We got a tip that there was some far-better-than-average Thai food happening in a strip mall in Golden Valley, and decided we’d check it out.
Turns out it was a good call. Nong’s Thai Cuisine is a warm, welcoming eatery that filled up quickly once it opened for the day, and it was clear that many visitors were regulars and known to the staff. One gentleman noticed our photographer at work and came over to ask if we were reviewing Nong’s. When we said we were, he said he eats there just about every week, driving past two other Thai places on the way. Then, noticing that we hadn’t ordered the Tom Yum Soup ($11-$14.50, depending on meat choice), he went over to the buffet and grabbed a small bowl of it for us to try. (It was very good, with a rich broth and a nice undercurrent of heat.)
We asked our friendly server for recommendations, and she steered us in the right direction. The Pad Thai ($11-$14.50) was a solid rendition of the dish every Thai restaurant has, with a lightly sweet sauce and a considerable amount of meat, in our case a mixture of chicken and pork, cooked tender and juicy. The cilantro lover at the table wished for more of that herb, while noting not everyone would agree.
The Rice Noodle Soup with beef ($10) had a rich, lemongrass-forward broth and the tiniest bit of heat. Thin strips of beef were complemented by soft meatballs and a good amount of garlic oil. It was similar in taste to a traditional pho, with the broth seeming to have been slowly, gently developed. A couple of beef strips were a bit on the gristly side, but most were velvety and beautifully cooked.
But the dish everyone at the table fell in love with was the Thai Basil Stir Fry with a whole tilapia ($16). It was a showstopper in terms of appearance, with the fried whole fish peeking out from a generous coating of colorful vegetables and bits of minced chilies. It may not be as dramatic as Thai Garden’s River Monster, but it was still impressive to behold.
Even better, it was delicious. The fish had a wonderfully crunchy skin, with the insides flaky and hot, but not dry. We ordered the dish hot and would maybe try Thai hot on a future visit; the heat wasn’t overwhelming, but packed enough of a punch to make us thankful for tall glasses of ice water. The mild fish was enhanced with the addition of the chilies and jalapeño, and the vegetables were crispy and fresh-tasting.
Finishing off the meal with a Thai Iced Coffee ($3) was a sweet way to end a mostly savory meal. The beverage, served in a kitschy Mason jar, was a good blend of strong coffee and condensed milk, refreshing and quenching.
Nong’s Thai Cuisine, 2520 Hillsboro Ave N Golden Valley; 763.404.8190. Mon-Sat 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Buffet lunch served Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Pho #1 (544 St. Peter St, St. Paul) set up shop about a year ago in the old Babani’s space downtown. With so much great pho a short jaunt away on University, it took a little longer than Pho #1 rightfully deserves for us to fall into its orbit. Every pho fan has a favorite spot, maybe even a favorite spot for each of the Twin Cities, and breaking habits can be difficult. If you know a place where you’re guaranteed a good bowl of pho, why take a chance on a lousy lunch? Rest assured that no such fate will befall you should you venture over to Pho #1.
When your server sets the bowl down at the table, you’ll notice that it’s only half full. Pho #1 offers only one sized bowl, but it’s as big as a bucket, and half a bucket of pho is a plentiful amount. As you begin to eat, you’ll notice that the noodle-to-broth-to-meat-to-onion ratio is well-balanced. The broth is hot, not scaldingly so, but just enough to maintain some heat down to the last spoonful.
Pho #1’s broth is a picturesque golden-brown color, clear and light, with no fat globules floating on top. The broth has a comforting aroma that’ll make you swear it carries the same restorative properties as chicken soup, and an underlying sweetness that is drawn forward with a scant drop of hoisin. The chewy rice noodles are well-prepared. Have you ever plunged your sticks into the bottom of a bowl of pho and found a congealed mess of noodly dough? Not with this bowl.
We ordered the Special Pho ($11) with rare steak, well-done flank, and meatballs. We asked them to hold the tripe. (Got a bone to pick with our choice, gutsy reader? More for you.) The meat is never really the point of a bowl of pho, but the steak here was truly rare, the flank was tender and toothsome, and the meatballs were flavorful and free of gristly bits (we’ve encountered gristly meatballs in other bowls).
Add sprouts, basil, and a couple of jalapeño slices, and prepare to steam your face over a bowl of the good stuff. Pho #1, 544 St. Peter St, St. Paul, MN 55102; 651.291.7461
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Hot Five is a weekly feature created by the Heavy Table and supported by Shepherd Song Farm.
Sambusa from Ibrahim Restaurant We liked so much about our trip to Ibrahim Restaurant on Lake Street that it’s hard to condense it down to a single experience. The hot sauce alone is worth a column. But we can at least start with the sambusa: a perfect filling-to-crust ratio, a crunchy-yet-chewy exterior, a diverse and deeply spiced filling (spicy but not excessively so). It may be the best in town. At the very least, it’s our favorite.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted from an Instagram post by James Norton]
Pho from JACS Pho JACS makes a sweet, rich and elegantly clear broth — one of our favorites in town — then concentrates, vacuum seals, and freezes it for delivery along with individual packets of noodles, meat, and herbs. Now your freezer is stocked with some genuine Minnesota-Southeast Asian hygge. (Everything about JACS Pho is both ersatz and friendly: Orders and payments are handled by text and Facebook messenger. Then a friendly owner shows up to hand you a tidily packed paper bag at a mutually agreed upon time.) [Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Tricia Cornell]
Porchetta 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.
