Pulled pork sandwich
It's been a couple years since I'd been to Roosters. I remember liking it, but not thinking it's the best BBQ in town or anything. I stopped back in this afternoon (it's a surprisingly quick bike ride from my house!), and I still feel just about exactly the same about it. Their pork has that wet quality to it that you get a lot of times when you order pulled pork at a restaurant that can't really smoke something. Not greasy or fatty, but almost watery. Not a huge problem, but not one that you run into at the 'better' BBQ joints in town. They're light on the sauce, so I can't really judge that (but I liked the little I was able to really distinguish). Biggest surprise: the baked beans. Great beans! I'm not ashamed to admit that Famous Daves makes my absolute favorite BBQ baked beans on earth, but I'd feel comfortable placing these at a distant second. It's a small little place, but they've got a couple formica booths, a TV playing the hockey game, and a big ol' cooler full of drinking water. Not too shabby. I'm not rating Twin Cities barbecue joints, but I'm going to go ahead and rank it #4 Twin Cities barbecue joint (ahead of Scott Ja Mamas but behind Big Daddy's). Check it out if you're ever jonesing for some sugar meat around Randolph Avenue in St. Paul. I really do like it, as faint as this praise may have sounded.
The Blue Door
Coney Baloney Blucy
I'm on board with this new Blue Door location. It's a little large and charmless, at least compared to the small and charming St. Paul location, but at least you don't have to sit on a stranger's shoulders to wait for a table. And their current Blucy of the Moment, the Coney Baloney (topped with onions, chili, mustard, and fried bologna), is the second best burger I've ever had there, after St. Paul's unbelievably good french-dip-style one (which isn't available in the Minneapolis location. Frowny face). It might be the first time in my life I've ever enjoyed bologna.
OMG you guys, I forgot to tell you about Maid Rite! As in, I finally went to Maid Rite! White Castle-era loose beef sandwiches on white buns served to you from the unkempt corner of a St. Cloud gas station! With mustard! Yum(ish)! The unaccountable popularity of this place throughout the state of Iowa speaks volumes of the inoffensiveness of the people of Iowa, and even more about how maybe not everything that's stuck around since 1930 necessarily should have.
Oops, I forgot to report on our recent breakfast trip to The Lowbrow. That report is: It's alright. You could do worse. But they really, really need to add a couple more "unch" items to their "brunch".
El Taco Riendo
As far as hole in the wall legitimate Mexican taco joints go (the "HITWLMTJ Scale", as I know it), I'm going to go ahead and say El Taco Riendo is one of the best we've got. And that's after just one visit. Of my 3 tacos, the chorizo/potato was the least impressive; I've had better at a couple other places. But the carne asada and al pastor we absolutely top notch, particularly the pastor. It had a real rich flavor and little hints of spices that go above and beyond the red saucy sweetness that a lot of places fall into. I didn't have any rice or beans, so I can't comment on that. But as far as meat goes, I think Taco Riendo is doing it right. Give it a shot.
The Left Handed Cook
H and K Poutine
Pork belly. Kimchi. Parmesan cheese. Cheddar cheese. Fried onions. A poached egg. Curry gravy. Chipotle aioli. On top of a pile of hand cut french fries. It's everything you want it to be.
German and Filipino bratwurst
I think my eyes rolled when I first passed by New Bohemia this summer when it appeared. Like, I don't know, a seemingly hipster/sports-barish/maybe-chain Eastern bloc sausage place, just a block down from Kramarczuk's, lacking the history but potentially taking the business. And since then, I've heard literally nothing about it. Nobody's talked about it. I haven't seen anything written about it. I don't think it made its way into the Chinook Book. So I have no idea what its reputation is. But I'll say this: I like it. First of all, it's far more laid back than I imagined. The design of the place isn't too fussy or hip (just hip enough), other than the fact that it's long-table communal seating (I suppose like some German beer house or something), and it's an order-at-the-counter type joint, which I'm 100% in favor of. A great lunch, place, basically. Or a quick dinner place. But besides that, I have to give a thumbs up on the sausage as well. Which is good, because it's just about the only thing they have. And they have everything from bratwurst to wild boar Italian sausage to Filipino bratwurst to rabbit and rattlesnake sausage. You order the type of sausage, and one topping (I highly recommend the German smoked brat with spicy red kraut; the Filipino brat wasn't as good as I'd hoped, but it was still nice), along with really nice Belgian style fries (whatever that means) and a handful of different dipping sauce choices; curry ketchup, ginger mayo, etc. Do they make their own sausages on site? I don't know. Are they taking business from Kramarczuk's? I'd guess probably not. Are they probably going to chainify the place? Most likely; I'd expect to see one on Cathedral Hill by the time the snow melts, and another one in Uptown by all star break. But I like what's going on there, and there's about 12 other things I want to try. So I will certainly be back.
