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 He’s a committed author of fiction, with one completed unpublished novel called Knife Skills, a Kickstarted collection of fiction called The Wendigo’s Credit Card, and another novel on the way.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.
While in the process of checking out a reader tip, we found ourselves in a very familiar part of the metro: the stretch of strip malls in Brooklyn Park that includes Crazy Cajun, Kim Anh, and Gramsky’s. We thought this must be a good omen, and so it was.
What we’d heard specifically about Lemon Grass Thai was that we should check out the Lao menu items. The owners/chefs are Laotian, and have apparently been adding Lao-specific dishes in recent months. Our server told us that most of the Thai dishes have a Lao twist to them, but yes, there are items more overtly Lao in nature.
The dishes she recommended on that line included two appetizers, Sai-Oua E-sane ($9, above) and Nuea-Sawan ($9). Sai-Oua E-sane is a Lao sausage, made in-house from ground pork with a tinge of lemongrass and other herbs, flavorful but not hot-spicy.
The Nuea-Sawan is the Lao equivalent of beef jerky, if beef jerky was cooked to order. The beef is cut thin and cooked somehow until it’s got that jerky chewiness, and yet was still slightly pink inside. Ginger and garlic were abundant, giving the pieces of meat just a slight heat level.
The Laab beef salad ($14) came with our choice of heat, ranging from 1-5. We chose a 4, and they did not dumb it down. We were also given the choice of raw, medium, or well-done beef, and we went with medium. The meat was still tender, and there was a hint of lime juice, but the chiles were the star of the dish, and the side of sliced cucumbers and lettuce was most welcome. Still, the heat didn’t obliterate the flavor of the meat, although it was powerful.
The final dish we tried was not on the menu, but is available upon asking: Nam Kao ($14). This is also technically a salad, comprised of rice balls that have been fried until crispy, then tossed with ground pork. onions and cilantro. It’s served with chopped peanuts and what could have been a frightening amount of whole chiles, but the dish itself was much milder in heat than the Laab. Texturally, it was the most fun to eat; the crisped rice and peanuts against the soft meats and herbs balanced well, especially when spooned into the lettuce leaves to make a wrap.
It also came beautifully plated, with flowers of carrots, and included some greens we weren’t familiar with. Our server explained that they were Vietnamese mint, which we found addictive to nibble on by itself, with a spicier, earthier taste than the mint we’re used to. The other was a sturdy, peppery green that was bitter but not unpleasant, and somewhat similar to kale both in flavor and texture. Together, the bitterness they offered was a sharp contrast to the general mildness of the rice and pork, and added some depth of flavor.
Lemon Grass Thai
Lao and Thai foods in Brooklyn Park
8600 Edinburgh Center Drive
Brooklyn Park, MN 55443
Mon-Thurs 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sun noon-9 p.m.
BAR: Beer and wine
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Limited
ENTREE RANGE: $9-$20
NOISE LEVEL: Comfortable
Each Friday, this list will track five of the best things Heavy Table’s writers, editors, and photographers have recently bitten or sipped. Have a suggestion for the Hot Five? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Hot Five is a weekly feature created by the Heavy Table and supported by Shepherd Song Farm.
Lake and Marshall Bridge Burger at Peppers and Fries
The Lake and Marshall Bridge burger looked simple enough on the menu – two 1/4 pound patties, American cheese, lettuce, onions, pickles and special sauce on a three-tier bun. Got it – kind of a play on a Big Mac. But no: The thing is a burger TOWER. It leans crazily over the plate, and it intimidates the riff-raff. The bun is pleasingly eggy, the sauce on point, the toppings in balance, and – this can’t be over-emphasized – the seasoning on the meat absolutely perfect, salty in a savory and encouraging way with plenty of pepper for balance. We destroyed this thing.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted from the East Lake Checklist by James Norton]
Brewtine at City Brew Hall in Wahpeton
“Brewtine” is a spin on poutine served up at the ambitious new City Brew Hall in Wahpeton, North Dakota. It’s a classic poutine but the cheese curds are battered (!) and the gravy is subbed out for a nicely seasoned beer cheese sauce. This is the sort of thing that could have turned into an over-salted trainwreck, but it’s balanced and it’s delicious. The bacon is perfect, too – salty, chewy, and smoky but not overwhelming.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted from an Instagram post by James Norton]
Steak Chilaquiles at Sonora Grill
Chilaquiles is one of our favorite “all-in-one” dishes, and the Sonora Grill version is excellent. Simmered in salsa, the chips retain a little crunch, and runny eggs and chihuahua cheese add creaminess. Grilled juicy steak is definitely worth the $2 up-charge; unlike chicken and pork, it doesn’t get lost in the mix. We also dig a vegetarian version, with scrambled eggs and avocado.
