If you walk to Red River Kitchen at City House (at 258 Mill Street) from Downtown St. Paul, consider it a self-guided tour of the past and present of “the most livable city in America,” culminating at a historic and picturesque site that you (maybe) never knew existed. And then eat delicious food.
Walk past the under-restoration Palace Theater, with its optimistic signs promising a 2016 reopening. See Mickey’s Diner and the mysterious Original Coney Island Tavern, which was most recently open for two days in February 2016. Pass through Rice Park on your way to the Science Museum, where you’ll take the elevator (no admission necessary) to the Mississippi River flood plain. A short distance away, you’ll see your destination: a decommissioned grain elevator, known as City House, poking its tower up from behind some recently completed apartment buildings. Cross the tracks and Shepard Road, pass the fountains that look like the uprights of a collapsed bridge, and turn right when you get to the path next to the river. You’ll see the Red River Kitchen trailer (mostly blue and parked next to the Mississippi River) up ahead.
The setting is stunning. The grain elevator’s cavernous warehouse has been faithfully restored. Glass garage doors blur the line between indoors and outdoors and offer Instagram-worthy views of the Mighty Miss and Harriet Island across the way. Gigantic ferns hang from the rafters over high-top and picnic tables. About half the warehouse is reserved for games — beanbag toss sits out all day and other games come out to play in the evening. Signage explains the history and workings of the place and is well worth reading. Because this is parkland and water flows nearby, the place is vaguely reminiscent of Sea Salt at Minnehaha Park.
Brought to you by Matty O’Reilly of Republic and JD Fratzke (chef / owner of Strip Club Meat and Fish and Saint Dinette), the endeavor began (prior to Fratzke’s involvement) a few summers ago as a food truck. It’s named for an ox-cart trail that ran from Winnipeg (hence the Red River) to the Twin Cities. There is a kitchen in the warehouse, but it is used mostly for prep. Everything you order comes out of the trailer. City House is on the flood plain of the Mississppi, so if the water rises, they can just hitch up the kitchen and drive away.
This permanently parked mobile kitchen is sending out some good food. We tried the Kielbasa ($9) with kimchee on a brat bun. The fluffy griddled bun and the toothsome dog were well matched, but the kimchee felt out of place. It was funky, sour, and flavorful, as good kimchee is, but it overwhelmed the affair.
Tacos with mahi mahi ($7 for two) were a solid selection, especially for the price. Single corn tortillas cradled fingers of grilled fish topped with pineapple salsa with roasted corn, onion, and pepper. The tortilla brought charred flavor, the fish was meaty, and the salsa added tropical sweetness.
We were disappointed by the Crab Salad ($11). The tennis-ball-sized scoop of shredded crab dressed with herbs and mayonnaise was fine on its own, but it sat atop a bed of arugula, house-made pickle slices, and limp red pepper, and the dish suffered from too many strong actors.
If you ask at the counter what’s good, they might tell you the Cubano ($12) is the most popular item. While that is an answer to a different question, Red River’s Cubano is excellent, and a pretty traditional version of the sandwich. Ham and shredded pork combine with melted Swiss cheese, subtle mustard, and fresh pickles in a harmonious balance between the crunchy pressed halves (buttered and browned on all sides) of a roll. Good Cubanos are hard to find, and this one is exemplary.
Red River Kitchen opened at City House in early August, and it has the feel of a party that’s just about to get started. It is seasonal, and could be closed as soon as early October (weather permitting, it could be a few weeks later). But it will be back next year, and then the party can really get going.
Red River Kitchen at City House
Park concessions a la chef-driven food truck
258 Mill Street, Saint Paul, MN 55102
BAR: Beer, wine, cocktails
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $7-$12
NOISE LEVEL: medium to high
HOURS: Daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
PARKING: Street, parking lot a short distance away, bike racks