Out-of-Towners’ Guide to St. Paul 2015

Becca Dilley, Katie Cannon, Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley, Katie Cannon, Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Welcome to the Twin Cities! Don’t know where to find interesting, high quality food and drink? Whether you’re looking to splurge or eat on the cheap, we’ve got you covered. Looking to drink killer cocktails and treat a hangover the next morning? No problem. Want to know where the locals get their doughnuts, sausage, tacos, and coffee? You’ve come to the right site.

The guide is a collection of places our contributors take out-of-towners (or suggest others take visitors). It’s not a “best-of” list. It’s also not comprehensive. To keep the guide from getting unwieldy, we limited the number of categories and suggestions within each category. Therefore, there are numerous places that we love that didn’t make it into the guide. If you asked us where to eat, drink, and hang out, this is what we’d tell you (and then we’d list a bunch of backup spots). Together, the interactive map (posted at the end of this article), the list, and the corresponding Foursquare list will help you plan your gastronomic tour of the Twin Cities.

After considering feedback on last year’s inaugural guide, we decided to split the document into two parts, one for each of the Twin Cities. As the capital city of Minnesota, St. Paul is receiving first billing. We will publish the guide to Minneapolis in the next couple of weeks.  

Locals: Along with using the guide and sending it to folks visiting town, we hope you will add your recommendations in the Comments section (and tell us why our suggestions are completely off base). We update the guide annually, so your feedback helps us improve the document as well as provide out-of-towners with additional suggestions.

Worth the Splurge

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

Meritage, 410 St. Peter St, St. Paul; 651.222.5670 | Our interview with chef-owner Russell Klein
With attention to detail and consistency that are second to none, Meritage is one of the finest French-inspired eateries in the metro area. But the not-so-hidden secret weapon of this chic, classically excellent restaurant is the seafood. The oysters here are reliably delicious and the varieties change often, and the fantastic wild-caught Pacific shrimp cocktail will redefine your understanding of this often maltreated, usually disappointing dish. The restaurant side is great for a formal affair; the bar side is perfect for cocktails, oysters, and a spot-on upscale hamburger.

The Strip Club Meat and Fish, 378 Maria Ave, St. Paul; 651.793.6247 | Our review of brunch at the Strip Club
While it may be temporarily obscured by the rapid ascendance of its Lowertown cousin, Saint Dinette, don’t forget this lovingly hip tribute to the classic Midwestern steakhouse — the name is unforgettable, as is the food. While steaks are an obvious (and correct) way to proceed at this dark, cozy joint, we fondly remember everything from soups to appetizers to salads, they were so uniformly well-prepared. However far you’ve traveled, settle in, order a cocktail, and unwind.

Tanpopo Noodle Shop, 308 E Prince St, St. Paul; 651.209.6527 | Our look at Twin Cities (including Tanpopo’s) ramen
Yes, they do sushi. But you won’t find any crazy rolls or extensive sashimi offerings here — rather, the nightly maki special plays second fiddle to teishoku (we like the mackerel) and steaming bowls of nuanced, delicate broth and chewy udon noodles. Try the nabeyaki udon: it’s judiciously topped with tempura fried shrimp, chicken, fish cake, wakame, and tamago; each element contributes a unique flavor that complements the broth and creates a harmonious dish.

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Saint Dinette, 261 E 5th St, St. Paul; 651.800.1415 | Our review
The second restaurant from the Strip Club’s Tim Niver and JD Fratzke, Saint Dinette features the French-influenced food of North America — from Montreal to New Orleans to Puebla, Mexico (where many French settled in the 1800s). Chef de cuisine Adam Eaton and general manager Laurel Elm ate their way through the three aforementioned cities, discovering influences as disparate as Mexican, Southern, and Jewish, all woven together with the French. Must-haves include trout rillettes, half chicken (pictured above), fried smelt, and cheeseburger. Saint Dinette offers a weekend “grocery valet” so diners can park their goods from the Saint Paul Farmers’ Market while they enjoy brunch.

