Culinary excellence does not necessarily come with a marketing plan, or a vibrant online presence, or a beautifully crafted dining room. Sometimes you find great food in unexpected places — in a strip mall, or next to a pawn shop, or stuffed into the cozy, hut-like confines of the former Franklin Freeze ice cream shop.
That last example is the story of Pita King, an unpretentious little Middle Eastern restaurant that one of our readers told us to visit for its kofta and (most particularly) its maybe-best-in-the-city baklava.
Based on our fairly extensive ongoing survey of local baklava, the reader is correct: Pita King’s baklava might be the best around. The baklava at Filfillah and Gyropolis is neck-and-neck, and some of that comes down to personal preferences. Where some first-rate baklava is fairly light and elegant, Pita King’s is dense, richly nutty in a pistachios-and-walnuts kind of way, warmly spiced, and utterly indulgent. For $4 a box, it’s a steal, as it’s surely some of the tastiest pastry in the state.
So maybe the baklava is the headline, but the truth is that everything we tried at Pita King ranged from good to great. We’ve had a lot of miserable falafel around here — sandy, gritty, overcooked, stuffed into stale pitas with nothing beyond a fatty sauce and old lettuce to keep it company — and Pita King’s Falafel Sandwich ($6) has none of those problems. The balance between pita, falafel, lettuce, and tomatoes is just right. The falafel is light and crunchy, and while thoroughly fried, it’s not greasy or charred.
We had some stellar Grilled Kofta the last time we were at Young Joni, and it’s no small thing to say that the stuff at Pita King ($6) gives it a run for its money. The meat was tender, mellow, deeply spiced, properly seasoned, and lamb-y without being too earthy or funky.
We dug the grape leaves (Dolmades, $4), which — in contrast to many that we’ve had on Central Avenue and elsewhere — were remarkably fresh and pliable, with an incredibly bright, lemony acid kick that made them the perfect complement to the heavier dishes on the menu.
Also quite good was the Chicken Schwarma Sandwich ($6), which featured thin slices of mild pickles and small, tender French fries along with cinnamon-warmed bits of tender chicken in a pita. Like everything else at Pita King, the right balance of pita to vegetables to protein meant that this sandwich tasted light and delicious, not greasy or overbearing.
Pita King’s interior is small — just a counter, a cramped kitchen, and a few little tables crammed together. But its spirit is large, and the food is delicious, and that’s ultimately what matters.
Middle Eastern in Seward, Minneapolis
2328 E Franklin Ave Minneapolis, MN 55406
Mon-Sat 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sun closed BAR: Beer and wine RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $6-$9 NOISE LEVEL: Fairly quiet, Middle Eastern music PARKING: Small lot, some street parking
Just a couple of miles west of Chanhassen is the quiet village of Victoria, A place you could easily breeze through on your way to Waconia’s J. Carver Distillery and not think twice about. But you know what? There are some interesting food things going on in Victoria that make it worth the stop. Last year we visited Floyd’s Bar with happy results. Now there’s a new kid on Floyd’s block: The Noble Lion.
The Noble Lion is the brainchild of Marc Huebner, former Food Network America’s Best Cook competitor. He lives in the western suburbs and felt that they have grown enough to deserve an eatery with more sophistication. The space he launched in Victoria is small and cozy with quiet lighting and restrained decor. The kitchen itself is quite small, with no walk-in chiller, so the changing menu is designed with overlapping ingredients and freshness in mind.
Huebner brought in Patrick Donelan, a former Blue Point chef, to run the kitchen, and the two have come up with a menu that is upscale while paying homage to the area’s meat-and-potato, Scandinavian and German heritage.
That means the small but thoughtful menu (which changes every couple of months) includes Brie Curds ($9), a take on the State Fair classic. The curds are lightly battered and need to be eaten quickly — Brie isn’t as sturdy as the classic cheddar curd — but melted Brie dipped in a slightly sweet fruit compote seems both old-fashioned and fun and decadent at the same time. The Scallops & Bacon ($16 for 3 scallops, $24 for 6) is a lovely plate of beautifully seared, melting scallops served with a dish of homemade creamed corn, the kernels sweet with a little crispness.
A tip of the hat to local heritage is apparent in an entree of Jager Schnitzel ($25). A thin slice of pork loin was lightly breaded and fried and served over fresh, tender spaetzle in a resonant wild mushroom sauce. The portion wasn’t ridiculously huge, and the dish seemed surprisingly delicate for such a sturdy set of components. The pork was tender and juicy — a nice accomplishment, given how thin the slice was and how easy it would have been to cook it to dust. The spaetzle were light and the mushroom sauce flavorful but not overwhelming.
There were several seafood items on the menu, including Lake Superior Whitefish Cakes ($14), but when we asked our server what she’d recommend, she didn’t hesitate to point to the Seared Halibut ($29, above). To be fair, it didn’t sound like much on paper, especially compared to Sea Bass En Pappilotte ($30) or Seafood Risotto ($29). But the server seemed quite certain, so we went with her recommendation.