The Left Handed Cook
Bok Bok Bap
A Minnesota Timberwolves blog, of all places, recently did a fun and informative rundown of the best bibimbap in the Twin Cities. The Sole Cafe was touted the Ricky Rubio of bibimbap. Dong Yang is the Kevin Love of bibimbap. High praise, so I thought. But then, a surprise entry at the end: The Left Handed Cook, the Lebron James of bibimbop. Holy cow. I had to try that, right? Call it high expectations, but I was a little let down by it. It wasn't bad by any means, I just think some of the proportions were off. Too much rice. Not enough pickled stuff. It was all just a bit too mellow. Plus, real bibimbop gets nice and crusty where the rice sits in the hot bowl. But since this place is in the Midtown Global Market, you get it in an aluminum to-go container, so there's no heat to get the rice going. The best part, by far, was the fried chicken on top. A perfectly fried strip of 21-spice chicken. That's a lot of spices. It was super. I could've used more of it. Still, I ate the whole thing. So it couldn't have been that bad.
Cassidy's Golden Pine
Do you know Tobie's? Off the Hinckley exit on 35W north of the cities? You've probably stopped there at some point for some disappointing cinnamon rolls and microwaved meatloaf, along with thousands of other hypnotized drivers taken in by its pull, on their way to the casino. Kind of like Emma Krumbee's down south, it's Frankensteined itself from a bakery breakfast joint into some sort of Road Trip Breakfast Industrial Complex. It's a no good. Well, off that same exit, just on the other side of the highway (away from the casino instead of towards it), perfectly juxtaposed, sits Cassidy's Restaurant. Built somewhere around the time Don Draper was taking Megan on that fateful trip to Howard Johnson's, Cassidy's has barely changed. I mean, the carpet and some furnishings are a little early-90s frumpy, but the shell of the place is very HoJo. But unlike Tobie's it hasn't been Frankensteined or marketed to death. And unlike Tobie's, my god the food was actually pretty good! I ordered a patty melt, which I find to be the go-to menu item at shabby diners and family restaurants that you aren't so sure about. It was great! And the fries... the fries. Seriously some of the best fries I've had in months. Totally homemade. Hand cut. Perfectly fried. I was expecting shitty crinkle-cut frozen things, but I got fries with soul, man! Libby had their (classic!) salad bar and chicken spaetzle soup. The salad bar also included a hot bar with baked spaghetti and some other random stuff, along with some surprisingly good bread pudding. Although at that point I had been impressed enough with the burger and fries that it wasn't that surprising. Add to that a drink menu that includes Brandy Alexanders and Peppermint Patties and a number of other vintage (but non-ironic!) drinks that Don Draper's mistress might order, and you've got yourself a fascinating, and better-than-bad, roadside stop.
East Corner Wonton
Roast duck and pork on white rice
"We should go check out Chinatown and get some lunch," said a particularly unimaginative part of my brain. And so we did. And it was quite a sight. Like, it was like China. And I'm only being half sarcastic; New York's Chinatown is quite a scene. Even more so than San Francisco's. Very few English signs. Banks I've never heard of (good luck finding an ATM). A different world, man. I'm mildly embarrassed that when I saw some people exchange money for something on a corner, I was actually surprised it was U.S. currency. Even more surprised when I caught a glimpse of myself in one of the mirrored walls at East Corner Wonton, shocked to see that, "Wow, I forgot I'm a white guy!" This was after only about 30 minutes. Anyway. We chose this place, of all the hundreds of similar Chinatown restaurants, because the Village Voice named their roast duck and pork on white rice dish to be the best dish in Chinatown, and I'm a sucker for hype. The duck was too fatty and boney for me, although the skin had a great flavor. But that roast pork was incredible! It was like what roast pork at every other shitty Chinese place is trying to do. I didn't even care that it was cold. Plus the whole plate was only $5, and the service was awful to us, and the Chinese patrons, so we didn't feel too bad about it.
