Green Line Checklist: Johnny Baby’s to Ngon Bistro
Sure, the food and atmosphere are a huge part of what we try to capture when we go out on these checklist runs. But often, it’s the people we meet that make the experience special: It’s the restaurant owners who rent the spaces, put fresh paint on the walls, put their names on the front door, put the recipes together, and toil over the books. It’s the cooks and the servers who work over hot stoves, wipe down messy tables, stack heavy chairs every night, and prep to do it all over again the next day.
No, these people aren’t always happy-go-lucky. They have worries and fears, and they have a whole heck of a lot of work to do. You have to forgive them if they’re terse sometimes. And we do. They’re pouring their hearts and souls into these places.
That’s not meant to be an excuse for horrible service or bad food. But here’s the thing: When these people crack a smile and laugh, and when they thank you for coming in and ask you to come back, you know it’s genuine. It’s not just some line out of a corporate customer service manual. And these days, that makes a big difference. — 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.
981 University Ave W, St. Paul
Lexington Parkway Station
It’s hard to figure how a place that wanded us down with a metal detector before we walked in also turned out to be one of the most welcoming places we’ve visited on the checklist so far, but such was the case here. In the span of an hour we got hugged, chatted up, winked at, danced with, and shouted out to. We might’ve felt uncomfortable had we not been having so much fun.
Bottom line, if you’re not having a good time at Johnny Baby’s, you’re just not trying. This isn’t some subdued corner bar where people cling to their bar stools or stay at their tables and hold quiet conversations among themselves. There was a constant flow of patrons bouncing from group to group to bar counter to tables to dance floor.
The activity was in large part due to the beat thumping through the sound system thanks to DJ Whop Mama — a nearly-70-year-old woman who’s been working turntables since 1973. The tagline on her banner was more of a promise than a slogan. In big letters right under her name it read ““Finna get loose”!”
And we did.
We got a chance to talk to DJ Whop Mama while she was setting up. It turns out she was one of the first female DJs in the city, if not in the country. She told us it wasn’t always an easy profession for a woman. But you’d never guess her hardships from her sparkling smile and her sparkling attitude and her sparkling sequined cap.
We asked about food, and were shown to a back corner of the bar, where there was a makeshift counter and a handwritten menu board. Apparently, Johnny Baby’s has different cooks depending on the night. There’s a Mexican food night and a Jamaican food night, but on the night we visited, Claudia was in the kitchen, and that meant classic down home cooking: catfish, mac-and-cheese, fried shrimp and chicken, french fries, cornbread, and rice and beans.
We chowed at the bar and watched Johnny Baby announce winners of the meat raffle. On the exterior, Johnny Baby seemed like a tough cookie. All business. No time for foolishness. The kind of guy you’d have to be were you running a bar with a metal detector at the door. But when he got on the microphone after giving away the last few slabs of bacon for the night, he dropped the gruff exterior, donned a big grin, and said, “That’s how we do it at Johnny Baby’s!”
Indeed. That is how it’s done. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The Fried Catfish ($10 with a side) was the star of the show here. This is a dish we’ve seen ruined over and over again with clunky breading and underflavored (quite probably fake) catfish. But here, a simple breading let the clean-but-earthy flavor of the fish really shine — whatever herbs and spices were deployed were soft spoken, leading to a really lovely and classically done dish.
We also dug the Fried Shrimp ($10 with a side). Again, this is a dish that goes wrong far more typically than it goes right, so it’s great to taste a version with properly cooked shrimp and a crisp, simple breading that supports the flavor of the seafood without crushing it. Like the catfish, this was a “less is more” deal: Start with something that tastes good, and don’t mess with it too much.
Our Fried Chicken Wings ($10 … you guessed it, with a side) were standard issue. Chicken’s bland enough so that more heat, or sauce, or other complementary flavor, would have been welcome, but there wasn’t anything wrong with the meat or technique.
Notes on the sides: The cornbread was moist and mellow, a classic rendition of the stuff. We were warned that the rich and creamy mac-and-cheese had a kick. It did, and we liked that. It gave an extra dimension to what can be a throwaway side. And our beans and rice were simple and soulful, on par with the rest of this unexpected and totally enjoyable bar food experience. — James Norton
Tai Hoa B.B.Q.
854 University Ave W, St. Paul
Victoria Street Station
There is no mistaking the authenticity here. Whole roasted chickens and ducks hang in the window. Peek through the door to the kitchen and you’ll see roasted pigs dangling from spits in rows like suits at a dry cleaner. Exotic dishes featuring chicken feet, pork intestine, and pork stomach line the deli case. You can buy a meatloaf wrapped in a leaf, tied with twine, and made from varieties of ground meat you’re not likely to find in the Betty Crocker Cookbook. This is a real Asian barbecue joint.
Whole roasted pigs go for between $280 and $320, depending on size. As we were only five people, and couldn’t imagine buckling a pig into the back seat of our car for the ride home, we settled on a whole barbecued duck, for around $25.
Armed with a large cleaver and a solid swing, the guy behind the counter cross chopped our duck into rectangular bits — BAM, BAM, BAM — as effortlessly as if he were cutting a tavern-style pizza.