[Last Week on the Hot Five: #1 | Submitted from an Instagram post by James Norton]
Raspberry Roselle from Fair State Brewing Fair State has been crushing it this year, and the Raspberry Roselle is a lovely note to go out on. This (lightly) sour ale is flavored with raspberries, which imparts a mildly tart, earthy, berry-powered flavor. The sweetness on this brew is ideal, neither painfully tart nor irritatingly sugary. It’s just delicate, tasteful, and elegant.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted from a review by James Norton]
Rush Creek Reserve from Uplands Cheese
Every year, Uplands Cheese rolls out its pricey ($25+) little wheels of Rush Creek Reserve, a raw milk cheese aged for 60 days. And every year, we go out and buy a wheel or two because there’s just nothing else like it — so creamy, so rich, so delicately earthy. It’s a flavor bomb, and it’s beautiful when spread on a Rustica baguette.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted from an Instagram post by James Norton]
What if you were banished from civilization and had to choose just 10 local dishes to remember Minnesota by? Heavy Table’s Desert Island Top 10 asks local personalities about the dishes they can’t quit, the soulful stuff they crave and come back to.
THE PERSON:Yia Vang is the proprietor of Union Kitchen, a pop-up restaurant that has appeared at Cook St. Paul and Grand Cafe (among other locations) and has taught cooking classes all over Minneapolis-St. Paul. He’ll be one of five chef-instructors at the Sept. 1-3 edition of this year’s Chef Camp.
I’ve been told that the Twin Cities are like two sisters; Minneapolis is the younger, cooler, and sexy sister who all the guys want to date. When she walks into a room she captures the attention of everyone because of her grace and beauty. While on the other side of the river is St. Paul, the older sister who works hard, and she might not be a “show stopper” but you can always depend on her to get the job done. She probably didn’t go to a fancy four-year university; instead she stayed home and took care of the family business, and now she’s the head of the company.
Well, I want to talk about older-sister St. Paul, who has somehow gotten lost in the shadow of her flashy younger sister. Most of the restaurants on my list are in St. Paul. Let’s start with …
Beef Brisket Wonton Noodles at Hong Kong Noodle
It’s on University Avenue right on the border of Minneapolis and St. Paul (some say it’s Minneapolis but for argument’s sake I say St. Paul). This shop has some of the greatest late-night eats, and my favorites are the Beef Brisket Wonton Noodles — amazingly tender beef with shrimp wontons and egg noodles. Then there’s the Fried Sole with dried chilies, and finally, the House Chicken with ginger scallion sauce. On a cold Minnesota day, walk in and order these three items, and your belly will thank you.
Pho with Assorted Meats at iPho by Saigon
As you keep driving east on University, you’ll find a pho shop called iPho. There are two items that you must try: the pho with assorted meats and the Saigon Sandwich Banh Mi. The broth of the pho is nothing to mess with, It has been passed down through the generations and has won praise from celebrity chefs including Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain.
Coconut Croissants at Trung Nam Bakery
Across the street from iPho there’s an amazing Vietnamese bakery called Trung Nam. Aside from great French baguettes that can be used for banh mi sandwiches, they have the flakiest and most buttery croissants. They have many flavors, but my favorite is the coconut.
The Flintstone Sandwich at Big Daddy’s BBQ
Keep traveling east on University and you’ll hit Big Daddy’s BBQ, a shop run by three great guys who started out with a community microloan. You must try the The Big Daddy Flintstone Sandwich, a beef short rib smoked and sliced, then stacked high on a soft bun.
Mi Bo Kho at Trieu Chau
Keep moving east on University for two blocks and you’ll hit upon Trieu Chau. There’s great pho there, but you’ll want to try the Mi Bo Kho. It’s a deep, rich beef stock with carrots, which add a little sweetness; it’s spiced with a little chili and has large pieces of tender tendons and beef. The broth is where it’s all at. If you have a cold, the Mi Bo Kho will chase it away.
Crispy Pork at Ha Tien
Farther down University is an Asian grocery store called Ha Tien. They have great meats and produce, but what they also have is an incredible deli. My two favorite items are the stir-fried pork intestines with peppers and bamboo and the crispy pork.
Beef Laab at Hmongtown Marketplace
Hmongtown Marketplace is an outdoor (weather permitting) and indoor farmers market in St. Paul. If you go to the indoor food stalls, you must try the beef laab or the roasted beef ribs, and don’t forget your sticky rice.
