One the most enjoyable aspects of the nuclear explosion of craft beer in Minnesota is that we’re seeing a remarkable diversity of “this beer is good for that occasion” brews. Wednesday night poker game? Seafood-forward three-course meal? Sixty-day-aged-steak dinner? Halloween? State-Fair-themed gathering? There are beers out there that are locally made, suited to the event, and reliably good.
Here’s one for “St. Patrick’s Day / any given cold-weather celebration” — Lift Bridge Brewery Irish Coffee Stout. It clocks in at a hearty 8.0 percent ABV, and it’s a big old friendly mess of sweet, milky, malty, roasty, coffee-kissed deliciousness. There aren’t really any sharp edges on this beer. It’s aged in whiskey barrels and made with cold-pressed coffee from Five Watt, giving it a mellow, nearly acid-free complexity that plays well with (or as) a dessert course. Coffee beers can present a biting astringency or (far worse) a chemical bite, but neither of those traits rears its head in this brew.
This brew is also evidence that there is ample room for play within any given segment of the beer world. Inbound’s recently released RIS (Russian Imperial Stout) shares some bigness and darkness with Lift Bridge’s Irish Coffee Stout, but is a world removed, from a flavor perspective, presenting a relatively austere and snappy profile, as opposed to the Coffee Stout’s downright sweet and jolly approachability. Both are lovely beers, but neither crowds the other on the dance floor of beer choice.
On Payne Avenue, in eastern St. Paul, there’s a small storefront that’s been home to neighborhood diners for decades. So when Eddie Wu (who we’ll be profiling in an upcoming story) bought it three years ago, he wanted to hold onto that tradition out of respect for the heritage. But he also wanted to serve Korean food. That led to the creation of Cook, a combo diner / Korean food spot, certainly a unique mix. The building retains its diner feel, small and friendly, although the new ownership removed layers of old paint and brightened up the interior. True to its family-friendly category, there’s a wall for children’s drawings.
Fortunately for the East Side — and for people willing to trek in from the west — it’s a winning combination. Food is sourced locally as much as possible, and everything’s made from scratch (and even the ceramic coffee mugs are local). Breakfast and lunch are served daily, and on Friday nights there’s a special Korean dinner menu.
On our midday visit, we decided to try a couple of things from both the breakfast and lunch menus. You can go traditional in either case; there are pancakes and eggs, cheeseburgers, and BLTs. But the real fun is in the more adventurous offerings.
From the breakfast menu, we went with Breakfast Nachos ($12), which involved braised cranberry beans, cheese, and two fried eggs. Add sausage or bacon ($3 each) to jack up the protein, if you wish. These are heaped over a big pile of “Koritos” — house-made tortilla chips coated in Korean chili powder that pack a good amount of heat. The milder beans and cheese sweetened the dish, and the fried eggs came out nicely runny, coating the whole thing and making it messy to eat, but that’s half the fun.
We also tried the Short Ribs Eggs Benedict ($12). The traditional Canadian bacon now seems like a pathetic substitute for the big chunks of fork-tender braised short rib meat in this version, the beefy flavor a nice contrast to the tangy hollandaise. It comes with hash browns, freshly shredded and perfectly fried so they’re crisp on the outside and melty on the inside. And greasy, in the best possible way.
From the lunch menu, we took our (very friendly) server’s suggestion and tried the Mac & Chi ($11, plus $2.75 to add bacon or sausage). Take a well-made mac ’n’ cheese dish, creamy and rich, and add butter-fried kimchi, and you’ve got a decadent bowl of sumptuous pasta jolted by a puckery kimchi. Frying the kimchi in butter does take some of the sting out of it, but this is a dish that calls for plenty of libations.
Speaking of kimchi, the oddest thing we tried was The Trust Me sandwich ($8). Here kimchi is piled onto thick slabs of fresh-baked bread and combined with house-made peanut butter. Yes — kimchi and peanut butter. Some at our table were rather skeptical of this combination, which is what made it a must-try. But in the end, it was a pleasant surprise for everyone. Unexpectedly, the peanut butter was the more dominant flavor, and in combination with the kimchi, the result was something similar to a zippy Thai peanut sauce.