It was a textbook case of a simple dish beautifully prepared and shining in its own quiet, excellent way. The fish was perfectly cooked with a meaty char. The accompanying lemon buerre blanc was judiciously applied, adding just a light, creamy touch of citrus. The seasonal risotto was earthy with a nice accent of sauteed scallions.
Pepitos and the Parkway Theater have been acquired by two local investors, who have announced that El Burrito Mercado will be taking over the Pepitos restaurant space. The new restaurant, to be called El Burrito Minneapolis, is targeting a June 2018 opening date. Press release follows:
Pepitos and Parkway Theater Acquired, New Restaurant Tenant Announced
MINNEAPOLIS, MN, February 14, 2018 Pepitos restaurant and the Parkway Theater, two popular institutions located in the Northrop neighborhood of South Minneapolis, have been officially acquired and are scheduled to re-open in June 2018. Pepitos Mexican Restaurant, located on the 48th Street block of Chicago Avenue South, enjoyed a long and revered 46 year-run as a fixture in the neighborhood under the ownership of Joe Minjares, who also owned and operated the adjacent Parkway Theater. Due to a serious illness, Minjares had to close Pepitos Restaurant at the end of 2017, though its nearby deli on Nicollet and 46th Street remains.
Enter local investor/entrepreneurs Ward Johnson and Eddie Landenberger, who live in the neighborhood and saw the potential to renovate both the restaurant and theater, in an effort to bring new life into these two establishments. Both Johnson and Landenberger are longtime fans of Pepitos, and Johnson, in particular, has a special connection to Pepitos. “My wife and I had our first date at Pepitos. And fittingly in 2001 it’s where I proposed,” said Johnson.
After an extensive remodel, Johnson and Landenberger will continue to run the theater as a classic/indie movie and live performance venue. “Our goal is to restore the Parkway Theater to its former glory and bring new energy to the space through renovation, curated movie and speaker series, contemporary chamber music and more,” says Landenberger, a veteran of neighborhood redevelopment projects in South Minneapolis.
As for the restaurant, the pair found another family-owned, neighborhood institution to take over operations. El Burrito Mercado, a fixture in St. Paul’s West Side for 36 years, will open El Burrito Minneapolis in the space formerly occupied by Pepito’s. El Burrito Mercado is led and operated by Milissa Silva-Diaz together with her sister and niece, which makes it a 100% women-owned Latina business. Fittingly, according to Silva-Diaz, the bar portion of the restaurant will carry a theme featuring prominent Latina entertainers, artists, and influential women. Like it’s St. Paul counterpart, El Burrito Minneapolis will feature an award-winning menu of authentic Mexican cuisine, a take-out deli, as well as their popular tamale-making classes.
Minjares, for his part, is happy to be handing off the torch to people with deep connections to the neighborhood, and to his restaurant. “It’s bittersweet to say goodbye,” says Minjares. “But I feel like I’m leaving things in good hands, and there’s a bit of serendipity to be handing over the reins of the restaurant to another family-owned Mexican restaurant with a long history in the Twin Cities.”
Plans for the renovation of the Parkway Theater and the opening of El Burrito Minneapolis are pending approval of all necessary plans, permits, and liquor licenses.
The inventive minds behind Hola Arepa are at it again, this time focusing on Southeast Asian street food at Hai Hai in Northeast Minneapolis.
The first thing you need to know about Hai Hai is that if you suffer from SAD, this might be a good place for you to visit. The interior is designed to give a warm, lush feeling, with walls painted a bright jungle green and numerous green plants on windowsills and hanging from the ceiling, along with natural wood bird cages (sans birds) and soft white lighting that feels cozy and inviting. There’s no room for winter gloom here. (But we should also note that Hai Hai has an outdoor area that looks like it will be a major draw this summer.)
The food is the opposite of gloomy, as well. A playful yet thoughtful menu takes some traditional Asian dishes (and some not-so-traditional) and reimagines them, with excellent results. The old, tired cream cheese wontons ($8) gets new life with the infusion of chicken liver pate, making them richer and earthier than their strip-mall counterpart. Fried Brussels Sprouts ($8.50, above), a side dish that has become ubiquitous in recent years, is revitalized by frying the sprouts with tender chunks of pork belly, tossing them with little pillows of puffed rice and sizable pieces of fresh herbs, and serving them with a tangy nam jim vinaigrette and a mild but tasty roasted green chili paste.
The Water Fern Cakes ($8) were among the most interesting and successful things we’ve tasted in recent memory. Resembling open-faced steamed dumplings, they combine mung beans, ground pork, nuoc cham, and other ingredients to provide a tremendous amount of textural variance (everything from dense and chewy to light and crunchy) and bright, bold snaps of flavor.
