Soda has gotten a bad rap over the last few decades, becoming the scapegoat of the evolving obesity epidemic in America. It is no surprise that a significant portion of Americans have banished the sugary beverage, perhaps only drinking it in secret, with feelings of guilt and self-loathing. High-fructose corn syrup and caramel color are far from requisite ingredients in quality soda, however, and increasing numbers of small, local soda businesses, like Joia and Spring Grove Soda Pop, are capturing more of the beverage spotlight.
And modern soda fountains are appearing. One such is Cold Front, located between Mac Groveland and Highland Park in St. Paul. The atmosphere isn’t precisely nostalgic — it’s more of a throwback. Nearly all the classic soda fountain elements are present — chrome-and-faux-leather spinning bar stools, a marble-slab counter, a mint-green ice cream mixer — but the modern dominates. White subway tile and a tin ceiling meet baby-blue graphics in a clean and sleek way.
Owners Steve Willis, Laurie Drake, Ho Kye, and Matt Drake opened the shop about a month ago in the narrow space formerly occupied by Lynden’s Soda Fountain. The quaint room has an anytime, any day appeal. In the morning, visitors can enjoy sipping espresso; in the afternoon, families winding home from the bus stop can order the ice cream they crave.
Many regional business are represented. These include Gray Duck Chai, Rishi Tea, Lift Bridge Root Beer, and Dogwood Coffee. Pastries are prepared blocks away at P.J. Murphy’s, and tasty, gluten-free scones come from Sift in Minneapolis.
From-scratch soda allows for culinary creativity, and creativity was in evidence. Flavors like strawberry balsamic and blood-orange beetroot make choosing difficult. In addition to the signature sodas, classic choices, like grape and root beer, are available.
The chai vanilla soda — which glistened the color of a Pilsner, and arrived topped with a lasting, foamy head — was a huge success. Its initial aroma was strong licorice, but the taste was more complex, with notes of cardamom, allspice, and vanilla. The ratio of flavor to sugar was ideal, and the carbonation spot on. It was refreshing in a way that sugar simply isn’t.
Less successful was the strawberry balsamic, which was vaguely berry-like and missing balsamic flavor altogether. On the other hand, the blood-orange beetroot was quite intense, in a positive but perhaps monochromatic way.
As one can imagine, these sodas are made to order rather than bottled — mixed from syrup and carbonated water in a classic malt glass. For 50 cents, tangy phosphate can be added.
Co-owner Steve Willis is a big fan of ice cream from Chocolate Shoppe out of Madison, Wisconsin, although the team is considering making ice cream in house. Currently about a dozen Chocolate Shoppe flavors are available.
Cold press coffee was noticeably absent from the menu: a mystery, given the shop’s name and the season. The blended Cold Coffee Sleet, though, made us forget about cold press entirely. Four simple ingredients — espresso, milk, ice, and simple syrup — come together in a blender to create what one taster declared a “cloud made of coffee.” It couldn’t have been farther from a coffee chain’s blended beverage — espresso is the dominant flavor.
Finally, the simple pour-over coffee, made with Peruvian beans, was outstanding. Even those who avoid black coffee will appreciate this one, as the type of beans and the brewing method mean a far less acidic cup, one that is full-bodied and creamy, with notes of dark cherry and hazelnut.
Soda fountain in St. Paul
490 Hamline Ave S
St. Paul, MN 55116
Steve Willis, Laurie Drake, Ho Kye, and Matt Drake
Mon 7 a.m.-6p.m.
Tue-Sat 7 a.m.-8 p.m.
Sun 8 a.m.-6 p.m.
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
BEVERAGES AND ICE CREAMS: $2-$7.50
Editor’s note: Ho Kye’s name was misspelled in the original posting and has been corrected.