Heavy Table Hot Five: Dec. 8-14

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Each Friday, this list will track five of the best things Heavy Table’s writers, editors, and photographers have recently bitten or sipped. Have a suggestion for the Hot Five? Email editor@heavytable.com.

shepherd-song-banner-ad-horiz-3The Hot Five is a weekly feature created by the Heavy Table and supported by Shepherd Song Farm.

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James Norton / Heavy Table

1-new - one - hot fivePorchetta bagel at Rise Bagels
The pork in this remarkable bagel sandwich is incredibly tender and gently fennel-flavored, the flavored cream cheese brings a wonderful garlic note to the dish, and the tomato and arugula were nice accents without overwhelming the dish as a whole. One of the best sandwiches in town right now.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted from an Instagram post by James Norton]

Amy Rea / Heavy Table

2-new - two - hot fiveIf You Must Brunch Plate at Wise Acre Eatery
Wise Acre Eatery’s If You Must brunch plate is a case study in something simple done with great care and attention. Basically this is scrambled eggs with breakfast potatoes, bacon, and cornbread, but the eggs are slow-scrambled and velvety with just a hint of fresh herbs, the potatoes are crisp on the outside but buttery on the inside, the thick slab of bacon is both crunchy and chewy, and the cornbread somehow both delicate and hearty. A little butter, a little coffee, and your day is set.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Amy Rea]

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

3-new - three hot fiveChurrasco Plate at El Sabor Chuchi
The first thing you need to know about the $12 Churrasco Plate at El Sabor Chuchi is that it isn’t as big as you expect it’ll be. It’s about 50 percent bigger. I ran out of room in my notebook trying to record everything that arrived on it, but the short list includes a steak (pounded flat), a couple of eggs, rice, beans, thick cut fries, avocado slices, plantain fritters, and salad. If this stuff were mediocre, this would still be a pretty good deal, but the avocado was ripe, the beans surprisingly delicate and beautifully seasoned, the thick-cut fries clearly house-made and top-notch. The steak and eggs and the rest? Not bad. The value prospect of this humble plate of food is towering.
[Last Week on the Hot Five: #3 | Submitted from a recent East Lake Checklist by James Norton]

Amy Rea / Heavy Table

4-new four hot fiveLarb from Thai Spicy at the Hmongtown Marketplace
The staff asks if you want your larb spicy, so if you don’t, speak up. But if you do, they’ll respect your wishes. Served on a bed of cool, crunchy cabbage, the spicy larb is packed full of ground beef, onions, and cilantro, along with a powerful punch of heat that’s offset by the generous portion of sticky rice. Definitely a powerful tonic on a cold, blustery day.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Amy Rea]

James Norton / Heavy Table

5-new -fiveSpicy Wings from Cora’s Best Chicken Wings
It’s a massive understatement to say there’s nothing fancy about these fried chicken wings found on St. Paul’s Payne Avenue, but they might be one of the best values in town, considering their serious crunch and nicely balanced sweet heat. At $5 for three wings — plus beverage, plus eggroll, plus fried rice — they’re a steal.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted from a review by James Norton]

Out-of-Towners’ Guide to St. Paul 2015

Becca Dilley, Katie Cannon, Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley, Katie Cannon, Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Welcome to the Twin Cities! Don’t know where to find interesting, high quality food and drink? Whether you’re looking to splurge or eat on the cheap, we’ve got you covered. Looking to drink killer cocktails and treat a hangover the next morning? No problem. Want to know where the locals get their doughnuts, sausage, tacos, and coffee? You’ve come to the right site.

The guide is a collection of places our contributors take out-of-towners (or suggest others take visitors). It’s not a “best-of” list. It’s also not comprehensive. To keep the guide from getting unwieldy, we limited the number of categories and suggestions within each category. Therefore, there are numerous places that we love that didn’t make it into the guide. If you asked us where to eat, drink, and hang out, this is what we’d tell you (and then we’d list a bunch of backup spots). Together, the interactive map (posted at the end of this article), the list, and the corresponding Foursquare list will help you plan your gastronomic tour of the Twin Cities.

After considering feedback on last year’s inaugural guide, we decided to split the document into two parts, one for each of the Twin Cities. As the capital city of Minnesota, St. Paul is receiving first billing. We will publish the guide to Minneapolis in the next couple of weeks.  