All the entrees we tried were excellent, and during a period when many restaurants serve up portions designed to feed small armies, the smaller portions at Hai Hai were a welcome change. The Balinese Chicken Thigh ($14) was perfectly cooked, with a good sear on the outside but with incredible tenderness and juiciness inside. It was served over creamy coconut rice with crispy fried shallots and a velvety sauteed kale side dish. There’s nothing overwhelmingly spicy here, just good ingredients coaxed into shining on their own without being smothered.
The Turmeric & Dill Fish ($16) was similarly understated, with the light touch of turmeric serving more to deepen the dill flavor than to stand on its own. The fish, like the chicken, was a case study in how to properly cook the protein, with the mild cod bolstered by zippy greens and herbs and soft rice noodles. The dish was served with a traditional nuoc cham as well as a pineapple shrimp sauce, the latter a satisfying blend of sweet and tangy.
The Beef Grilled in Betel Leaf ($10) is a DIY affair involving lettuce leaves, rice noodles, and roasted peanuts. The beef filling was flavorful with hints of lemongrass, and the charred betel leaf gave it an earthy, pungent aftertaste that blended beautifully with the delicious pineapple shrimp sauce.
We thought the Pork Belly Vietnamese Crepe ($13) worked remarkably well considering its complexity. It was essentially a finished, composed dish of meat and bean sprouts inside a crispy rice flour crepe that could be snapped into pieces and wrapped in lettuce and then further dressed up with nuoc cham, mint, and cilantro.
While there was no dessert menu, our server noted that there were a couple of options available, and we chose the Vietnamese Che ($7). It arrived in a beverage glass and looked like a milky iced coffee, but as we stirred it, bits and pieces of various textures and flavors began to appear: Jell-O, tapioca pearls, lychee, citrus rinds. Altogether, it was a slightly sweet, very mild way to close a meal.
Like Hola Arepa, Hai Hai has a sassy cocktail list, with drinks running the spectrum from sweet to definitely not. The Bazaar Nights, Bizarre Mornings ($9), composed of rye, mezcal, and bitters, is an in-your-face drink that almost has a whiff of leather about it, while the Hanoi to Hollywood ($9) is a milder riff on a Pink Gin.
Our visit took place just two weeks after the opening, but already Hai Hai had a highly professional feel on a busy evening. Our server was friendly and helpful and had a thorough knowledge of the menu. Dishes came out perfectly cooked and hot, and water glasses were refilled promptly. It was hard to believe they’d been open only a short time.
The one thing that was missing from the menu was a take on the classic Vietnamese iced coffee. Our server appeared chagrined when we asked about it and noted that she wished that something like that was available. Maybe Hai Hai can remedy that by the summer iced-coffee season.
James Norton contributed tasting notes to this review.
Southeast Asian street food in Northeast Minneapolis Rating: (Excellent)
2121 University Ave NE
Minneapolis, MN 55418
612.223.8640 OWNERS: Christina Nguyen and Birk Stefan Grudem HOURS: Tues-Sun: 3 p.m.-midnight
Full menu available: Tues-Sun 3-10 p.m.
Happy hour (separate menu):
Early: Tues-Fri 3-6 p.m.
Late: Tues-Sun: 10 p.m.-midnight (kitchen closes at 11:30 p.m.) BAR: Full RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes, but not taken for prime weekend hours / Yes VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $9-$16 NOISE LEVEL: Boisterous, but conversation is comfortable PARKING: Lot and ample street parking
This time around the Checklist took us down the rabbit hole, both figuratively and literally. We experienced everything from home-cooked Mexican seafood to traditional Somali cuisine to Korean-inspired street food. We went from a scruffy convenience store deli with dented shelves and wobbly tables to a decked-out restaurant space dripping with designer touches. We were among immigrant families and metal-heads. There’s no telling where the checklist will take us on any given night, but one thing is certain: The ride is worth the price of admission. — M.C. Cronin
This week’s checklist crew:WACSO, M.C. Cronin, Becca Dilley, James Norton, Jon Campbell
The East Lake Checklist is the third Heavy Table illustrated travelogue to explore a major gastronomic thoroughfare in Minneapolis and/or St. Paul. The East Lake Checklist is the Heavy Table’s follow-up to our 55-restaurant survey of independent eateries on Central Avenue and our 72-restaurant series about restaurants on the Green Line. We’ll publish five-restaurant installments biweekly until we’ve documented every nonchain spot on East Lake Street between 35W and the Mississippi River. (We’re estimating 75 spots, but we’ll see how it shakes out.)
This series is made possible by underwriting from Visit Lake Street. Heavy Table retains editorial control of the series — as with Central Avenue and the Green Line, this tour will be warts-and-all.
“From the river to the lakes, visitors and residents can shop local and be social on Lake Street. More information at VisitLakeStreet.com.”
Depending on how you look at it El Sabor Chuchi is either a small market with a sizable deli attached or a sizable deli with a small market attached.
A couple of shelves flanking you on the left as you walk in offer a random selection of convenience items like tomato paste, Takis chips, sardines, Cup Noodles, batteries, and dark chocolate for making mole. On the right, there are coolers stocked with drinks, produce, and dairy items along with a bakery case displaying a selection of pastries and breads.
