Green Line Checklist: Silhouette to Little Szechuan

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table

Editor’s note: Join the whole Checklist crew tonight (Wednesday, Oct. 26) at 5:30pm at the Campus Club in the Coffman Memorial Union for bites, cocktails, and a talk about the Green Line Checklist.

This is not an orderly process. We tried to go right down the Green Line, one establishment at a time, plate by plate. But the best-laid plans often go astray. If you’ve followed along with us, you’ve probably already noticed.

Places would be closed unexpectedly or they’d keep hours based on a gut feeling rather an actual clock, or they’d open only for breakfast, or they’d be open only a single day of the week. But when you’re dealing with small family businesses, you anticipate a fair amount of quirk. We’d seen this before on Central Avenue, but University Avenue seemed to be a bit more unpredictable.

In this installment, we played Chutes and Ladders. We moved forward down the Green Line for two restaurants, and backward to visit three we’d skipped along the way for various reasons. One because they closed early the first time we tried. Another because it didn’t exist when we passed by the first time. And a third because … well, we’re not quite sure how we missed it. Hey, nobody’s perfect. Besides, perfection is often boring. — M.C. Cronin

This week’s checklist crew: WACSO, M.C. Cronin, Becca Dilley, James Norton.

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.)

central-corridor-funders-logoThis 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.

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table

Silhouette Bakery and Bistro
383 University Ave W, St. Paul
Western Avenue Station

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table

It’s a new space. Brand new. There was still a little piece of blue painter’s tape stuck to the back of a bench, where two wood pieces joined together, with a note to the contractors written on it that read “Fill seam.”

Outside and in, metal is the theme. The facade is dominated by large steel screens. The logo incorporates metal cogs and gears. Faux-metal-stamped squares cover interior walls and beams.

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table

The design is clean and simple bordering on industrial and cold. But there are also interesting touches of Asian design and culture. Bold sci-fi prints on the walls. Totoro figures on pastry pedestals. soot sprite designs on macaroons.

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table

All in all, Silhouette feels like a unique and welcome addition to this part of University. — M.C.

*** FOOD NOTES ***

With a few exceptions, everything we sampled at Silhouette was flawed, but with hints of potential excellence. There were, here and there, personal touches that meant a lot — first-rate kimchi in the rice bowl, for example, or house-made macarons decorated with charming, anime-inspired art. But there were also missteps and imperfections that we hope will be ironed out as this new restaurant grows and evolves.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Our tacos al pastor ($7.25 for two) were dominated by the aggressively sweet, acidic taste of pineapple rather than carefully prepared and richly flavored meat. The ground-beef-like meat, in fact, got almost completely lost in the shuffle. And rather than serving the tacos on traditional corn tortillas, the restaurant presents them on tortillas that have been lightly fried, which gives them a kind of uncanny semi-crunchiness that is an unnecessary compromise between hard and soft shells.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

We liked our beef rice bowl ($9) overall. The beef tasted mostly of onions, but it was reasonably tender, and the accompanying kimchi was first rate. We tend to like our rice bowls with a full-court-press of flavors and textures (see the stuff served at World Street Kitchen and Dark Horse), so this felt a little minimalist — but it ultimately satisfied.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The made-to-order Bacon Cheddar Donut ($3.50) completely lacked cheddar flavor — and that’s OK, because it tasted pretty great without it. The overall effect of the doughnut was that of a bacon-studded sweet cornbread that you can (and should) dip into the simple but compelling melted honey butter side sauce. While among the weirdest things we’ve tasted on the Green Line (from a long list of options), this was also a standout, in a good way.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

We were charmed by the exterior appearance of our macarons, but they didn’t quite work from a texture perspective, and texture is fairly central to the macaron, which should present a crispy, crunchy exterior giving way to a tender, chewy interior. Silhouette’s macarons were soft through and through, but did (to their credit) end with subtle and natural-seeming aftertastes of either green tea or cappuccino. — James Norton

Green Line Checklist: Family Lao Thai to Cheng Heng

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table

Of the 15 restaurants we’ve visited so far, 14 have been Asian. And we’d be lying if we said we aren’t having a hard time keeping track of them all. The names aren’t helping, either. You try distinguishing Royal Bangkok from Bangkok Thai Deli from Thai Cafe from Thai Garden. Now try remembering one from the other, when they’re all within a four block radius. Thankfully, we have visual references to help us sort them out.