Heartland, 289 E 5th St, St. Paul; 651.699.3536 | Our interviews with chef-owner Lenny Russo: On cooking | On Heartland’s pork program
A national standard-bearer of “farm to table” dining, chef Lenny Russo combines technical precision with extremely high quality regional ingredients to produce soul comforting, delicious meals. Overlooking the Saint Paul Farmers’ Market, Heartland has earned its reputation as the place for distinctly Midwestern fine dining. If roasted bison is on the menu, get it! And try not to fill up on the house-made rolls and artisanal butter.

Casual Eats

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

St. Paul Cheese Shop, 1573 Grand Ave, St. Paul; 651.698.3391 | Our thoughts on the Smurk sandwich
No time to sit down and eat? You’re in luck. Since its establishment in 2009, the St. Paul Cheese Shop has been our go-to for reasonably priced sandwiches that consistently hit the spot. This is the place that got us hooked on fried mortadella sandwiches. Loaded with provolone and pickled peppers, they eschew the bologna flavor in favor of something a bit more gourmet. With options to satisfy kids (ham and Comté), vegetarians (lemony hummus, greens, provolone, and pickles) — and a truly fabulous chorizo sandwich or the above-picture “Smurk” (among others) for everyone in between — it’s a great spot to grab a sandwich on your way down to the river, or wherever else you choose to take a hike.

Fasika, 510 N Snelling Ave, St. Paul; 651.646.4747
This smallish, no-frills spot consistently kicks out straightforward, high-quality, super flavorful Ethiopian food. With a joyous atmosphere and family-style platters, Fasika is great for informal celebration meals (but be sure to make a reservation). Vegetarians will delight at the variety of delicious meatless dishes.

Ngon Vietnamese Bistro, 799 W University Ave, St. Paul; 651.222.3301 | Our review
In the midst of a long street full of Vietnamese restaurants, Ngon sets itself apart with a truly full-flavored, beautifully spiced yet nuanced pho broth and highly touted partnerships with local farms like Thousand Hills Cattle Co., Kadejan, and Fischer Farms Pork. This is not a hole in the wall; it’s a judiciously decorated place we’d recommend as easily for a happy hour as for a date night.

Cheeky Monkey, 525 Selby Ave, St. Paul; 651.224.6066 | Our thoughts on the pressed Cuban sandwich
If you’ve ever owned a panini press, perhaps the allure of paninis has worn off (unless you went a little crazy with it, in which case … more power to you?) Cheeky Monkey’s sandwiches sound pretty simple, until you realize they source good bread — the kind that holds everything together with a nice crunch while still yielding to your teeth. Cheeky Monkey also smokes and cures its own meats and make some of the condiments — to good effect. We’re particular fans of the Cubano and the meatloaf sandwiches, but we haven’t gone wrong no matter what we’ve chosen.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Little Mekong, University Ave between Mackubin and Galtier streets, St. Paul | Our review
Located on University Avenue between Mackubin and Galtier streets, this half-mile stretch in St. Paul is home to more than a dozen Southeast Asian eateries. Some of the many gems available in Little Melong include bahn mi at Ha Tien Market (Vietnamese), Ho-Mok (curry fish steamed in banana leaf) at Cheng Heng (Cambodian), Bún Thâp Câm (vermicelli salad with barbecued pork, meatballs, and egg roll) at Trieu Chau (Vietnamese), Larb at Family Lao-Thai (pictured above), Peking duck at Wung Lee Supermarket (Hmong), sour pork ribs at Thai Cafe (Here’s our review of the papaya salad), and hot pot at Little Szechuan.

On’s Thai Kitchen, 1613 W University Ave, St. Paul; 651.644.1444 | Our review
On’s got its start with a bit of family drama — the cook from one of the best Thai restaurants in St. Paul broke off and started her own restaurant, and her culinary prowess shows. An excellent rendition of lad na (thick, chewy rice noodles in a flavorful gravy with broccoli and pork) and equally flavorful tom yum place it among the ranks of strong Thai restaurants; an off-the-beaten-path dessert menu offers a couple of  options you might not otherwise try. A few doors down from the legendary Turf Club, this could easily be the start to a great evening out.