The deli counter at the back of the store features the kind of order-by-number picture-board menu we’ve grown accustomed to around these parts of East Lake. Just be warned. The pictures are deceptively out of scale (more on this below).
We ordered, and sat at a table beneath a rather detailed instructional flyer on performing the Heimlich maneuver. Reading about choking safety did feel the tiniest bit ominous while we waited for our bone-in chicken to arrive, but it also led to an interesting debate on restaurant safety regulations. Fortunately, no one needed to have read it, and — bonus — we are all now thoroughly prepared in case of emergency. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The first thing you need to know about the Churrasco Plate ($12) at El Sabor Chuchi is that it isn’t as big as you expect it’ll be. It’s about 50 percent bigger than that. 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.
The Quarter Chicken ($7) is a little more standard issue, at least for this part of East Lake Street, which is to say it’s cooked properly, robustly seasoned, tender on the inside, and nourishingly hearty. Ordering a roast chicken (by the whole, half, or quarter) on East Lake Street is pretty much a bulletproof move, like ordering a slice of pizza in Brooklyn. It’s a cost-effective, no-risk way to get a filling, tasty meal. — James Norton
Both “Open” signs were illuminated, yet the front door was solidly locked. But being street-hardened checklist veterans, we would not be deterred from our mission. We waved through the glass door and caught the attention of a man inside eating with two children. Success.
As it turned out, this man and his two kids were helping run the place. So we were it for customers. Whether it was just a slow night or we were there early, we’re not sure. Perhaps the karaoke advertised on the awning brings more people in on the weekend.
We opened our menus and were immediately greeted with two ripped pieces of white tape covering pictures of two prominent menu items. The word “NO” was scrawled on them in pen. We shrugged it off with a smile. We’ve been around the block a few times and encountered this kind of quirk at family-run businesses before.
A woman who appeared to be the matriarch of the family came over to help us through the menu. When we asked what specifically she thought we should order, she gave us a rundown of every dish. Either she believed that strongly in her food, or perhaps more likely, it was a misunderstanding brought on by the language barrier.
From our table, we could see the whole family — including the children — in the kitchen helping prepare our meal. While these independent restaurants do have idiosyncrasies like locked front doors and handwritten notes on the menu, they also serve real heart with every meal. And that’s no small accomplishment these days. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
It’s impressive — but maybe not shocking — that East Lake Street seems incapable of serving up a bad piece of chicken.
What makes less sense is that a seafood shop that we’ve never heard even a rumor of, difficult to identify from the street, and locked when we turned up for dinner — at 6:30 p.m. — offers one of the best spins on paella we’ve tasted locally in recent years. The Arroz Marinero ($18) is a mix of clams, mussels, steamed crab, shrimp, eggs, and vegetables, and it was all nicely prepared, the seafood mild and sweet, the mix of ingredients well-balanced.
Our other dish was equally enjoyable. The Camarones a la Diablo (with shells, or “con cáscara,” $13) were hot (as implied), but not devilishly so, and tasted firm and sweet. There’s something about shrimp with heads and shells on that’s encouraging to a diner. The closer these things are to a natural state, the further they seem from masses of flavorless protein decanted from 20-pound vacuum-sealed sacks.
It may have taken Mar y Tierra the better part of an hour to get our food to the table, but it turns out that real cooking takes time. — J.N.
There’s something about the shape of the space Hamdi occupies that makes us think this might have been home to an old-school “family restaurant” at some point. Think Curran’s or Perkins. Maybe it’s the way the entrance is designed for maximum people flow with a foyer flanked by two interior doors, one for coming, one for going. Maybe it’s the half-walls topped with lucite panels and brass rails that divide one side of the space into distinguishable sections.
You read it here, first: Time travel is not merely attainable, it’s inexpensive. For us two Wisconsin natives, Bull’s Horn was an honest-to-God temporal portal. From the popcorn popper to the beer-themed light fixtures to the menu to the overall lived-in vibe, Bull’s Horn is a time machine back to 1986. (The pull-tabs and Heggie’s menu mark it as Minnesota rather than Wisconsin, but otherwise the illusion is flawless and the nostalgia is absolutely intoxicating.)
The only thing really different is that the food is mostly (much) better, and the stuff that’s the same — the fries, the pudding in the kids’ trays, the bread on the fried bologna sandwich — all makes sense in context and is charming rather than bad.
The mystery about Bull’s Horn has long been: How unreconstructed would Doug Flicker make this place, which has been touted as the resurrection of a venerable neighborhood spot, the Sunrise Inn? Piccolo and Esker Grove both proved that Flicker’s capable of the twee-est, finest, daintiest of foods. Can he possibly resist sneaking in some microgreens or herbed foams or towers of tiny manicured beet cubes somewhere in the menu? Will the place feel legit or like a Frankensteinish fusion of hipster-meets-townie?