Poutine, Japanese noodles
Duino Duende—actually it's called ¡Duino! (duende), but I refuse to type it that way on the same grounds that I refuse to call Tune Yards "tUnE-yArDs" or whatever the hell—is a "international street food" joint in the "cool" part of Burlington, Vermont. Really, the entirety of downtown Burlington could be considered the "cool" part, if you consider Phish tee shirts and organic bakeries to be cool, but if you prefer guttery half-punk burnouts performing unimaginably bad poetry to mediocre free jazz, this is the place for you. Anyway. There's actually a lot I have to say on the subject of Burlinton, but most interesting is how it's only an hour or two away from Montreal, and you pick up French language public radio, you can watch Canadian football on TV, and best of all: poutine! Not just any poutine, but hipster poutine! Sweet potato fries, tangy gravy, good cheese. Easily the best poutine I've ever had. Although every other poutine I've had has been pretty nasty, so it didn't take much.
So Marcus Sammuelson is a celebrity chef. I know this because we saw him competing on a TV celebrity chef competition. He kicked everyone's butt, and his food looked amazing. Turns out that he's the man behind Red Rooster, which I guess has been a bit of a hot spot, in the sense that I'd heard of it before seeing the guy on TV. So even though our New York trip was done mostly off-the-cuff, I was sure to get a reservation for this place (which proved a little difficult, but 5:30 on a Wednesday night was good enough for us). Turns out that, Sammuelson being an Ethiopean-born Swede, Red Rooster is actually a soul food restaurant with a good amount of Scandanavian twist. Corn bread with tomato jam and honey butter was amazing. Lox were very good. Libby's roasted chicken was okay-ish, but definitely not the thing to order at a place like this. My Swedish meatballs were by far the best Swedish meatballs I've ever eaten, and probably the best single plate I had in New York. Take a look at the photo and imagine the best you can possibly imagine them tasting. That's how they tasted. Totally awesome. To top it off, the service was great, the atmosphere was nice but not too cool or fancy, and the location is close enough to the Apollo that you can walk there after dinner with enough time left to not go to see Cedric the Entertainer.
Peel's may have possibly, maybe, maybe, possibly been our favorite meal on our trip to New York. It came recommended to us as a great brunch stop, but due to some accidental subway craziness (sorry again Libby), we stopped in for some lunch instead. It's in the "Noho" neighborhood of Manhattan (even though I was told to never, ever actually refer to it as "Noho", so from here on in I won't), and its design and decor could probably be described as "cheery 1920's French industrial diner". Old timey, but not novel. Crisp, clean, bright. Totally pleasant. I don't remember what was on the menu, but I got a fried chicken sandwich with honey mustard and pickles, and Libby got a smoked turkey sandwich. Nothing flavor-wise was funky or unusual, but everything was just done right. And to go along with the decor, everything seemed very precisely composed. No grease, no mess, everything in its right place. We were both really impressed with the place, and would definitely go back if we're in NYC in the future.
Chicken stew, waffle
I was going to wait until we were home from New York to post anything about it, but I figure I better do this now before I forget about this place completely (zing!). It's called Petite Abeille. It's an adorable little Belgian cafe in adorable little West Village (or maybe Greenwich Village?) with an adorable little logo and an adorable little chalkboard menu. Its menu was on par with Barbette, and the quality was as well—so it was slightly less good than you'd think it would be (zing!). Granted, Libby said her mussels were delicious, and my fries (sorry, "frittes") were Barbette quality as well, but my chicken stew was about as good as homemade chicken stew your grandma would make. So, good, but maybe not for the price and for a single trip to an adorable little cafe in the West Village. Not to mention the fact that I actually ordered the beef stew. My biggest takeaway: I should've gone with the burger.
It never even crossed my mind that Pat's Tap offered a weekend brunch, and apparently it hasn't crossed anyone else's either, because when we popped in there this morning on a whim, it was d-e-a-d. Every other time I've been there it's been shoulder to shoulder, almost too busy, usually late Thursday or Friday nights I guess. But the brunch menu is one of the best I've seen; plenty of sandwiches as well as plenty of breakfast items. And odd stuff, too; chicken curry hash, bacon steak, that sort thing. I, obviously, had the bacon steak. Duh. I think it's actually just the burger patty from their bacon burger, along side some hashbrowns and eggs. Which is totally, totally fine. The eggs were cooked perfectly, and the hashbrowns were just about as good as they get. Loved it. I'll be back.
