Random is good. It pushes you out of your comfort zone. It makes you work a little harder, be a little more spontaneous, pay a little deeper attention. It keeps you on your toes. And it’s a way of life when you work on the checklist. You never really know what you’re going to get on any given outing.
Some places are open only four hours one day a week; others are closed for two weeks while the owner takes a vacation. Sometimes you find yourself ordering a dish made from parts of pig faces; other times it’s pig uteri. Some days you’re loving the gyro in a steak house; other days you’re loving the Bundt cake in a barbecue joint.
So we’ve learned to embrace random (frankly, we’ve had to embrace it) even when it doesn’t necessarily embrace us back. — 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 biweekly until we’ve documented every nonchain spot between the University Avenue and Rice Street intersection in St. Paul and the Green Line terminus on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis. (We’re estimating 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.
Food Truck at 789 University Ave W, St. Paul (Phil.-Oriental Foods)
Victoria Street Station
The woman serving us asked if it was our first time trying Filipino food. We said yes. She considered this a moment then said, “And you’re ordering the Sisig?” Her reply was equal parts genuine respect and deep concern. What exactly had we just ordered?
We had plenty of time to contemplate this (and grow increasingly nervous) while we waited for our order to be delivered through the truck window. But we were reassured by the crowd of people in line and waiting for their food outside of Phil.-Oriental Foods. Surely these people wouldn’t be here if the food were so scary.
We struck up a conversation with a guy waiting who told us he comes here from Wisconsin to get lunch almost every weekend.
“So you like the food?” we asked.
His eyes widened, “Oh, yeah.”
We were heartened.
“But I’m Filipino.”
The implication was clear. We started sweating again.
Our new Filipino friend broke up the conversation with periodic bursts of laughter as he reminisced about the tight-knit culture of the Philippines. He told us everyone seems to be related to everyone else. Except, he clarified, they may not be related at all. The way he described it, a good friend may one day decide to call himself your cousin or your uncle, and from then on, it’s true. It seems to be a friendly place.
According to him, Pinoy started life as a bricks-and-mortar restaurant, but it didn’t work out. Now, they look to be doing quite well in their new, decked-out food truck.
One of the outcomes of the food truck movement is the growth of companies specializing in the creation of these trucks from the ground up. They can do it all. From custom kitchen layouts to exterior graphic design to creating a splashy logo for your mobile business. While the result is undeniably professional, a bit of the scratch and personality gets lost. We sometimes miss the early days of the food truck movement, when the trucks were scrappy, retrofitted, ragtag designs that felt more personal to the people who ran them.
But that’s just surface matter. The food is where the rubber hits the road. We laid out our containers in the back of a hatchback and cautiously dug our plastic forks into the Sisig. (Thankfully, we didn’t look up exactly what it was until later.) — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Pinoy Fusion, the food-truck associate of the Filipino-foods-focused Phil.-Oriental grocery store, isn’t really accessible. You can catch it only from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays in front of the store. But the truck’s got a dedicated following, and we figured out why in a hurry. The food is made with serious passion and massive doses of authenticity. The menu contained about a dozen (totally undescribed) dishes, only a few of which our gastronomic strike team had ever heard of. Pork Humba? Dinuguan? Pancit Malabon? No idea. No clue. No sé.
The Fish Balls ($3) at Pinoy Fusion were spectacular. Made with a heavy percentage of smooth, light tofu, and fried on the spot, they were hot, golden, crispy, tender, and almost buttery smooth in the interior. Profoundly simple, but really excellent.
Ordering the Sisig ($12) was a mistake. Not because it was in any way a bad collection of finely diced parts of a pig’s face and liver (plus hot peppers) but because the textureal sensation — snappy, chewy, kind of stringy — was really not our thing, something foretold by the Pinoy Fusion truck’s cashier.
She had suggested that maybe it wasn’t the sort of thing people who hadn’t tried much Filipino food should order. Touche, thoughtful cashier lady. We thought this stuff would be spicy, but it was spicy AND rubber bandy and kind of gamy, to boot. At any rate, we suspect if you enjoy authentic sisig, you’ll love Pinoy Fusion’s version.