Flicker and his wife and business partner, Amy Greeley, resisted. The place feels legit. It feels fun. The menu and execution are of a certain place and a certain time, and within those constraints, they totally kick ass.
The Fried Bologna Sandwich ($8.50) boasts meat that was smoked in house, a deviled egg schmear, a lot of lettuce, pickles, and spicy mustard. Hand to God, the first thing we thought of when we bit into it, with all its fatty, earthy meatiness, is that we were eating a decent corned beef sandwich. The bread (crazy dry and sort of spray foamy in texture) was arguably a minus, but it definitely felt like part of the overall vibe, and the sandwich was delicious.
We also tried the Bull’s Horn Burger ($10.50) with lettuce, pickle, special sauce, and optional bacon and/or cheese. The bun was perfect (how are so many places getting burger buns so right these days? It’s getting hard to find a dried out, flavorless bun; everything’s full-flavored and delicious), and the patty was substantial without being overkill. The special sauce was applied with a reasonably light touch, and the whole package veered hard toward “classic burger” and away from the ACL burgers that so many places are offering these days. We love ACL burgers, but we love classic burgers, too. The fries were generic, but we can live with that at this price and in this setting.
Bull’s Horn does nightly specials served on metal cafeteria trays, and also does a few trays just for kids. Our appalling picky four-year-old happily ate his way through Macaroni with Red Sauce ($5.50), which came with mixed vegetables (totally fine, roundly ignored), apple sauce (demolished), and vanilla pudding straight from a 1983 salad bar (demolished by dad).
We hit Bull’s Horn on a Friday night, drawn like moths to a flame by the lure of a Friday night fish fry just like we used to have in Wisconsin. A large pan of fish ($29) was enough for two and came with sides: snappy, three-bean-salad-like cold marinated green beans (which were delicious), cubed potatoes (undercooked and underseasoned, sadly), and baked beans (perfectly cooked, not mushy, not oversweet — some of the better baked beans we’ve had). The fish itself wasn’t a straight-up nostalgia trip, but that was OK. The batter was softer and more delicate than we were used to, but the fish was extraordinarily tender, and the tartar sauce (which looked and tasted house made) was supremely rich, creamy, and tangy.
Bull’s Horn feels kind of like a theme restaurant, if “The Way Things Used to Be” is a legitimate theme. But nothing about it felt cheesy or calculated, and the energy of the crowds that are swarming speaks for itself — this is a place to which people truly want to return.
Old-school bar in Standish-Ericsson Minneapolis Rating: (excellent)
4563 34th Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55406
612.208.1378 OWNERS: Doug Flicker and Amy Greeley
Tue-Sun 11 a.m. – 11:30 p.m.
Mon: Closed BAR: Beer and wine RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No ENTREE RANGE: $8.50-$14.50 NOISE LEVEL: Dull roar PARKING: Small lot, street parking
If you stop by Nha Sang Restaurant in Burnsville at lunchtime, you might be tempted to have the buffet, which looks like a better-than-average Asian spread. But if you choose the buffet, you’re missing out on Nha Sang’s real gems: its Tibetan offerings.
Nha Sang is a family-owned-and-operated restaurant, with the immigrant parents running the kitchen while their adult offspring handle the front of house. The interior belies its strip mall local, with a more upscale ambiance and attractive decor, plus the unusual blessing of a fairly peaceful space, even when it got busier. Our amiable server was pleased to discuss the Asian fusion menu with us and point out the most traditional of Tibetan offerings, which were mostly what we chose.
The first dish to arrive was Tibetan Thentuk ($9 with chicken or pork, $2 more for beef or shrimp), sized for sharing. The first sip of broth alone had us over the moon; it was rich and complex, spicy with the tiniest hint of sweetness underneath, a perfect antidote to the cold, blustery day. The delicate hand-pulled noodles were soft and comfort-giving. Sizable chunks of chicken were offset by crunchy pieces of bok choy and onion, with bits of cilantro rounding off the range of flavors. Everyone at the table agreed that this was the Tibetan equivalent of grandma’s chicken noodle soup.
Over the past decade, I’ve eaten at no fewer than 500 different restaurants in a professional capacity. That includes time spent as a food writer at Minnesota Monthly, City Pages, and the Heavy Table. The number may be as high as 1,000, but details tend to blur as the calendar pages pile up on the floor. With all those calories logged and menus perused, it’s still safe to say that there is literally no place quite like Meritage.
Meritage (which celebrated its 10th birthday last night with a meal including spit-roasted whole leg of beef and harvest pumpkin soup) is a remarkable place. It’s a restaurant that is decidedly high-end but executes its menu with such care that it also offers superb value. It’s a place where you can taste a real canard à la presse or slice into an old-school baked Alaska.
And it’s a place where the best virtues of French dining — great ingredients, classic methods of preparation, careful plating — are still thriving, much to our collective good fortune. Speaking personally, I would almost always take a good taqueria or pho shop over a trendy restaurant, but I would also almost always take Meritage over just about anyplace else. There’s a lot that sets it apart, but here are a few discrete thoughts.