Minnesota State Fair
State Fair roundup!
Harry Singh's jerk chicken roti: Great as always.
Blue Moon Cafe Korean pork tacos: Somehow different than last year, not quite as "Korean" as I remember. Still very good.
Vescio's fried ravioli: Totally middle of the road. Kinda like Vescio's!
The Lamb Shoppe lamb chops: A little fatty, still good.
I'll try to eat far more next year.
And with this review, I think Wise Acre now holds the record of most Music and Food entries, with the grand total of way too many. But I had to do it, because as of last night I still hadn't tried any of their window food, where you can get hot dogs, egg salad, sloppy joes, and that sort of thing at the same takeout window as the custard. So I had the sloppy joe and Libby had the egg salad sandwich. Verdict: Good, but a buck or two too expensive maybe. Also, they need to do something about their sloppy joe bun strength. (Don't we all?)
Spicy pork noodles
My last food stop on my Davis trip was takeout from a hip little noodle bar called Red 88. The Yelp reviews (insert mooing cow sounds here) were actually pretty middling, but their menu looked good and the photos looked good, so screw Yelp (one of the reviewers actually complained that the chicken chow mein was bland. Well that's what you get for ordering chicken chow mein!) I got this spicy ground pork noodly dish thing, along with some thai chicken wings, and since I needed to order $20 worth of food in order to use my credit card, an order of steamed dumplings. And it was all fantastic! Best meal of Davis! Aside from an excess of salt in the dumplings, I don't have a single gripe. I'll take a Red 88 in Minneapolis any day.
Alright, ready? Can you handle this? I can wait. Okay. Okay? Ready now? I think I like Five Guys better than In-N-Out. There. Sorry.
Brazilian stewed beef
And so begins my onslaught of Davis, California food posts! So Davis is this mid-sized town in north-ish California, just a twenty minute drive from Sacramento. It's primarily home to UC Davis (a big ag school), but is also home to lots of rich white liberal Californians. Put those two things together and you've got yourself a quaint downtown loaded with Thai restaurants and organic yogurt shops! It's a nice place. You really should visit. Anyhow, perhaps I shouldn't have been shocked, but I did notice quite a few cafes and bistros serving classic California cuisine, straight out of 1995! It should't have been a shock, considering that it's California, but still interesting to see that type of place still have such a huge foothold. The one I was able to eat at was this little wine bar and cafe called Tucos. For being a tiny place with organic-y, slow food-y tendencies, their menu was huge. Dozens of options, and everything from lamb meatballs to anchovy biscotti to chile rellenos. I had this sort of Brazilian (air quotes) stewed beef and sausage dish, served with black beans, collared greens and some crispy pollenta. I liked it. It was good. And respectably priced. I have nothing funny to say about it.
Hey you. Go to Homi. It's a tiny little Mexican place in the middle of the University construction wasteland that needs your business. But don't go out of pity, go because it may well be the best Mexican food in St. Paul. And it wouldn't kill you to order the enmolada, basically a chicken mole enchilada. It was some of the best mole I've ever had, and tasted very different than most other moles, almost leaning into red curry territory, as opposed to the dark brown stuff you're used to. Anyway, I was there at 12:30 on a Sunday, and it was dead. They need you. And you need them. So go! Andele!
Ribs, root beer
Spending the day in Rochester to see Wilco, I looked briefly into where to eat. The consensus: "Eh, Rochester isn't much of a food town." Well. So, barbeque it is! And the Rochester barbeque scene seems to be locked up by two places: Roscoe's and one other joint who's name I forget right now. But I'll think of it eventually. The general consensus was that there was no general consensus. Some said Roscoe's, some said [other]. Before I could flip a coin though, I noticed not only was it called Roscoe's, it was called Roscoe's Root Beer and Ribs. Root beer and ribs! And even though I'm trying to be "off" of pop at the moment, what kind of self righteous fuddy duddy would turn down root beer a place that specializes in barbeque and root beer? So we braved the 100 degree heat (it's a walk-up place with outdoor seating) and got some ribs, pulled pork, jo-jo's, cole slaw, and beans. The meat was super tender, but didn't have the nice crust I like, the sauce was tangy but a little bit generic, and everything else was just as good as it needed to be. I'd put this down as total middle of the pack barbeque. Same with the root beer. Next time we're in town (most likely whenever Wilco appears again) we'll be sure to try [remember to find the name of the other place and edit this later].
