Snacking in the Bike Lane: The Markets of University Avenue
This is the third 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.
Depending on which side of the river you most identify with, University Avenue is the “Eat Street” of St. Paul, or Eat Street is the University Avenue of Minneapolis, and it’s a good thing we don’t have to choose, at the risk of starting a civil war.
The sheer number of eating and drinking establishments clustered together makes it virtually impossible for anything else at all to sprout up in between them, making it a no-brainer for consumptive crawls or rides. And thanks to that proliferation, you’re wise to get out of the car, or even off of the train, and really, really have a good look at what’s here, because as the storefronts whiz by, you might imagine that they are all similar, but you would be wrong.
This series is underwritten by Sociable Cider Werks, makers of innovative libations that are best shared with a friend.
Ha Tien Market
You know banh mi sandwiches. Every Minnesotan knows banh mi sandwiches as sure as she knows sweet corn and the proper placement of a bobber on the fishing line. But did you know that Ha Tien Market is practically ground zero for banh mi? Yes, nearby Saigon may have a bigger name for its gargantuan, three-for-$10 sandwiches, which go great with their gargantuan soups and bubble teas. But Ha Tien has earned a worthy name for itself as the cult-y place to go for the best barbecue pork banh mi around.
How cult-y? Approach the counter, and chances are the staff will know what you’ve come for, and they’re going to tell you if you’ve arrived on time or if you’re too late. Too late is typically anytime after the lunch rush, so if you come after say 1 p.m., you’re cutting things close.
Fatty, unctuous, crisp, bubbly, the pork belly hangs in full view on a hook, next fire engine-red Peking ducks, and when you order a sandwich, down comes the belly, and whack! whack! whack! a lady (or in some cases a guy) will create a sandwich for you with impressive flourish. Arguably, this is the only thing to go out of your way for as far as this particular lunch counter is concerned, but there are a few pairings to consider.
It’s easy to be split on Lao-style Papaya salad, the shredded, green papaya wonder that is gaining traction for the dish we are lucky enough to call almost ubiquitous in our Twin Cities. That said, stay alert for “Thai Style” and “Lao Style” differentiators on papaya salads, the latter prepared with a goodly amount more fish sauce, fermented fish, and shrimp paste to render the thing with an almost aquarium-like aroma. Love it or leave it, Ha Tien serves the latter, in convenient takeaway clamshells. I like mine with the purple sticky rice that acts as a foil to everything that’s going on with the papaya which is a lot— hot, funk, acid, tang.
Also, if the staff offers any specials, it’s worthwhile to grab it— on my last visit it was an interesting eggplant preparation roasted with sesame and while not necessarily mind blowing, a good way to get some veg in your life.
Wonders Ice Cream
In the age of Instagram eats, a very rapidly moving and expanding age, Thai Rolled Ice Cream is having its day. It’s weird-looking enough to be performance art, and it upends tradition enough to make it worth eating.
Smooth and creamy becomes, well, flat and and the same time cylindrical, so, yeah, why not?
It sort of reminds me of the first time I had Dippin’ Dots. Not exactly better than ice cream, but different than ice cream, like putting your cheese inside the patty instead of a plain old cheeseburger.
While Thai Rolled Ice cream is probably not poised to become as classic as the Jucy Lucy, it’s at least as fun. When Wonders first opened, lines formed around the block, for a chance to watch and learn, a chance to Instagram, and finally, a chance to taste.
In any case, by this time in your ride you’ll be looking for a little sweet satisfaction and refreshment, so check it out. At the very least you can tell the internets that you did.
88 Oriental Deli
Perhaps the most pleasant thing about food exploration is the reward of something completely new and amazing. There is new, and there is familiar and great, but new and amazing, that’s the fix we’re all looking for here at Heavy Table, amiright?
So imagine our thrill when wandering to the lunch counter of this unassuming Asian grocery store that at first blush looks like many others you’ve shopped. Approach the lunch counter way in the back, and you’ll be asked, basically, how much sausage you want. And the answer only lies in your own conscience: how much sausage can you eat?
This handmade specialty is like nothing I’ve had in the past, not the same as the lemongrass Hmong sausage I’ve grown something of a spiritual attachment to, nor the sour sausages found in many Vietnamese soups and sandwiches.
Instead, this link-like sausage comes with a warning— it’s hot— sneakily hot. Start devouring the sweet porkiness, and wait for the creep. It’s addictive, and magical, and something that will have me returning again and again.
This is a product that works best with a foil, so if you’re not offered the pickled carrots that sometimes arrive as sidecar, check out the pickled mango in the refrigerator section, that can provide a similar balancing act. It comes in a pouch with some brine, and will be a welcome addition to any charcuterie plate at home if you have any leftover.
And, because it’s there, order up a bubble tea that the staff will build to your specifications, multi-chromatic and gelatinous as you like.
DIRECTIONS FOR THIS LEG, FROM HA TIEN MARKET TO 88 ORIENTAL FOODS
LA ALBORADA (see previous installment) 1855 E Lake St to HA TIEN MARKET [6.5 miles]
Head east on East Lake St., continue on Marshall Ave. 6.3 miles
Turn left on Western Ave N .5 miles
Turn right on University Ave W, walk your bike, destination on left
HA TIEN MARKET 353 University Ave. West, St. Paul to Wonders Ice Cream [.2 miles]
Head east on University Ave. West
WONDERS ICE CREAM 298 University Ave. West, St. Paul to 88 Oriental Foods [.3 miles]
Head east on University Ave., cross at Marion St., head west on University Ave.
88 ORIENTAL FOODS, 291 University Ave. West, St. Paul