PHOTOGRAPHS BY VICTORIA CAMPBELL
Have you ever sailed right through St. Cloud on your way to Brainerd or Walker or Canada, figuring there’s nothing to eat in this college town other than the drive-throughs lined up on I-94 or Highway 10? Have we got news for you: Not only is there an abundant food presence that doesn’t involve sad burgers, there’s also a strong international scene representing St. Cloud’s growing immigrant population. And not merely representing, but doing them proud.
We recently spent a day in St. Cloud, trying foods at six different spots, and came away more than a little impressed. Of the places we tried, four were part of a grocery store or convenience store, and two were in strip malls. It all goes to show that location is not a predictor of overall quality.
Our day started at Hormud Deli, a Somali grocer, meat market, and restaurant. When we breached the restaurant’s (fairly low) language barrier and ordered breakfast, this plate magically appeared: Foul with Can Jeero ($11). Besides being attractive, it was delicious. There was beef and chicken that might have been Hormud’s version of suqaar, tender and juicy with sauteed onions and the meat flavor predominant. A dish of collard greens had been wilted with garlic and onions to a delicate texture. The foul, a dish of beans stewed with onions and tomatoes, had a distinctly marinara flavor to them, a nod to the period in Somalia’s history when part of it was occupied by Italy.
The accompanying can jeero bread was similar in texture to Ethiopian injera, with a slight tanginess that tied all the flavors on the plate together when we piled the meats and veggies into a wrap. A cup of shah ($1.50) was gentle and sweet, with some of the spiced character typical of chai. This was an auspicious start to the day, and we left after giving many thanks and thumbs up.
Our next stop was Somali also, the Somali Cafe and grocer. It was still breakfast time, and the morning entrée was Goat Liver with Enjeera ($10). It’s quite a bargain: an enormous plate of sauteed goat liver strips with onions, peppers, and carrots, in a rich, peppery gravy meant to be folded into chewy enjeera bread. The server also set an unpeeled banana and a large bottle of green hot sauce next to the platter, then indicated we should peel the banana, break it into pieces, and fold it and the hot sauce into the liver and veggies. The result was a wild variety of textures and flavors, from the earthy liver flavor to the sweet banana to the pungent hot sauce, with soft, crunchy, and chewy in every bite. We left the Somali Cafe having learned two things: Goat liver is delicious, and hot sauce on bananas really needs to be a thing, whether served with other kinds of dishes to introduce those flavor extremes, or honestly, just as a snack on its own.
We shifted continents after that to visit Star of India. Having had a meat-heavy day at that point, we decided to shift to vegetables, and Star of India didn’t disappoint, treating these dishes as carefully as a good BBQ place treats meat. We tried the Vegetable Jalfrezi ($15), a sumptuous bowl of cheese with carrots and peas in a gentle but flavorful ginger, garlic, and tomato sauce. We also tried the Chana Masala ($14), a dish with a bit of heat (that increased overnight in the fridge) and also a sweet note, packed full of chickpeas. The masala had notes of cinnamon, cumin, and pepper that seemed deceptively simple at first bite, but began to bloom with subsequent tastes.
To accompany the entrees, we ordered Pashwari Naan ($5), Papdum ($2), mixed chutneys ($2) and pickles ($2). The naan had a lovely sweetness from the coconut and raisins that made it a good counterpoint (and wrap) for the entrees, while the chutneys, especially the tamarind, added some welcome tartness. The pickles were tangy, the papadum crispy, and altogether, not unlike breakfast at the Somali Cafe in terms of range of flavors and textures.
Next stop was Hajime Asian Bistro. The unassuming strip mall exterior belied the tasteful, calm interior which came across as more upscale than its location implied. The sushi menu was extensive and varied, and, frankly, hard to choose, even though we were far from starving at this point. We went with the Crazy Tuna Roll ($12), which included deep fried tuna, avocado, and tobiko. While the menu said it was spicy tuna, the heat level was moderate, which was fine; that let the tuna flavor peek out more than covering it in heat would have. The Northshore Roll ($15) is a sight to behold, with the tuna and salmon on the inside eclipsed by the gorgeous array of five kinds of caviar arranged on top. It was almost too pretty to eat. But eat we did, and glad we were, for the fish tasted very fresh and was almost melt-in-the-mouth delicate, contrasting with the wonderful pop from the caviar.
Hajime does a beautiful job making its rolls as pleasing to the eye as to the palate; everything was plated with extreme care and attention. Even something as simple as a cup of green tea was served in a lovely Japanese teapot with charming porcelain teacups. The eatery offers a soothing oasis along with its stellar sushi.
Then it was time to visit another market and deli, this time La Perla Market. While the deli side of the business offers a number of things like pozole and menudo, the real steal is the taco menu. At $2.50 each, these are a significant bargain, and have a variety of fillings to choose from. We went with Al Pastor, Barbacoa, and Pollo. Besides being of good quality, especially considering the price, something that struck us was how carefully they were plated. Even though the tacos were served on a simple plate lined with paper, they were arranged with precision, with a bright dash of sliced radish adding some color and crunch. If you’re trying to get through St. Cloud in a hurry, but want something quick and inexpensive, this is the ticket.
Our final stop of the day—at a point in which our cars were full of coolers with boxes of leftovers, and we had zero appetite—was at the Slide-In Mart. We’d chosen this stop based on the website, which appeared to show kebabs or koobideh on a grill. On arrival, we discovered that those items were no longer available. Still, there was definitely a tempting, meaty odor in the air, so we opted to try the gyro and rice plate ($7). This is not the gyros that most think of, with the long, thin slices of meat, but rather the lamb cut into chunks and sauteed on a grill. There’s a Chipotle-like counter of ingredients you can add on: lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and all kinds of sauces.
Being that the mart was crowded and small (and had a surprisingly large hookah stock), we decided to take the dish outdoors to get photos. Maybe it was eatery fatigue or weariness at the thought of the drive back to the Cities, but when trying to set the Styrofoam container down, it slipped out of my hands, and my enormous pile of rice and gyro mostly landed in the grass. On the one hand, it was OK—I wasn’t exactly hungry. But when I tasted what remained in the box, I was very sorry to not have leftovers to take back. The meat was juicy, the yogurt sauce tangy, the rice an excellent mild base. Although it’s not a handheld dish (in more than one way), it’s also a great option for hurried travelers who want something besides a mystery meat burger through a drive-through.
So what we learned: St. Cloud has a lot going for it, especially in its world cuisines. Don’t judge the strip mall or gas station fronts. There are good things happening within.
Hormud Deli, 3358 W Division St, St. Cloud, 320.282.4557
Somali Cafe, 119 E St Germaine St, St. Cloud, 320.282.9441
Star of India, 2812 W Division St, St. Cloud, 320.281.3388
Hajime Asian Bistro, 4170 Division St, Ste 130, St. Cloud, 320.217.8909
La Perla Market, 731 2nd St, Waite Park, 320.203.1284
Slide-In Mart, 1100 4th Ave So, St. Cloud, 320.774.1716