Brasa, 777 Grand Ave, St. Paul; 651.224.1302 | Our review
Brasa’s Southern and Caribbean-inflected meats and sides will satisfy both the carnivore and the vegetarian. Because Brasa has two locations, one in each twin city, you are never far away from their succulent pulled pork, red beans and rice, and so-good-it-can’t-be-good-for-you creamed spinach. Eat in or take out.

Black Sheep Pizza, 512 N Robert St, St. Paul; 651.227.4337 | Our reviews on the pizza and salads
With just the right amount of smoky flavor from the coal-burning oven, Black Sheep’s crust is first rate: thin, but sturdy enough not to collapse under the weight of sauce and toppings. The sauce is pleasantly simple, bringing out the bright flavor of properly stewed tomatoes and making the “cheese and sauce” and “tomato and oregano” pies minimalist perfection. For a more adventurous offering, go with pizza number 5: fennel sausage, hot salami, thinly sliced white onion, and cracked green olives. It’s brilliant! And don’t sleep on Black Sheep’s excellent salads.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Big River Pizza, 280 E 5th St, St. Paul; 651.683.2186 | Our review
Located across the street from the Saint Paul Farmers’ Market and a stone’s throw from the new St. Paul Saints baseball stadium, Big River tops pies and mixes salads with high quality, local, seasonal ingredients. Its fire-breathing wood oven produces Neapolitan-style pizza (above) with a fantastic tasting crust that’s slightly charred on the outside and chewy on the inside. Big River is helping to make Lowertown a food-lover’s destination.

Cossetta Alimentari, 211 W 7th St, St. Paul; 651.222.3476 | Our look at the Cossetta pasticceria
The grand, recently revamped Cossetta Italian food complex on West 7th is less a restaurant than a vast, interconnected experience. It offers everything from an Italian market to a large, casual eatery to a fine-dining restaurant (Louis Ristorante) to a cafe-bakery-gelateria (the pasticceria). The classic Italian-American fare is good-to-great (the cannoli and the meatball sandwiches are particularly delicious), and the buzzing, multifaceted nature of the space makes it perfect for large family groups that want to spread out and move around.

Breakfast / Brunch

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Colossal Cafe, 1340 Grand Ave, St. Paul; 651.414.0543 / 2315 Como Ave, St. Paul; 651.797.4027 | Our review
With two spacious locations in St. Paul (and one not-so-spacious spot in Minneapolis), Colossal can now accommodate the crowds that crave its amazing breakfast sandwiches, hearty omelets, delicious yeast-based pancakes (including a flapper topped with apples, walnuts, and brie), thick bacon, and indulgent flips (yellow cake folded taco-style and filled with fresh whipped cream). Although known primarily as a breakfast joint, Colossal’s lunch menu offers a solid selection of salads and sandwiches.

Mojo Monkey Donuts, 1169 W 7th St, St. Paul; 651.224.0142 | Our illustrated review
Mojo Monkey falls into the (rightfully) much-maligned category of upscale, new-fangled doughnut shops, where doughnuts cost considerably more than 50 cents each and wild new flavor and topping combinations are the norm. But unlike some of its peers, Mojo Monkey puts an emphasis on quality and flavor balance — you’ll get what you pay for here when you down exotic, perfectly calibrated breakfast delights. And if you show up on the weekend, Mojo Monkey beignets are as close as you can get to New Orleans’s Café du Monde around here.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

The Buttered Tin, 237 E 7th St, St. Paul; 651.224-2300 | Our review
This newly opened breakfast-and-lunch bakery joint was at the vanguard of what we’re calling the Lowertown Boom, an explosion in high-concept (and high-quality) food and drink that is helping to transform this St. Paul neighborhood. From stick-to-your-ribs biscuits and gravy to charmingly oddball baked goods (pictured above), such as a Lowertown take on the old-fashioned Twinkie, The Buttered Tin offers a nice range of options for visitors. The only possible downside? The place is crazy popular, and you can expect a line on weekends. Wait it out or turn up early; it’s worth it.

Meritage, 410 St Peter St., St Paul; 651.222.5670 | Our interview with chef-owner Russell Klein
In addition to our resounding approval of Meritage for dinner, the brunch offers absolutely the finest scrambled eggs we’ve tried anywhere: buttery, luscious, deeply satisfying. The menu is replete with classic choices (eggs, bacon, etc.) rendered with real skill. It’s one of our favorite brunches in the area.