I have about 15 negative criticisms to make about the newly rechristened Mosaic–formerly Glaciers–Cafe, but all of them would just make me sound like a nitpicking a-hole who doesn't appreciate what he's been given. So instead I'll just give the imaginary anthropomorphized personification of Mosaic a firm handshake and a pat on the back and a brotherly "You keep up the good work now," because for the most part Mosaic has improved its game on every level, even if the entire atmosphere of the place comes off as a little desperate, like the imaginary anthropomorphized personification of Mosaic is walking around with a sandwich board that says "I'm a real restaurant, look at my subway tile and funky stools!" (1 of 15.) But I cannot complain about the food, despite its crass sloppiness (2 of 15)—which was a step up from the competently humble Glaciers—the effort, or anything else. Go there. Let them know you care. They need you.
Three things to know about this miraculous new (new?) Mediterranean place called Aida. 1.) It's in Richfield. 2.) It's indiscreetly housed in a building that very obviously used to be a Taco Bell. And 3.) After one meal there I'm already prepared to crown it best restaurant in Richfield. Yeah, move over, Joy's Pattaya and, well, Potbelly? Think Shish, but less fussy. And cheaper. And if I dare say it, better? Stray observations: a.) For being housed in an old Taco Bell, they've actually done a good job cleaning it up and making it their own. There's money invested here, it's not some crummy hole in the wall. b.) They offer a homemade hot sauce that the middle eastern guy working there though tI was crazy for getting. "It's so hot outside! I don't know why you'd want it!" c.) A lady came in while I was eating and ordered a gyro for her husband. She said he's eaten there 3 times a week since they opened. He might be crazy, but I'll call that a good sign.
Still too frosty. Total bummer. But if we could bottle their hot fudge and salty caramel toppings, drive down to St. Louis and pour it on some Ted Drewe's custard, we'd be on to something.
The Left Handed Cook
Hoisin pulled pork
It seems that the Midtown Global Market, the grand monument to, and fighter of, the push/pull polarization of urban gentrification (a word that so loaded that I feel like an idiot for using it), is itself becoming gentrified. What started out as a well-intentioned vehicle to bring the exotic, often times overlooked cultural experiences of Lake street to terrified but superficially curious white people like myself, seems to be changing into something... else. Many of the original food booths seem to be closing, which is understandable, but in their place, instead of other small Lake Street businesses (like, say, an Ethiopian deli or a pupuseria), we're starting to see brand new foodie-hipster restaurants. First Sonora Grill (admittedly awesome), and now this place called The Left Handed Cook (disappointing, but in a good way, and that's where my official review ends, sorry). Not to mention the fake food co-op, the "Market Kitchen" high end kitchen store, the Salty Tart. I guess I'm fine with the idea of the Midtown becoming a haven for startup restaurant ventures that couldn't afford a food truck. But what if I just want some oxtail curry, and some homemade chorizo? The place always had a lot of weird kinks and imperfections, chintzy gift shops that no one needs, depressing minimart type convenience stores, a general air of chaos. I don't know. Their heart was in the right place. They could really make it work in a way that's true to the original vision. This smells a little like giving up.
Taqueria El Ranchito
Shabby little taco joint. Richfield. In a strip mall on Lyndale and 60-somethingth. You get the picture. I've been riding my bike past this place for the last couple years, always saying "some day" but never quite feeling up to it. Well "some day" was tonight, as you could've guessed if you were the guessing sort. Which you are. And despite the three year buildup, I'm going to go ahead and say "maybe next time" on this one. I got the feeling that the food here could be fantastic, between the nicely flavored homemade chorizo, a decent enough al pastor, and the best carnitas I've had in a while (I've had bad carnitas luck over the last year, I feel). But there was also a distinct sense of microwaved warmth to it; that heat that's just too thoroughly hot. And my al pastor taco shell fell apart. And the beans seemed canned. Maybe when they're not an hour from closing time on a Wednesday everything might be a bit fresher. Or maybe I should stop complaining and just be happy that the fine people of Richfield (hi, Scott and Abby!) have a place to get some tacos. As long as they eat meat (sorry, Scott and Abby.)
