Snacking in the Bike Lane: East St. Paul
This is the fourth in a four-part series of stories underwritten by Sociable Cider Werks that trace a 22-mile bike route through Minneapolis and St. Paul, hitting markets and off-the-grid eateries along the way.
As a born and raised East Sider (third generation, thank you) I’ve continuously caught hell for calling my ‘hood “East St. Paul” in print. So I’m gonna go balls-out homegirl right now and say it loud and proud: East Side!
You see, when I refer to my hometown as “East St. Paul,” it’s like calling DUMBO “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.” It’s longhand for Those Who May Not Know.
East St. Paul—erm— the East Side has always been arguably the most no-man’s-land of all the Twin Cities. Say you’re from the East Side, and many people will just stare at some point on your forehead, trying to figure out what the hell you’re talking about. Which is strange, because it is also the most populous area in St. Paul. In other words, more people live on the East Side than they do any other neighborhood in the Paul.
An influx of Southeast Asian and East African neighbors means more and better restaurants adding to neighborhood classics that have been doing business in the area for decades (R.I.P. original Red’s Savoy). Even with the eviscerating loss of places like the aforementioned classic pizzeria, new blood including Cook St. Paul, Ward 6, and Tongue in Cheek mean the potential for new classics for future generations in the evolution of this historic neighborhood.
Two of my all-time best kept secrets reside here, as well as a spot that’s gotten plenty of press of late, for good reason. My advice for conquering it, plus a couple bonus stops, because– East Side!
This series is underwritten by Sociable Cider Werks, makers of innovative libations that are best shared with a friend.
Big ups to Metro State University for going beyond Subway and vending machines to fuel the minds of hungry students. Instead, find the official best sambusas anywhere in town, available in either beef or vegetarian, enlivened with the best green sauce in the state— seriously, do not miss the stuff.
But the curry plate (sometimes available in goat, but also chicken and vegetarian) is such an antidote to rainy weather, or homework, or just a plain old foul mood that it’s the very definition of comfort food. They’ve also thoughtfully offered it in a wrap, if you’re on the move— on a bike ride, say.
Alimama’s also offers garden variety gyros, falafel, and the like, but you’re wise to stick to their specialties if you want, you know, something special. Alimama’s also has food trucks by the same name– keep an eye peeled for them.
The first time I walked into Morelli’s Market to buy a bottle of booze, was met with the unmistakable aroma of red sauce bubbling away on a stovetop. Initially, I wondered if the wind was carrying over aromas from the nearby red sauce institution Yarusso’s. Nope. One of St. Paul’s better kept secrets is that Morelli’s market has been grandfathered in, since its founding in 1915, to vend both booze and food on the same premises, as God intended. This is one-stop-party-shopping at its finest. Factor in that between sales, coupons, and rebates, Morelli’s sells hands-down the cheapest liquor anywhere locally, and your only regret, as mine was, is that you haven’t found this place sooner.
It’s ground zero for all of your classic Italian eating needs, including substantial bricks of lasagna, tubs of marinara, all the Italian meats (real-deal butcher shop here) hubcap-sized frozen pizzas, the cheapest Reggiano by the pound, Pizelles (the fancy imported pinwheel cookie) and lots and lots more.
Morelli’s is the place everyone hates to see me write about, because they understandably want to keep its speakeasy feel in tact. But visit on a Saturday at prime time and you’ll see that the secret is already out— traffic cops and full-time carry out boys making the rounds with groaning dollies to car trunks make this tiny corner market look like Grand Central.
If you’re biking, you’d be wise to hitch your trailer, as you’ll want a little bit of everything, and wine by the case is the most economical way to go. Don’t forget that rebate ticket. Oh, and it’s cash (or check) only. They pass the savings on to you.
While two sprawling St. Paul Hmong marketplaces have been in foodie news for a relatively long time, I just can’t stop being excited about them. Many small vendors sharing a large space so they can actually make a daily living are the way smart food systems have been set up all over the world for centuries, and to see great examples of them we’ve traditionally had to travel. Not anymore. Plus, meters and meters of deliciousness packed into year-round walkable space. What’s not to love?