The duck was placed into a foam container and offered to us with three side sauces: a small plastic thimble of hot red sauce, a larger container of soy-based sauce, and an even larger dish of barbecue jus. Based on the size of the container alone, this seemed to be the primary sauce. It certainly was the tastiest.
Tai Hoa is set up primarily for takeout, but there were a few small tables tucked in the corner of the shop. We took our container to this corner, huddled around, and picked out the most promising-looking bits of duck meat. We dunked them in the sauces, dribbled all over ourselves, and licked our fingers with loud slurping smacks. In so doing, we upheld the fine tradition of eating barbecue like savage, prehistoric cave dwellers — the way it should be eaten. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Faced with a choice between an entire roast duck ($22) and an entire barbecued duck ($23), we opted for the later. There’s something magical about the abbreviation “BBQ,” and an extra dollar seemed trifling compared to the excitement of seeing a man with a large cleaver take apart an entire cooked bird before our eyes.
The actual eating of the duck (assisted by dipping sauces) was a production in the best possible sense of the word. Every bite was a different combination of incredibly chewy, flavorful skin, rich fatty meat, and external charring from the grill. Some bites were simply too skin-forward; others, grease bombs; others, five-star experiences, wherein crispiness, carbon, and fatty richness complemented each other perfectly, particularly when dipped into the jus-based sauce that accompanied the bird.
Eaten on a card table, the duck was a strange production. But clearly, Tai Hoa is meant for takeout, and one of these birds, properly picked over and utilized, could accompany many dishes at home (soups! sandwiches! salads!). Surely this ranks among the best of the many stellar food values to be found along University. — J.N.
Homi Mexican Restaurant
864 University Ave W, St. Paul
Lexington Parkway Station
The bright, hand-painted, neon-yellow sandwich board on the sidewalk offered just the necessary information for drivers passing by on University: “Homi Mexican Restaurant” followed by a phone number. The sign above the awning was even more pointed, forgoing stating the name in favor of just “Restaurant Mexicano” with two Mexican flags flying above it.
This is a place that understands they have very little time to get your attention, and they are doing their best to use it wisely. And no wonder. Homi is easy to miss, smushed in a small storefront between The Best Steakhouse on one side and a large auto body shop on the other.
As expected from the exterior, the interior was small and basic: clean and sparse with bright yellow and blue walls, tile floors, and a few tables. A small counter for picking up, takeout, and paying your bill was at the back. A Lite-Brite-esque illuminated sign highlighted a few key menu items: tacos, mole, sopes, tamales, empanadas, menudo y mas.
In the corner of the room, an average-looking beverage refrigerator hummed along unassumingly. But when we approached it, we found a not-so-average-looking homemade flan inside, and we couldn’t resist it. (Spoiler alert: we’re sooo glad we didn’t.)
Homi is named for the owners Hortencia and Miguel, who were running the register, preparing the food, and serving patrons between bites of their own dinner. Hortencia was quiet and somewhat distant (perhaps due to a bit of a language barrier) but she was proud of her food (which she should be) and seemed desperate to get more customers through the door. She asked us several times to tell our friends about Homi.
So friends, this is us telling you Homi is well worth your consideration. For a city overflowing with taquerias, this part of University is somewhat thin in the Mexican food department. So it would be beyond disappointing to see that bright, neon-yellow “Mexican Restaurant” sign disappear from the sidewalk. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
When reviewing a place like Homi, the challenge is not to tip your hand too eagerly and too excitedly. “Go, go, go, the food is great!” you want to write, but you can’t work that way. You have to reveal your thoughts slowly, in sequence, supported by evidence. Or you can do some cheap fourth-wall-breaking stuff and try to both have your enchilada and eat it.
So, let’s start and end with some strong stuff from Homi, and put the other strong stuff in the middle. The Enchiladas Verdes de Pollo ($13) are among the best we’ve had. Great kick, good acid to balance the richness, tender but not soggy tortillas, properly cooked meat, with an overall lovely, complex, lingering heat. This is a dish that can get heavy and tedious, even when done fairly well, but none of us got tired of this rendition, and we promise to return for more in the future.
Our Enmoladas with chicken and cheese ($14) were a mole-based spin on enchiladas, and they had a full, bold, rich flavor. We’ve had mole in the past that is too sweet, or too bitter, or too thin and astringent, but this stuff was big and balanced.
Our Tamales de Puerco ($8) don’t equal the ones we got at Valerie’s on Central Avenue, but, seriously, what ever will? These were still fine specimens, mellow and full flavored, with delicate (not mealy) corn and tender meat.
We loved our Guacamole ($5), which walked the line between simple mashed and seasoned avocados (which certainly has its place) and the sour-cream-based hooey sold as guacamole at many of the nation’s less reputable “fun Mex” restaurants. This stuff had some creamy texture and flavor plus studs of flavor from the tomato, onion, and cilantro bits throughout, but the avocados were firmly in charge.
