Editor’s Note: Coffee News Cafe is now closed.
When I met a friend for lunch recently at Coffee News Cafe, her reaction was, “Wow. I didn’t even know they served food.”
They always have — a long menu of sandwiches, salads, and soups, in fact — but Coffee News certainly wasn’t a place where you went specifically for the food. Macalester students and professors might open up their laptops and decide that, yeah, a turkey sandwich and a side of garlic fries sounds pretty good, might as well. But that was incidental; it was food as fuel more than dining.
Now Coffee News Cafe wants to change that. Six months ago Chef Cathy Mindel came on board with the goal of bringing in diners, rather than eaters. She pared down the mile-long menu to the greatest hits (yes, she kept the beloved garlic fries), refocused on scratch cooking, added a for-real dinner menu with entrees beyond the sandwiches, and generally brought the whole thing out of the avocado-and-sprouts decade. Next on her list: revamping the dessert case, bringing cakes and treats distinguished more for their flavor than their size. (By the way, the coffee no longer qualifies as St. Paul’s worst, either.)
We gave the cafe’s new grass-fed burger and the fish sandwich a try, along with sides of sweet potato fries and a warm goat cheese salad. Everything we tasted gets an A for effort, with room for improvement. (Speed, for example, is not yet the kitchen’s strong point.)
The best thing we tried was the fish sandwich. Sure, they played it safe with the tilapia, but it was piping hot, with a crispy, salty crust on the outside and flaky on the inside. Or maybe the best thing was the sweet potato fries. I guess it comes down to how you define “fries.” Because “fried” they are not. These are thin-cut slivers of sweet potato, roasted so that they are tender and tasty and still very much the texture of sweet potatoes. Heaven for sweet potato–lovers, but they won’t satisfy people looking to satisfy that crispy-on-the-outside, airy-on-the-inside fry jones.
While we were glad to see a grass-fed burger on the menu, it was a little bit dry inside. Grass-fed cows are practically like game in their fat content, so dry burgers are always a hazard. The warm goat cheese salad left me wishing for a more crust on the warm medallions of goat cheese and something more interesting in the dressing than just pucker-inducing straight-up balsamic vinegar.
All of that said, it feels great (and a little disorienting) to be discussing serious food like sweet potatoes and goat cheese at Coffee News Cafe. (There are curried mussels with kaffir lime on the dinner menu, for goodness’ sake!) This is valuable real estate on Grand’s restaurant row and we’re glad to see the cafe step up its game.
Mindel says she has established relationships with Hope Creamery and Coastal Seafoods and will be on the lookout for local, organic, and sustainable where finances allow.
The weathered dining room is getting a bit of a facelift as well. While the most visible décor was once signs admonishing customers for the poor behavior (wi-fi and phone abuse being a common theme), there are now some warmer touches. And the whole place will get a much-needed coat of paint soon. “We’re working on the whole image,” Mindel says. “We won’t close the place down, though — it’s going to be gradual.”
Mindel has cooked at Nicollet Island Inn, D’Amico’s, Dayton’s, and Parma. For several years she owned a resort near Ely. Then she decided that, rather than whining about not being able to find baguettes and decent cheese in town, she would do something about it. She ran a cheese shop and catering business in Ely before moving back to the Twin Cities last year.
“[Coffee News Cafe] actually reminds me of my store, and the people here are amazing,” Mindel says. Of her menu changes, Mindel says she expected some grumbling, but, “From what I’ve been hearing, most of the hardcore locals like what I’ve been doing.”
Coffee News Cafe
Coffee shop and American restaurant on Grand in St. Paul
1662 Grand Ave
St. Paul, MN 55105
CHEF: Cathy Mindel
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $8–12