Subo in Downtown Minneapolis
It’s not a good sign if you can’t nail a Thai iced tea. The first thing to hit the table at a recent night at Subo was a Thai iced tea ($3), a drink that is at its best a nimble balance of creamy, sweet, astringent, and refreshing. The Subo incarnation was fluorescent orange, and tasted mostly of ice water with a bit of watery tea at the back. That it came out poorly made was one thing; that it remained on the table totally full, unquestioned by the server, for a full two-hour meal is another thing entirely.
If the iced tea had been the only problem with Subo, it wouldn’t bear mentioning; very few restaurants bat a thousand, and you can’t demand veteran servers at a newly opened eatery. The problem is that ordering from the restaurant’s ambitious Filipino fusion menu was akin to playing Russian roulette with both your palate and wallet; not only did the quality vary considerably from dish to dish, the actual dish sometimes varied considerably from the menu’s description to what arrived on the plate.
This bait-and-switch included “beignets” that were as dense as doughnut holes, “panna cotta” that was actually a chocolate pot du creme, and an ahi tuna dish that was so mixed it up that it was barely intelligible (more on that later).
Subo, located in the old Hell’s Kitchen location in downtown Minneapolis, talks up its “eclectic southeast asian dishes with bold exotic flavors served on small plates.” There’s nothing to criticize about that description — the menu is sprinkled with fruits and seasonings that you may have never heard of (let alone sampled), the flavors are bold (for better or worse), and the plates are certainly small, if not particularly economical.
The good news is this: Subo’s “pork candy,” which has been setting local gourmands abuzz since the restaurant’s opening in December, lives up to the hype. The dish ($8) marries slightly charred bits of pork sausage with palm sugar and lime gastrique, and the result is a great balance of flavors: sweet and heat, pork and herb, onion and char. Half the key to being a great restaurant is having a killer dish, something buzzworthy that will bring people back. Pork candy is exactly that sort of killer dish. Our waitress compared it to crack cocaine, which seems to be a fairly good metaphorical shorthand for the stuff.
Subo also deserves praise for its coconut rice ($3), which is served in a generous portion, perfect from a texture perspective, and not overly sweet or seasoned. It’s easy to walk this dish straight into dessert territory, but the Subo version is serious business, and tasty without being overproduced.
Shanghai Lumpia (eggrolls, essentially) — quite small and a bit pricey at $7.50 — merit their cost with a flavorful pork filling and their thin, crispy, utterly non-greasy wrappers. The last time I tasted lumpia this good, I was at the recently closed Bali on Nicollet Ave. — RIP.
If everything at the restaurant was on the same level as the pork candy, lumpia, and coconut rice, we’d have a gastronomic revolution on our hands. Unfortunately, the menu offers some puzzling product, as well as some that needs serious retuning.
The Ahi Kinilaw ($8), as listed on the menu, was said to feature pickled onions, kalamansi (an Asian citrus fruit), sugar cane vinegar, soy sauce, and puffed rice. As plated, it featured pickled onions, avocado, three thin slices of bread, and some sort of creme fraiche. The waitress was clueless as to where the puffed rice might have went, or whether the dish was typically plated with avocado.
Bait and switch is one thing; if the dish works, it works. It didn’t. In order to taste everything relevant, you need to use chopsticks (too small) or a fork (too clumsy) to pile little strands of onion, a wisp or two of creme fraiche, little tumbling cubes of ahi, and little flippy bits of avocado onto the bread.
If the ingredients had simply been minced and blended evenly, the result would’ve been an Asian ahi tartare, easy to scoop and eat. Had they been cut and stacked in large pieces on bread, they would have been easy-to-eat open-faced sandwiches. As it was, it was a major undertaking just to get the dish eaten. Fishy-tasting ahi made the presence of the other ingredients critical; the difficulty in wrangling the other ingredients made the whole experience unpleasant.
A vegetarian summer roll ($6.50) was just a mugging on a plate. Your six-fifty gets you some rice noodles and carrots, plus a mint leaf, stuck into spring roll wrappers. The peanut sauce, to its credit, lacked the cloying sweetness of many restaurants’ renditions, but the whole dish was about six light, refreshing bites of nothing, 35 cents worth of ingredients sold at a premium to suckers.
Hot mustard dumplings were light as lead, and equally as subtle; for $3 at a dim sum restaurant, they would’ve been acceptable, but for $7, they smacked of contempt for the customer.
And dessert was truly an odd experience. The beignets ($7), as mentioned earlier, were not the light fried treats of New Orleans that they purported to be; they were dense and monotonous. Their saving grace was the kalamansi curd that they were served with, which was like a slightly foamy, less sour lemon curd kissed with the taste of tangerine. The curd was good enough to eat straight. Paired with the right partner, it could be a local game-changer. As for the mousse-like panna cotta ($7), it was spicy. Not slightly spicy — more like “burn the front of your throat 15 seconds after you swallow it” spicy. The tiny serving (again, $7, good lord) would have been a problem had it not been so inedibly hot.
It’s hard not to love what Subo is attempting — some of the flavor combinations are truly novel, the decor and sound level are both ideal for a vivacious downtown eatery, and the heart of a great restaurant is definitely beating somewhere down there behind the layers of fog and chaos that swirl around the kitchen and menu.
With some judicious and persistent editing, Subo could take its place among the best Asian restaurants in the area. That said, to quote a saying, the place between “good enough” and “great” is a haunted realm of madness and despair, where every inch is won in blood. Here’s hoping Subo’s team has the courage to navigate it.
Filipino Fusion in Downtown Minneapolis
89 S 10th St
Minneapolis, MN 55402
OWNER / CHEF: Neil Guillen
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / Yes for weekends
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $6.50-12.50 for each small plate