Sweet Chow in the North Loop, Minneapolis
No theory is perfect, but here’s an attempt to describe the new wave of Asian-inspired restaurants popping up around here. First wave* restaurants feature food cooked largely for and by immigrants, with menus that make sense to those who grew up with the food but can be impenetrable to outsiders. Think of Thai food laden with profound earthy funk, Chinese food with chewy meat clinging to chopped-up bones, Korean food with brutally hot and jungly kimchi. Second wave shops represent a correction — almost always an over-correction — for a sanitized view of American taste. This is where you find syrupy, bready renditions of orange chicken, pad thai that is sweet as a lollipop (without offering much of anything else), and half-assed California sushi rolls in lieu of legitimate sushi.
Now we see the third wave spots opening up. Think of Hai Hai, or Young Joni, or Pinku, or — just recently — Sweet Chow Takeaway in the North Loop. Much of the essence (that which can be dubiously but evocatively called “authenticity”) of Southeast Asian cuisine is there: depth of flavor, real spicy heat, challenging earthiness or complexity. At the same time, certain deal-breakers — think pieces of bone or tripe — are gone, and menus are clearly written, explaining everything that a diner can expect to experience.
Sweet Chow Takeaway (which, it should be said, has a roomy dining room and will soon have bike delivery) interprets Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Korean dishes in a way that’s accessible but not bastardized. The dishes — Korean Sticky Wings, Crispy Pork Belly, Yellow Curry — are recognizable and immediately appealing, but once you taste them, you realize with pleasure that the original edge, while tempered, hasn’t been sanded off.
Our Korean Rice Cakes ($14), for example, were complex and fiery, with the sort of toothsome chew we’ve grown to love from dishes at places like Rabbit Hole (speaking of good third-generation joints) with their Duck Duck Dduk. The rice cakes are a vegetarian dish, but the addition of a soft-boiled egg lends a welcome richness to the production and makes it a worthy entree unto itself.
The Beef Larb ($13) at Sweet Chow wasn’t what we’ve become accustomed to from our experience on University Avenue. It lacked the extreme intensity of funky flavor, but it wasn’t toothless, either, offering up real heat and depth, and crunchy textural contrast thanks to bits of puffed rice. Cradled in lettuce cups, it was a light and satisfying lunch.
Our Coconut Rice ($8) came with both fresh and grilled pineapple, plus a generous sprinkling of mint and cilantro. The rice itself was perfect — chewy, substantial, sweet without being sickly, and drenched in intense but natural coconut flavor. The fruit and herbs added interest and could be mixed in, bite by bite, as desired.
With a concept designed by local phenoms Jamie Malone and Erik Anderson and executed by Chef John Krattenmaker (formerly of Fika), Sweet Chow rightfully steps up to the front of the pack alongside peers like Young Joni and Hai Hai. The dining room is bright, sleek, and airy, the music on point, the beer and wine menu focused and appealing, and the prices assertive without being aggressive, particularly for the white-hot North Loop neighborhood and its continuously rising spires of new development. The food isn’t what you’d find at On’s Thai, Tay Ho, or Pho Ca Dao, but that’s OK. It stands on its own, and seems likely to find its way to appreciative diners in its neighborhood.
*Editor’s Note, 4/10/18: The initial draft of this story referred to three “generations” of Asian or Asian-inspired restaurants; we’ve changed the word to “waves,” which is more descriptive of evolving restaurant models as opposed to literal generations within a family.
4/11/18: The original version indicated that John Krattenmaker is the chef at Fika, but he left that establishment a few years ago. His biography was still viewable on Fika’s webpage.
Upscale Asian-influenced fare in the North Loop
116 N 1st Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55401
Sun-Thu 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-midnight
BAR: Beer, wine and a couple cocktails
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Some
ENTREE RANGE: $12-$18
NOISE LEVEL: Amenable din
PARKING: Underpriced North Loop meters (good luck!) and downtown ramps