Steak at Santi’s in Hmong Village
On Johnson Parkway, near Phalen Regional Park, is a large Hmong market called Hmong Village. Imagine you were on the streets of Thailand walking among all the different food stalls and vendors. Well, take that image and put it into a huge old indoor storage unit. There are many vendors, stores, bakeries, and food stalls in Hmong Village, but these are some of my favorites: There’s a shop there called Santi’s, and they make the best steak. It’s called the Crazy Steak, and it comes with wasabi hot sauce. Also, you can go to Mai’s Kitchen and get Stuffed Chicken Wings. Yes, I said “stuffed chicken wings.” Imagine the stuffing for an egg roll stuffed into a deboned chicken wing that is then roasted. You can cool everything down with a Taro Bubble Tea from Blueberry, which does great Thai teas and bubble teas.
Spicy Squid at Dong Yang
Now for this next place you’ll have to completely leave St. Paul and go to Columbia Heights. Right off Central Avenue, there’s a place called Dong Yang. This is a Korean grocery store with a deli in the back. My favorite item to order is the Spicy Squid, and along with the meal you’ll get banchan, which is a whole bunch of little side dishes that come with all the Korean meals.
We’re big fans of Dumpling, a bricks-and-mortar Asian-inspired spot in South Minneapolis that has the eclectic soul of the pop-up it once was. So it’s good to hear that they’re expanding their menu and moving into brunch. Service starts the Saturday, April 15, and hours will be 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
We got a partial list of their brunch menu, and it’s far from formulaic. It includes:
1) Pho — feels more in line with the “lunch” part of brunch than the “breakfast” bit, but we could be wrong about that.
2) Pupusas — cheesy, comforting, earthy, this could definitely soak up some significant hangovers.
3) Breakfast Bao — we aren’t sure of the contents, but the concept seems sound.
4) Banh Xeo Omelette — this Vietnamese rice-batter-based fried pancake sounds potentially quite meaty and amazing.
This week in the Tap: A broad survey of all the intriguing Asian-inspired offerings popping up in the greater metro area.
A Tsunami of Upscale Asian
Jun. Dumpling. Mrs. Dumpling. Kaiseki Furukawa. Young Joni. Tori Ramen (above). Second locations for Lu’s and Ha Tien. Rah’Mn. The list of recently opened or soon-to-open restaurants with an Asian focus is long and growing.
If the sun is setting on Continental-inspired, white-tablecloth fine dining, it’s simultaneously rising on the idea that — beyond sushi — Asian and Asian-inspired food be universally enjoyed and command a serious bill at the end of the meal.
What’s driving the trend?
Ramen is getting its due. The idea that ramen — long regarded as a 79-cent cup of noodles for hungover undergrads — is a complex, potentially transcendental food with a rich heritage and a painstaking preparation has been gaining currency. People are starting to have opinions about broth. And the explosive success of places like Ramen Kazama, above, and Zen Box has kicked open the door to ramen not just as a stand-alone business concept, but as a dish that can be tacked onto any menu with a little bit of freedom to it.
Upscale restaurants are getting more playful. Late-night ramen at Spoon and Stable (above) is one of the restaurant’s quirkiest and most charming features. And the upcoming World Expo series of specials at Meritage includes ramen (for Japan) and Peking duck (for China).
Asian fare has a perception of healthfuless. While snarfling down a bowl of pork dumplings is probably only marginally healthier than ordering a pepperoni pizza, it’s true that much of the newly popular Asian fare has light / fresh / green elements that are encouraging amid the sea of sugar and carbs that Americans swim through daily.
Collectively, we’re ready to explore. The acceleration of dining out as a pastime has created a population that’s increasingly ready to look around the corner and try what’s next. That may mean the death of chow mein and the probably healthy diminishing of mediocre sushi as diners get into house-made dumplings and carefully crafted broth.
You can’t beat a good banh mi. The best banh mi — certainly dollar for dollar, and often in absolute terms — will likely always be made and sold at places like Ha Tien on University and Quang on Nicollet. But that won’t stop midrange and upscale restaurants from playing with the form, which is wonderfully rewarding if done well: the crackle of a light, crispy baguette, the creaminess of pate, the brightness of pickled vegetables and fresh herbs. It’s certainly one of Minnesota’s signature sandwiches at this point, and the faster we all recognize that and work on celebrating the best versions of the dish, the better off we’ll all be. — James Norton
The Tap is the metro area’s comprehensive restaurant buzz roundup, so if you see a new or newly shuttered restaurant, or anything that’s “coming soon,” email Tap editor James Norton at email@example.com.
Jun, 730 N Washington Ave, Minneapolis | Szechuan gone upscale in the North Loop.
Bearcat Bar, 1612 Harmon Pl, Minneapolis | The former Third Bird is reinvented to be more accessible and affordable.
Station Pizzeria, 13008 Minnetonka Blvd, Minnetonka | A former Bar La Grassa chef does upscale pizza.
Can Can Wonderland, 755 Prior Ave N, St. Paul | Artist-designed mini-golf with beer, noshes, and Bittercube cocktails.