Think of “deep hospitality” as everything you’d want from a Michelin starred restaurant — an authoritative knowledge of the menu, insight into cocktails and wine pairings, a talent for timing and details — with none of the stuffiness that can creep into upscale dining. It’s hospitality that feels warm (not smothering), competent (not condescending), and inclusive (not snooty).
Your server at Meritage will be too busy making you feel comfortable and at ease to show off; if they happen to be deep-diving into the backstory of a dish or working overtime to help you enjoy your meal, it’s because that happens to be the best way to ensure that you have a lovely evening. Whatever the means, the end goal is the same: a truly pleasurable meal.
SEAFOOD THAT MERITS THE NAME
If you’ve spent time on either coast, you’re aware that seafood is always going to be a blind spot for the Upper Midwest. There’s no shame in it — we’re far from the ocean, and we’ve got access to brilliant pork, beef, and lake fish, plus tremendous beer and cheese. We can manage just fine. But with only a few exceptions, if you’re looking to experience a taste of the ocean in Minnesota, you’re going to be getting a distant echo of its potential rather than a roaring crescendo of flavor.
Meritage is one of those exceptions. Its annual Oysterfest is the visceral symbol of the way that the restaurant lives every day, namely by pursuing a deep relationship with purveyors (particularly oyster farmers). It’s those relationships that make the seafood stand out for its variety and freshness. Also, no one, anywhere, has been able to lay a glove on the wild-caught Pacific shrimp cocktail.
CLASSIC DINING DONE IN FULL
If you watch classic films or read the skillfully written detective novels of author and serious gourmet Rex Stout, you quickly get a visceral sense of what dining out used to be: well-dressed patrons taking hours to have long, full conversations while enjoying dishes prepared from scratch with love and care. There is a glamor to be had. You’re not just gaining calories or eating to Instagram, you’re part of a scene that feels a well-planned cocktail party. (See also: Saint Genevieve, Burch, Bar Brigade.) It’s the opposite of vulgar. While the wine might be good and the clothes fashionable, the overall point isn’t the wine or the clothes; it’s the joy that comes from connecting with your fellow human beings and letting your guard down for a couple of hours of fun.
As a mood, cool can be great, but it’s the opposite of warm for a reason. Meritage is a warm place to which you want to return, and that’s why it’s stuck it out for a decade (an eon, in restaurant years). We’re looking forward to what the next 10 years bring to this St. Paul institution.
Meritage, 410 Saint Peter Street, St. Paul MN 55102; 651.222.5670
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 email@example.com.
The Hot Five is a weekly feature created by the Heavy Table and supported by Shepherd Song Farm.
Lox it Down! at the Hennepin Avenue Five Watt Coffee The newly opened Hennepin Avenue location of Five Watt Coffee has a food menu that revolves around quality hot dogs, a couple of panini, and a lox-on-rye creation called the Lox it Down! We’ve eaten our share of smorrebrod (Scandinavian open-faced sandwiches), and this rye, lox, capers, arugula, and cream cheese sandwich definitely strikes a Nordic chord: It’s mild, mellow, and totally pleasing, with the dry rye toast counteracting any of the potentially unpleasant moisture of the lox, and capers bringing a touch of tartness to the party.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted from an Instagram post by James Norton]
You Can Rum But You Can’t Hide from Hola Arepa If you like a boozy cocktail, this is the drink for you. It’s built from Cruzan light rum, Cruzan dark rum, cinnamon grenadine, falernum, orange liqueur, lime, and grapefruit. Falernum, a cordial made from an infusion of citrus, spices, nuts, and sugar is what makes this drink so amazingly zingy. Drink responsibly.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Brenda Johnson]
Pear-Chocolate Tart from Solomon’s Bakery The beautiful pear-chocolate tart from Solomon’s Bakery at the Mill City Farmers Market is lighter than it appears. The chocolate filling is rich but delicate, as is the crust. The pears are from another Mill City vendor, and before being baked, they’re carefully cored, so the consumer has only to gently pull on the stem for the center to be easily lifted out. Autumn on a plate. [Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Amy Rea]
Quesadilla de Flor de Calabazas at Don Chilo at Lake Plaza The single most astonishing thing we ate while touring Lake Plaza on East Lake Street was the Quesadilla de Flor de Calabazas (around $8; no prices on menu). The tortilla was made on site and then filled with a combination of two cheeses, squash blossoms, mushrooms, onions, and peppers. It was chewy, tender, gooey, earthy, full-flavored, and downright elegant.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted from this week’s East Lake Checklist by James Norton]
Shrimp to Share at Tilia I can’t think of one item on Tilia’s menu that we don’t like. Sitting at the kitchen counter is an epicurean overload … so enjoyable if you’re into that sort of thing. We watched as items were passed to the wait staff, trying to see something we have not had, and the shrimp caught our eye. Shrimp, peas, fermented black beans, spicy sauce, and grilled scallions are presented on an herby and decorative puree. Not a carb in sight to soak up the juice, but a spoon did the trick.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Brenda Johnson]
If you’re a history buff, you probably already know about the (very) recently opened Waldmann Brewery and Wurstery in St. Paul. Originally opened as a German lager beer saloon in 1857, the new brewery is a lovingly refurbished tribute to the original venture, replete with hand-hewn woodwork and decked out with interior details that transport a visitor more than 150 years back in time.
