There comes a point when you have to take a good hard look at yourself and ask, “Why the hell are we doing this?”
That point came immediately prior to entering our first destination on the Green Line Checklist. It was at this moment that the enormity of the task we were embarking on really sunk in. Good lord, we had about 75 restaurants and eight more months of this to go.
Sure, the Central Avenue Checklist was an experience like none other. At once hilarious, grueling, inspiring, messy, exciting, and unforgettable. But if the idea of dedicating more than six months of your life to eating at every restaurant along a single stretch of road borders on crazy-town, doing it a second time… well, that idea is centrally located in the heart of straight-jacket country.
In the end though, the draw of experiencing new places and meeting new people and revealing these stories proved too strong.
Of all the streets we could’ve chosen after Central, University Avenue was the most obvious. Which in some ways made it a less appealing choice. But the recent addition of the Green Line put an interesting twist on things (and coincidentally opened up an opportunity for help funding this madness – see below).
The idea of capturing this moment in time on University Avenue just feels right. The Green Line is operational—connecting downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis. The initial shock waves of construction have finally settled down, leaving behind unstoppable ripples of change. The true long term impact of light rail trains speeding through the middle of the street won’t be known for many years. But for now, we have a chance to document a University Avenue on the precipice of a new era.
And so, with that noble thought steeling our resolve, we swung open the door of our first stop on the Green Line Checklist. And almost immediately we were reminded why we do this. – M.C. Cronin
ALL 15 GREEN LINE INSTALLMENTS: 88 Oriental Foods to Thai Cafe, Ha Tien Deli to Hook Fish and Chicken, Family Lao Thai to Cheng Heng, iPho by Saigon to Los Ocampo, SugaRush to PaJai, Pinoy Fusion to The Best Steakhouse, Johnny Baby’s to Ngon Bistro, Flamingo to Trend Bar, Midway Pro Bowl to Big V’s, On’s Kitchen to Tracks Bar and Grill, Caspian Bistro to Playoffs Sports Lounge, Mesa Pizza to Stub and Herb’s, The Dubliner to Ippindo Ramen, Silhouette to Little Szechuan, and T-Rex to Campus Club (the end of the line).
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
The Green Line Checklist is The Heavy Table’s follow-up to our 55-restaurant survey of independent eateries on Central Avenue. We’ll publish five-restaurant installments bi-weekly until we’ve documented every non-chain spot between University Avenue and Rice and the Green Line terminus in Minneapolis at Washington Avenue. (We’re estimating about 75 spots, but we’ll see how it shakes out.)
This series is made possible by underwriting from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative. Heavy Table retains editorial control of the series – as with Central Avenue, this tour will be warts-and-all.
88 Oriental Foods
291 University Avenue W, St. Paul
On the surface there is nothing special about the place. But, as we’ve learned so many times before on these expeditions, the surface mostly lies.
Beneath the average small Asian market exterior beats the soulful heart of its immigrant owners. A married couple. Husband from China, wife from Thailand. We get the story from their children, who act and speak like typical American millennials in their late teens and twenties. It would be easy to imagine them being somehow disenchanted by working in their parents’ store, a place they’ve surely spent more than a fair share of their lives. But if they are, there is no trace of it. They’re excited to tell us about the place.
At the deli case we’re shown a variety of authentic favorites. Everything from pork sausage to stuffed chicken wings to beef intestine soup. The kids point out that their mother makes all the food herself without a written recipe for anything. This is a nagging source of consternation because to date attempts to recreate her dishes have yet to succeed in earning her approval. Who will make the food when she can’t anymore? Based on what we tried we sure hope someone can pick up the reins.
As for the rest of the store, it’s what you might imagine. Well kept and tidy. The shelves are stocked with colorfully designed packaged foods that seem almost alien to us, but to many are as recognizable and comforting as a can of Campbell’s soup or box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
We were invited to grab a stool by the register to enjoy our meal. As we stood there opening our containers atop a display case containing various sundries such as soaps and balms and powders, we were reminded again of why we love doing these checklists. There’s nothing quite like listening to people tell us their stories while we grab and stab at food across the table (or upon any available ledge). – M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The hot food deli at 88 Oriental Foods is about as unassuming as anything we’ve seen on our travels but that makes the experience of eating its food all the more pleasurable. The deli’s papaya salad ($4) was prepared by the owner in a large wooden bowl while we watched (recalling our outing to the Hmong Village Market), and its humble appearance concealed tidal waves of flavor: heat, funk, acid, coolness, alternating and overlapping.