Pajarito, 605 W 7th St, St. Paul | Via Dara: Opened by Tim McKee acolytes “Tyge Nelson and Stephan Hesse, most recently of Chino Latino and Libertine, respectively.” Receiving early accolades.
Revival, 525 Selby Ave, St. Paul (former Cheeky Monkey space) | A second location for the popular fried chicken spinoff of Corner Table. The original location will also be expanding and offering takeout.
Khun Nai Thai, 2523 Nicollet Ave, Minneapolis | A new spot in the old Krungthep Thai space, opened by former Krungthep employees.
Esker Grove, Walker Art Center | A Doug Flicker / Culinaire project is the latest crack at a dining solution for the finicky Walker space.
Red Rabbit, 201 Washington Ave N, Minneapolis | Red Cow owner Luke Shimp’s new spot offers “a variety of dishes including handcrafted pizzas, oysters, pasta, fresh salads and more.”
Smith & Porter,428 S 2nd St, Minneapolis | Two blocks from the Guthrie, featuring “evening dining with contemporary entrées and small plates, vegetarian options, and a full bar with a tailored selection of wines and locally crafted spirits and beers.” Helmed by Kirt Akerstrom, formerly executive chef at Red Cow. Breakfast and lunch will be available at the next-door Porter Cafe, due to open in early February.
Over the course of these checklists our goal has been to dig a little deeper and appreciate the places we visit for what they are at their core rather than what they appear to be. It’s been about shedding light on restaurants that generally don’t get much love from the critical press either because they don’t meet the foodie standard that we critics fawn over or because they haven’t yet made a list of acceptably hip dives.
So far, many of the restaurants we’ve visited in Frogtown have been too humble and too focused on serving the neighborhood to look outside for validation. Don’t get us wrong; they hang clippings of reviews and tout readers’ choice awards when they get them (which in many cases was 15 to 25 years ago). But for these family run businesses, validation comes mostly in the form of patrons who return, out of love, just often enough to keep the lights on.
All of this is to say that the heart and soul of these places almost always overcomes any notion we might have had about them based on appearances. The key word being “almost.” Occasionally, things are, sadly, exactly as they seem. The best we can do is leave as quickly as humanly possible, get to the next place on the list, and hope they have a good stiff margarita on the menu. (They did.) — M.C. Cronin
The Green Line Checklist is The Heavy Table’s follow-up to our 55-restaurant survey of independent eateries on Central Avenue. We’ll publish five-restaurant installments biweekly until we’ve documented every nonchain spot between the University Avenue and Rice Street intersection in St. Paul and the Green Line terminus on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis. (We’re estimating 75 spots, but we’ll see how it shakes out.)
This series is made possible by underwriting from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative. Heavy Table retains editorial control of the series — as with Central Avenue, this tour will be warts-and-all.
First, let’s address the elephant in the name. Yes, you could say iPho … um … borrows heavily from a certain smartphone manufacturer with a fruit-bearing name. But while a restaurant named iPho might seem a bit hokey (and somewhat foolhardy considering Apple is rumored to have one or two lawyers on staff), you have to hand it to the place for doing something to stand out from the abundance of other Vietnamese restaurants in the area. And so it does. We challenge you to pass by the sign and not, at the very least, smirk.
OK, now about the restaurant.
The walk-up banh mi counter caught our eye as we entered, so we asked our server about it as we were seated. He said the banh mi were popular here, and warned us that they had only enough bread to make about a dozen more. If we wanted one, we should put in an order right away. That seemed a bit overcautious to us. The odds of a dozen banh mi disappearing over the next few minutes, while we settled on the rest of our order felt decidedly slim. But we took our server’s advice and reserved one anyway. That turned out to be a wise move. By the time our order was in, the rest were gone.
The dining room is long, with steel gray walls and corrugated wainscoting. There’s plenty of seating. It would take a small-to-medium sized convention to fill the place. And even if you ended up here the same night the 2016 Shower Curtain Technology Summit was in town, you wouldn’t have a long wait. The table service is ludicrously fast. From the time we placed our order to the time our bowls hit the table, our butts had only just begun to warm our seats. It was easily under three minutes.
If you’re up for it, try the Pho Challenge. It’s a bowl of soup roughly the size of Des Moines that you’re supposed to finish within 45 minutes. If that sounds crazy, consider that your reward is a T-shirt that reads “I am the pho-king!” So it’s totally worth it! (Then again, we’ve already admitted to being reduced to giggling adolescents when it comes to pho puns.) — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The key joy of iPho, beyond its name and interior design, is that the speed of its food’s preparation is matched by the quality of its flavor. Within minutes of ordering, we were enjoying warm, fresh spring rolls ($4) that tasted legitimately fresh — no gummy, chewy wrappers hardened by hours of exposure to the air. Our only beef was with the internal distribution of mint leaves: three halves of our two spring rolls lacked mint flavor, and the last was a mint bomb.
