Sole Cafe in Hamline-Midway, St. Paul
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.
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.
684 Snelling Avenue North
St Paul, MN 55104
CHEF / OWNER: Kimberly Firnstahl
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