The ambiance might leave something to be desired — who looks good under super-bright fluorescent glare, after all? — but there’s something bewitching about the diminutive deli area of Minneapolis’ United Noodles supermarket.
Maybe it’s the sight of Peking duck-in-progress, with whole birds shellacked in red and hanging above trays of hard-boiled eggs soaking in tea. Or it could be the mounds of fried rice flecked with red, yellow, and green, nestled beside the plain version that looks so white and sparkling it’s as if the grains have been individually buffed.
For me, though, here’s the main draw: the Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup. Priced at only about $6, and about half the size as the big-as-your-head Vietnamese soup bowls, the quick lunchtime fix is comfort food, Asian style.
The thick, nearly udon-width noodles are slightly flat, and long enough to cause formidable slurping (remember, it’s a compliment to the cook), perfectly balancing the cool, bland noodle taste with the salty beef broth. Thrown in for color and flavor are cilantro, green onion, and bok choy, but it’s really the beef that stands out the most. So tender that the chunks fall apart even under careful chopstick handling, the beef possesses a delicate, earthy spice that’s downright addictive.
It’s just one of nine specialty dishes whipped up by the supermarket’s deli chefs, and the others can be heated competition for my lunchtime dollars. Preserved mustard and pork noodle has a clear-the-sinuses kick, and the katsudon (pork chop, egg, and rice) has its own place in my heart, but truly, when the wind is threatening to slice through my jacket and all I want is salty beef noodle goodness, I know which dish I’ll be picking.
Preserved mustard and pork noodle (also $5.95) boasts the same mix of cilantro, green onions, flat noodles, and bok choy, but instead of a salty, beefy tang, its broth is more delicate and nuanced. The small bits of pork combine well with bamboo shoots, and its ever-so-slight mustard addition is more of a fleeting taste than an overpowering flavor.
Then there’s the lunch special, a combination of three diner-selected items for $5.25, with choices like pork and beef stew, green beans with beef, and curried chicken with potatoes (vegetarians have some options, but the place is a bit better suited for carnivores). Particularly intriguing is the bitter melon dish, which balances out the well-named vegetable — a member of the squash family — with sweetened beef slices and pineapple. Some Asians use bitter melon to combat diabetes, and to harness its antioxidant properties, so consider a large scoop to be your natural medicine for the day.
United Noodles’ range of dishes also includes Korean grilled beef short ribs, Thai curry, beef teriyaki rice, and katsudon, making the deli a kind of broad survey of Asian specialties. As an added bonus, diners can go grocery shopping just after lunch, then try to whip up their own Asian creations.
Grocery Store Devotion
During a visit to Texas as a preteen, I encountered my first supermarket meal experience when my grandfather took me to an HEB store positioned in the five-mile slice between the Mexican border and the vast stretches of trailer parks that attracted newly retired “winter snowbirds.”
The supermarket was grubby, I recall, and the seating area’s tables so poorly wiped down that little flecks of several meals wedged into the booth seats. We were there for breakfast, and as a Minnesotan who’d grown up in a particularly Caucasian stretch of suburbia, I felt conspicuous in a store populated almost entirely by Hispanics. The food, too, wasn’t like the faux-Mexican food back home, with its super crispy Old El Paso taco shells, ground beef spiced with a seasoning packet, and generous dollops of sour cream.
Here, there were empanadas, tamales, tortillas, and gorditas, flavored with spices I’d never tasted, like cilantro and epazote. What’s it like for a butter-fed Midwestern girl who loves Lucky Charms to be forced into eating an authentic breakfast burrito with chipotle sauce? One word: glorious.
The adventure led me to seek out supermarket eateries when I can, because they seem ripe with potential. It’s like a school cafeteria for grownups, but with better food. Sure, not every menu item may be stellar, especially with meals made the day before, but the taste combinations can be every bit as compelling as those whipped up at restaurants where the ambiance is actually flattering.
What’s most striking to me is that nearly all of the supermarket dining I’ve done centers around ethnic markets. For example, La Alborada in Minneapolis has its amazingly colorful pocket of restaurant space in a corner of its expansive store. Although there are only a few booths and counter spots, the atmosphere is unbeatable, with its life-size statue of a bandito glowering from a second-floor perch, and a sizable mural depicting a traditional Mexican kitchen. The food reminds me of that life-changing (or taste-changing, at least) moment at HEB, with warm tortillas and expertly made mole sauce.
Other examples abound, from the small, simple space at Dong Yang in Columbia Heights to the wildly popular El Burrito Mercado in St. Paul, to the must-visit place for food lovers, Holy Land Bakery & Deli.
Perhaps these type of supermarket deli areas are more popular at ethnic places and natural food groceries (like Seward Co-op) because these stores act as more than just repositories of products — they’re like ersatz community centers as well. At La Alborada (above), for instance, people can buy food, but also pay bills, peruse new cell phones, and linger in a booth with friends while grabbing an affordable, tasty lunch. The place is more than just another Mexican restaurant, it’s a gathering spot.
United Noodles is one of the best examples of this theory, since its small deli area can get quite busy at lunch, and there’s always a reunion of some type, it seems, as friends run into each other, or family members meet up and pull tables together.
Even with its grocery store lighting, there’s something about the setting at United that’s refreshing. Fourteen tables cluster together in the middle of the store, like an oasis in the midst of candy-colored packages. Banners line the aisles beyond the seating area, listing funky food categories like “fermented beancurd” and “luncheon meat.” As a nod to the season, holiday decorations are stuck into the ceiling in regimented lines, with tiny Santa heads swaying as shoppers pass. The sound of noodle slurping from other diners mixes with the vaguely classical Muzak floating down from speakers above.
Leaning in for some slurping myself, I can’t help but think it’s all so friendly, cheap, and delicious. In other words, it’s glorious.
2015 E 24th St
Minneapolis, MN 55404
ENTREE RANGE: $5.25-6.25