Our Banh Mi Sai Gon ($5) contained all the pork. Not literally all the pork, as we could probably brainstorm a variety or two not included in the sandwich, but surely most of the pork: red roast pork, pork loaf, grilled pork, meatballs, and pate (plus mayo). The bread (baked fresh daily to the restaurant’s specifications) was crackly and delicate and tender, and the overall balance of filling versus roll was on point.
A grilled chicken and shrimp plate ($8) was clean and simple, and — here we also shout out Cheng Heng for their efforts — featured that unicorn of foodstuffs, properly cooked shrimp. Our Pho Tom (shrimp soup) was enhanced by a clean, light broth that was flavorful but nimble and simple, a shift from some of the sweeter, more anise-driven broths favored by many restaurants.
Smooth, satisfying, delightful, adequately caffeinated — that describes iPho’s cappuccino bubble tea ($5). We’ll be back for this again come summer … which, at this rate, will be here very shortly. — James Norton
Hickory Hut 647 University Ave W, St. Paul
Dale Street Station
The building resembles the name. It’s made to look something like a ramshackle outbuilding topped with a red shingle roof and awning. In other words, it gives a solid first impression for a wings-and-ribs barbecue joint.
A sign outside announces that Hickory Hut features “Art Song’s Original Recipes.” Art Song is apparently famous enough to have earned his very own logo that incorporates a prominent illustration of his own goateed, smiling visage. (Apparently there is an … ahem … colorful history to Art Song’s logo.)
Inside the building, the stark, napkin-white counter and tile walls are set off by accents of reds and oranges and yellows and browns: all the colors of the barbecue rainbow. Without question though, orange is the predominant color. The color scheme is so well coordinated, you almost get the feeling that the Hickory Hut is the last remaining outpost of a once-prominent chain of fast-food restaurants started in the 70’s.
There may have been as many as two simultaneous Hickory Huts at some point in the past, but it’s no chain. It’s a straight-up, family-owned business. We know this because the night of our visit, the owner’s son was running the show from behind the register. He told us the place was started by his grandfather, who passed it on to his mom and dad. Then he smiled and said he and almost all his siblings have worked here on and off as “cheap labor” at some point or other in their lives.
We talked to a couple who were waiting in one of the booths for their take-out order. They’ve been together for more than 25 years and have been coming here regularly for virtually all of them. That kind of dedication is rare these days in both marriage and eating.
We ordered entirely too much for five people, and on top of that they threw in more than a few extra items for us to try. So when our order hit the counter it looked ridiculous — a mountain of white foam containers, each labeled with black Sharpie. The couple laughed and watched with some amazement as we made a futile attempt to make a dent in our pile of food. If you want leftover barbecue, we probably still have some in the fridge. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Exactly what is that flavor on the chicken wings? It took a while to pinpoint it, but we landed on cinnamon (definitely) and something herby like marjoram (probably?). In fact, Hickory Hut uses the wing recipe made popular by Minneapolis restaurateur Art Song in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. He attempted to take his wing empire national, but the Hickory Hut is one of the last holdouts using the 17-ingredient seasoning recipe. It’s delicious, and the wings themselves seem to come from chickens the size of baby pterodactyls. (If you’re really, really intrigued: a young writer named R.T. Rybak wrote these wings up for Mpls-St. Paul magazine in 1981.)
The other attraction here, of course, is the barbecue. We liked the smoky, tender pork tips and beef ribs, but some of us really wished we had ordered the smooth, red barbecue sauce on the side — it was just too much, drowning the meat itself. For sides, go for the porky, rich collard greens, and skip the sickly sweet, soupy baked beans. We were split on the hush puppies. “Not enough corn flavor!” said some of us. “That is exactly what a hush puppy is supposed to taste like!” said the others. In any case, they were crisp on the outside and soft on the inside and were served hot.
The classic Southern desserts (we tried the pecan pie, sweet potato pie, and peach cobbler) were exactly what they should be at Hickory Hut: humble, indulgent and competent, but, really, perhaps more than you need. — Tricia Cornell
Trieu Chau 500 University Ave W, St. Paul
Western Avenue or Dale Street Station
A Vietnamese restaurant in an old Dunkin’ Donuts? Yep. That’s University Avenue for you. And while you won’t find one of those famous Dunkin’ Donuts coffees here, you can still get a serious buzz off Trieu Chau’s Vietnamese iced coffee. As our still jittery hands can attest.
Signs dangling from the ceiling told us the place was “Established since 1990” and that soon after, in 1992, it was voted “The Best Soup House” by Twin Cities Reader. It’s endearing that they’re still celebrating the win almost 25 years later. Especially at a time when pho has become so ubiquitous that we can now safely call it by name.
We’ve already used the humble diner as a reference point in this series (see Ai Hue), but the same reference applies here. The tables and booths are diner-approved laminate and are packed tightly together, giving the place a busy vibe even when only a few are occupied. The chairs are the standard stackable black metal and vinyl. The water even comes served in old-school red plastic tumblers. Switch out the Heinz ketchup with a bottle of Sriracha, and you have a good picture of Trieu Chau.