There’s a limited but creative cocktail menu, and we tried the Drunken Wu ($3.50), a concoction of lemonade, Gray Duck Chai, and sake. For this price, it is a bit of a steal. It’s not heavy on the alcohol, but the spiced chai and the sweetened lemonade made for a nice play on the traditional Arnie Palmer, and it was the perfect drink for the kimchi dishes in particular.
Cook, 1124 Payne Ave, Saint Paul, MN 55130; 651.756.1787; Mon-Fri 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m., Fri-Sat 7 a.m.-3 p.m., Fri dinner 5-9 p.m.
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.
Red Table Salami and Ricotta on Ciabatta at the St. Paul Cheese Shop
If the sandwich special is the tryouts for the regular menu, I’d love to see this one make the cut. The peppery, piquant Red Table salami is the star. Ricotta adds sweetness, greens add a vivid crunch, and a drizzle of olive oil dresses it all up richly. Inside perfect crusty ciabatta, this sandwich was a masterwork in flavor and texture.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Ted Held]
Jambon Royale by Chef Vincent Francoual
Vincent Francoual served up many tasty bites at his Chef Camp cooking class at Food Building, but the flavors in this dish stood out. He trimmed the fat from Red Table Meat‘s ham then slowly rendered it under the broiler and placed it onto crispy toasts made with Baker’s Field filone bread. The rest of the ham was served atop cheese curds warmed by a smoky soffrito of peppers, onion, garlic, and tomatoes. This melt-in-your-mouth concoction was nicely balanced by the bite and acidity of arugula tossed with a Dijon vinaigrette and the earthy sweetness of Medjool dates. Get the recipe here. Chef Camp has another Food Building cooking class coming up next month: Kimchi Fried Rice with Pancetta and Salumi, taught by Yia Vang on April 11 and April 13.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Rose Daniels]
Aligot at St. Genevieve
Current goal: Arrange my life so that it always feels like a late afternoon at St. Genevieve, simultaneously refined and hearty, made up only of things I love. Like aligot. Aligot is basically mashed potatoes in a rebellious phase. It’s the delicious consequences when you do everything you’re not supposed to do: Add cheese in roughly equal proportion to potatoes and whip them until the starches turn stretchy instead of fluffy.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Tricia Cornell]
Polenta Bread at Rustica Bakery
In these parlous days, Rustica’s Polenta Bread (available on Mondays) offers solace. The crust is crunchy, and the inside is cool and airy and squishy soft. It smells like popcorn, and tastes like corny, slightly sour, very luxurious white bread. Toasted or not, it is magic with salty butter — just the thing to calm the heart and smooth down the hackles.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Susan Pagani]
Calamarata with Raw Tuna at Bar La Grassa
Calamarata is a southern Italian pasta shape, so named because its tube shape is similar to calamari rings. The sauce on this amazing entree had a perfect mix of heat and flavor. Fresh herbs balanced the spice, and subtle citrus notes on the tuna added to the whole epicurean experience.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Brenda Johnson]
When you write about food, people like to ask you for a favorite restaurant. For me, favorite means different things, and so there has never been just one. I have a favorite for out-of-town guests and fancy occasions, for breakfast, for pizza, and for Korean food. But the most important favorite is the neighborhood restaurant I go to at least once a week because the wait staff is lovely, the atmosphere is charming, and the food is, without fail, great. For a long time, for years, that was the Craftsman Restaurant & Bar.
A dear friend and I used to meet there once a week to hash out our life and work conundrums over the Craftsman’s fantastic Manhattans (a toothpick stacked with house-macerated sour cherries before they were a thing), or for the brief time they were available, the wonderfully tanniny Emily’s Sumac. We liked the hummus, smoky and garlicky and surrounded by simple but pleasing vegetables — bright pink watermelon radishes, pickled cauliflower, parboiled green beans, and such.
Another good memory: Early one summer evening, some friends and I gathered in the big, black leather booth at the front of the restaurant for a birthday, I don’t recall whose. Someone had brought along a newish baby boy, the first in that group, and we passed him between us so the exhausted parents could eat. The sun was streaming in the front windows, I had a trout on my plate — butter, salt and pepper, and a pile of sweet corn succotash — and it felt like everything was right in the world.
There’ve been some hard moments, too. I’m only a little ashamed to say I’ve quietly wept at nearly every table in the place for various and sundry reasons.