The deli’s pork intestine ($7) had a rich, fatty intensity to it and a texture perhaps best described as “stubborn.” The trick, it seems, is giving the stuff a few hearty chews and then sending it down the hatch – while springy, it wasn’t gristly or tough.
We collectively flipped our lids over the sausage ($3 for 10 meatball-like spheres). It packed an initially soft and deceptively powerful heat that was complemented perfectly by the thinly sliced pickled carrots it was served with. You really can’t (or at the very least shouldn’t) eat one without the other.
The house made beef jerky is some of the best we’ve had in town, particularly when paired with sticky rice. At $15 a pound it’s eminently affordable, and will be coming with us the next time we hit the trail – its tender texture and gently savory spice profile is exceedingly charming.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing that we sampled was the deli’s pumpkin tapioca ($3). Creamy and coconut-infused, this sweet pudding also contained tender chunks of pumpkin. We liked it cold; the deli’s staff suggested we also try it warmed up. – James Norton
Bangkok Thai Deli
333 University Avenue W, St. Paul
The menu here has more pages than a Russian novel and a numbering system as intricate/confusing as any Dostoyevsky plot. When deciding on our order, the conversation sounded like some kind of comedy routine:
“Should we get the number 25B?”
“Where is that? I don’t see it here under the number 25.”
“No, page six, under the number 102 and above the KL.”
“You mean the BT25?”
“No, the 25B.”
The place is built to serve massive amounts of Thai food. To punctuate the quick serve aesthetic, it even occupies an old Burger King building. But instead of the tinny sound of a drive through speaker in the background, we get a TV playing oddly enthralling foreign music videos that seem to be heavily influenced by the music videos of ’90s pop stars.
Other than a few decorative Thai touches around the register and paintings on the walls, it’s a no-frills operation. Just a room full of clean, laminate tables. Each topped with a simple setup of chopsticks, napkins, Sriracha and soy. Each numbered to keep patron’s bills in order for easy payment. And while the numbering system on the menu may not make sense to the patrons, we’re willing to bet it makes all kinds of sense in the kitchen where it counts. – M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Stir Fried Basil ($9) was the first thing recommended to us by our server and we’re glad she did so – it had a good, stern, serious spicy heat to it, tender beef, and a clean, clear basil flavor that melded pleasingly with the richness of the soft-boiled egg that accompanied the dish.
We tried our starter, Hoi Jor ($9) on the recommendation of our erstwhile cartoonist, Dave Witt. These bean curd-wrapped fried crab and pork dumplings were pleasingly crispy with a bit of a fishy flavor to the filling.
Our Red Curry ($10) was mildly hot, coconut-inflected without being crushingly so, and boosted with subtle currents of mint and acid. On a cold day, few things are more pleasing – perhaps only pho or bun bo hue (see Tay Ho, below) comes close. – J.N.
Tay Ho Restaurant
302 University Avenue W, St. Paul
Tay Ho is lived in. The paint is chipped and dinged from years of tables rubbing against walls. The carpet is worn and stained in places where the occasional Vietnamese coffee tumbled over the edge of a serving tray. The green vinyl chairs have small scratches and tears from the random key or comb poking out of a jeans pocket. These are the scars of heavy use. And they are truly beautiful.
But why would you visit a place that is so worn and scruffy? Because there is a straightforward honesty about it. Because beneath the surface there is soul. Because sometimes you just want to sit down with friends to eat something you know you like without all the show. And because places like this attract people like Greg the Cop.
Greg is a big man with a personality to match. We heard him busting chops with the kitchen crew and our server and we just couldn’t resist the chance to talk to him ourselves. The guy knows his food. About ever other reference he made was to a cooking show, a food celebrity, a restaurant he visited on vacation or his favorite cuisine.
When describing a particularly great meal, he would not hold back. He showed you how he felt about it with every part of his being. He’d look into space remembering the meal and shake his head in reverence and tell you it was “on point” punctuating both words equally. His charm and exuberance were infectious.
If we owned a restaurant, we’d want a guy like Greg the Cop as a regular. So there must be something special about Tay Ho. – M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
It’s urgent that we cut to the chase – the Pork Meatball Banh Mi ($3, above) at Tay Ho was one of the finest sandwiches we’ve had in quite some time and, pound for pound and dollar for dollar, certainly the best value. In terms of flavors and quantity, its ingredients were all in balance – the sausage was pleasantly flavored, but neither overly tough nor too strongly spiced for the company it keeps. Its baguette was crispy on the outside and chewy on the interior without being overly tough. Finally, and not insignificantly, it was a large sandwich, of real substance, unlike some of the Saran-wrapped, matchstick-sized numbers you get on Nicollet Ave. We could eat this sandwich all year. (Editor’s note: We mistook the pork meatball banh mi for the pork sausage banh mi.)