Pulled pork hot dog
For the crime of not living up to some make believe and ill-defined standard which I decided to create for it, Burger Jones had been off my list for the last two years or so. I never hated it, or even disliked it, really. It just never seemed worth the trouble. So this weekend I decided to give it one more shot, and did so without even ordering a burger. I know, right? Enter, the "Pitbull". A grilled hot dog topped with barbeque pulled pork, cole slaw and fried pickles. I'd been too focused on their burgers to notice this on the menu in the past, but I made no such mistake this time; they may as well call this thing the Steve Marth dog. And it didn't let me down. Each individual element tasted just how you'd want it, between the dog itself (split, then grilled), the pork (with a nice vinegar sauce), the fried pickles (not the best I've ever had, but perfectly fine), and the cole slaw (cole slaw-y), and the result was pretty much exactly equal to the sum of the parts. It came together just like I hoped, but didn't reach much higher. But, you know, I'll take it. Burger Jones still seems somehow not quite right, but I feel good enough about it to take them off my shit list for the time being.
Bacon sloppy joe, buffalo mac and cheese
It was dollar dog night at the ballpark last night. So since I'm made of money, instead of spending $2 on two reasonably acceptable hot dogs, I decided to spend $20 on a bacon sloppy joe and some buffalo chicken mac and cheese. Then I burned a $50 bill for good measure. There's just one food booth in the park, down on the main concourse near the train side, that serves these two, which won some Food Network contest or something. I don't know. The bacon sloppy joe was actually pretty good, and plenty big. $10 is a stretch, but all things considered, whatever. The buffalo mac, however, was pretty disappointing. It was good enough just as mac and cheese, but there was very little buffalo as far as I could detect. Supposedly there was some bleu cheese in there, as well as hot sauce, but it just tasted mostly like mac and cheese with chicken. Pass.
At the ballgame last night (a depressingly rare Twins win, where we saw Torii Hunter nearly end his career by falling head first into an outfield wall) I set out to find the fried pickles that Target Field is supposedly hawking this year. No luck. I settled instead on their other "big" new food offering, a cheese-stuffed meatball from some place called Valentini's, which has a location in both Duluth and Chisolm. $9 for a single meatball covered in some red sauce, no bread, no nothing else. But I'll be damned, it was great! It could've used a bit more cheese in the middle, and was a little on the luke-warm side, but for being a big meatball from a baseball stadium, it was just about as good as you could get. I would've been proud of making an comparable meatball at home, if that says anything. $9 is a bit steep, but it's big and filling and I don't regret it. So there.
Would City Pages ever name a Midtown Global Market kiosk their Best New Restaurant? Is that within the rules? Can we change the rules to make sure Sonora wins it this year? And then give them a pile of money so they can open a brick and mortar location of their own? Preferably on 34th and 45th? Because I say this without reservation: Brasa quality, Chilis prices. I guess it's a boon for the Midtown, and it's better than having them being stuck in Uptown and becoming obnoxious, but someone needs to start printing up some "Free Sonora" t-shirts. I'll buy two, because I've already got pork grease on my first one.
The Donut Cooperative
I wonder how many votes it took for the Donut Cooperative to decide on the spelling of "Donut" instead of "Doughnut." I mean, if it really is a cooperative, there were surely long, tedious discussions, passive aggresive arguments, a little name calling, a bit of grandstanding, and at least one person who pulled the 'fascist' card. Half of the members threatened to splinter off and form a new doughnut co-op. It was a mess. Aaand... End of schtick. So these guys did the Kickstarter thing, designed a hipster logo, and took over another hipster Seward bakery and make doughnuts and stuff. And they're good, don't worry. They're re a bit doughy and chewy, and not super sweet, as if to say, "Hey man, we're like a total artisanal doughnut shop, not some Krispy Kreme corporate bullshit!". But really, isn't that the point of a doughnut? Do I really need to try to focus on the subtleties of flavor when I'm stuffing my face with sugar and butter and chocolate on a Sunday morning? But they're good, they're good! Don't get me wrong! I just wish they weren't so precious about the whole thing.
