Strange things happen at the intersection of circumstance and enterprise. Like an Asian market and deli housed in an old movie theater or a Vietnamese bakery tucked off the street behind a Thai restaurant. When cities plan, they don’t plan for this. You just can’t. These things happen naturally over time. Sometimes the best thing you can do is stay out of the way.
University Avenue feels like a street that’s been left mostly to its own devices, allowed to evolve and grow organically along with the neighborhood and people around it. Now, with the presence of the Green Line, the question is this: Will the impulse of development edge toward maintaining that wily authenticity or will things become just a bit more homogenized and “authentic-like?”
In this installment, we got our first taste of establishments that are clearly attempting to attract a broader audience. The results were a mixed bag. And that mixed bag was inexplicably topped with shredded cheese. But more on that later. — 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 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.
Ha Tien Grocery Store
353 University Ave W, St. Paul
Western Avenue Station
Judging by the bright neon marquee, you might think you’d find a $2 matinee at Ha Tien rather than pork bung for $6.99 a pound.
But while from the outside, Ha Tien has the look of the former single-screen cinema it occupies, inside it’s exactly what you’d expect in a full-service Asian market.
The shelves are stacked with a cheerful collection of cans, boxes, pouches, and sacks of Asian grocery items. Refrigerator cases are well stocked with Asian sausages, dairy specialties, and plastic-wrapped foam trays containing delicacies most safely put in the category of “other.”
In the back of the store we found a case full of fresh fish packed in ice along with a cardboard box with writhing, live blue crabs. Someone left a long pair of tongs leaning against this snapping, clattering mass, as if to present a kind of crazy dare.
The deli is appropriately placed near the heart of the store. We selected a few items from the menu and stepped outside to eat.
Standing where the old movie box-office window might have been, chatting and sharing food from takeout containers, it was difficult not to imagine this place at another time: kids loitering after the show, shaking bits of candy and popcorn into their mouths from brightly colored boxes purchased at the concession stand. They might never have imagined what this place would become — that their Jujubes would be replaced by sticky rice — or that things would work out quite so well for everyone involved. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
We arrived at Ha Tien at 6 p.m. sharp, an hour before the shop’s posted closing time, only to discover that the deli portion of the market had essentially given up for the day. We weren’t able to order a barbecued pork banh mi (the pork available was, we were told, too difficult to separate from the bone), and the egg rolls were hovering around room temperature. We ate the egg rolls anyway — the tiny seafood egg rolls (4 for $1) offered little in the way of seafood flavor, but, on the bright side, lacked the unpleasantly fishy taste that we’d feared. The much larger pork egg roll ($1.50) had a pleasingly crisp exterior and a uniform, mildly salty filling.
The (non-barbecued) pork banh mi that we ordered ($3.75) wasn’t the equal of the marvelous specimen we tried at Tay Ho — this one was dominated by its baguette and lacked a properly pickled kick to its vegetables. But it was pleasant enough, and sizable.
The contrast with our daytime visit can hardly be overstated. Massive hunks of red and black barbecued pork dominated the deli when we arrived at lunchtime. This compelled us to order a barbecued pork banh mi ($4.75), which arrived wrapped in tinfoil and stuffed with great jalapeño heat, tons of cilantro flavor, and the crowning glory of big pieces of pork. The meat was rich in fatty flavor and a bit of char, touched with sweetness but not overly sauced, and uniformly tender. This will surely stack up near or at the pinnacle of our top 10 list of University Avenue sandwiches.
Pleasant, but less life-changing, was our large, shrinkwrapped foam plate of Xoi Man sticky rice ($2.50), a dish of small bits of barbecued pork, Chinese-style sausage, scallions, and so much black pepper that the dish was visibly spotted. As a value prospect, this stuff is right up there with some of the best banh mi we’ve had. A half serving heated up in a skillet was enough for a weekday lunch. — James Norton
Ai Hue’s Bakery
432 University Ave W, St. Paul
Western Avenue Station
Ai Hue lies at the exact opposite end of the “conspicuousness” spectrum from Ha Tien with its bright neon sign. Just finding the place turned into a mini adventure.
We took the long way round and eventually found Ai Hue through the back door of the International Plaza building, a half block up the alley set back from the street, in the parking lot next to Bangkok Thai. Technically, it’s visible from University, but you need to be looking for it. Take it from us, just scanning the block for a sign won’t be enough.
The place keeps with the theme of Asian restaurants we’ve visited so far on University. Which is to say it’s all business.
The decor is plain and simple. Beige tile floors, light wood wainscoting, white laminate tables, red vinyl chairs, bright green and yellow walls.
Each table is topped with two baskets, one containing bright green chopsticks, napkins, and spoons, and another containing bottles of Asian sauces.
Picture an old-school main street diner that serves banh mi instead of biscuits and gravy. That’s Ai Hue.
The night we visited, we were the only dine-in patrons. But according to our server, the place does a brisk daytime business. We talked a bit to the owner who sat in a corner enjoying a meal of her own creation. She said the idea here — since the day she opened the place 18 years ago — is to serve real, simple Vietnamese food. Nothing fancy, nothing more, a mission statement her establishment more than follows through on.
