Desert Island Top 10: Yia Vang

Chelsea Korth / Heavy Table

Chelsea Korth / Heavy Table

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.

THE PERSON: Yia Vang is the proprietor of Union Kitchen, a pop-up restaurant that has appeared at Cook St. Paul and Grand Cafe (among other locations) and has taught cooking classes all over Minneapolis-St. Paul. He’ll be one of five chef-instructors at the Sept. 1-3 edition of this year’s Chef Camp.

I’ve been told that the Twin Cities are like two sisters; Minneapolis is the younger, cooler, and sexy sister who all the guys want to date. When she walks into a room she captures the attention of everyone because of her grace and beauty. While on the other side of the river is St. Paul, the older sister who works hard, and she might not be a “show stopper” but you can always depend on her to get the job done. She probably didn’t go to a fancy four-year university; instead she stayed home and took care of the family business, and now she’s the head of the company.

Well, I want to talk about older-sister St. Paul, who has somehow gotten lost in the shadow of her flashy younger sister. Most of the restaurants on my list are in St. Paul. Let’s start with …

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Beef Brisket Wonton Noodles at Hong Kong Noodle
It’s on University Avenue right on the border of Minneapolis and St. Paul (some say it’s Minneapolis but for argument’s sake I say St. Paul). This shop has some of the greatest late-night eats, and my favorites are the Beef Brisket Wonton Noodles — amazingly tender beef with shrimp wontons and egg noodles. Then there’s the Fried Sole with dried chilies, and finally, the House Chicken with ginger scallion sauce. On a cold Minnesota day, walk in and order these three items, and your belly will thank you.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Pho with Assorted Meats at iPho by Saigon
As you keep driving east on University, you’ll find a pho shop called iPho. There are two items that you must try: the pho with assorted meats and the Saigon Sandwich Banh Mi. The broth of the pho is nothing to mess with, It has been passed down through the generations and has won praise from celebrity chefs including Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Coconut Croissants at Trung Nam Bakery
Across the street from iPho there’s an amazing Vietnamese bakery called Trung Nam. Aside from great French baguettes that can be used for banh mi sandwiches, they have the flakiest and most buttery croissants. They have many flavors, but my favorite is the coconut.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The Flintstone Sandwich at Big Daddy’s BBQ
Keep traveling east on University and you’ll hit Big Daddy’s BBQ, a shop run by three great guys who started out with a community microloan. You must try the The Big Daddy Flintstone Sandwich, a beef short rib smoked and sliced, then stacked high on a soft bun.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Mi Bo Kho at Trieu Chau
Keep moving east on University for two blocks and you’ll hit upon Trieu Chau. There’s great pho there, but you’ll want to try the Mi Bo Kho. It’s a deep, rich beef stock with carrots, which add a little sweetness; it’s spiced with a little chili and has large pieces of tender tendons and beef. The broth is where it’s all at. If you have a cold, the Mi Bo Kho will chase it away.

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Crispy Pork at Ha Tien
Farther down University is an Asian grocery store called Ha Tien. They have great meats and produce, but what they also have is an incredible deli. My two favorite items are the stir-fried pork intestines with peppers and bamboo and the crispy pork.

Beef Laab at Hmongtown Marketplace
Hmongtown Marketplace is an outdoor (weather permitting) and indoor farmers market in St. Paul. If you go to the indoor food stalls, you must try the beef laab or the roasted beef ribs, and don’t forget your sticky rice.

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

Steak at Santi’s in Hmong Village
On Johnson Parkway, near Phalen Regional Park, is a large Hmong market called Hmong Village. Imagine you were on the streets of Thailand walking among all the different food stalls and vendors. Well, take that image and put it into a huge old indoor storage unit. There are many vendors, stores, bakeries, and food stalls in Hmong Village, but these are some of my favorites: There’s a shop there called Santi’s, and they make the best steak. It’s called the Crazy Steak, and it comes with wasabi hot sauce. Also, you can go to Mai’s Kitchen and get Stuffed Chicken Wings. Yes, I said “stuffed chicken wings.” Imagine the stuffing for an egg roll stuffed into a deboned chicken wing that is then roasted. You can cool everything down with a Taro Bubble Tea from Blueberry, which does great Thai teas and bubble teas.