[Last Week on the Hot Five: #1 | Submitted from an Instagram post by Joshua Page]
Lac Coeur Coffee Liqueur by Loon Liquors
Lac Coeur is relatively low in alcohol, 25% ABV, and it’s pleasant over ice. The typical applications work — it makes for a wonderful white Russian — but is far more versatile since it is not cream-based or overly sweet. Its dominant flavor is, of course, coffee, but it also adds depth of flavor to other brown-spirit-based libations. In a traditional Old Fashioned, it plays with the bitters and orange garnish and finishes in a tiramisu-like flourish.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted from a post by Paige Latham Didora]
Sicilian Pizza from the Paparazzi Pop-Up at Al Vento
It’s always fun to see restaurants evolve and experiment, as is the case with Al Vento’s pizza-focused restaurant-within-a-restaurant, Paparazzi. A 12″ Sicilian pie feeds about three (maybe four?) for $19.50, and it can be loaded down with as many premium toppings as you’d like. We thought the crust was delightful (light and almost fluffy with a crispy exterior) and in balance with its toppings. Pictured: A deliciosu Sicilian pizza with roasted fennel, kalamata olives, prosciutto, goat cheese, fresh mozzarella, and Parmesan.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted from an Instagram post by James Norton]
The Holy Grail for any restaurant is finding that perfect combination of great vibe and fantastic food. There are those that succeed in spite of offering only serviceable food. You often find them perched on the edge of a body of water—the killer view outweighing the food. Then there are the dives where die-hard patrons are willing to overlook the sketchy atmosphere because the food sings. But those are the extremes. The outliers. Most places are battling it out somewhere in the middle.
Honestly, you have to wonder how a restaurant ever achieves that perfect vibe/food combination. There are so many moving parts, so many mitigating factors. Not to say that any place on this outing was in any way “bad.” Not at all. They each have their good qualities. But we were also reminded of how difficult it is for even great restaurants to get everything right. It’s a truth worth always keeping in mind. — M.C. Cronin
This week’s checklist crew: WACSO, M.C. Cronin, James Norton, Peter Hajinian
OTHER EAST LAKE STREET CHECKLIST INSTALLMENTS: Lake Plaza, Gorditas el Gordo to Pineda Tacos, Taqueria Victor Hugo to Safari Restaurant, El Sabor Chuchi to The Rabbit Hole, Midtown Global Market, Miramar to San Miguel Bakery, Mercado Central, Ingebretsen’s to Pasteleria Gama, La Alborada to Quruxlow, Midori’s Floating World to El Nuevo Rodeo, Urban Forage to Himalayan, Blue Moon Coffee Cafe to Merlin’s Rest, Hi Lo Diner to The Bungalow Club
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
The East Lake Checklist is the third Heavy Table illustrated travelogue to explore a major gastronomic thoroughfare in Minneapolis and/or St. Paul. The East Lake Checklist is the Heavy Table’s follow-up to our 55-restaurant survey of independent eateries on Central Avenue and our 72-restaurant series about restaurants on the Green Line. We’ll publish five-restaurant installments biweekly until we’ve documented every nonchain spot on East Lake Street between 35W and the Mississippi River. (We’re estimating 75 spots, but we’ll see how it shakes out.)
This series is made possible by underwriting from Visit Lake Street. Heavy Table retains editorial control of the series — as with Central Avenue and the Green Line, this tour will be warts-and-all.
“From the river to the lakes, visitors and residents can shop local and be social on Lake Street. More information at VisitLakeStreet.com.”
Blue Moon Coffee Cafe
3822 E Lake St, Minneapolis
No surprise, the theme is astronomical. Not as in “big,” but as in stars and moons. The exterior is painted twilight blue. The ceiling is midnight purple and the walls starlight yellow. Star and moon shaped ornaments dangle from a plant on the counter. Twinkle lights wind their way around the coffee bar. A moon terrain poster hangs on one wall.
While theme is astronomical, the aesthetic is lived in. There are a few tables in the front of the shop and an elevated lounge area in the back with a hodgepodge of well-worn, squashy couches and chairs. The enormous bulletin area is bursting with dog eared copies of local lawn mowing service flyers, event announcements, and used cars for sale. This is a community coffee shop through-and-through. An independent. A labor of love. And thoroughly comfortable being exactly what it is. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
You’ve got to hand it to Blue Moon Cafe – they are willing to take it to the wall when it comes to novelty lattes. Their Cabin Weekend ($4.25, 8 oz.) is a honey, vanilla, and turmeric(!) number that has no lack of turmeric, which creates a sort of earthy, thrillingly decomp-y note that underpins an otherwise classic sweetened latte experience.
