This post is sponsored by Chef Camp.
Chef Jorge Guzman is joining us for Chef Camp 2018! Guzman, a 2017 James Beard finalist for the Midwest region, will be teaching pibil, a signature method in the Yucatán, which involves digging a pit and cooking meat or fish, with aromatics and spices, for hours underground over hot stones. Raised in Mérida, Yucatán, a city with a rich Mayan heritage and strong culinary traditions, Guzman grew up cooking over fire.
“When you cook over live fire,” Guzman said, “your senses are even more attuned to what’s happening. You have to be aware of how the fire is behaving, the way the smoke billows and how the wind shifts. It’s not turning the stove to low and forgetting about it while you catch up on emails.”
Guzman came to last year’s camp as a guest, and as a special surprise for our campers he prepared the most delicious chorizo-and-egg breakfast burritos as a midnight snack. We’ve had the munchies ever since.
Memorial Day Weekend Sale
Chef Camp kicks off in just 99 days, and to get the countdown going we’re offering a $50-OFF SALE on tickets. Click here or use the code: GRILL50 before Tuesday to lock in a discounted price for the party of the summer.
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 He’s a committed author of fiction, with one completed unpublished novel called Knife Skills, a Kickstarted collection of fiction called The Wendigo’s Credit Card, and another novel on the way.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]