WACSO / Heavy Table

WACSO / Heavy Table

Spicy Squid at Dong Yang
Now for this next place you’ll have to completely leave St. Paul and go to Columbia Heights. Right off Central Avenue, there’s a place called Dong Yang. This is a Korean grocery store with a deli in the back. My favorite item to order is the Spicy Squid, and along with the meal you’ll get banchan, which is a whole bunch of little side dishes that come with all the Korean meals.

If you enjoyed this collection of eats, also check out musician and radio DJ Sean McPherson’s picks and cookbook author Amy Thielen’s picks.



The Giant Candy Store in Jordan, Minnesota

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

It’s back, open for the season a bit earlier than usual, and guess what? It’s even more giant than it ever was.

Technically, it’s Jim’s Apple Farm, which just happens to also sell candy. Yes, you can buy apples and baked apple goodies here too. But let’s be honest: We’re here for the refined sugar.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

And now there’s even more to choose from. During the off season (the store closes for the winter after Thanksgiving), the owners added an enormous dome with a planetarium / sci-fi theme (also a giant Incredible Hulk). Dr. Who’s Tardis (below) isn’t new, but it’s been moved from a quiet corner to center stage, where it’s surrounded by nearly countless quantities of flavored cotton candy, upscale marshmallows, Japanese mochi, gummy pizza, and gravy candy. In keeping with the rest of the store, the dome has a wild mix of everything from retro to upscale candies, both domestic and imported.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Why expand? Staff told us that the owners love the store, and in lieu of things like traveling, they pour the proceeds back into the venture, trying to make it even more fun and worth visiting. Mission accomplished: The domed addition has a ceiling that spins slowly, and as the summer goes on, a number of new items will be added to the spinning sky painting, including items from various sci-fi shows, including Star Wars and Star Trek.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

However, while the dome is the most noticeable change, it’s not the only one. The front of the store was expanded, too, providing employees with an airy, glassed-in addition to do their important candy-sorting and -pricing work. The center of the store used to have several short rows of tables with wares on display, but now there are three rows running lengthwise down the store, which should make for easier navigation during busy times. The store has always sold lots of jigsaw puzzles, and now there’s a special place for them: Jim’s Puzzle Closet.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Those jigsaw puzzles are sometimes turned into works of art and displayed in an unlikely spot. Staff urged us to check out the updated bathrooms, which admittedly didn’t sound all that exciting, especially when they’re fronted by “Porta-Pottie” doors.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

But — spoiler alert — the doors are a bit of a practical joke; once past them, shoppers will find arguably the nicest public restrooms along Highway 169, with walls adorned with completed, complex jigsaw puzzles in elaborate frames.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Lots of changes, but one thing remains the same: The store has no telephone. But it’s open every day from now through Thanksgiving weekend. Time for a road trip.

Jim’s Apple Farm and candy store, 20430 Johnson Memorial Drive, Jordan, MN 55352. Open daily 9 a.m.-7 p.m.



Heavy Table Hot Five: May 19-25

 

hotfive-flames

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 editor@heavytable.com.

shepherd-song-banner-ad-horiz-3The Hot Five is a weekly feature created by the Heavy Table and supported by Shepherd Song Farm.

shepherd-song-green-keyline

Lucy Hawthorne / Heavy Table

Lucy Hawthorne / Heavy Table

1-new - one - hot fiveThe Pig’s Ear Salad at Revival
I’ve tried to prepare pig’s ears before. I’ll spare the graphics and just say this: They’re hairy, and their funk isn’t easy to tame. In the right hands, though, you understand why someone would want to try. At Revival, Thomas Boemer crumbs and fries them into crispy arcs, tops them with a fistful of greens, and floats them on a shallow puddle of spiced carrot sauce, almost curryish. These pig’s ears are so clean-tasting, so crispy, and so curiously light that you almost suspect some sort of food-industry-level meddling. I have no idea how he does it, but they are the Pringles of pig’s ears. And just as addictive.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Amy Thielen from her Desert Island Top 10]

Joshua Page / Heavy Table

Joshua Page / Heavy Table

2-new - two - hot five The Red Prawn Castella at the Grand Cafe
While everything we tried on our first visit to the new Grand Cafe was exceptional, Red Prawn Castella was a revelation. Chefs Jamie Malone and Erik Anderson’s version of the custardy spongecake has a deep, rustic prawn flavor and a slight sweetness. It works well as an appetizer (a fantastic complement to one of the restaurant’s excellent salads), and at $4 for two big pieces, it’s an absolute steal.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Joshua Page]