The brewery’s interior restoration includes maps, antique clocks, wood stoves, 19th-century steamboat chairs, paraffin lamps, and enough additional period stuff (including a mounted buffalo head) that you’ll feel well and truly immersed in an earlier era by the time your beer and food arrive. Whether that’s a good thing is up to you — there is an antique shop / historic re-creation feel to the place that takes some getting used to, but it’s also obviously and appealingly one-of-a-kind.
About that food: The menu has a number of intriguing options (the Herring Plate, $10, and Smoked Fish Plate, $12, really tempted us), but the heart of the document is the Wurst Plank ($20), a collection of all three of the menu’s wursts, plus three sides, a bread, and three condiments: two excellent house-made mustards and a house-made ketchup that is one of only two we’ve ever really liked (Red River Kitchen has the other one).
The bratwurst, made by former Seward Co-op butcher Karl Gerstenberger, is about as good as it gets. Both the bratwurst and the currywurst were finely and evenly ground, tender, and remarkably juicy without being excessively moist. The bratwurst’s seasoning was spot on — enough salt and spice to complement and frame the flavor of the meat without swamping it. Gerstenberger got his start cooking in California restaurants including Stars, Chez Panisse, and Oliveto, and he’s bringing all his talents to bear at Waldmann, presenting simple food done beautifully well. The Red Dog (by Red Table Meats) deserves a shout, too. It’s firm and snappy, with a milder, more natural note of the paprika “hot dog flavor” that we associate with this classic street food.
The Wurst Plank’s sides and condiments were uniformly excellent, as well. Our strudel-cut dumpling (known in German as Wickelklösse) was toothsome and beautifully seasoned, offering flavors of salt and butter and tasting all the better for that simplicity. The Limestone Potatoes (cooked under a slab of Platteville bedrock) were something akin to a well-browned hash brown cake, with a tender interior and crispy-crunchy outside. And the Cold Sauerkraut was truly a good friend to the bratwurst, bringing heat, acid, and earthy character without much sugar or fat of its own. Our only complaint about the sides would be that we could happily have eaten twice as much of them.
Missing from the Wurst Plank — and the entire menu, for that matter — were buns. It’s hard not to admire the purist attitude that would present artful wurst like this in a naked state, ready to be dressed with house-made condiments, but it seems likely that Waldmann will run into a stream of customers (maybe some Wisconsinites?) who want their lunchtime wurst on the bun. When we emailed Gerstenberger about it, he wrote back: “I wanted/still want a semmel roll. Right now we’re baking off quality par bake dinner rolls as a stop gap. At present we’re in an options mode (Aki rye, Brake Bread Granny, or roll) with planks and wursts. We’ll soon standardize the buns (or hopefully a semmel) and likely offer a bread basket with butter or lard.”
We tried two beers ($5), and liked them both. The Oktoberfest was remarkably refreshing and light on the palate, lacking the sometimes syrupy finish that malt-forward beers can suffer from. The beer presented a bright smoothness of flavor that made it remarkably easy to drink without being monotonous.
We found Waldmann’s Hefeweizen enjoyable but puzzling, initially. It was malt-driven and evocative of cloves and other warm spices, and was actually less refreshing and summer-ready than the Oktoberfest. A quick conversation with brewer Drew Ruggles after lunch set things straight. He’d been shooting for something halfway between a hefeweizen and a dunkelweizen, and the darker, stronger character of the dunkel had taken the reins. As we sail into colder weather, that’s probably a good choice. Once you’ve had a hefeweizen on a patio on a humid 90-degree day, it can be hard to enjoy in other settings.
Waldmann is a rare duck, a restaurant doing a simple, approachable menu with utmost seriousness. The food’s uniformly good, the setting’s unique, and the excitement over the brewery’s mission is palpable. Here’s hoping they can wring another 160 years out of the space.
445 Smith Ave
St. Paul, MN 55102
651.222.1857 OWNER / CHEF / BREWER: Tom Schroeder / Karl Gerstenberger / Drew Ruggles HOURS:
Sun 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Mon Closed for private events
Tue-Thu 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Fri-Sat 11 a.m. midnight BAR: Beer RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes, if you like cheese / No ENTREE RANGE: $10-$16 NOISE LEVEL: Moderate PARKING: Six-car lot, limited street parking
Good news for those who have been awaiting the latest project from former Eastside chef Remy Pettus: Bardo has now opened in the former Rachel’s space. Pettus has made significant updates to the petite space at the busy corner of East Hennepin and University Avenues including charming signage and a semi-covered terrace.