The Strip Club Meat and Fish, 378 Maria Ave, St. Paul; 651.793.6247 | Our review of brunch at the Strip Club
We love The Strip Club for its cozy neighborhood feel; quirky, spiral-staircase mezzanine; and high execution in food and cocktails — all of which translate seamlessly to brunch. In a world of overpowered bloodies, we found theirs beautifully seasoned (if a bit mild) … served alongside any of their light, creamy, fluffy egg dishes, a delightful brunch indeed!

Local Color

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Casper and Runyon’s Nook, 492 S Hamline Ave, St. Paul; 651.698.4347 | Our review
A neighborhood institution for generations, The Nook is located across from Cretin-Derham Hall, where numerous local sports heroes — including Twins’ catcher Joe Mauer and baseball great (and current Twins’ manager) Paul Molitor — spent their high school years, and for whom the Nook has named many of its burgers. The “Juicy Nookie,” a burger stuffed with American cheese and cooked medium, is the joint’s signature sandwich. If you decide to skip the Juicy (perhaps for fear of the scolding cheese that oozes out of the meat) but need a hearty burger after a long day of sightseeing and socializing, we suggest The Lodge (an excellent bacon cheeseburger) with fries and a shake chaser.

Mickey’s Diner, 36 W 7th St, St. Paul; 651.698.0259
Claiming to be one of the first art deco dining cars, Mickey’s Diner attracts attention on the street — and has been a neighborhood photo-op (the place was featured in Mighty Ducks, after all), lunch stop, and hangover-buster for decades. Lucky for us, Mickey’s still makes most of its stuff from scratch — we’re big fans of the pancakes.

Hmong Village, 1001 Johnson Pkwy, St. Paul; 651.771.7886 | Our 25 tastes throughout Hmong Village
Imagine a huge storage facility — one so large that navigation becomes mazelike. The units’ garage doors roll up, revealing … someone’s old couch? A rocking chair that has seen better days? Not at Hmong Village: here, every storage unit opens to reveal a vendor selling clothing, toys, or food. The novelty of exploring a food court in an unexpected location and of trying food that you may not have realized you ordered is fantastic. The food itself can be even more fantastic (as with any food court, there are hits and misses): a pho roll from Nang Kwak was a texturally balanced delight; spicy chicken from Famous Deli sparkles with contrast and spicy-sweet glaze.

Becca Dilley / Minnesota Lunch

Becca Dilley / Minnesota Lunch

Dari-ette Drive-In, 1440 Minnehaha Ave E, St. Paul; 651.776.3470 | Our review
St. Paul has a wide and lovely streak of old-school Italian-American flavor, and the unreconstructed Dari-ette Drive-In is about as sincere an expression of that ethnic experience as you can find. Order one of the hot sausage sandwiches and a thick milkshake; hang out in your car; and let the summer wash over you.

Cecil’s Deli, 651 S Cleveland Ave, St. Paul; 651.698.0334 | Our hamantaschen round-up and pastrami tour include Cecil’s Deli
A Jewish deli that opened in 1949, Cecil’s is a go-to for Reuben sandwiches, matzo ball soup, latkes, hamantaschen, and soda floats. The portions are large, the food soulful, and the service cordial. Out-of-towners often request a stop at Cecil’s on the way to the airport because tasty corned beef or pastrami sandwiches make flying more pleasant … and filling.

Kate N.G. Sommers / Heavy Table

Kate N.G. Sommers / Heavy Table

The Minnesota State Fair | Our 2014 guide
No Out-of-Towners’ guide to St. Paul could possibly be complete without mentioning the 10-day-long Minnesota State Fair. We annually publish an exhaustive 40- to 60-item review of the Fair’s newest and / or more notorious eats — this is a gastronomic event worth flying into town for, and if you play your cards right, you can eat like a deity. And if not, you’ll be hard pressed to miss the obvious classics, such as the cone of warm chocolate chip cookies accompanied by all-you-can-drink milk. There is no convocation of culture, entertainment, food, and family gathering equal to the Great Minnesota Get-Together. All visitors should try it once, if not annually.