And the truck’s barbecue skewers ($12 for 6) were some of the best barbecue we’ve eaten in the metro area, hands down. The pork had lovely chew and char; it was tender and free of gristle, and was perfectly presented as a bundle of meaty arrows contained within a tinfoil quiver. Opening this package and gazing rapturously upon its contents felt like Christmas, or something holier than that: something more special and less mercantile. We’ll return for these. — James Norton
Russian Tea House
1758 University Ave W, St. Paul
Snelling Avenue Station
Like the soundtrack of a Cold War film, the wistful strains of an accordion drifted down the narrow wooden staircase to the line of people crowded into the foyer waiting to get their food.
The Russian Tea House is indeed a house. The kitchen and order window are on the main level. The dining room is on the second level. Between songs, the wood floor creaked under the weight of diners carrying trays of food to their tables and shifting in their seats.
A guy behind us told his friend he’s seen the line so long that it wrapped around itself and went right up the staircase. We were lucky. We’d arrived at noon and the line was relatively manageable.
We waited and listened to the melodic wheezes and huffs of the accordion and contemplated the menu board on the wall. There were pictures of about nine traditional Russian dishes — to order with Russian tea, of course.
The wife-and-husband team of Linda and Nikolai Alenov do all the work. She takes orders through a window into the kitchen and banters with patrons while he preps paper plates of pel’meni (dumplings), parchment-wrapped piroshki (meat-stuffed buns), and bowls of bright red borscht. She then piles your order on a tray that you take to the cozy upstairs dining room.
While we waited, we noticed a lanky gentleman wearing a scarf, suspenders, and a fiddler cap carrying down a pile of used trays. This turned out to be the accordion player doing double duty as a bus boy. Whether it was part of the gig, or he was just trying to help out, we don’t know. But it went to the heart of what makes the Russian Tea House so simple and soulful and entirely unique.
This place continues to operate not out of some delusion that someone is going to get rich serving borscht and Russian tea for four hours every Friday. It seems to exist purely out of love. Because the people running it have a passion for celebrating their heritage and keeping a tradition alive.
If you go, expect a line. Just enjoy being serenaded by the accordion and getting to know your neighbors. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The simplicity of the Russian Tea House’s photographs-on-the-wall menu is its charm. You’re going for one core experience that all of the place’s customers enjoy, and you trust that the old hands at the wheel know their business. And they do — they most certainly do.
The sour-cream-and-beets simplicity of the Russian Tea House’s Borscht ($3) doesn’t mean that the dish isn’t up to snuff. We found this cabbage-and-bean-laden version to be pleasantly suggestive of a Russian spin on chili.
Vereniki (two ways, $6) are simple potato dumplings, but once you dress them up, they’re anything but boring. We enjoyed our vereniki with sour cream, dill, and chicken stock, but the plating with mustard and balsamic vinegar was a home run — a lovely contrast of acid, heat, and mellow starchy goodness.
The Piroshki ($4.20) are the signature dish of the Russian Tea House. Billed as “Russian hamburgers,” these ground meat patties baked inside tender buns are a bit hamburgeresque, but they’re also mellower, lacking the typical onion / ketchup / mustard accompaniments that help push back against the meat and bread. We found ourselves dipping our piroshki into the balsamic / mustard mix from the vereniki, and the pepper-studded sauce of the stroganoff, and both really helped elevate a comforting but bland spin on a hamburger into something pretty delicious.
The Tea House’s Stroganoff ($6) is rightfully renowned. It’s got plenty of peppers to kick up the heat level and depth of flavor, but is basically the noodles and ground beef equivalent of a hug from grandma — warm and ineffably comforting.
Tea cakes ($2) are a must-have, particularly with a hot cup of the house tea. They’re crunchy and not particularly sweet, save for their powdered sugar coating, and while they’re understated in appearance they’re charmingly sophisticated. We’d buy these by the gross, if we could, and parcel them out every afternoon, two or four at a time.
The Chocolate Poppyseed Roll ($3.50) at the Russian Tea House is about 95 percent chocolate followed by a final 5 percent of the slightly bitter but charming flavor of poppyseed at the tail end of every slightly gooey bite. — James Norton
995 University Ave W, St. Paul
Lexington Parkway Station
We ordered the pig uteri. So it wouldn’t be a lost opportunity. We will never have to look back with regret and say, “You know, we really should’ve ordered the pig uteri when we had the chance.” And now, with a clear conscience, we never have to order it again.
The pig uteri were just one of many oddities that Destiny Cafe served up the night we visited, starting with its location.