Our server was friendly and efficient. And watching her alongside the other two servers dashing about the place taking orders, wiping down tables, and delivering checks, it was hard not to see them as the hardworking, salt-of-the-earth Alice, Vera, and Flo of a new generation. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The happy overlap of Trieu Chao with the idea of “true chow” is backed up by the food we tasted at this no-frills University Avenue institution. Our Beef and Potatoes ($9) recalled one of our favorite dishes from the Central Avenue Checklist, the similarly named entree from Kim’s Vietnamese. The potatoes ranged from soft and yielding to pleasantly crisp, the seasoning was right, and the harmony of onions plus beef plus potatoes was present (and eternal). We thought the potatoes at Kim’s had a better crispy texture, but Trieu Chao wins on the meat front, with tender, richly flavored bits of beef.
Our Bun Bo Hue ($8, above left) didn’t hit the stellar heights of the version at Tay Ho, but that’s not really a fair comparison. Tay Ho is a home run. Trieu Chao’s version is a double or triple. Delicate meat and a distinct but not overwhelming spicy burn made this a potentially vital ally in the fight against the chill of winter.
The Pho Tai Bo Vien ($8, above right) fell squarely into the “big anise, big sweetness” camp of broths, and we collectively thought it was terrific — balanced and comforting, one of the better phos (of many!) we’ve had on University this year. — J.N.
China One 700 University Ave W, St. Paul
Dale Street Station
Bleak. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Let it never be said that we don’t give every single joint a fair shake. Despite all our Spidey senses’ tingling with alarm, we walked in and ordered four Chinese-American classics: cream cheese wontons, mu shu pork, General Tso’s chicken, and Szechuan wings. Our first bite screamed “rancid cooking oil,” our second shouted “dirty flat top,” and — because we love you, dear readers, and we believe in thorough culinary journalism — there was a third and a fourth bite. But no more. — T.C.
Los Ocampo provided us with more than a refuge to psychologically recover from our previous stop: It delivered a pleasant experience in its own right.
The space is all new and airy, with portrait windows that curve around and offer a decent view of the action on the street and the patio outside. Vivid orange and pink and yellow papel picado flags are strung across the ceiling. The floor is a bright white sea of tiny octagonal tiles. Pepper-red chairs and tabletops are sprinkled throughout. It’s all very fresh and clean and cheerful.
It also feels franchise-esque. Los Ocampo is indeed a growing local empire with four taquerias and two restaurants to its name. But honestly, at this point in our journey, twenty restaurants in, enjoying some decent non-Asian ethnic food in a tidy, non-divey atmosphere was a welcome change.
Any other night, the fact that it took excessively long for our bill to arrive might’ve been a much bigger annoyance. But tonight, nobody really cared. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Even without grading on a “what precisely was that experience we just lived through?” curve, we would’ve dug the food at Los Ocampo. The Huarachazo al Pastor ($8), for example, presented itself as a crispy, openfaced taco sandwich dotted with tender, mild bits of pork and an array of complementary toppings. Everything tasted fresh, and its texture was delightful.
Our chicken Enchiladas Verde ($13, above) were mild, tender, and practically begging for the presence of hot sauce, which was provided for us on request (in three varieties, no less). Dosed with a bit of the orangey medium hot, the dish provided a lovely cheese-meets-meat-meets-heat ballet of flavor.
The Alambres Hawaiiana (think 10 or so mini tortillas covered with a barrage of onions, charred peppers, pineapple, and supple bits of ham, $13) struck us as perfect hangover food and was faulted only for being “too easy,” as though combining two classic, delicious flavors in one dish was, somehow, against the culinary rules.
The only dish that split the table was the Elotes ($3.50), which a had lovely lime and spice flavor but a soft texture that bothered those of us expecting the usual snap of sweet corn. — J.N.
Strange things happen at the intersection of circumstance and enterprise. Like an Asian market and deli housed in an old movie theater or a Vietnamese bakery tucked off the street behind a Thai restaurant. When cities plan, they don’t plan for this. You just can’t. These things happen naturally over time. Sometimes the best thing you can do is stay out of the way.
University Avenue feels like a street that’s been left mostly to its own devices, allowed to evolve and grow organically along with the neighborhood and people around it. Now, with the presence of the Green Line, the question is this: Will the impulse of development edge toward maintaining that wily authenticity or will things become just a bit more homogenized and “authentic-like?”
In this installment, we got our first taste of establishments that are clearly attempting to attract a broader audience. The results were a mixed bag. And that mixed bag was inexplicably topped with shredded cheese. But more on that later. — M.C. Cronin
This week’s checklist crew: WACSO, M.C. Cronin, Becca Dilley, Tom Elko, Sarah McGee, and James Norton.