But don’t get lulled into thinking all these places are the same. Not by a long shot. Each restaurant is unique in a way their names don’t suggest.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

For this installment, we followed the Green Line through Southeast Asia, from China to Laos to Thailand to Vietnam to Cambodia. And whether it was in atmosphere or attitude or variations on flavors, each spot we visited managed to bring something completely different to the table. — M.C. Cronin

This week’s checklist crew: WACSO, M.C. Cronin, Becca Dilley, James Norton, Brooke and Peter Hajinian.

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table

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.)

central-corridor-funders-logoThis 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.

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table

Lao Thai Family Restaurant
501 University Ave W, St. Paul
Western Avenue or Dale Street Station

Our server had a voice for radio. We had the feeling that no matter what dish he described, it would sound appealing in his deep, smoky vocal tones.

WACSO / Heavy Table / "Very proud of the food. / Very proud of his state."
WACSO / Heavy Table / “Very proud of the food. / Very proud of his state.”

HIM: “Today’s special is an inner tube lightly bathed in motor oil then lovingly rolled in carpet fibers and served on a bed of toenail clippings.”

US: “Um okay, THAT sounds amazing! We’ll take two.”

WACSO / Heavy Table / "We keep seeing these giant sized gumball machines"
WACSO / Heavy Table / “We keep seeing these giant sized gumball machines”

Thankfully, he suggested the lobster special.

The place itself is a bit of a contradiction. From the exterior, Lao Thai has almost a posh nightclub vibe with its red painted bricks and signage backlit by blue light. But don’t put on your satin shirt and platform shoes just yet. Inside, the place is about as basic as it gets. Wood laminate tables, black vinyl chairs, brown carpet, orange and blue walls adorned with a smattering of pictures depicting Thailand and Laos. There’s a small wood-paneled bar at the back of the room.

WACSO / Heavy Table / "Award for the most interesting restroom signs."
WACSO / Heavy Table / “Award for the most interesting restroom signs.”

Our server was the personality here.

As he went on to give us his culinary resume and his connection to some of the hit players on the Twin Cities restaurant scene, it was not hard to imagine him as a musician listing the bands he’d played with.

Based on his list, the lineage here is strong. — M.C.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

*** FOOD NOTES ***

The Heavy Table team is well acquainted with the folks at Family Lao Thai. Joshua Page wrote about them in our Secret Atlas of North Coast Food, and we’ve taught with them at Kitchen Window. Still, it’s always nice to visit them on University Avenue, which is, after all, where the food happens.

Our meal started with a beef jerky ($5) that had a mellow, lightly smoky, brown-sugar-meets-apple-cider flavor that was charming and compelling.

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.

Halloween’s Terrifically Terrifying Three

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

In the spirit of All Hallows’ Eve, we sought out some of the scariest treats our fine environs have to offer. Our quest was anything but systematic — we went by rumor, legend, and masochistic curiosity. We risked heartburn, heart attack, and hangover to concoct a list of treats worthy of the name: Heavy Table’s Terrifically Terrifying Three.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Bludgeon of Beef at Manny’s Steakhouse

We’ve seen it on the menu, but never dared to order the gigantic steak. It’s named after a weapon, for Heaven’s sake! At about four inches thick and 50 ounces (more than three pounds), The Bludgeon ($86) is Flintstones big. Its long, thick bone could double as a nightstick or something to stir your cauldron with. And presented on Manny’s steak cart (think cheese cart, but with cuts of beef), the beautifully marbled tomahawk rib eye dares you: Feast on the beast.