We dug the restaurant’s beef and flank steak pho ($6.50) – it leaned toward the sweet and star anise-flavored end of the spectrum, and its broth had a fatty richness that was luxurious without being greasy or excessive. Its noodles were unremarkable, as was the meat, but the whole dish worked quite well as a whole.
Better – and, in absolute terms, quite excellent – was the restaurant’s Bun Bo Hue spicy noodle soup ($8). Its noodles were fat and tender, its chunks of fatty stewed beef rich and flavorful, and its broth profoundly deep with heat and savory spice.
The special of the day was Banh Bao ($2.75) a massive doughy dumpling stuffed with mild and peppery sausage plus a hard-boiled egg. Pleasant and bland on its own, it perked up with the addition of hoisin and/or sriracha. – J.N.
315 University Avenue W, St. Paul
We walked right by Royal Bangkok. It was easy to do. From the exterior it appeared to be a dark building with a couple retail shops that were closed for the night. But it’s actually a small mall. We walked down the main corridor passing by what looked to be a nail salon and some kind of computer training room.
The restaurant itself occupies the open central area of the building. Booths flank two sides of the space. There are a few tables scattered throughout. At the far end a couple of buffet islands provide a barrier to the kitchen. In the middle, the usual neutral white tiles of the drop ceiling have been replaced with elaborate decorative Thai-themed tiles.
Between the tiled ceiling, floor and walls, it’s hard not to feel like you’re sitting in a food court. Although, it is easy to imagine the restaurant doing a bustling lunch buffet business in this space.
There are large pictures of various exotic looking meals along the back wall, but without a sign telling us what we were looking at, we turned to the menu. On the front the description of Royal Bangkok reads “Thai, Lao, & Cambodian Cuisine.” But at the back of the menu there are a selection of Ethiopian dishes, too.
It’s all a bit crazy and eclectic. Which is pretty much normal for these excursions. – M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The eccentric nature of Royal Bangkok stretches from its decor to its Thai-Cambodian-Chinese-Ethiopian menu to the food itself. Its Pad See-Yew ($8) was sweet and one-note, amply studded with crunchy broccoli and chicken but lacking in complexity. Though there was nothing wrong with the ingredients per se, there was a depth that we missed.
We would’ve liked some injera – or, really, anything of contrast – to complement the lamb Awaze Tibs ($14). The meat had a gamey richness, but was swimming in a mild-to-the-point-of-bland broth.
And the restaurant’s Smoky Chicken ($13) did in fact taste of smoke, but the dry meat needed more than that to make it savory. – J.N.
371 University Ave W, St. Paul
How do you pronounce “krxb?”
Maybe it would help if we put it in context for you: “I would like an order of the khaw hmu krxb.”
It doesn’t matter. However it’s pronounced, we’re guessing it will be excellent at Thai Cafe.
It’s a cozy place. One room. Eight tables, tops. Pictures and names of some of their specialties are scattered on the walls (where we saw the aforementioned khaw hmu krxb). A few plants and floor lamps and a stack of Hmong Times newspapers sit in the two front window nooks giving things a bit of a living room vibe.
Like Tay Ho, Thai Cafe is simple and well worn. Perfectly set up for delivering a comforting and authentic Thai meal without pretense.
The only downside of this lack of pretense was that it lulled us into a kind of complacency the left us totally unprepared for the absolute punch in the mouth were about to receive from the intensely flavorful sour pork ribs. Whoa baby. – M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
We’ve had more than enough mediocre chicken Pad Thais to last a lifetime, but the version at Thai Cafe ($9) stands out as something else entirely – a complete dish with both balance and brightness. Its noodles were tender but supernaturally chewy, with real fight to them, and they were covered in a sauce that was redolent with heat and depth. The chicken was properly seasoned and cooked, and the end result was a dish we’d endorse and return for.
Another thing we’d take more of: The restaurant’s Spicy Pak Ka Pao ($13). These finely minced little bits of pork, peppers, and egg were inspiringly hot but balanced, and unctuously fatty but not greasy or overwhelming. The tension between sweet and peppery notes of flavor was delicious.
Finally, the most remarkable of our dishes: the Sour Pork Ribs ($13), which thrummed with vinegar-powered pungency. In terms of texture, these fatty pieces of meat recalled peanut brittle – crunchy and chewy, and in terms of flavor, nothing we’ve had before – they were bold, bright, and sour as the devil. This is the kind of dish that will split a table of diners – some will be repulsed and others will dream of them and return, weeks later, to enjoy a flavor that can’t be duplicated. – J.N.