The Green Line Checklist is The Heavy Table’s follow-up to our 55-restaurant survey of independent eateries on Central Avenue. We’ll publish five-restaurant installments biweekly until we’ve documented every nonchain spot between the University Avenue and Rice Street intersection in St. Paul and the Green Line terminus on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis. (We’re estimating about 75 spots, but we’ll see how it shakes out.)
This series is made possible by underwriting from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative. Heavy Table retains editorial control of the series — as with Central Avenue, this tour will be warts-and-all.
Judging by the bright neon marquee, you might think you’d find a $2 matinee at Ha Tien rather than pork bung for $6.99 a pound.
But while from the outside, Ha Tien has the look of the former single-screen cinema it occupies, inside it’s exactly what you’d expect in a full-service Asian market.
The shelves are stacked with a cheerful collection of cans, boxes, pouches, and sacks of Asian grocery items. Refrigerator cases are well stocked with Asian sausages, dairy specialties, and plastic-wrapped foam trays containing delicacies most safely put in the category of “other.”
In the back of the store we found a case full of fresh fish packed in ice along with a cardboard box with writhing, live blue crabs. Someone left a long pair of tongs leaning against this snapping, clattering mass, as if to present a kind of crazy dare.
The deli is appropriately placed near the heart of the store. We selected a few items from the menu and stepped outside to eat.
Standing where the old movie box-office window might have been, chatting and sharing food from takeout containers, it was difficult not to imagine this place at another time: kids loitering after the show, shaking bits of candy and popcorn into their mouths from brightly colored boxes purchased at the concession stand. They might never have imagined what this place would become — that their Jujubes would be replaced by sticky rice — or that things would work out quite so well for everyone involved. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
We arrived at Ha Tien at 6 p.m. sharp, an hour before the shop’s posted closing time, only to discover that the deli portion of the market had essentially given up for the day. We weren’t able to order a barbecued pork banh mi (the pork available was, we were told, too difficult to separate from the bone), and the egg rolls were hovering around room temperature. We ate the egg rolls anyway — the tiny seafood egg rolls (4 for $1) offered little in the way of seafood flavor, but, on the bright side, lacked the unpleasantly fishy taste that we’d feared. The much larger pork egg roll ($1.50) had a pleasingly crisp exterior and a uniform, mildly salty filling.
There comes a point when you have to take a good hard look at yourself and ask, “Why the hell are we doing this?”
That point came immediately prior to entering our first destination on the Green Line Checklist. It was at this moment that the enormity of the task we were embarking on really sunk in. Good lord, we had about 75 restaurants and eight more months of this to go.
Sure, the Central Avenue Checklist was an experience like none other. At once hilarious, grueling, inspiring, messy, exciting, and unforgettable. But if the idea of dedicating more than six months of your life to eating at every restaurant along a single stretch of road borders on crazy-town, doing it a second time… well, that idea is centrally located in the heart of straight-jacket country.
In the end though, the draw of experiencing new places and meeting new people and revealing these stories proved too strong.
Of all the streets we could’ve chosen after Central, University Avenue was the most obvious. Which in some ways made it a less appealing choice. But the recent addition of the Green Line put an interesting twist on things (and coincidentally opened up an opportunity for help funding this madness – see below).
The idea of capturing this moment in time on University Avenue just feels right. The Green Line is operational—connecting downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis. The initial shock waves of construction have finally settled down, leaving behind unstoppable ripples of change. The true long term impact of light rail trains speeding through the middle of the street won’t be known for many years. But for now, we have a chance to document a University Avenue on the precipice of a new era.
And so, with that noble thought steeling our resolve, we swung open the door of our first stop on the Green Line Checklist. And almost immediately we were reminded why we do this. – M.C. Cronin
The Green Line Checklist is The Heavy Table’s follow-up to our 55-restaurant survey of independent eateries on Central Avenue. We’ll publish five-restaurant installments bi-weekly until we’ve documented every non-chain spot between University Avenue and Rice and the Green Line terminus in Minneapolis at Washington Avenue. (We’re estimating about 75 spots, but we’ll see how it shakes out.)
This series is made possible by underwriting from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative. Heavy Table retains editorial control of the series – as with Central Avenue, this tour will be warts-and-all.
On the surface there is nothing special about the place. But, as we’ve learned so many times before on these expeditions, the surface mostly lies.
Beneath the average small Asian market exterior beats the soulful heart of its immigrant owners. A married couple. Husband from China, wife from Thailand. We get the story from their children, who act and speak like typical American millennials in their late teens and twenties. It would be easy to imagine them being somehow disenchanted by working in their parents’ store, a place they’ve surely spent more than a fair share of their lives. But if they are, there is no trace of it. They’re excited to tell us about the place.
At the deli case we’re shown a variety of authentic favorites. Everything from pork sausage to stuffed chicken wings to beef intestine soup. The kids point out that their mother makes all the food herself without a written recipe for anything. This is a nagging source of consternation because to date attempts to recreate her dishes have yet to succeed in earning her approval. Who will make the food when she can’t anymore? Based on what we tried we sure hope someone can pick up the reins.