The Bludgeon is not just terrifyingly large; it’s scary tasty. Aged for about a month and cooked to a glorious medium rare, the meat is tender and juicy on the inside and exquisitely charred on the outside. Although we were absurdly full after eating just about a third of the steak, we didn’t stop. We couldn’t stop. It was too damn good. That’s the real danger of The Bludgeon. You probably won’t hurt yourself or others with the battle-ready bone, but you’ll want to eat all the meat… again and again, heart (and wallet) be damned.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Red Revolution Fish at Little Szechuan (West End)

Little Szechuan‘s Red Revolution Fish ($15) is radical. According to its four-pepper designation (out of a possible four) and our server’s assurances, this is the spiciest item on the restaurant’s menu — which is saying something because heat is a central characteristic of Szechuan cuisine. With its deep, blood red hue, the mass of chili peppers floating on a layer of chili oil, and the bobbing barrier of peppercorns that promises a disorienting tingle for the uninitiated, everything about this dish screams, “STOP!” But you shouldn’t.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

The bark is worse than the bite here, since you fish the tender pieces of flounder out of the broth and eat them over rice. The broth penetrates the fish, making it spicy, but not inedible, and the numbing effect of the peppercorns makes the heat less intense. To get the full effect of the concoction, though, we sipped on a small bowl of broth. The delicious firewater made our heads sweat, noses run, and stomachs burn. Both trick and treat, Red Revolution is an ideal Halloween dish.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Wonderous Punch at Red Dragon

When we arrived at the Red Dragon around 4:30pm on a Friday, we expected to enter a dank dungeon of disrepute (we know people who know these things). Besides an off-putting smell of parties past, however, the bar was decently lit, the servers were friendly, and the booths were comfortable. We ordered the Wonderous Punch ($12.50), chicken fried rice, and bacon-wrapped chicken livers (FYI, the rice was solid but the livers were dreadful).

The color of sunset, the Punch looked downright festive — hardly the challenge we’d been warned about. But those good looks hid a dark side: four shots of rum (Bacardi White, Bacardi Gold, Bacardi 151, and Myers) with a token amount of mixer (orange  /pineapple juice, sour mix, and grenadine). The drink was sweet without being cloying, but we did notice the slow burn of rail liquor. The danger sets in around halfway through, when the booze bomb begins to taste just like cheap punch… but you don’t care. Without the tolerance of a world-class swiller, this punch drink will get you punch drunk. Which is, of course, the point.

It’s dangerously deceptive: “Hey man, it’s just fruit punch!” So you go for a second or even a third, and the next thing you know, you’ve got a face tattoo and a poker debt… or at least a hangover. Oh-so-seductive, Red Dragon’s Wonderous Punch just might be the most terrifying of the terrifying.

–James Norton contributed to this report by drinking the Wonderous Punch

Little Szechuan II on the Way and Morning Roundup

MPR talks to Danny Schwartzman of Common Roots about how to measure local food use, Well Fed Guide to Life visits the Dancing Ganesha, the Herkimer is offering a $500 cash prize for its Nov. 21 mini-burger eating contest (entry fee $25; details in this screenshot), and Little Szechuan II is coming soon. Also: The diametric opposite of the mini-burger eating contest may be the SNAP challenge, organized by the nonprofit group Open Arms — the challenge being surviving on $27.65 a week for food.

March 3 Tweet Rodeo

@BurgerJones offers an “Unchained Bavarian Burger” and free beer for tonight’s Summit India Rye Ale release, @Sheelar professes her love for Little Szechuan, @KatieBips links to an article comparing the effects of junk food taxes versus good food subsidies, and @AngryCatfish offers a free drink with purchase of a pound of coffee.

December 18 Morning Roundup

Jason DeRusha proudly proclaims the continued existence of Porter & Frye, Dara points out some of the coolest dining experiences to be had in the depths of a Minnesota winter, Kathie Jenkins provides a rundown of restaurants open on Christmas Eve and Day, artisan cheese classes at Shepherd’s Way Farms, Stephanie March puts together a Serious Foodist gift guide, a passionately detailed and mixed review of Little Szechuan, and New Scenic Cafe’s croque provencal sandwich is apparently “genius.”

July 7 Morning Roundup Part II

We Got Served hits up Zumbro Cafe, a chowhound predicts a Beard award for Tosca’s Adam Vickerman, Mecca reports that the chefs (and head chef) at Little Szechuan are on strike, the story behind the farmers of the Gardens of Eagan, and some details on New Belgium’s Tour de Fat on July 18 at the Parade Athletic Fields near the Minneapolis sculpture garden.