it was just too much, drowning the meat itself. For sides, go for the porky, rich collard greens, and skip the sickly sweet, soupy baked beans. We were split on the hush puppies. “Not enough corn flavor!” said some of us. “That is exactly what a hush puppy is supposed to taste like!” said the others. In any case, they were crisp on the outside and soft on the inside and were served hot.
The classic Southern desserts (we tried the pecan pie, sweet potato pie, and peach cobbler) were exactly what they should be at Hickory Hut: humble, indulgent and competent, but, really, perhaps more than you need. — Tricia Cornell
500 University Ave W, St. Paul
Western Avenue or Dale Street Station
A Vietnamese restaurant in an old Dunkin’ Donuts? Yep. That’s University Avenue for you. And while you won’t find one of those famous Dunkin’ Donuts coffees here, you can still get a serious buzz off Trieu Chau’s Vietnamese iced coffee. As our still jittery hands can attest.
Signs dangling from the ceiling told us the place was “Established since 1990” and that soon after, in 1992, it was voted “The Best Soup House” by Twin Cities Reader. It’s endearing that they’re still celebrating the win almost 25 years later. Especially at a time when pho has become so ubiquitous that we can now safely call it by name.
We’ve already used the humble diner as a reference point in this series (see Ai Hue), but the same reference applies here. The tables and booths are diner-approved laminate and are packed tightly together, giving the place a busy vibe even when only a few are occupied. The chairs are the standard stackable black metal and vinyl. The water even comes served in old-school red plastic tumblers. Switch out the Heinz ketchup with a bottle of Sriracha, and you have a good picture of Trieu Chau.
Our server was friendly and efficient. And watching her alongside the other two servers dashing about the place taking orders, wiping down tables, and delivering checks, it was hard not to see them as the hardworking, salt-of-the-earth Alice, Vera, and Flo of a new generation. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The happy overlap of Trieu Chao with the idea of “true chow” is backed up by the food we tasted at this no-frills University Avenue institution. Our Beef and Potatoes ($9) recalled one of our favorite dishes from the Central Avenue Checklist, the similarly named entree from Kim’s Vietnamese. The potatoes ranged from soft and yielding to pleasantly crisp, the seasoning was right, and the harmony of onions plus beef plus potatoes was present (and eternal). We thought the potatoes at Kim’s had a better crispy texture, but Trieu Chao wins on the meat front, with tender, richly flavored bits of beef.
Our Bun Bo Hue ($8, above left) didn’t hit the stellar heights of the version at Tay Ho, but that’s not really a fair comparison. Tay Ho is a home run. Trieu Chao’s version is a double or triple. Delicate meat and a distinct but not overwhelming spicy burn made this a potentially vital ally in the fight against the chill of winter.
The Pho Tai Bo Vien ($8, above right) fell squarely into the “big anise, big sweetness” camp of broths, and we collectively thought it was terrific — balanced and comforting, one of the better phos (of many!) we’ve had on University this year. — J.N.
700 University Ave W, St. Paul
Dale Street Station
Bleak. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Let it never be said that we don’t give every single joint a fair shake. Despite all our Spidey senses’ tingling with alarm, we walked in and ordered four Chinese-American classics: cream cheese wontons, mu shu pork, General Tso’s chicken, and Szechuan wings. Our first bite screamed “rancid cooking oil,” our second shouted “dirty flat top,” and — because we love you, dear readers, and we believe in thorough culinary journalism — there was a third and a fourth bite. But no more. — T.C.
Los Ocampo Mexican Restaurant
615 University Ave W, St. Paul
Dale Street Station
Los Ocampo provided us with more than a refuge to psychologically recover from our previous stop: It delivered a pleasant experience in its own right.
The space is all new and airy, with portrait windows that curve around and offer a decent view of the action on the street and the patio outside. Vivid orange and pink and yellow papel picado flags are strung across the ceiling. The floor is a bright white sea of tiny octagonal tiles. Pepper-red chairs and tabletops are sprinkled throughout. It’s all very fresh and clean and cheerful.
It also feels franchise-esque. Los Ocampo is indeed a growing local empire with four taquerias and two restaurants to its name. But honestly, at this point in our journey, twenty restaurants in, enjoying some decent non-Asian ethnic food in a tidy, non-divey atmosphere was a welcome change.
Any other night, the fact that it took excessively long for our bill to arrive might’ve been a much bigger annoyance. But tonight, nobody really cared. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Even without grading on a “what precisely was that experience we just lived through?” curve, we would’ve dug the food at Los Ocampo. The Huarachazo al Pastor ($8), for example, presented itself as a crispy, openfaced taco sandwich dotted with tender, mild bits of pork and an array of complementary toppings. Everything tasted fresh, and its texture was delightful.
Our chicken Enchiladas Verde ($13, above) were mild, tender, and practically begging for the presence of hot sauce, which was provided for us on request (in three varieties, no less). Dosed with a bit of the orangey medium hot, the dish provided a lovely cheese-meets-meat-meets-heat ballet of flavor.
The Alambres Hawaiiana (think 10 or so mini tortillas covered with a barrage of onions, charred peppers, pineapple, and supple bits of ham, $13) struck us as perfect hangover food and was faulted only for being “too easy,” as though combining two classic, delicious flavors in one dish was, somehow, against the culinary rules.
The only dish that split the table was the Elotes ($3.50), which a had lovely lime and spice flavor but a soft texture that bothered those of us expecting the usual snap of sweet corn. — J.N.