Brews / Cocktails

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Tin Whiskers Brewing, 125 E 9th St, Unit 127; 651.330.4734, St. Paul| Our Two Tastes visit to the taproom
The whimsically electrical-engineering-themed Tin Whiskers has rocketed to popularity on the local taproom scene. The brewery is in the midst of celebrating its one-year anniversary by embarking on a major expansion. Tin Whiskers offers a frequently rotating selection of beers including special, “community-sourced beers” inspired by local homebrews.

W.A. Frost’s patio, 374 Selby Ave, St. Paul; 651.224.5715 | Our review of the burger
This destination for the well-heeled has had its ups and downs over the years … but Minnesotans love their patios, and this one can’t be beat. Head to this umbrella-shaded, flower-lined patio in the spring or summer, when the flowers are in full bloom; check out the vast wine list, and explore a local cheese plate or grab a burger for a pleasant evening out. And if you feel too out of place, don’t worry — Nina’s Coffee Cafe (below) is across the street.

The Scotch list at the St. Paul Grill, Lobby Bar at The Saint Paul Hotel, 350 Market St, St. Paul; 651.224.7455 | Our Scotch club experience
Lovers of Scotch have a few great options around here, including the voluminous Scotch library at Merlin’s Rest on East Lake Street in Minneapolis. But the all-time reigning champ may be the St. Paul Grill at the St. Paul Hotel, which boasts its own Scotch club: try all 73 (or so) Scotches on the menu, and earn a complimentary pour of Macallan 55-year. Multiple visits are recommended.

Lars Swanson /  Heavy Table

Lars Swanson / Heavy Table

Moscow on the Hill, 371 Selby Ave, St. Paul; 651.291.1236 | Our tasting of Referent vodka
There are three words to remember when you go drinking at Moscow on the Hill: Vodka. Vodka. And vodka. This Russian-to-its-bones spot boasts a vodka collection that includes a few specialties of the house — seek out the Referent horseradish vodka in particular as it has a smooth, natural burn that is lovely and unexpected. You can and should do vodka flights, and you should probably also arrange a sober ride home.

Summit Beer Hall, 910 Montreal Circle, St. Paul; 651.265.7800 | Our Minneapolis-St. Paul Tap Room Directory
Before hopheads and Surly hit the scene, Mark Stutrud built a little brewery named after St. Paul’s mansion-lined Summit Avenue and helped restore local interest in craft beer. The brewery has since moved to bigger digs, and its solid EPA has become the craft-beer standard on tap across the state. While many Minnesotans have their tried-and-true standby in the canon of Summit beers (we like Saga, a newer IPA, and their Maibock), head to the taproom to sample these and other, more adventurous options.

Coffee

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Kopplin’s, 2038 Marshall Ave, St. Paul; 651.698.0457 | Our review
A family operation in the Merriam Park neighborhood, Kopplin’s features European classics like Macchiato, Café con Pana, and Café con Leche. The shop roasts its own (very high quality) beans that skilled baristas (who earn a living wage — the shop recently raised wages and eliminated tipping) turn into smooth, nuanced, and flavorful coffee drinks. The shop also offers tea from Verdant, pastries from Rustica, and snacks from the St. Paul Cheese Shop. We strongly recommend beginning or ending a trip to Kopplin’s with a scoop or two of Izzy’s Ice Cream, which is just a couple doors down.

Nina’s Coffee Cafe, 165 Western Ave N, St Paul, 651.292.9816
Known as a writer’s cafe, Nina’s has the kind of open-yet-crowded space — worn, gritty brick walls, and wood furniture — and bustling energy that seem to spawn artistic productivity, and the frequently changing art on the walls only adds to that vibe. The coffee itself isn’t mind-blowing — sometimes we spring for their fresh-made juices instead; or if we’re sick, the ginger-lemon-cayenne panacea cures our sore throats. Here’s a tip: if you go, make sure you pronounce it like a local: “NYE-na’s.”