Approach eating here the way that Hmong people have approached their own historical endeavor of eating and cooking— by being fearless and trying a little bit of everything. I’ve shopped the market with Hmong guides who have reminded me of the nomadic life of the Hmong, which accounts for the rich Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese influences in the cuisine. Turn to local Hmong chef and Yia Vang for a distilled look at his own interpretation of Minnesota-Hmong cooking, which is a natural evolution considering that the Twin Cities are home to the largest urban Hmong population in the world.
Simple preparations of meat, fish, and vegetables are perhaps more typically “true Hmong,” like the fried pompano you’ll find at many of the stalls, to pair with sticky rice or freshly boiled greens or whatever the day’s veg might be. Noodle-stuffed chicken wings are practically a Minnesota staple food at this point, but if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, consider a fresh bamboo shoot salad. Lemongrass-laced Hmong sausage is universally liked if you’re a pork eater, as are steamed pork rolls. But if you’re really eating Hmong, you won’t shrink at eating the whole beast, and various intestines and other squiggly bits are on full display here. Indeed, the best part about the marketplace is trying something you’ve never eaten, and if it simply becomes too much, soothe your tastebuds with a refreshing mangonada, a trusty made-to-order papaya salad, or even a big pile of fried rice.
Bonus: Mañana Pupuseria
The last time I visited Mañana, our most reliably delicious pupusas restaurant, I was gobsmacked to learn they’ve been in business for 12 years. This East 7th Street hidden-in-plain sight gem serves made-to-order Salvadorian classics, and beyond the Pupusas, be sure and have a look at the day’s specials, typically on full display bubbling away in various stews and braises. Usually garnished with curtidos (slaw) boiled potatoes, and hot sauce served to-go in a little plastic baggie. If you’re not feeling pupusas, most of the preparations can be had in an enormous, difficult-to-handle sandwich, and if you’re feeling hungover, Mañana is known for its excellent menudo.
Bonus-Bonus: Dariette Drive In
What could be more fun than a carhop delivering to your bicycle? A true relic of the East Side’s genial past, I’m elated year after year when the Dariette opens for business after the long winter. The classic Italian restaurant/ soft serve/ carhop spot (seriously, this is a place unto itself) has kept my family in spaghetti and meatballs and better-than-Dairy Queen (yeah I said it) cones since I was old enough to be conscious of the fact. It’s still family-owned and operated, and if you’ve never been, go, and if you have, go again. Here’s a gem of a Facebook post from April 16: “Due to the late winter, some speaker stands are blocked with snow. We are making all orders for take out.”
DIRECTIONS FOR THIS LEG, FROM HMONGTOWN MARKETPLACE TO ALIMAMA’S MEDITERRANEAN GRILL
88 ORIENTAL FOODS 291 University Ave. West, St. Paul to Hmongtown Marketplace [.6 miles]
Head west on University Ave. to Farrington St.
Turn right on Farrington St.
Turn right on Charles St.
Turn left on Galtier St. .3 miles
Cross Como Ave.
HMONGTOWN MARKETPLACE 217 Como Ave., St. Paul to Morelli’s [2.9 miles]
Head Southeast on Como toward Marion St.
Turn left on W Pennsylvania Ave. .1 miles
Turn left on Rice St. .3 miles
Turn right on W Sycamore St. .5 miles
Turn left on Jackson St. .2 miles
Turn right on E Cayuga St. .7 miles
Turn left on Bruce Vento Trail .5 miles
Turn right on Payne Ave. .5 miles
Turn right on Tedesco St., destination on right
MORELLI’S 535 Tedesco St., St. Paul to Alimama’s Mediterranean [.6 miles]
Head south on Payne Ave. .3 miles
Turn left on 7th St. E .3 miles
ALIMAMA’S MEDITERRANEAN GRILL 690 7th St. E, St. Pau