The 128 Cafe has been a mainstay of the Merriam Park neighborhood of St. Paul for nearly 20 years, a full epoch in an industry where trends come and go, where high concept restaurants open to great fanfare only to fail to meet the mark — or fall out of fashion and shut their doors.
The secret of the cafe’s success, the reason that patrons return again and again, is that the even-keeled kitchen has always played everyone’s favorite hits, and played them well: ribs, roasted garlic, and pork tenderloin. The space is unassuming, like a Parisian neighborhood bistro that has been transplanted to the garden level of a St. Paul apartment building: inviting and cozy in a classic, rumpus-room style.
In August 2013, a new regime took over the dependable old kitchen, and we recently stopped in to see what has changed since chef and owner Max Thompson arrived.
We found that Thompson paints with a broader brush than the previous occupants. Having cooked for years in New York, taught cooking in Tuscany, and traveled the world, Thompson’s global influences are apparent. And his time as a sous chef who helped open the Butcher & the Boar is evident in the quality of the meat — roasted, smoked, grilled and cured – that comes out of the kitchen at the 128.
So let’s get this out of the way: Enough has been said over the years about the 128’s ribs. They are very good, and they are still on the menu. Not another word on the subject.
We started our meal with the Mexican beet salad ($9, above), a sweet and earthy mélange of roasted red and yellow beets, grapefruit sections, queso fresco, baby greens, cubes of parsnip, pepitas, and thinly sliced jalapeno pepper. The salad is served over creme fraiche and drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette. From bite to bite, the vibrant combination teeters on the fulcrum of sweetness and tartness, crunchy and creamy, herbal and mineral.
Bubbie would barely recognize 128’s cheese latkes ($9, below) as the Hanukkah favorite, though all the ingredients are there. The addition of montasio cheese to the traditional recipe makes for a crispy and rich pancake. There is of course sour cream, but in place of the standard applesauce, the latkes are served over an apple reduction and topped with julienned apple. The onion, usually an ingredient in the latke itself, takes the form of red rings of pickled onion draped over the dish.
The Mediterranean lamb meatballs ($13) are offered as a small plate, but are fit for a meal both in portion size and balance. Flavors that are often heard shouting are toned down to a focused whisper in this dish. The mild taste of the lamb is accentuated with mint, while the soft, pillowy gnocchi taste ever so slightly of preserved lemon, almost like tiny lemon cakes. Pine nuts and sauteed spinach round out the plate. This dish is a must-have if you find it on the menu.
On the night of our visit, the market fish was a steelhead trout ($25) served Caribbean style. A thick filet was broiled skin-on till blackened but medium inside, and served over beans and rice. A grilled tortilla was topped with refried beans, slaw, citrus, and cilantro. You could almost smell the ocean breeze. This dish, with its tropical flavors, begs the question, “Why doesn’t the 128 Cafe have a liquor license?”
The Amish chicken ($20) was on the old menu but has been thoroughly reinvented with cheesy grits, al dente beans (red cowpeas, to get taxonomical about it), and braised spinach. The chicken was perfectly cooked but the star of the dish was the rich and creamy grits.
To call the borscht “borscht” somewhat obscures the point of this superb dish ($25, above): a beautifully braised beef cheek from Peterson Limousin, the crusty exterior gently breaking away to reveal an interior that has been slow-cooked until the meat is fully tender. It was set atop a thin layer of borscht and surrounded by whole roasted beets, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, parsnips, turnips, and sliced leeks. The beets and borscht played sweet sidekick to the meaty roast. Horseradish sour cream contributed heat and tanginess, and dill added a cool herbal taste to the dish. If we had one gripe, it was that the roasted winter vegetables were a bit bland. But the roast and the beets were a perfect accompaniment to the latkes and were a highlight of the meal.
We capped the night off with an exquisite almond cake ($8). Basically an oversized financier, the buttery cake was served with red-wine poached pear and mascarpone. Pastry chef Abby Boone, whose resume includes Salty Tart and the recently closed Lynn on Bryant (with their sorely missed rustic fruit tart) prepares desserts at the 128, so be sure to leave room.
While the 128 Cafe’s well-known food truck is mothballed for the winter, you can grab lunch at the brick and mortar. Like dinner, lunch is an international best-in-show.
There is a reuben ($11, above) so exemplary that it should give self-help seminars for lesser reubens, which is basically all of them. Thickly sliced and griddled caraway rye bread is the perfect shell for tender smoked brisket, coarse cut sauerkraut, Emmentaler, and 1000 island.
The Cubano ($11), like the Reuben, is prototypical and bar-setting. With two kinds of pork (roast and ham), pickles (sweet and dill), mustard (spicy), and cheese (Swiss) between pressed and toasted Cuban bread, this sandwich would make Miami kvell.
Considering the stampede of $14 burgers onto menus around town, the 128 has priced its lunch menu more in line with food truck fare than with restaurant food of comparable quality. The prices are within reach of even the university students across the street, saving them the trip to the bar or greasy spoon on Grand Avenue, and leaving them more time to study. For dinner, the prices are justified by the quality (not to mention quantity) of the food. The lamb meatballs with gnocchi felt like a bargain at $13, considering how much you might spend for a comparable dish in the Warehouse District, while all the small plates and entrees have enough moving parts and time-intensive ingredients to justify their cost.
Given the drawbacks of a garden level apartment, the space is well utilized. Tables are far enough apart so that you can lean back between courses, but are close enough so you can hear your neighbor asking her date, “how did you hear about this place?” The low ceilings and carpeted floors keep the sound down and the atmosphere intimate compared with a high-ceiling, cement-floor warehouse space, though the music might be a little loud if you are seated near the speakers. The servers are knowledgeable about the food and friendly without a hint of pretension. You can course your meal out and take all night or get in and out quickly. On a couple of our visits, some menu items had sold out, so if your heart is set on something, you might want to call ahead.
Residents of Merriam Park, who have been lucky for 20 years, should now count themselves doubly lucky to be within walking distance of the 128 Cafe. And for everyone else, this is a neighborhood joint worthy of a crosstown trip. Thompson reinvigorates the old classics by playfully mixing in fundamentals from around the world. Creative flourishes like the latkes’ apple reduction and the preserved lemon in the gnocchi elevate the food from simple neighborhood bistro fare to something grander and more immediate. Whether it lasts for 20 years or Thompson decides to set out for the territories, the latest chapter at the 128 Cafe is off to an excellent start.
Upscale Dining in Merriam Park, Saint Paul
128 Cleveland Ave N, Saint Paul, 55104
Tues-Thurs: 11am – 9pm
Fri: 11am – 10pm
Sat: 5pm – 10pm
Sun: 5pm – 9pm
OWNER / CHEF: Max Thompson
BAR: Beer and Wine
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $20-$30
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
PARKING: Valet / Street