The State Fair is over. The cavalry of Park and Ride buses have gone, so too the type of gridlock on the streets you only see in zombie films. Yes: The Como and St. Anthony neighborhoods are habitable once again. This is good news for the workers in these office park-laden areas because there are some great lunch spots on these back streets – a few of which the Fair makes somewhat difficult to get at. Try one of these five lunch bites, none of which comes on a stick, next time you’re in the area.
Donburi at Obento-Ya (1510 SE Como Ave, Mpls., 612.331.1432)
One doesn’t expect to find a fun, classy Japanese bistro tucked back there on Como Ave. Shouldn’t a place like Obento-Ya be right in the middle of Dinkytown for all to see? Actually, that’s probably for the better, otherwise you might not be able to get a seat at noon.
My favorite seat in the house is on the left side of the bar for a hypnotic view of the robata grill. Though they’ve recently removed their delicious robata from the lunch menu, there is still some great midday eating to be had. You can hardly go wrong with their tasty bento. But take note of the day’s lunch special, especially on Tuesdays or Fridays when it’s Donburi.
On Tuesdays, the Katsudon ($10, pictured below) is a wonderfully starchy crowd pleaser. It’s a breaded pork cutlet, fried, then sliced open for an egg to be sautéed inside. The egg retains a little runniness which drips down into a bed of sweet rice with onions. Friday is a similar rendition with chicken. It’s savory and rich, and it comes with a cup of some downright delicious miso soup.
California Cheeseburger at Manning’s (2200 SE Como Ave, Mpls, 612.331.1053)
No lunch spot looks as comfortable on Como Ave. as Manning’s, from its weathered facade to its wood paneling adorned by old sports page clippings. Sitting down in one of the ancient red leather booths (seating yourself, as is their custom), you look around and surmise that very little about this place changes. Well, they don’t serve 3.2 beer anymore, but they’ve been flipping burgers at 22nd and Como since 1932.
There’s something decidedly awesome about a joint where the “California” Cheeseburger ($7.75) still merits its own line on the menu, despite the fact that it only differs from a regular cheeseburger by a slice of tomato and some iceberg lettuce.
But these are seriously good burgers by any standards. The hand-shaped irregular patties feature a nice crust and come grilled perfectly to order – medium rare here is actually medium rare. The bun is pillowy yet substantial enough to hold the juicy burger. In a city where the burger scene is ruled by one crazy jucy lucy iteration trying to outdo the next, the burger at Manning’s is a welcome throwback.
Bún Thịt Nướng at Pho 79 (2233 Energy Park Dr, St. Paul, 651.644.2327)
Pho 79 may not look like much, in a strip mall next to a gas station, decorated like it’s a one-act college play set in a Vietnamese restaurant. But when you show up a little past noon to see the doorway blocked by a group waiting for a table and another handful of folks waiting for take-out, you’ll get the picture.
Soon, when the mercury starts nosediving, we’ll be squarely back in Pho territory. Nothing melts away the frigid season like a big, steamy bowl of Pho, and Pho 79 does it as well as anyone. But this week’s summer heat calls for some Bún Thịt Nướng (#37, or #39 with an egg roll, $6.95 and $7.95). The Bún here rivals any on Eat Street and, in this writer’s opinion, bests Quang’s version by a long shot.
The dish is a kind of salad based on rice vermicelli noodles and shredded lettuce. The #37 comes topped with shredded carrots, bean sprouts, cilantro, scallions, peanuts, and chunks of ultra-thin, marinated pork. It’s served with a small bowl of Nước chấm, a sauce comprising water, sugar, fish sauce, citrus, and spices. I like to mix in a bit of hoisin before pouring it over the noodles – the flavor marries nicely with the chewy pork.
Oh, who am I kidding? I eat the Bún there all winter, too.
Croque Monsieur at Muffuletta (2260 W. Como Ave, St. Paul, 651.644.9116)
You could get lost on Muffuletta’s patio. Sitting on that tree-shaded, white tableclothed oasis, one feels removed from the street and nearly from the city. It’s a classy spot – terrific for when the company is picking up the tab or when family is in from out of town. The menu is really more attractive at dinner than lunch, but it features a couple sandwiches worth making a reservation for. Seriously, just to be safe. Their namesake Muffuletta sandwich would be right at home on Canal Street, but another guilty pleasure is worth consideration.
The Croque Monsieur ($13) even seems a little out of place on a menu characterized by balance and restraint. Like a good Croque Monsieur should be, the sandwich is indulgent, to say the least. Covered with melted Swiss cheese, the toasted brioche is wetted by just the right amount of béchamel – enough for flavor, but not enough to make the sandwich soggy. The Fischer Farms applewood-smoked ham is delicious and plentiful. For some, the sandwich might be a bit heavy, so you can opt for a half ($9) with a side salad.
Chicken Little at Nelson Cheese & Deli (1562 W Como Ave, St. Paul, 651.644.2060)
Kitty corner from the Fairgrounds on Snelling and Como is one of the finer sandwich shops in St. Paul. The great cheeses made at Nelson Cheese & Deli are the hallmark of their delicious deli sandwiches, and there isn’t a bad one in the bunch. The Hamline deserves an honorable mention, with Nelson’s homemade cheddar unabashedly smothering a pile of deli ham with sweet honey mustard dressing.
But the Chicken Little ($6) is one of the better chicken salad sandwiches around. Like all their sandwiches, its excellence derives from simplicity – a heap of creamy chicken salad with sprouts, lettuce, and tomato on grainy wild rice bread. It comes with Monterey Jack, but ask to swap it out for their buttery Chive Havarti.
If you can, get there between 11:30 and 11:45 or go after the rush. If you show up at high noon, you may be faced with a line out the door. And since there’s no seating, it’s only a few blocks to Como Park where you can eat and enjoy summer while you still can.\