Maja Ingeman / Heavy Table

Maja Ingeman / Heavy Table

Groundswell, 1340 W Thomas Ave, St. Paul, 651.645.6466
A true neighborhood cafe, Groundswell has the reclaimed wood, heavy coats of paint, and hardwood floors of an old-school St. Paul joint — but extensive remodeling has left it clean and bright, with plenty of access to sunlight. Like many other coffee shops, it serves the spicy local concoction Gray Duck Chai and brews coffee from popular roasters like Dogwood — but what sets it apart is its in-house pastry (reaffirmed by the above-pictured raspberry-lime-basil cupcake that was moist and bursting with bright lime flavor). Groundswell is a great place to get work done or chat with a friend — or pick up a locally crafted Minnesota-shaped souvenir for your trip home.

Black Dog Coffee Cafe, 308 E Prince St, St. Paul, 651.228.9274
Tucked into a complex of artists’ lofts, Black Dog is a good choice if you’re looking for something a little off the beaten path. This art-covered shop is a place we typically frequent during the St. Paul Farmers’ Market, or after dinner around the corner at Tanpopo Noodle Shop; its typically quiet and low-key vibe makes it perfect for enjoying an espresso or a carafe of wine with friends — or listening to a live show. Black Dog fits right in with the rest of the building’s clientele. Not only do they host a community drawing circle, they maintain a pretty frequent lineup of live music, spanning Balkan party music to experimental jazz.

Claddagh Coffee & Cafe, 459 W 7th St, St, Paul, 651.600.3400
This place is quintessentially St. Paul: cozy, vaguely Irish, and not trying too hard, yet delivering quality products: in this case, locally roasted beans from Dogwood Coffee and Bootstrap Coffee Roasters, watermelon and pink peppercorn soda, ginger beer from up-and-comer Spruce Soda Co., and local favorite Sweet Science Ice Cream. It’s a far cry from its previous occupant, an adult entertainment store! If you’re getting a bit tired from your trip, grab a cold brew, collapse into one of the overstuffed sofas downstairs, and people-watch — there’s a good chance you’ll hear a few heavy Minnesota accents as well as entertaining conversations.

Ready to hit the road? Explore the map below — and use our Foursquare list — to plan your gastro-tour!

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The Heavy Table team of writers, editors, and photographers has been documenting food and drink in the Upper Midwest since 2009.

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10 Comments

  1. Anne Heitlinger 08/19/2015

    Punch Pizza! Started in St. Paul, and still one of the best in the Metro.

  2. I love the Urban Growler brewery! They have a decent kitchen and their farm-glass beer series is turning out fun, out of the box, yet tasty brews.

  3. B Dodge 08/19/2015

    Mojo Monkey doughnuts is at 1169 W 7th in St. Paul, not 169.

  4. Jim Grinsfelder 08/19/2015

    I’d add Gopher Bar for coney dogs and El Burrito Mercado because it’s still good and it might have been first authentic Mexican in twin cities. Tongue and Cheek and Ward Six probably belong on the list.

    Did you get Thai Cafe? Or the Cambodian place on Dale just north of university?

  5. Dan Cramer 08/20/2015

    Two others I would add to the list of St. Paul must try eateries include the relatively new Tongue in Cheek on the East side where both the food and drinks are delicious and the often overlooked Veitnamese Bistro — Ngon — on University Avenue

  6. Ed Bast 08/20/2015

    Nice list. Did you intend to leave off Payne Avenue entirely? Yarusso’s, East Side Thai, Senor Sol, Cook, Ward 6, Tongue In Cheek, Magnolia’s…

    Also there are the Latin American enclaves around Arcade and East 7th – Los Ocampo, Los Paisanos, Manana – and also the West Side – El Burrito, etc.

    Anyway thanks for the good work.

  7. Cathy 08/22/2015

    Skinner’s on Randolph. A neighborhood bar with daily specials, good quality, and generous portions of food and a patio. Best patty melt ever.

  8. Kevin 08/24/2015

    Mac’s Fish and Chips!!

  9. Mike 09/10/2015

    If you ever want to add a “Local Color” section, consider great neighborhood watering holes like The Groveland Tap (www.grovelandtap.com). Thanks.