Locals: Along with using the guide and sending it to folks visiting town, we hope you will add your recommendations in the Comments section (and tell us why our suggestions are completely off base). We update the guide annually, so your feedback helps us improve the document as well as provide out-of-towners with additional suggestions.

Worth the Splurge

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table
Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

Meritage, 410 St. Peter St, St. Paul; 651.222.5670 | Our interview with chef-owner Russell Klein
With attention to detail and consistency that are second to none, Meritage is one of the finest French-inspired eateries in the metro area. But the not-so-hidden secret weapon of this chic, classically excellent restaurant is the seafood. The oysters here are reliably delicious and the varieties change often, and the fantastic wild-caught Pacific shrimp cocktail will redefine your understanding of this often maltreated, usually disappointing dish. The restaurant side is great for a formal affair; the bar side is perfect for cocktails, oysters, and a spot-on upscale hamburger.

The Strip Club Meat and Fish, 378 Maria Ave, St. Paul; 651.793.6247 | Our review of brunch at the Strip Club
While it may be temporarily obscured by the rapid ascendance of its Lowertown cousin, Saint Dinette, don’t forget this lovingly hip tribute to the classic Midwestern steakhouse — the name is unforgettable, as is the food. While steaks are an obvious (and correct) way to proceed at this dark, cozy joint, we fondly remember everything from soups to appetizers to salads, they were so uniformly well-prepared. However far you’ve traveled, settle in, order a cocktail, and unwind.

Tanpopo Noodle Shop, 308 E Prince St, St. Paul; 651.209.6527 | Our look at Twin Cities (including Tanpopo’s) ramen
Yes, they do sushi. But you won’t find any crazy rolls or extensive sashimi offerings here — rather, the nightly maki special plays second fiddle to teishoku (we like the mackerel) and steaming bowls of nuanced, delicate broth and chewy udon noodles. Try the nabeyaki udon: it’s judiciously topped with tempura fried shrimp, chicken, fish cake, wakame, and tamago; each element contributes a unique flavor that complements the broth and creates a harmonious dish.

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Saint Dinette, 261 E 5th St, St. Paul; 651.800.1415 | Our review
The second restaurant from the Strip Club’s Tim Niver and JD Fratzke, Saint Dinette features the French-influenced food of North America — from Montreal to New Orleans to Puebla, Mexico (where many French settled in the 1800s). Chef de cuisine Adam Eaton and general manager Laurel Elm ate their way through the three aforementioned cities, discovering influences as disparate as Mexican, Southern, and Jewish, all woven together with the French. Must-haves include trout rillettes, half chicken (pictured above), fried smelt, and cheeseburger. Saint Dinette offers a weekend “grocery valet” so diners can park their goods from the Saint Paul Farmers’ Market while they enjoy brunch.

Heartland, 289 E 5th St, St. Paul; 651.699.3536 | Our interviews with chef-owner Lenny Russo: On cooking | On Heartland’s pork program
A national standard-bearer of “farm to table” dining, chef Lenny Russo combines technical precision with extremely high quality regional ingredients to produce soul comforting, delicious meals. Overlooking the Saint Paul Farmers’ Market, Heartland has earned its reputation as the place for distinctly Midwestern fine dining. If roasted bison is on the menu, get it! And try not to fill up on the house-made rolls and artisanal butter.

Larb at Family Lao-Thai Restaurant

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Family Lao-Thai Restaurant is indeed a family affair. While Saykham Sengmavong runs the kitchen, his daughter Annee and her fiancé David Simoukdalay manage the front of the house. On occasion, Chef Sengmavong’s wife helps out with cooking duties. Together, the family serves up outstanding, authentic Laotian dishes (they also offer a selection of Thai dishes). We recently fell in love with one of these offerings: larb with sticky rice ($7) — always with sticky rice, lest you offend the larb spirit gods (and, more critically, Annee and David).

Considered the national dish of Laos, larb consists of ground meat, onion, cilantro, lime, fish sauce, and chili. And then there’s the magic: rice powder. Uncooked rice toasted with kaffir leaves and lemongrass, then finely ground, the rice powder gives larb a delightful nutty, slightly smoky flavor. It’s high time this wonder ingredient finds its way into meatballs and other ground meat concoctions (Lao-inspired meatloaf, anyone?).