As for the rest of the store, it’s what you might imagine. Well kept and tidy. The shelves are stocked with colorfully designed packaged foods that seem almost alien to us, but to many are as recognizable and comforting as a can of Campbell’s soup or box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
We were invited to grab a stool by the register to enjoy our meal. As we stood there opening our containers atop a display case containing various sundries such as soaps and balms and powders, we were reminded again of why we love doing these checklists. There’s nothing quite like listening to people tell us their stories while we grab and stab at food across the table (or upon any available ledge). – M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The hot food deli at 88 Oriental Foods is about as unassuming as anything we’ve seen on our travels but that makes the experience of eating its food all the more pleasurable. The deli’s papaya salad ($4) was prepared by the owner in a large wooden bowl while we watched (recalling our outing to the Hmong Village Market), and its humble appearance concealed tidal waves of flavor: heat, funk, acid, coolness, alternating and overlapping.
The deli’s pork intestine ($7) had a rich, fatty intensity to it and a texture perhaps best described as “stubborn.” The trick, it seems, is giving the stuff a few hearty chews and then sending it down the hatch – while springy, it wasn’t gristly or tough.
A few months ago, right around the same time that Michael and Nu Zosel bought the joint, a faux-neon sign with a bowl of pho went up in the window of Kings Wine Bar. We admit to having been skeptical.
Finally this week, at the insistence of a reliable tipster, we stopped in, and boy, was our skepticism misplaced! We were rewarded with a bowl of pho ($12 with meatballs or brisket, $14 for “meatlovers”) that was light and sweet, deeply infused with star anise, and more homemade in character than the pho at many of the well-known shops up Nicollet Avenue. The nearly fat-free broth was poured over a tangle of rice noodles and arrived already garnished with basil, bean sprouts, and peppers. The brisket was sliced impossibly thin and served still cooking in the steaming broth. It left us infused with hope for the future of Kings.
Weekly trivia, daily happy hours, and a few reliable menu items helped to build Kings’ reputation as a decent neighborhood joint, though one that was notoriously inconsistent when it came to food and service. The restaurant had a strong opening in 2009 but has since struggled to find an identity.
Now Nu Zosel says that she has a vision. Along with the hearty pho, Kings has added a handful of Vietnamese recipes to the menu. A testing specialist in R & D at a medical device company, Zosel applies the scientific method to the kitchen, scaling up her mother’s recipes for a commercial operation, using local ingredients wherever possible and no MSG. We’ll be keeping an eye on Kings as she develops her vision.
With craft beer on tap, a crowd-pleasing wine list, and a dark-wood interior, one could almost see Kings as Minneapolis’ answer to Ngon Bistro. For now, with mac and cheese on one side of the table and pho on the other, the menu feels like it has a split personality. Then again, on a cold, blustery day, Dad can have authentic pho and Junior can have authentic mac and cheese. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Each Friday afternoon, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pho from Lotus
When it’s -9˚F, what you need is a bowl of Minnesota’s unofficial state soup. And it helps if it’s served by the sweetest, warmest family in the Twin Cities. They’ve been around for 25 years, and the brothers who were raised in the restaurant are now running it and raising their kids there, while Grandma makes the spring rolls and hand rolls the tapioca for bubble tea (in the summer) in the back.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Contributed by Tricia Cornell]
Duck taco from The Harriet Brasserie
Served with salsa diablo and pickled vegetables, this simple taco packs a kick — piquant flavor, delicate texture, and real depth. We tried ours at last night’s North Coast Nosh (above), and we got hooked. [Debuting on the Hot Five | Contributed by James Norton]
Medium-rare hamburger and a Chocolate Shake at Ike’s Food and Cocktail When we found ourselves at the airport this week, the steakhouse comfort of Ike’s called to us most strongly, even amid the bevy of new places to eat near the tarmac. The burger was simple as they come, but correctly cooked, tender, and rich, with a high-quality bakery bun. And an accompanying chocolate milkshake made with Sebastian Joe’s ice cream was arguably too good. “I’ll just have a few sips …” turned into, “Oh, Lord, please let me stop!” in a matter of seconds.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Contributed by James Norton]
18-Hour Porketta sandwich at Northbound Smokehouse Brewpub
This is Iron Range soul food at its best: slow roasted pork with sauteed onion, topped with melted Swiss, and sandwiched in an egg bun. The pork is piled high and fall-off-the-bone tender, and the cheese and sweet onions know their place as supporting characters. Northbound adds no extraneous ingredients to detract from their excellent porketta.
[Last Week on the Hot Five: #2 | Contributed by Ted Held]
Fennel Sausage Link from Black Sheep Pizza on Nicollet Ave
Black Sheep Pizza’s new location boasts a gorgeous grill operated by a bold metal wheel that brings food closer to or further away from the heat that pours up from below. We tried and loved the fennel sausage link starter — disarmingly light in texture and bright in flavor, but fire-charred and satisfying, complemented by pickled veggies and a scrap of bread. [Last Week on the Hot Five: #4 | Contributed by James Norton]