Our Maple Cold Press ($4.50, 16 oz.) was a more conventional beverage – naturally sweet, quite refreshing, and iced without being overly watery. The coffee faded a bit too much into the background, but on a hot day this is a drink that would absolutely get the job done. — James Norton
Peppers and Fries
3900 E Lake St, Minneapolis
Peppers and Fries inhabits what appears to be an old convenience store space which has been updated by adding three glass-paned garage doors that open to a patio area out front. A chain-link fence surrounds the patio and it’s the first hint at the concept here: sports. Specifically baseball. The chain link is a shout-out to the batting cages and old-school fencing you find around baseball diamonds in community parks all over the country.
More obvious clues to the baseball theme can be found inside. There’s a oversized outfield score board painted on one wall. The bar in the back is labelled the “Bleacher Bar”. The walls are littered with pictures of ballparks, neon beer signs with Twins logos, flatscreen TV’s playing sports and posters with sayings like “No Pepper”. In short, if you’re looking for a baseball themed sports bar, this one seems to have all the bases covered. (See what we did there?) — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Peppers and Fries is a place that is pulse-poundingly rammed with personality. The menu, built as it is around the two pillars of burgers and burritos, gets weird in a hurry. You very quickly get the feeling that the proprietors aren’t afraid to play around with interesting flavor combinations, and they’re not afraid to commit.
Take, for example, the PB&J Fries ($8.75). It’s an order of hot, crispy French fries smothered in peanut butter and spicy jelly evocative of the kind of sauce you’d dip cream cheese wontons into at a reliable neighborhood Thai restaurant. As strange as a peanut butter-and-jelly French fries dish might seem, it’s actually fairly close in flavor to a chicken satay dish, and quite enjoyable as a result.
The Lake and Marshall Bridge burger ($14) looked simple enough on the menu – two 1/4 pound patties, American cheese, lettuce, onions, pickles and special sauce on a three-tier bun. Got it – kind of a play on a Big Mac. But no: The thing is a burger TOWER. It leans crazily over the plate, and it intimidates the riff-raff. The bun is pleasingly eggy, the sauce on point, the toppings in balance, and – this can’t be over-emphasized – the seasoning on the meat absolutely perfect, salty in a savory and encouraging way with plenty of pepper for balance. We destroyed this thing.
We ordered our Pepper’s Classic burrito ($12) with chicken tinga, but someone forgot to add the chicken tinga, and what we got was a reasonably decent if massive rice-and-beans vegetarian burrito. The restaurant took 50% off the tab for the item, so we were ultimately pretty happy about how it worked out.
Our Pickle Martini (Tanqueray gin, dry vermouth, pickle juice, and a pickle garnish, $8) was simple, clean, easy drinking and pleasant. We thought the pickle and pickle juice would kick hard, but they integrated smoothly into the cocktail, and we downed it with pleasure. — J.N.
International Cuisine Bar & Grill
3508 E Lake St, Minneapolis
The name makes it sound like some generic eatery you’d find tucked away in some global hotel chain. Turns out the name is a bit of a misnomer (more below).
As for the space, it’s pretty straightforward. Black corrugated metal covers the walls. A long bar runs down one side of the main room and a row of booths run along the other. An adjacent room has additional tables.
A few pictures hang here and there, but there’s very little else to look at. It’s basic, simple, clean. In short, it’s nothing too surprising or remarkable.
And then the food hits the table.
That old thing about not judging a book by its cover? Yeah, there’s a reason that’s a thing. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The international cuisine of International Cuisine is pretty focused on Ecuadorian (and a bit of Argentinian and Peruvian) cuisine, but that’s OK with us. The menu is surprisingly cohesive, and when we put all of the food that we ordered into circulation, we found that the numerous components of all of our dishes worked beautifully well together.
Our Tamale Peruvano ($8) was moist and wrapped in a banana leaf; the quick pickled red onions on the side were an ideal foil for the pork, olives, and masa packed inside of the tamale’s generous confines. Bright acid meets earthy, warm meat and corn – love at first bite.
The Plato Bandeja Paisa ($18) contained everything we’ve come to love about this crowd-pleaser of a dish – an aggressively charred steak pounded down to about a micron of thickness, a soft-cooked egg, an avocado, beans, rice, a roasted plantain, and a fatty slice of pork belly. The beans require specific explanation: they were stewed in a deeply spiced, curry-like sauce, cooked perfectly, and surprisingly light and delicate. With the accompanying rice and just about any other item on the plate, they were fantastic. The plantain also deserves a citation for being so fully roasted and charred.