We’re not sure if it says more about us or Ai Hue’s regular patrons, but our server took one look at our group and brought out forks. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Ai Hue’s spin on Bun Bo Hue ($7.50) lacked the spicy depth of Tay Ho’s version, and its beef was a good deal fattier and more ragged. But it possessed a pleasing richness.
The restaurant’s Mi Vit Tiem ($8.50) brought together duck and slightly curly, perfectly cooked egg noodles in a soothingly enjoyable combination. We appreciated the richness of the duck, which in turn made for a more fully flavored broth. And we were startled by how much a different noodle can transform a dish. While still in the greater family of pho, this dish was a second cousin or rarely seen sister-in-law.
Ai Hue’s roast pork and pork loaf rice plate (Com Chien, $7.25) was not so far from a large serving of house fried rice, slices of sausage notwithstanding. We wished that it had a bit more salt and kick, although it took condiments (soy, Sriracha) well.
And the mung bean / durian drink we tried ($3.25) was incredibly smooth and brought the durian thunder we’ve come to know and warily respect — a creamy, happy tropical body sporting a really funky, earthy, garlic-esque tail. — J.N.
King Thai Asian Cuisine
225 University Ave W, St. Paul
Capitol / Rice Street Station
Right away, the Crazy Curry Noodles caught our attention. Probably because we’ve never seen anything as audacious or ludicrous on a Thai menu as coconut curry noodles topped with shredded cheese. Though to be fair, “crazy” is right there in the name.
The other dish that raised an eyebrow was the Pho King. If you know the proper pronunciation of pho, you’ll understand why. We got a kick out of the humor. Perhaps a bit too much for supposedly mature adults. (But, come on, who are we kidding, that’s just funny right?)
But while the menu didn’t mind pushing boundaries, the atmosphere was unobjectionable to the point of being forgettable. The decor felt oddly suburban for a restaurant on a busy urban street. In fact, without pictures for reference, it would be difficult to summon up anything that stood out. Except perhaps that the place was spacious.
There seemed to be a nonfunctioning bar in one corner of the restaurant. When we asked about it, the story was oddly ambiguous. They are either planning on trying a sushi bar at some point, or they already tried, and it didn’t work out, but they might try it again, maybe? We got a similarly unclear story about the karaoke setup near the back of the place. Maybe they do karaoke; maybe they did it in the past; maybe they’re planning on doing it in the future. Who knows?
But we’re talking about a Thai place that puts shredded cheese on coconut curry noodles, so pretty much anything could happen and we wouldn’t be surprised. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The space was lovely; the servers were friendly; the menus were pleasantly illustrated, long, and apparently thoughtful. So where and how did King Thai skid off the rails and become the gastronomic equivalent of a fuel train disaster?
We may as well begin with the Crazy Curry Noodles ($11). Billed to us as “Thai red curry meets pasta with Alfredo sauce,” the dish lacked any of the heat or spice that might have saved it from being a bland, one-note riff on a low-grade and unseasoned cheese and noodle casserole (plus coconut milk).
Our Massaman Tofu ($11.50) featured chunks of undercooked potatoes and some of the least palatable tofu we’ve encountered. Shriveled and textureless, it offered none of feel and little of the flavor we’ve come to expect from fried tofu. The dish also lacked the depth of spice we’d been hoping for. A good massaman is a warm, comforting dish, it’s true, but it shouldn’t be without flavor.
(Barely) on the plus side of the ledger was the Pho King ($7.50) soup, which boasted a variety of meats and the normal complement of noodles, but which offered up a broth that was — depending upon who at the table you asked — either simple and refined or underseasoned and too thin. Our waiter was a good sport about pronouncing the name of the dish for us, though.
And the table was equally divided by the Hmong Sweet Pork ($13). At its best, it offered a great deal of richness and lovely, full pork flavor. At its worst, it was oversweet and at times gelatinous in texture. Of all the dishes we ordered, it was the most intriguing.
It’s also difficult to overstate the importance of details. In the case, the water in our glasses tasted slightly of lemon-scented soap, particularly distressing as the rest of our meal kept demanding a palate-cleansing antidote. Our Thai iced coffees resembled, uncannily so, the milk left in your bowl after eating sweetened cereal — not a hint of coffee flavor, or really any flavor whatsoever beyond sugary dairy product. — J.N.
Mai Village Restaurant
394 University Ave W, St. Paul
Western Avenue Station
When it comes to the interior design at many restaurants, you could switch from one theme to another by slapping on a few new coats of paint, changing the drapes and upholstery, and switching out the knickknacks. Today, it’s an Italian eatery. Tomorrow — BAM! — it’s a Middle Eastern deli.
Not at Mai Village.
The theme here is so deeply embedded, it’s impossible to imagine anything in this space other than a Vietnamese restaurant. In the unlikely event that Mai Village moved, you might be able to pull off a different Asian cuisine here, but a wood-fired pizzeria this place will never be.