Drinks at Bardo are no afterthought. The cocktails on offer are thoughtfully composed, and the seasonality of the list is on point. Even the most summery choice on the menu features a smoke reminiscent of fall bonfires: It Was All a Seed, made with San Andrés Alipús mezcal, yellow bell pepper, passion fruit, lime, and fennel, had a gorgeous mustard-mimosa color with a potent smoke aroma and the promise of heat. Each sip was pleasantly smoky and tart. Unfortunately, the fennel was missing from the flavor, with its only presence being the feathery garnish, but the yellow pepper added a vegetal note that tied the flavors together. At $12, this cocktail felt like the best value on the menu, whether due to its volume or the glassware.
For more understated notes, try the Practice What You Peach ($12). It’s a delicate balance of New Richmond rye, Colorado peaches, lemon, Cardamaro, thyme, and frothy egg white. The peach was nearly lost, rendering this a thyme- and rye-forward take on a whiskey sour that was botanically striking. There was a distinct spice component that spoke to fall but was more savory than pielike. More peach would be appropriate, especially given the name, but the sustained creaminess of the egg white was delightful.
Twists on the Old Fashioned aren’t always successful, but The Opportunist ($13) was an exception. It was spirit-forward with a powerful orange-oil aroma thanks to bourbon; the potent liqueurs Amaro Sfumato and Luxardo maraschino; plus Americano, the classic aperitif made with vermouth and bitter orange. In contrast to our first round, this cocktail was warming, just to the point of hot in the back of the throat. Its potent blend of aromatics included a nutty, chicory undertone and faint sarsaparilla.
Full dinner service starts at 5 p.m., but from 4 to 5 p.m., a bar menu offers several perfectly fulfilling options. The Aligot Potato with chevre and chive ($8) is rich but not overly indulgent. Funky chevre cuts the heavy potato texture, and the portion is adequate for splitting as a snack or side when combined with another vegetable.
Even more substantial was the Crispy Shrimp with white beans, black garlic, and mustard greens ($16). A rich, earthy beurre blanc was enhanced by black garlic’s complexity and a melange of fresh herbs. The white beans held their texture nicely, while two oversized shrimp had a hearty texture that was meaty rather than rubbery.
Finally, we tasted an upcoming fall cocktail inspired by Mexican hot chocolate. Bar manager Sara Ann Timmer is responsible for the creative combination of Får North Ålander spiced rum, orgeat, lime, habanero bitters, cacao syrup, and reposado. Despite its garnish of minuscule graham and cacao sprinkles, it didn’t scream “dessert.” Instead, it had a nice heat that built steadily and unexpectedly. The acidity could be toned down as the weather cools, but it was truly a unique take on a chocolate-based libation. A warm version would be nice, too.
Bardo seems to have hit on an undertapped market in a neighborhood that continues to grow and has nothing similar, aside from Cafe Alma. Many of the details that could have been overlooked but predict a successful experience, such as lighting and music, are attended to — the excellent musical playlist bounced comfortably from Prince to Harry Nilsson to Lou Reed. Service, too, was well-executed.
Prices were about as expected when compared to quality, but note that all prices include an 18 percent gratuity no matter the party size. The entire experience was, for the most part, chic and effortless, leading us to crave another visit.
Bardo, 222 E Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis; 612.886.8404
We may have stumbled upon the best lunch. What is the best lunch? The best lunch is filling, yes, but not greasy or overwhelming. It arrives at the table almost instantly, but it’s made with care. It’s inexpensive but has many components to offer up a full field of flavor and texture. The best lunch may well be the Rice Plate with Grilled Meatballs and Egg Roll ($8.50) at iPho by Saigon on University Avenue.
We first encountered iPho during our Green Line Checklist of 70+ restaurants on University Avenue and the Green Line. It had a deservedly glowing reputation that preceded it. The food was full of flavor and nuance, the atmosphere spartan but friendly, and the service so fast as to defy belief.
Summer is a wonderful time of year for Vietnamese food (followed by autumn, winter, spring), so we’ve been surfing the iPho menu looking for a bulletproof choice among many strong contenders. The winner may be E10, the aforementioned rice plate.
The beauty of this plate is how incredibly responsive it is to the diner’s preferences — bite by bite. You’ve got the quiet neutrality of the rice, the sweet and/or heat and/or tart from accompanying sauces like hoisin and sriracha, the crispy lightness of shredded jicama and carrot, the meaty substance of the meatballs, and the crispy crunchy earthiness of the egg roll. By toggling starch, vegetable, meat, and sauce, you can lean into virtually any flavor and texture combination you feel like: the crispy spicy heat of an eggroll with sriracha, for example, or the cool, soft brightness of a tomato slice and rice. And regardless of what you do, don’t skip the nuoc cham.
Then again, the best lunch might be pho. That’s also a fine answer.
iPho by Saigon, 704 University Ave W, St. Paul, 651.225.8751