Out-of-Towners’ Guide to St. Paul 2015

Becca Dilley, Katie Cannon, Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley, Katie Cannon, Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Welcome to the Twin Cities! Don’t know where to find interesting, high quality food and drink? Whether you’re looking to splurge or eat on the cheap, we’ve got you covered. Looking to drink killer cocktails and treat a hangover the next morning? No problem. Want to know where the locals get their doughnuts, sausage, tacos, and coffee? You’ve come to the right site.

The guide is a collection of places our contributors take out-of-towners (or suggest others take visitors). It’s not a “best-of” list. It’s also not comprehensive. To keep the guide from getting unwieldy, we limited the number of categories and suggestions within each category. Therefore, there are numerous places that we love that didn’t make it into the guide. If you asked us where to eat, drink, and hang out, this is what we’d tell you (and then we’d list a bunch of backup spots). Together, the interactive map (posted at the end of this article), the list, and the corresponding Foursquare list will help you plan your gastronomic tour of the Twin Cities.

After considering feedback on last year’s inaugural guide, we decided to split the document into two parts, one for each of the Twin Cities. As the capital city of Minnesota, St. Paul is receiving first billing. We will publish the guide to Minneapolis in the next couple of weeks.  

Locals: Along with using the guide and sending it to folks visiting town, we hope you will add your recommendations in the Comments section (and tell us why our suggestions are completely off base). We update the guide annually, so your feedback helps us improve the document as well as provide out-of-towners with additional suggestions.

Worth the Splurge

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table
Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

Meritage, 410 St. Peter St, St. Paul; 651.222.5670 | Our interview with chef-owner Russell Klein
With attention to detail and consistency that are second to none, Meritage is one of the finest French-inspired eateries in the metro area. But the not-so-hidden secret weapon of this chic, classically excellent restaurant is the seafood. The oysters here are reliably delicious and the varieties change often, and the fantastic wild-caught Pacific shrimp cocktail will redefine your understanding of this often maltreated, usually disappointing dish. The restaurant side is great for a formal affair; the bar side is perfect for cocktails, oysters, and a spot-on upscale hamburger.

The Strip Club Meat and Fish, 378 Maria Ave, St. Paul; 651.793.6247 | Our review of brunch at the Strip Club
While it may be temporarily obscured by the rapid ascendance of its Lowertown cousin, Saint Dinette, don’t forget this lovingly hip tribute to the classic Midwestern steakhouse — the name is unforgettable, as is the food. While steaks are an obvious (and correct) way to proceed at this dark, cozy joint, we fondly remember everything from soups to appetizers to salads, they were so uniformly well-prepared. However far you’ve traveled, settle in, order a cocktail, and unwind.

Tanpopo Noodle Shop, 308 E Prince St, St. Paul; 651.209.6527 | Our look at Twin Cities (including Tanpopo’s) ramen
Yes, they do sushi. But you won’t find any crazy rolls or extensive sashimi offerings here — rather, the nightly maki special plays second fiddle to teishoku (we like the mackerel) and steaming bowls of nuanced, delicate broth and chewy udon noodles. Try the nabeyaki udon: it’s judiciously topped with tempura fried shrimp, chicken, fish cake, wakame, and tamago; each element contributes a unique flavor that complements the broth and creates a harmonious dish.

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Saint Dinette, 261 E 5th St, St. Paul; 651.800.1415 | Our review
The second restaurant from the Strip Club’s Tim Niver and JD Fratzke, Saint Dinette features the French-influenced food of North America — from Montreal to New Orleans to Puebla, Mexico (where many French settled in the 1800s). Chef de cuisine Adam Eaton and general manager Laurel Elm ate their way through the three aforementioned cities, discovering influences as disparate as Mexican, Southern, and Jewish, all woven together with the French. Must-haves include trout rillettes, half chicken (pictured above), fried smelt, and cheeseburger. Saint Dinette offers a weekend “grocery valet” so diners can park their goods from the Saint Paul Farmers’ Market while they enjoy brunch.

Heartland, 289 E 5th St, St. Paul; 651.699.3536 | Our interviews with chef-owner Lenny Russo: On cooking | On Heartland’s pork program
A national standard-bearer of “farm to table” dining, chef Lenny Russo combines technical precision with extremely high quality regional ingredients to produce soul comforting, delicious meals. Overlooking the Saint Paul Farmers’ Market, Heartland has earned its reputation as the place for distinctly Midwestern fine dining. If roasted bison is on the menu, get it! And try not to fill up on the house-made rolls and artisanal butter.

Little Szechuan Hot Pot

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

We’ve had a long love affair with Little Szechuan. Even during head-scratching stretches of inconsistency, we remained true to the St. Paul institution. We just couldn’t stay away from the spicy peanut noodles, fiery soups, savory meats, fried fish, sweet and salty vegetables, and crispy tofu. The service was generally good and the atmosphere typically jovial. And how we adored the lazy Susans, spinning round and round during many a family-style feast. When we learned earlier this summer that Little Szechuan was changing to Little Szechuan Hot Pot (that’s right, all hot pot, all the time), we were caught off guard and honestly, felt a bit jilted.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

After a two-month makeover, the restaurant reopened in June, but we didn’t visit until last week because boiling cauldrons of soup didn’t appeal in the sweaty months of summer. The interior hasn’t changed much, but the tables now have inlaid induction burners for firing up the hot pots, and the menu is an intimidating list of items divided into categories: soup base, seafood, meat, mushroom, vegetable, and “tofu and more.” Diners check off one or two soup bases (the hot pot can be split in half) and ingredients for cooking in the boiling liquid. There’s everything from sirloin beef slices and Chinese broccoli to bullfrog and Chinese cruller (fried dough). You can eat the cooked items straight out of the pot (hence servers describe hot pot as “like fondue”) or add them to a bowl of broth for soup, which diners can liven up with an assortment of condiments.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Depending on your perspective, the process of selecting and cooking ingredients, mixing and matching condiments, and keeping ladles from falling into the bubbling broth (a task we failed to master) is good fun or unwelcome labor. While we fall somewhere in the middle of those two positions, we were impressed by the quality of the offerings. The combination of “spicy and fresh” soup bases was first rate. Made with dried peppers, chili oil, and ma la (Szechuan peppercorns that slightly numb the mouth), the “spicy” broth made us sweat and tear up. The “fresh” side, a comforting chicken broth, was a good foil for its devilish counterpart. Of the twenty or so ingredients we sampled, plump oyster mushrooms and vibrant Chinese broccoli were our favorites, with fresh tofu and house dumplings earning honorable mentions. After much experimentation, we settled on an ideal mixture of condiments: cilantro, green onion, salt, and grilled chili and mushroom sauce.

December 15 Recipe Roundup

Autumn vegetable, chicken, and sausage hot pot; poolish baguettes; Pillsbury Grands-based mini pizzas; and braised baby bok choy.

Mar. 27 Morning Roundup

Captain’s Chair has a great write-up on New Glarus Unplugged Iced Barleywine (for all you Wisconsinites out there), a superb-looking and thoroughly local hot pot recipe from Trout Caviar, and Manny’s Steakhouse is dumping its corkage fee, reports Kare11 [via Girl Friday].