It’s hidden in the back of a nondescript brick building which is essentially a small mall housing an eclectic assortment of businesses. There’s a chiropractor and acupuncturist clinic, a food market, a wireless accessory store, and a tattoo artist specializing in permanent makeup, to name a few.
From University Avenue, the only way you’d know Destiny Cafe even exists is a tattered vinyl banner hanging near the corner of the building. Fortunately, they have their own entrance around back by the parking lot. That’s how we found it. (With the help of a small neon “OPEN” sign in the window and another faded banner strung above the back door.)
The place itself is quirky too. From the mirrored walls to the steel-cage-covered openings facing out into the mall to the deli case with a whole roasted duck folded inside to the pile of $1 DVDs next to the register featuring music videos by a pop rock band named Destiny.
This, it turns out, was no coincidence. Our server told us Destiny is the owner’s band.
The DVD intrigued us. The cover image featured a group of captivated concert goers reaching out to a performer on stage. The band member’s names are printed across the top: Kace, Phong, Niko, Chong, and Blaize. In the videos, the band performs a half-dozen or so power ballads while exploring a variety of music video tropes (smoke-machine enhanced performances; dramatic slow-motion footage of the band looking very serious while walking toward camera; boy-looses-girl, boy-sings-
The tattered banners outside mentioned that the cafe had live music and karaoke on the weekend. If Destiny ever plays, it might just be worth a return visit. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The menus at Destiny Cafe depict Sweet Hli Xiab with Spicy Pork ($7), a mixture of crackling, lacquered pork chunks with a lightly spicy finish. These slightly too-sweet morsels aren’t the equals of the sour pork ribs at Thai Cafe, but they would do in a pinch.
How does one go on a gung-ho, try-it-all tour like ours and not order the Pig Uteri ($9)? We went for it, and were pleasantly surprised. The sinister-looking, chunky, black-brown bands of meat were a bit funky, but not out of control, complemented nicely by the onions and other alliums that came along with them. We feared that we’d be getting something like feral tripe, but instead received a dish that was mellow and agreeable.
The Pho Destiny Baby ($6 for a small bowl) is one of the better named bowls of pho we’ve eaten (see also: the Pho King), but it fails to meet its potential. Flavorless meat and mild-to-the-point-of-invisible broth make this pretty close to a bowl of nothing.
Our Sweet and Spicy Tilapia ($13) was a crushing disappointment. Not that this largely forgettable dish was among the worst things we’ve tried on our travels, but because the photo in the menu looked spectacular, and the dish itself promised waves of flavor. Instead, we got a bland fish studded with a few bits of chemical-warfare hot peppers that provided a burning, acidic heat but little-to-no flavor. — J.N.
Big Daddy’s Old Fashioned Barbecue
625 University Ave W, St. Paul
Western Avenue or Victoria Street Stations
Warning: Do not inhale at the exact moment you shove a fork full of chicken drenched in Big Daddy’s spicy barbecue sauce into your mouth. We’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say, getting hot barbecue sauce down your windpipe is a good recipe for causing a scene.
So, OK, it was a rough start to the meal. But you can’t blame Big Daddy’s for that.
We ended up talking to the man we thought was Big Daddy himself. Turns out there were actually three Big Daddies in the beginning. They were good friends who enjoyed having barbecue cook-offs in the park. When people wanted more, they made things semi-official with a smoker and a spare bit of space in a parking lot where they sold their barbecue to lines of people. A few years back, they got their very own space.
It’s clean and bright. All yellows and reds with a few tables and window bar-height seating. They occupy a corner storefront with a patio and green space attached. On our lunch visit, we noticed a couple of outdoor smokers hibernating in the parking lot that was waiting to be called into service for patio cooking season.
It’s a simple setup. You order. They chop your meat. You walk away with smoke-scented foam containers you can take home. Or if you choose, you can go directly to a table and get down on some barbecued goodness right there. Handy Tip: The spicy sauce can be identified by a black Sharpie slash across the lid.
The first of the Big Daddys moved back to Kentucky some time ago. But while there may be only two Big Daddies left now, they’re still delivering on the passion they brought to those cook-offs in the park. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Speaking generally, we’ve found good barbecue difficult to track down in the metro area, with only Q Fanatic in Champlin (and now South Minneapolis) regularly rising to the occasion. That said, Big Daddy’s brings some real flavor and passion to the table, and we’ll be back for more. The Rib Tips Combo (we got the Boatload, $9.41) seemed to be the main attraction, and we could see why. Although texture and meat quality varied from tip to tip, they were all richly flavored and covered in a nicely charred spice “bark.”