And the house-made flan that we finished with — oh, the flan! We’re used to flan essentially being the stuff from the box: not bad, but often a little too burnt and a little too thin. This stuff was a marvel — profoundly thick with a rich, complex caramel flavor tempered with just a bit of carbon. Easily the best we’ve had. Full stop. — J.N.
Demera Ethiopian Restaurant and Bar
823 University Ave W, St. Paul
Victoria Street Station
Attached to the skeleton of the Victoria Theater is a building with a dilapidated marquee covered in the peeling paint remnants of a sign for a Vietnamese restaurant called Pho Mai. This is the home of Demera. (In fairness, there are also two newer signs for Demera attached to the building, so there shouldn’t be any confusion.)
A note on the front door read “Use Other Door” and pointed us around a chain-link fence to a side entrance accessible from the parking lot. A couple of gentlemen sitting outside enjoying the balmy evening weather and a smoke watched us enter.
Inside, it’s all yellow golds, taupes, and light browns, with tall ceilings, high-back chairs, a faux stone floor, and glass-covered tablecloths on every table. Along one wall, there’s a vintage deco-style laminate bar back featuring swooping curves framing two round mirrors. The countertop and shelves are adorned with crafts and artworks from Ethiopia. The place is much less of a hole-in-the-wall than the exterior suggested.
It was quiet during the early dinner hours, but the full bar in the back of the room, the large karaoke setup, and the professional sound system indicated that this place had the potential turn into a hopping nightclub during the midnight hour.
Our server brought out a tray, the size of a small coffee table, lined with injera bread on top of which all our food rested. In Ethiopia, injera is your utensil. Having been liberated from the tyranny of forks and knives, we ripped the bread apart and used the spongy pieces to grab at various savory stews and meats. Then we proceeded to stuff our faces. Tactfully, of course. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The beauty of Ethiopian food is the sensation of sharing an experience with your fellow diners — the family-style stewed, spiced entrees and the injera bread in lieu of utensils create the feeling of a happy free-for-all at the table. Demera’s meat platter ($32) generously fed our table of five. We could have finished our single-entree meal at this one restaurant and been satisfied for the evening, were it not for the other restaurants we had to dine at (or finishing processing) in order to complete our outing.
The platter was a cornucopia of Ethiopian food, bringing together five different, deeply spiced entrees with elements including lamb, beef, chicken, eggs, and stewed greens. We got our Kitfo (minced beef, usually served raw) cooked medium at the recommendation of our server, and the dish emerged as something like an Ethiopian sloppy Joe, comforting, warm, and unpretentious.
The deep, rolling heat and tender meat of the lamb and onion Tibs was similarly agreeable, and we’re always going to be suckers for a nicely executed Doro Wat (a chicken stew with whole hard boiled egg).
This food — rich, profound, comforting — is the real deal. — J.N.
799 University Ave W, St. Paul
Victoria Street Station
Ngon plays up the French influence in Vietnamese culture. (Thus, “Bistro.”) The interior is vast, with a bar at the back – there are also plenty of wooden tables and two perpendicular benches that help divide the room. The walls are warm yellow with wainscoting accented in white piping. Along one wall, classic double sconces are interspersed with pictures of Vietnamese landscapes and people. Simple chandeliers dangle from the tin ceilings. The feeling is traditional French colonial.
It was a pleasant night when we visited, so we opted for the patio in the back, and we were glad we did. Bordered by a tall wooden fence, lined with brick pavers, and dominated by a large wooden arbor, it’s big enough to hold plenty of people, but protected enough to feel cozy.
Warm lights strung overhead provide just enough glow to give you that essential mellow vibe you really want in a patio. All in all, it was a nice space to spend the twilight hours sipping a flight of barrel-aged cocktails. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Ngon Bistro is an outlier on University Avenue, at least until you get over to Restaurant Alma. On a street known for its rough-hewn dive bars and gritty, first-generation holes in the wall, Ngon is sophisticated enough to bear scrutiny in the Warehouse District or Lowertown. The high-minded nature of the place shows in the writing (and pricing) of the menu, but (thankfully) it also carries over into the execution of the food, which we found (and have found in the past) to be skillful, often to the point of being artful.
Our Phostrami Pork Belly ($22) is one of the few pork belly dishes we’ve ordered in the cities that was cooked perfectly — no fatty gristle, nothing withered by fire, just pure porky deliciousness, rich and supple. The accompanying charred ramps were lovely in their green simplicity.
The Shrimp and Grits ($22) was a nice rendition of a Southern classic, with properly cooked, tender shrimp and grits that had a bit of a kick and were cheesy without being a mass of dairy. The grits weren’t quite as smooth, delicate, and creamy as we like ’em, but they very rarely are, north of the Mason-Dixon.
We dug our flight of barrel cocktails ($25 for four generous half-drinks). The real standout was our balanced, citrus-kissed Sazerac, but the light, clear, bright Bistro Jewel was also a winner. Our Black Pearl and Old Fashioned were both decent, but slightly off kilter.
The Fresh Spring Rolls ($8) rank among the finest we’ve had on either the street or in the metro — light, elegant, almost ethereal, they’d be perfect eating on a hot summer day. — J.N.