Sole Cafe in Hamline-Midway, St. Paul

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

If you haven’t tried Korean food, you’re missing out. Bursting with piquant spices, garlic, and nutty sesame oil, each dish offers an exciting combination of flavors and textures. Snelling Avenue eatery Sole Cafe provides an easily navigable menu spanning traditional Korean pancakes, noodles, stews, and more.

Sole, which means evergreen — “forever” — in Korean, was not always a strictly Korean restaurant. Korean-born owner Kimberly Firnstahl’s brother once ran the place as an international bar, featuring all kinds of food and karaoke. Firnstahl herself was never trained as a cook — “but I raised two kids and everyone liked my cooking.” She skips the MSG and tries to cook naturally, picking up fresh vegetables three times a week at the Minneapolis Farmers Market. These quality ingredients are evident in the food she produces.

Korean food is served family-style: Each meal is served with a minimum of four to six complimentary side dishes, comprising any variety of odeng (fish cake), potatoes, bean sprouts, kimchi, and other vegetables. A recent visit was no exception, though the spread was differentiated from many area Korean offerings by a few factors. Kongnamul, a sesame oil-dressed bean sprout salad, featured a nutty crunch barely present in the softer, oilier versions served elsewhere. Shredded potatoes, which are often served rather sweet, mushy, and cubed, held more crunch and texture, while the spicy, pickled cucumbers (oi-sobagi) garnered rave reviews from our photographer. Yeon-gn, also known as lotus root, was pleasantly chewy and bursting with an addictively sweet-salty-tart flavor. In each dish, the main ingredient’s flavor shone through the seasonings. In short, the food was freshly made — seasoned, but not soaked in salt or spice.

kimchi chigae, sole cafe

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

Between the large portions, pungent flavors, and multitude of side dishes, a meal here is a great value. Jahpchae ($10.95), a dish of cellophane noodles, beef, and vegetables, was moist and flavored with with savory garlic, soy sauce, and nutty sesame oil. Haemul Pajeon ($12.95), a seafood pancake, was loaded with a variety of squid, shrimp, and chives, all enrobed in a light, savory pancake of egg and flour: a veritable frittata of sea-creature goodness. Kimchi Chigae (pictured above) — comprising a thin, vibrantly red broth, pickled fermented cabbage, and tofu — is a spicy stew sure to warm your bones in the dead of winter.

The nut-allergic diner will find solace in Firnstahl’s Dahk Bulgogi ($12.95, pictured at top left) and Jeyuk Bokum ($13.95, top right), meat-centric dishes featuring chicken or pork, respectively, and typically seasoned with onion, garlic, ginger, sugar, sesame oil, and soy sauce. Because Firnstahl finds meat to be greasy enough on its own, she adds no sesame oil to these dishes (“too much is too much”); instead of sugar, she uses kiwi to sweeten the meat with natural fructose.

Many of Firnstahl’s diners consider Sole the best Korean food in town, and with good reason. With her emphasis on fresh, local vegetables, innovative natural sweeteners, and no MSG, Firnstahl sets the bar for Korean food in an area with tight competition.

BEST BET: Any of the meat dishes, like bulgogi or kalbi (Korean shortribs) — Firnstahl skips the oil and MSG and sweetens them with kiwi instead of sugar.

Sole Cafe

Korean
684 Snelling Avenue North
St Paul, MN 55104
651.644.2068
CHEF / OWNER: Kimberly Firnstahl
HOURS:
Sun-Thurs 11am-9pm (Closed Wed)
Fri-Sat 11am-9pm (or late as 1am, if it’s busy)
BAR: Soju, Wine, & Beer
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: No / No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $10-16

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

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Maja Ingeman

The daughter of an artist and a music teacher, Maja spent much of her childhood traveling the country in a rusty old van, attempting to model all of her father’s salable jewelry at the same time, and sampling the many edibles available both on the road and at the art fairs they visited. Though she now lives in Minneapolis, the coffee addiction and love for food that she picked up en route to one of their many destinations never left her. Between marketing work in the medical device industry and poring over the Harvard Business Review, she can typically be found holed up in her kitchen, baking bread every weekend and experimenting in between.

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12 Comments

  1. So glad you reviewed this place. It doesnt look like much, but the food is the best Korean in town. The Japchae is also really good here, not dumbed down like it is some other places.

  2. Soleil Ho 08/18/2010 Reply

    Oh my god. This is killing me right now. I must go.

  3. Maja and Heavytable, thanks so much for this review!! I did not even know this place existed and I am a huge fan of Korean Food. I will be going tonight if I can make it that long!

  4. R.K. Closed on Wednesdays!

  5. pretty sure the answer is no, but does anyone in town do real live in-table-hibachi Korean BBQ in these here cities?

  6. ARRGH!
    Thanks Kate!
    Looks like I am going to have to try not to drown in excess saliva peering at these close to porn pictures…
    And try to hold out :)

  7. David Foureyes 08/18/2010 Reply

    Good lord I want. With this place between me and Bangkok Thai Deli…I may never make it there again. This looks and sounds terrific.

  8. Thank you SO much for this, I would love to check out Korean food but had all but given up due to my msg allergy and several experiences with Korean restaurants that seemed to drench their food in it, particularly the lovely pickle-type side dishes…

  9. Author
    Maja Ingeman 08/18/2010 Reply

    @Artsy: Awesome! I will warn you that, to my knowledge, odeng typically has some MSG in it, so you might want to skip the fish cakes in your panchan — but otherwise you should be good!

  10. thanks Maja for the headsup on the fish cakes, wonder why they have msg if the owner doesn’t use it much…? I do know a lot of places, when you ask if they use msg, reply ‘just a little’..

    and I suppose that’s better than using a lot,,,but I pretty much want to skip it. Especially since one person’s ‘just a little’ could be…a lot.

  11. bibimrock 08/20/2010 Reply

    fantastic review!

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