After years of rumors and remodeling, The Lexington, St. Paul’s 1935 dining institution, has finally reopened.
Owners Josh Thoma and Kevin Fitzgerald, the duo behind Smack Shack, have teamed with co-owner and chef Jack Riebel to update the classic while maintaining the requisite historical elements.
Upon entry, it’s not immediately clear what is original and what is made to look that way. Each of the many dining rooms has its own feel. The main room is dominated by dark wood paneling and oil paintings and has pleasantly warm and subdued light. Another dining area is lighter in color, while still another was given a few modern touches that would fit in at a boutique hotel.
The entire place has a decidedly special-occasion feel, which may make a casual drop-in, even at one of the two bars, unlikely.
Despite the updates, “The Lex” fits firmly into the supper-club style of dining. Compared to other restaurants of the same era, such as The Monte Carlo or Murray’s, this relaunch is more supper and less club, with no neon in sight, and a generally muted scheme.
Beverages are overseen by Geoffrey Lee Trelstad (formerly of 4 Bells in Loring Park) and fall in line with the updated classic model.
The Scofflaw ($12) is made with Old Overholt rye, dry vermouth, lemon, house grenadine, and creole bitters. It strikes the palate in one simple chord of sweet citrus and berry until a mild heat sets in on the finish. The rye character is not present, but the warmth cuts through the first rush of sugar.
Less successful is the Jalisco-Style Old Fashioned ($12), which is one of a group of variations on the classic cocktail. Agave syrup dominates the Cazadores Reposado tequila, while the whiskey-barrel-aged bitters and orange peel do little to restrain the sugar bomb. Because the balance is far too sweet, the aged profile of the tequila is completely covered save for a brief smoke. The bitters are lost as well, but the orange peel lends some brightness.
The ’Tuckey-Style ($12), as the name suggests, is the classic without a twist: Wild Turkey 101 bourbon, house bitters, and orange zest. This critical recipe tweak resulted in a near-perfect drink: an appropriate level of alcoholic heat, classic orange oil aromatics, and a truncated finish that doesn’t overstay its welcome on the palate.
Service at the Lexington was fair but with a general lack of confidence that made the place feel like it had just opened. At the bar, though, the service didn’t detract from the overall experience.
The few bar snacks that we sampled were excellent. They included the Fried Chicken Sliders ($9) with a vinegar-dressed slaw and a faintly sweet bun. Most impressively, the dark-meat chicken was moist and tender. Also, try the briny Chopped Celery Caesar ($12), which is tossed with a bright lemon and caper dressing and topped with a boquerone.
The Lexington, 1096 Grand Ave, St Paul, MN 55105; 651.289.4990
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com.
The Hot Five is a weekly feature created by the Heavy Table and supported by Shepherd Song Farm.
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.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Amy Thielen from her Desert Island Top 10]
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]
Alice 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]
Satsuma 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]
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 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.)
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.
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.