Yet for a couple of years now, the Craftsman has been drifting downhill. Mike Phillips, who created the restaurant’s quiet New American aesthetic, left in 2010, eventually to create Red Table Meat Co. This was not terrible; his protégée Ben Jacoby took over the place and did a great job. But then Jacoby left in what felt like a dust-up, because a large portion of the wait staff followed him out — and then continued to leave until the old crew dwindled down to one. Along the way, we lost Steve Filla, Michelle Derer, and Jeff Mitchell, the restaurant’s adventurous mixologists. The menus stayed essentially the same, and the food was fine, but the restaurant had lost so much of its institutional knowledge that it couldn’t quite hit the stellar quality of food or service it had once offered. It didn’t seem to be trying.
So when I heard that Mike Dooley and Susan Kennedy-Dooley had sold the restaurant to Dale Wicks — a regional maintenance manager from Home Depot with a “passion for food and beverage” — I thought it might be a good thing. Wicks also owns The Waters Edge on Pleasant Lake, a restaurant and event venue in St. Cloud.
Well, truth be told, I worried about Wicks’ promise to update “the lounge,” which sounded suspiciously like a TV hanging over the Craftsman’s classic wooden bar.
Shortly thereafter, a menu popped up on the Craftsman’s new website. It reminded me of the places my grandfather and I used to frequent in his tiny Northern Michigan parish circa 1986 — beef tips, chicken Parmesan, red snapper, and lots of pineapple. But at that time, the website also carried the old Craftsman reviews extolling New American, seasonal, local food. Maybe, I thought, this will be a cheeky update on beef tip.
When we visited, the Craftsman’s old Best Of awards were still hanging on the wall, but the new owners had thrown sheer, white curtains, twinkly lights, and a swag of blue satin over the windows and white tablecloths over the tables. The waiters were dressed in black polyester uniforms, the menus coated in plastic.
Nearly everything that had made the Craftsman a charming, urban eatery and, well, arts and craftsy, was under wraps. And early tastes of the menu were not promising.
Our friendly waiter brought us a basket of warm rosemary bread. (“Where do you get the bread?” we asked. “US Foods,” she said.) There were bottles of olive oil and vinegar on the table, and we poured them onto a plate and dipped our bread. The vinegar looked and smelled like balsamic, but it had none of its body or sweetness — it was all pucker.
Nachos are a quintessential Mexican-American dish. Legend has it that in 1943, Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, maitre d’ at the Victory Club in Piedras Negras, Mexico, improvised to feed a few hungry American military wives. The kitchen was already closed, so the quick-thinking Anaya allegedly fried up sliced tortillas, then smothered them in cheese and pickled jalapeños. Before long, the dish was a staple at sporting events and happy hours north of the border.
Seventy-four years later, the average plate of restaurant nachos is, well, average. But every now and then, we come across a noteworthy version of the Tex-Mex classic. We recently discovered one at Sonora Grill — the East Lake Street establishment known primarily for its all-star tacos.
Two qualities lift Sonora’s nachos ($10) above the fray: simplicity and good ingredients. Chef Alejandro Castillon doesn’t try to wow with pounds of melted cheese, meat, or anything else. Rather, he impresses with a handful of expertly created elements. Pinto beans are stewed with guajillo peppers and without lard, oil, or other fat, producing great flavor without the heavy greasiness we associate with lesser nachos. Castillon gives his crema a smoky attitude with a touch of huitlacoche (“Mexican truffle”). Instead of the usual canned (typically pickled) variety, Castillon uses a combination of fresh jalapeños and rich roasted red peppers. And the “avocado mousse” is a smooth, delicious mixture of the heavenly fruit, garlic, cilantro, and jalapeño.
Of course, nachos live or die by their cheese and chips. These babies have just enough soft white Chihuahua queso to please cheeseheads without overwhelming the other ingredients. And the chips! Crispy, flavorful, and house-made, they’re great on their own and make excellent vehicles for their nacho co-stars. The secret, according to Castillon, is fresh tortillas. That’s it. No tricks needed.
While these nachos don’t need meat, pork or chicken is available for an extra $2 and steak for an added $4. And when we interviewed Castillon, he confirmed that Sonora would allow diners to go “off menu” to order nachos with the restaurant’s well-regarded beef tongue.