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Lao-Thai offers both chicken (bottom two photos, above) and beef larb (top two). Annee and David hope to serve duck larb on special occasions, which we fully support.While we enjoyed both, we prefer the beef option. It’s a bit moister and sucks up the flavors better than the white chicken meat. And, to our great pleasure, the beef larb comes with small ribbons of tripe, adding a pleasant, savory chewiness (yes, chewiness can be pleasant). You can always leave off the tripe, but we’d advise against it—though subtle, the tripe takes the dish to the next level.

Eaten with perfectly cooked sticky rice — or, if you choose, iceberg lettuce cups — Lao-Thai’s larb works well as an entree or side dish to share. Either way, this deceptively simple, super flavorful dish is sure to convert doubters to the joys of Laotian food and the family fare of Lao-Thai restaurant.

Family Lao-Thai Restaurant, 501 University Ave W, St Paul, MN 55103; 651.224.5026

Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America

Lori Writer / Heavy Table
Lori Writer / Heavy Table

“In the isolated mountain villages of their Laotian homeland, cooking was… the stuff of tradition, not the written word. Good Hmong cooks learned from their elders which ingredients to use, and how much of each, by sight, feel, and taste.  Recipes were never written down and followed ‘to the letter.’ Cooking, like other Hmong arts and crafts, came ‘from the heart.'”

(From Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America by Sami Scripter and Sheng Yangpublished this month by the University of Minnesota Press ($29.95; 248 pages, hardcover with color photos, available at Hmong ABC Bookstore at 298 University Ave. W in St. Paul).

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Sheng Yang, and her parents and four siblings, immigrated to the United States — first to Kentucky, then Oklahoma, and then, Oregon —  in 1979, when she was nine. Sami Scripter, married and tending to her growing family, was Sheng’s neighbor in Portland, OR. Sami worked as an educator at Sheng’s elementary school. Speaking to a small audience at the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul on Thursday, Scripter recalls, “One year you didn’t know what Hmong was, and the next year a quarter of the children in school were Hmong.”

Yang says that over the years their “two families have become almost one.” Scripter adds, “We got to know each other the way neighbors know each other.” They gardened together in the Scripter’s backyard using seeds Sheng’s mother had carried from Laos and Thailand. Sami taught Sheng and her mother how to preserve raspberry jam.

As a sixth grader, to improve her English, Sheng lived with the Scripters, rooming with Sami’s daughter, Emily, in a bunk bed Don Scripter built for the two girls. “Sami learned to cook rice the Hmong way using an hourglass-shaped pot and woven basket steamer, and Sheng learned how to make… meatloaf, baked potatoes, and peach pie,” the authors write.

A Day in the Kitchen of a Hmong Family

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

“The clan is the cornerstone of the Hmong Community,” says Dara Kasouaher. Kasouaher, who is Hmong, was born in Milwaukee, WI.  Her younger brother was also born in the US, but her parents and three elder sisters immigrated in August 1976. According to the 2006 American Community Survey, there are approximately 88,000 Hmong living in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Kasouaher’s sister, Maykao Hang, says there are 18 clans living in Minnesota.

Cooking for extended family is an important part of everyday life for the Hmong. Hang describes one family meal that required “nine racks of ribs from Sam’s Club, just to prepare one dish.” Laughing, she says: “There’s a reason I have a pot so large I can fit my four-year-old in.”

A new cookbook by Sami Scripter and Sheng Yang called Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America provides context for local Hmong cooking (look for the Heavy Table’s review of the book on Friday, May 22). When the Hmong fled “Indochina, mostly… the mountains of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam”…”they brought to their new homes a simple, earthy cuisine and cooking traditions that reflected a rural lifestyle and ancient culture.”

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

The Heavy Table wanted to get a better sense of Hmong home cooking, so we asked Kasouaher if we could spend a day cooking with her. She enthusiastically agreed, but added: “In order to experience real Hmong cooking, you need a large group of women cooking together.” She rounded up her mother, Sua Yang, and her sisters Maykao Hang and Naly Yang (her eldest sister has returned to Laos) for a day of cooking in Hang’s home in Woodbury, MN. “This is what we do on weekends anyway,” Kasouaher says. While we shopped and cooked, their husbands and young children entertained themselves in the yard, playing with rubber-band jump ropes they’d made themselves, and occasionally stopping in the kitchen to help chop cilantro or beef or to snack on a sliver of green papaya.