Our barbecued chicken was mellow and properly cooked, with a nice exterior char and a mild smokiness. Dipped in the restaurant’s hot barbecue sauce, it was legitimately addictive.
Real char and smoke marked our Three Bone Beef Rib Combo ($7.91), and we were pleased that the texture still had some tenderness to it, without being either leathery or gel-like.
The sides were made to our satisfaction. The mac and cheese was rich and simple, and while baked beans at a barbecue place can be watery and sugary, these held their shape and even offered up some depth of spice.
We had no expectations in terms of the restaurant’s dessert, little plastic-wrapped wedges of chocolate Bundt cake and lemon Bundt cake ($1.79) but we were dazzled by these things. They were flavorful and moist as you please, perfect examples of how Bundt should be done. — J.N.
The Best Steakhouse
860 University Ave W, St. Paul
Lexington Parkway and Dale Street Stations
Some people get uncomfortable when we pull out our cameras and ask if we can take pictures in their restaurants. Not the owner of The Best Steak House. There was a brief pause where it looked like the guy might go sideways on us. Then he stepped back and posed. “Yes! Of course! Take all the pictures you want!”
This is an owner who is proud of what he has created. His enthusiasm is infectious. He lights the place up with his bombast, charm, and sheer confidence.
He asked if we’d been there before. We told him we hadn’t.
“You will love it!” he said. It wasn’t a boast. It was a statement of fact. A direct order.
Meanwhile his brother, who was only slightly more reserved, looked on with a knowing smile. As if he’d seen this a million times. Possibly even a million times that very day.
We asked what we should get.
“Anything! Everything is great!”
“OK, but —”
He pointed to a sign behind him advertising a T-Bone Special. “You cannot get this anywhere else. Not this good. Not for this price. That’s what you want. OK?”
We were sold.
When it became clear we were new here, a few of the regulars chimed in to tell us their favorite menu items.
A couple sitting near us told us they have been coming here since they moved to the neighborhood 20 years ago. They were finishing their dinner and watching TV — as comfortable here as they would be in their own living room. At one point the guy jokingly leaned back in his chair, shoved one hand between his belly and his waistband and exclaimed, “I’m black Al Bundy!”
And indeed, the place feels like the perfect setting for sitcom: a neighborhood diner where a lovable cast of interesting characters from various walks of life come and go while wisecracking employees serve up hearty portions of food and entertainment.
Family photos line the walls along with pictures and paintings of Greece. Between ringing up customers at the register, the owner’s wife filled us in on the backstory. She told us the owner and his brother came over from Greece as children. She pointed to a photo of the two of them taken the day they left for America.
Their Greek heritage helps explain why there was a gyro on the menu of a steak house. When we expressed how surprised we were by the quality of the gyro, the owner nodded. “Yeah. I don’t mess around with no bullshit.”
One of the regulars tells us the owner and his wife go to Greece on a cruise every year and close the place down while they’re gone. “It’s the worst two weeks of the year,” she says. “When they come back, the line is around the block.”
That may or may not be an exaggeration. Regardless, it captures how special The Best Steak House — and the family running it — is to the neighborhood. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
It’s difficult not to be suspicious of any restaurant that touts its value. That’s usually a recipe for industrial tubs of indifferent-to-terrible grub. But while the Best Steakhouse promises low prices, it also brings a level of care to its food that we found fantastic.
The restaurant’s 14-ounce T-Bone Special ($14) is, dollar for dollar, the best deal on steak you’ll get in the state. This is not gorgeous, cellar-aged heirloom meat, but it’s properly cooked (our medium rare steak was, in fact, medium rare) and seasoned, and there’s a lot of meat on the plate for the money. The fact that you get a butter-loaded baked potato and Texas toast thrown in for no additional ducats makes this experience close to miraculous.
We hoped that given the blue-and-white decorating theme and the framed photos of Greece, the Gyro ($7.50) would be a slam dunk, and it was. The tzatziki tasted fresh and full-flavored, the meat was tender (not merely dried out strips of leather!) and the pita was warm and yielding. This goes right into our gyro hall of fame along with the gyros of Gyropolis and Filfillah.
As for our Cheeseburger ($7.50), well — it was an off-the-rack, standard-issue cheeseburger. No serious complaints, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the gyro or the steak. — J.N.