Jane Rosemarin / Heavy Table

Jane Rosemarin / Heavy Table

3-new - three hot fiveAlice Medrich’s Saucepan Fudge Drops
While editing Amy Thielen’s Desert Island Top 10 — the bittersweet chocolate cookie item, in particular — I found myself longing for a taste of one of my standby recipes, Saucepan Fudge Drops from Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet. They are as easy to make as the name suggests (mixed in the pan), and as dense, chewy, and chocolaty as any chocoholic could wish. I like to add a handful of plumped dried sour cherries and chocolate chips. Nuts might also be nice. Or nothing at all. This time, I used milk chocolate chips and left off the sprinkling of powdered sugar. Be sure not to overbake; they’re very soft when they’re ready to come out of the oven.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Jane Rosemarin]

James Norton / Heavy Table

James Norton / Heavy Table

4-new four hot fiveSatsuma Fries at Morris Ramen
Now that Alton Brown has shouted out Morris Ramen, this charming little downtown Madison ramen shop may never be the same. Embrace (or ignore) the hype next time you’re in Madison, and go anyway. It’s a charming, bustling place with a simple but well-considered menu. The item that jumped out at us the most was utterly unexpected — a plate of classic French fries served with a spicy, funky, gochujang aioli that brings in everything we love about good ol’ Utah fry sauce and gives it an Asian twist.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by James Norton]

James Norton / Heavy Table

James Norton / Heavy Table

5-new -five Whiskey Sour at Merchant
The craft cocktail list at Merchant is book-length, and its complexity and creativity are a little mind-boggling and overwhelming. Nothing wrong with sticking with a classic, particularly when it is as well-executed as the restaurant’s Whiskey Sour, which uses not a drop of horrific industrial-grade sour mix, but rather relies on a mix of lemon juice, bitters, and orange oil to bring additional depth to the bourbon, and foamy egg white to give it lift and volume.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by James Norton]



The Naughty Greek in Merriam Park, St. Paul

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The Naughty Greek is crushing it.

The shop feels vibrant and full; it’s bright and airy, cheerfully painted with white and blue iconographic art that evokes Greece; the staff are friendly, helpful, and numerous; and the food is bold and balanced. We could end the review here, with an exhortation that all who read this will be rewarded by a visit to this shop, but we’ll take a moment to dig into exactly what’s going right, as it’s worth understanding (and emulating, should you happen to be in the food business).

Let’s begin with the most mundane aspect of The Naughty Greek’s success: the pita. We chatted with Angelo Giovanis, the shop’s cheerful and omnipresent owner, and he said it’s one of the few things not made in house. Instead, he buys pitas that are revived through a turn on the grill with Greek virgin olive oil, oregano, and lemon juice. It works. The gyros of The Naughty Greek come cradled in warm, soft, flavorful bread. If you’ve ever had dry, cardboardlike pita — and we all have, unfortunately — you’ll understand just how lovely a good version of the bread can be. (See also: Gyropolis, another shop that does pita justice.)

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Both of the gyros we tried (chicken and pork) were successful. The pork, through meat that was rich and tender, the chicken through a fantastic (and not excessive) grill-imparted char that lent depth and drama to what could have been a simple sandwich. A proper application of garlic- and cucumber-infused yogurt tzatziki gives lightness and tang to the sandwich without drowning it or sogging it into pieces, and delicate wisps of raw onion give a bit of crunch and assertive flavor without savaging the palate.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

We tried the Original Greek ($8.50, above) and Kale ($7.50) salads, and they’re lovely accompaniments to heavier parts of the menu. They’re light, simple, classic, and balanced, uniting bits of creamy cheese, tangy acid, and fresh-tasting vegetables.



Desert Island Top 10: Amy Thielen

TJ Turner

TJ Turner

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.

To observers of the Upper Midwestern food scene, Amy Thielen appears omnipresent and constantly in motion, writing books, articles, and recipes, making media appearances, and telling food stories in just about every medium imaginable. The upcoming publication of her culinary memoir, Give a Girl a Knife seemed to be a perfect opportunity to pick her brain for some of her best Minneapolis-St. Paul food picks, and her list doesn’t disappoint.

give-girl-knife-cover

THE PERSON: Amy Thielen is a cook and a writer. She is the author of The New Midwestern Table, which won a 2014 James Beard Award in the Book: American Cooking category and was a Boston Globe, NPR, and Eater.com best book of the year. She was also the host of the Beard-award-nominated Heartland Table on the Food Network. Thielen speaks and writes for radio and magazines and is a contributing editor at Saveur. Her culinary memoir, Give a Girl a Knife, comes out this week. Her book launch event takes place tomorrow night (May 18) at Tattersall and is free to the public. She’ll also be at Cooks of Crocus Hill, St. Paul for an event on Saturday, May 20 (1-2 p.m. ticketed, followed by a public signing).