You’re in a different world as soon as you step across the wooden footbridge spanning the rock-lined koi pond. There’s a bubbling waterfall, intricately carved dark wood, and bright, embroidered fabrics. A vast gazebo, complete with tiled eaves and wooden railings, forms the central focus of the room.
Although heavily themed restaurants run the risk of feeling artificial, Mai Village never manages to come off as inauthentic. But make no mistake, they are definitely catering to people who want an “experience.” — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
It’s easy to write off dishes that involve tabletop cooking apparatuses as silly, but we do so at our own risk. Dining should be — we’ll say it — fun. And Mai Village brought the fun.
The highlight of our visit was less an entree than a challenge. Here’s the theory behind the griddled beef ($15): your waiter comes to your table and sets up a gas-powered burner beneath a pyramidal metal grilling surface ringed by a moat of oil and topped with a thick pat of butter. The butter melts as the surface heats. You are given a pile of sticky, extremely thin, difficult-to-maneuver slices of raw beef, dried rice paper wraps (which need to be warmed in hot water to make them pliable enough to wrap your spring roll-like beef things), and a pile of produce including pineapples, lettuce, and sliced carrots. Using your chopsticks, you grab a slice of beef, disentangle it from the rest of the pile, and spread it out as much as possible on the sizzling-hot cooking surface.
Meanwhile, you (or better still, another diner at the table) start wetting down the rice paper (but not too much!) and filling it with assorted produce in preparation for the beef slice, which takes a scant few minutes to cook. The entire process is comical, panic-inducing, and totally enjoyable, and results in remarkably hot, fresh, and delicious griddled beef rolls, enhanced still further by the lively sauce provided tableside. This is no mere dish — it’s an event.
The restaurant’s Roasted Cornish Game Hen with Coconut Rice ($17) came out of left field — when’s the last time you ordered a Cornish game hen at an Asian restaurant? (Our answer: never.) We found the hen to be rich, unctuous and downright delicious and the insanely crispy and perfectly seasoned coconut rice that accompanied it to be (improbably) even tastier. This is an unexpected classic.
We hadn’t tried beef-wrapped onion slices ($5.50) before, but we certainly will again — earthy beef and sharp onions are best friends for a reason. These appetizers did, in fact, whet our appetites with their bold and savory flavors. — J.N.
Hook Fish and Chicken (and Fire and Ice)
600 University Ave W, St. Paul
Dale Street Station
Every window and door in the place is fortified with black iron bars. From a booth in the back, an armed security guard keeps tabs on any shenanigans. The register is covered by a thick cube of plexiglass to protect the cash drawer from foul play. A sign taped to the glass reads “As soon as the order is down in the fryers or on the grill there will be no refund or exchange.”
You get the impression they must deal with some pretty tough customers here.
But the night we visited, we witnessed absolutely no shenanigans (other than our own). And the security guard was just a nice guy who happened to be packing heat. We asked him what his favorite thing on the menu was. He couldn’t narrow it down to a single item, but it was clear that fish was where it was at.
After all, it’s Hook Fish and Chicken not Hook Chicken and Fish. The fish is the lede for a reason. The chicken just came along for the ride while the fryer was hot.
And then, oddly, there’s the Philly.
Turns out the place is a kind of Arby’s / Sbarro situation with Hook housing a second restaurant called Fire and Ice that specializes in Philly steak and lemonade. (When we noticed hush puppies on both menus, we were tempted to order one from each “restaurant” to do a taste test, but something told us they wouldn’t put up with smart-alecky behavior like that.)
Hook Fish and Chicken is the kind of place the term “gritty” was invented to describe. But it takes a little grit to make a pearl. And the pearls in this awkward metaphor are most definitely the fish and the fries. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The classic fast food menu posted above the registers, the glass case of identical-looking desserts, and the in-house security helped us park our expectations at a low level as we walked into Hook Fish and Chicken and surveyed the place. That this Hook location (there are several others in the Twin Cities) is actually a two-for-one situation (with the slightly less prominent Fire and Ice restaurant playing Teller to Hook’s more prominent Penn) further eroded our confidence.
That said, we ate some good bites. Our fries were, without exaggeration, some of the best we’ve had in recent years. Coated in batter to the point of fluffiness but without exces grease, properly seasoned with just a bit of cayenne kick, the fries reminded us of Arby’s curly fries, but straightened out and improved.
Our Philly cheesesteak ($8) from Fire and Ice was underwhelming in terms of flavor, but the texture — tender and gooey — was spot on, as was the seasoning level. It’s far from the best we’ve had in the area (we prefer the version at Peppers and Fries, or when we can get there, Jerry’s East Coast Flavor in St. Croix Falls, Wis.), but on a late night, after a few beers, it would get the job done.
The ocean perch and chicken tenders meal ($11) from Hook was a solid value. The fish, in particular, deserves praise: It was delicate and flaky, covered in a cornmeal breading that was crispy and seasoned without shouting down the flavor of its contents. We’ve had worse fish in (nominally) much better restaurants. — J.N.