The sausage that came with our Llapingachos ($8) upstaged the llapingacho itself – it was snappy, firm, meaty, and nicely grilled, while the fried potato cake was a bit underflavored, though pleasurable with hot sauce or other more brightly flavored sides. — J.N.
3300 E Lake St, Minneapolis
Sonora Grill has all the requisite touches you’d expect in a place named for a southwestern desert region and Mexican State: sun bleached animal skulls and antlers, a hunk of driftwood on the wall, paintings that evoke a desert sunset. The bar is not just a bar, it’s a Tequila Bar. The floors are terra cotta tile. The table tops are plank wood. A weathered wood arbor wraps around the front of the building.
But it was the simplest thing that distracted us. The overhead recessed lights, in addition to being turned up too bright, were an inexplicable mix of warm and cool color-temperature bulbs. Yes, we’re being picky, but Sonora clearly cares about details. Simply dimming the lights and ditching those cool color-temp bulbs would be an instant improvement. “Cool white” LED’s are a just another version of fluorescent tubes. And no one wants to see their food and/or dining partners bathed in bluish-green light. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
When it comes to our meal at Sonora Grill, we are going to tackle the elephant in the room straight away. The Paella ($24) is, in fact, a combination of rice, shrimp, fish, and sausage. But it is not, in any way that we would normally recognize, anything like a familiar (mixed, or preparación barroca) paella. It might be that the chimmichurri-like green sauce stirred into the rice is an unexpected move. It might be that the fish is underflavored, and raises the question of where the more expected shellfish (mussels and clams, typically) might have gotten to. And it is most certainly that the sausage in the dish, rather than being something spicy and earthy along the lines of chorizo, is actually much closer to miniature breakfast sausages than anything we were expecting.
All of that said: the dish’s sauteed shrimp, twisted and charred by high heat into unexpected shapes, were absolutely stellar. This is a dish that could be successfully re-imagined and sold as a seafood rice bowl, but framing it as “paella” conjures up too many unfulfilled expectations.
We weren’t wild about the Sonora Hot Dog ($10), as it came topped with a gritty ground meat that tasted a bit like dehydrated chili, and it sported what tasted like a fairly generic low-grade hot dog (albeit one beautifully wrapped in bacon.)
But we were happy to wash both our mains down with the Sonora Margarita ($10.50) which is everything we want in a drink like this: it’s simple, it’s tart, and the high quality tequila speaks clearly and with confidence. This may be one of the best margaritas in town. — J.N.
3601 E Lake St, Minneapolis
The place is dripping with British Isles pub culture. There’s the properly nicked-up wood bar, the cozy, tufted burgundy booths, the wood-paneled walls and shelves crammed with brit-flavored trinkets and knickknacks: photographs of footballers, coats-of-arms, sea charts, distillery maps, used books, vintage beer posters and pewter mugs. It’s as if the goal was to fill every available space with some pub artifact. The night we visited there was even a band singing acoustic, fiddle-tinged shanties.
Yet somehow, littered with these archetypes, Merlin’s Rest avoids coming off like a some twee imitation of an English pub. Perhaps the authenticity is due to its hodgepodge-y-ness and working-class vibe, both in terms of decor and clientele. You have tattooed hipsters rubbing elbows with baseball-capped students. Cubicle dwellers sharing bar corners with warehouse managers. You have groups of 20-something friends playing Settlers of Catan and 50-something friends tossing dice.
It’s the kind of bar you’d hope to randomly stumble into while trying to escape the rain on some scruffy London side-street. Only, no airfare is required. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Fish and Chips ($10.50) seemed like the right thing to order at one of the state’s most legitimate and upstanding British Isles pubs, and we weren’t disappointed with what arrived. We got the default preparation (fries and fish heavily doused in malt vinegar) and while we thought the breading on the fish was a bit tough and chewy, the maltiness and brightness from the vinegar was a nice complement to the fish, which was fully flavored and savory.
Our Pie of the Week ($8.50) was Australian-inspired, which meant Vegemite and sausage, and we couldn’t have been more pleased with it. The overall effect of the meat, the onions, and the earthy Vegemite was something along the lines of a classic sloppy Joe baked into a delicate, flaky, buttery crust, and it was ravishingly good alongside our beers.
There is no better Pimm’s Cup in America than the one at Merlin’s Rest ($8), and we’re sticking with that until someone proves otherwise. The stuff sliced up and presented within this classic cocktail is jaw-dropping – strawberries, cucumbers, mint leaves, and more – and the beautiful presentation is well-suited to the smooth, seductive, refreshing cocktail within. — J.N.