She lives with her husband, visual artist Aaron Spangler, their son and his dog, and a bunch of chickens in Park Rapids, Minn. She’s on the web at amythielen.com and @amyrosethielen.

Rustica Bakery

Rustica Bakery

10. Bittersweet Chocolate Cookies at Forage

They come from Rustica, actually, but the plush and chewy bittersweet chocolate cookies at Forage taste better here, especially if you eat one while wandering through the Forage Modern Workshop showroom browsing all the beautiful furniture and rugs and the long, elegant, expensive fireplace matches you covet but will never buy. At least you can get a cookie and pretend you’re the kind of person who springs $34 on fireplace matches. At two bucks each, the cookies are almost a steal. With the smell of Dogwood coffee and the ambience, you’re also buying a moment.

9. Hash Browns #1: Hash Browns with Chili and Coleslaw at the Wienery

The hash browns at Lucia’s are the champagne of hash browns, and go down easy, like champagne at an open bar — but there’s a time and a place for everything. If you’re of the mind that you should bury a night of overindulgence with even more overindulgence, then the hash browns at the Wienery in Cedar-Riverside are for you. Better than hangover killers, they’re the nail in the goddamn coffin.

The Wienery is a narrow, old, no-frills diner, the kind of place I think of as a Hash Brown Palace. Like all hash brown palaces, the Weinery knows what matters: French press coffee, perfect fries, and personality. The fries are so good that the guy next to me made me take one from his basket and try it. The counter in front of us was as cluttered as a collage in a zine, with food service supplies, bottles of Log Cabin syrup, punk band flyers, and political bumper stickers. (My favorite: THE CIA KILLED WELLSTONE.) A whirling hipster kid holds the entire thing together at the grill in the back, churning out my plate of nicely browned browns topped with a spicy chili and a runny clump of homemade coleslaw. The salt and pepper shakers are tacky with grunge, but when the breakfast is this good, and this cheap, who cares?

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

8. Hmongtown Marketplace

The last time I was there, at the Hmongtown Marketplace in St. Paul, I counted three stalls making papaya salad to order. Two of them make totally serviceable papaya salads — the right blend of fish and salt and sugar and lime juice, the papaya strands properly bruised with the pestle so that the sauce settles deeply into the hurt parts. But if you’re looking at the food court in the main building straight on, there’s one on the far right that makes the papaya salad of my dreams.

I spent a day cooking with a Hmong home-cooking whiz, who told me that papaya salad is a Thai dish, something that the mostly rural-dwelling Hmong people adopted into their culture after spending time in the cities. She said, almost mischievously, “Hmong people like to add this,” dipping her spoon into a plastic tub of muddy-looking fermented crab. She dropped a spoonful into her mortar, tiny crab legs and all. The lady on the far right uses the same stuff — same tub and everything. To a Westerner, fermented crab sounds a little suspect, but it adds the funky earthiness that papaya salad needs. After trying it, you’ll think that all the crabless versions taste too sweet / sour. Kind of like dessert.

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

7. The Seafood Plate at Sea Salt

Sometimes you just want someone to feed you, and this was one of those times. We had three kids between us, had parked at the absolutely wrong end of the park for Sea Salt, and the rainstorm was fierce, water dumping as if from a bucket. By the time we got to Sea Salt, we were soaked, and thankfully, the place was empty. The boys went to play directly under the gutters, and I went to stand in front of the menu. For many minutes I stood in front of the menu. I couldn’t decide. The puzzle pieces weren’t fitting the shape of my hunger. Finally a guy behind the counter, a cook, said, “this is what you should get: the seafood platter with sausage and chimichurri.” I said, “thank you.” And when it arrived, a ridiculously beautiful selection of prawns and scallops and clams and crab for just $18, every other soaked-to-the-skin person at my table said, “was that on the menu?” Yes, it was, but sometimes the gems are hard to find.

6. Hash Browns #2: Hash Browns with Mangalitsa Fat at Lucia’s Wine Bar

The hash browns at Lucia’s wine bar are the best I’ve ever had. A standard bearer. Alan Bergo flattens the shredded potatoes into a perfect rectangle, as thick as a wooly hotpad, and fries both sides in Mangalitsa pork fat. The outside is pure brown lacy crisp; the center is soft and tender, steaming with light pork fragrance.

My husband, Aaron, a hash brown zealot — or activist, you could say — is pretty devoted to the hash browns at the Colossal Cafe, but we’ll see where he stands after he tries these.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

5. The Deli at the Wedge

Other cities of our size have begun to catch up to us, but for so long Minneapolis / St. Paul grocery stores were like Disneyland, and they were like Soviet-era Russia. (For example, at the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn, the ID-checking, long lines for bags, and crowded conditions are notorious.) In comparison, at the Wedge, even with a crabby child, you can fly through the store, filling your cart, and get all the groceries in the car before the shit really hits the fan.

And at that moment, when the breakdown becomes real, you can unwrap a piece of taleggio, rip open a freshly baked everything bagel, shove the cheese into the gap, and hand it to him and hope for the best. Even though Hank had been living and breathing American cheese, at that moment he learned that he loved soft, washed-rind cheeses and that there was a whole other galaxy out there.

Lucy Hawthorne / Heavy Table

Lucy Hawthorne / Heavy Table

4. Ann Kim and the Sweet Potato Bonito Dish at Young Joni

OK, so I’m just going to gush on Ann Kim here because I’m a fan going way back. We were thespian nerds together back in our Apple Valley / Eagan high school days. Years later, I noticed a ridiculous number of food photos on her Facebook page: Ann smoking pork butts in her backyard, Ann marveling over her mom’s sprawling Korean feast, Ann on a wild personal quest to develop the world’s best pizza dough. It was like watching a pupa worm out of its larva; her energy was going to have to go external. Soon after, as we all know, she hatched.

Case in point, her steamed sweet potatoes with bonito flakes at Young Joni. Inspired by the yams her mom used to roast over the grill embers when she was a kid, the five soft yellow pucks are warm and soft and almost fudgy. She sets them on a plush carpet of charred scallion cream and tops them with bonito flakes that flutter in the air like butterfly wings. This is what it tastes like when a chef mixes taste with memory, making food that arrives on the table with a backstory. I know I’m biased, but I don’t think I’m wrong to say that she’s our very own Gabrielle Hamilton, and Young Joni is our Prune.

3. The Mushroom Sandwich at the St. Paul Cheese Shop

There’s no corner of the Twin Cities I love more than this one, the back garden behind Dunn Brothers, Common Good Books, and the St. Paul Cheese Shop. It’s like the nexus of three of my main pleasure points: books, strong coffee, and food. I like to sit out there with my computer or a new book and eat a sandwich from the cheese shop. One I particularly miss was a mushroom sandwich with chevre and arugula. The mushrooms were slick, marinated in a tangy vinaigrette, mudded up with goat cheese, and they kind of slid into my mouth. I ate half of the sandwich there and saved the rest for my four-hour drive home, at which point the greens had turned to mush and the dressing had soaked the bread, making the sandwich easier to handle and possibly even more delicious.

Jane Rosemarin / Heavy Table

Jane Rosemarin / Heavy Table

2. The Endive and Farro Salad at Esker Grove

I love the Walker, and spend a lot of time there. At Esker Grove, with its wood walls that feel 95 percent New Nordic and 5 percent 1970s Minnesota basement paneling, I am like a cat who’s found a perch in a new room: super content. I had a beautiful dinner there — clams with blood sausage, raw scallop rolled in ash — so it’s funny that the thing that continues to haunt me is a salad. Endive, farro, blue cheese, smoked honey. I had to call Doug Flicker about the dressing, though, because it was the dressing that made this thing sing. A lemon-calamansi vinegar (French vinaigre de citron), he said. Not cheap, I found out, but definitely a Midas touch.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

1. The Pig’s Ear Salad at Revival

I’ve tried to prepare pig’s ears before. I’ll spare the graphics and just say this: They’re hairy, and their funk isn’t easy to tame. In the right hands, though, you understand why someone would want to try. At Revival, Thomas Boemer crumbs and fries them into crispy arcs, tops them with a fistful of greens, and floats them on a shallow puddle of spiced carrot sauce, almost curryish. These pig’s ears are so clean-tasting, so crispy, and so curiously light that you almost suspect some sort of food-industry-level meddling. I have no idea how he does it, but they are the Pringles of pig’s ears. And just as addictive.

If you enjoyed this collection of eats, also check out musician and radio DJ Sean McPherson’s picks.