Libby's mom/Tom recently alerted us to this "hidden" gem St. Paul Italian restaurant called Yarusso Brothers. I use quotes because there's nothing all too hidden about it, and it's been around since 1933, so it's not like some big secret. I had never heard of it before, so shame on me I guess. I would, though, count the neighborhood it's located in as "hidden," up in the "Swede Hollow" area of the Dayton's Bluff neighborhood, just east and a bit north of downtown St. Paul. I've never really spent any time around there, and have never had a reason to, until now. But enough geography. This place has been around since 1933, and claims to serve the same hearty red sauce italian as they did back then. The interior has clearly undergone enough renovation in the last 80 years that you'd never guess it was that old; it has the general character of any of 1,000 Italian restaurants you could find anywhere. Black and white Italian family photos on the walls. Sinatra blasting through the speakers. 3 TVs behind the bar playing all three Godfather movies. No joke.. They could tone down all that phony Italian crap, though, because the food is super. It's all big fat red sauce pasta and meat fare, but it's done just about perfectly. Their sauce is just a little less sweet than your generic red sauce, with just a little bit of extra something to make you remember it. (LIbby and I tried to figure out what that something was. Cinnamon? Nutmeg? Anise? No idea). The meatballs and italian sausage and dago were all homemade, and all delicious. Not a single complaint. Really, there's not a ton of analysis to be done here. It's big dumb Italian food and it tastes great and unique, it's priced reasonably, and there's way too much of it. Sign me up.
I swear to god reading reviews of Twin Cities delis is like reading college essays on the shifting morays neo feminism. Meaning: It is not fun.. I don't know what it is about Jewish delis and barbeque, but food writers just get so stuffy and dogmatic with those two subjects. Oh, they don't brine their own pastrami, the real way. Oh, they don't use caraway rye, the real way. Back when I was a kid, delis did this and that. As if anyone in Minnesota has any real history of eating at these places. Hell, even New York hardly has any "real" delis anymore. So why worry? Let's throw any qualms about "authenticity" and "integrity" aside for the moment, and just focus on "sandwiches." Mort's makes good ones. I like eating them. They taste good. They're better than Subway. They're better than Cecil's. (Sorry Cecil's. Although, dollar for dollar, I'd choose Cecil's $8 sandwich to Mort's $13 one. And Cecil's latkes were much better overall). They're better than Rye (I'm not sorry, Rye). I don't care if they ship the meat in from New York. It's good meat. It's cooked and flavored properly. It's a disaster to try to keep together. It's expensive, but so is Katz's in Manhattan. So in that sense, yeah, it's authentic.
Lamb roti, doubles
Now that Harry Singh's has taken the State Fair food building by storm, things have really changed. 30 minute waits. Line out the door. People taking pictures by the sign.
Kidding. I was the only person there. But man, what great food! I ordered the lamb roti, essentially a lamb and potato curry folded inside a big piece of roti bread that could be eaten like a sandwich, but only if you have zero shame and a mouth the size of Chaguanas. (Did you know Chaguanas is the largest city in Trinidad and Tobago!? It is!). I also ordered something called "doubles," which sounds like a game that Brooklyn kids in the 50's would play, but is in fact some chickpea curry mixture between to pieces of doughy eggy bread. Also good. So when you're at the State Fair this summer, go to the food building and get some Harry Singh's. And when you're not at the State Fair this summer, go down to Nicollett and get some Harry Singh's. Just don't take home leftover roti because it gets a bit gross.
You know that creepy looking little Mexican place in the strip mall by where you live that has terrible lighting and advertises cuts of meat you've never heard of? You should go there some time. It's probably good. Not great, but at least good. La Mixteca, for instance, in a strip mall JUST on the Bloomington side of 494 (on Portland), made my night last night. They have a ton of stuff on their menu, including short ribs and pork shanks, which is a bit unusual (but compelling), as well as tongue, face, and less scary shredded pork and creamed chicken. I just had a straight-up platter of the spicy shredded pork with rice, beans, and corn tortillas, and I couldn't have asked for anything more. Great flavor, nice and tender and juicy, top notch! I will definitely be back (the barbacoa looked incredible). And like every other random strip mall Mexican place, it was served on a cafeteria-style styrofoam plate, so I'm destroying my intestinal track, and the earth!
Buffalo chicken sandwich
Oh, Highland Park, my suburban getaway in the middle of big dirty smelly urban St. Paul! As if the Smashburger wasn't enough, they've now given us Which Wich? (the question mark is theirs), a sandwich place that is sort of like Potbelly , but with 150% less whimsy. And 100% more white drywall. Other than their funky write-your-order-on-a-bag ordering system and intimidatingly large menu, there's nothing too special to report. The ingredients all seem pretty middling, the flavor profiles aren't shocking. But all in all, both sandwiches I've had satisfied me. Plus they have a TV on the wall, so I can ignore how sad the place really is. On the plus side, I'm sure the Ford plant redevelopment will give Highland Park at least two new Potbelly locations. Next to the CVS, of course.
Pulled pork, ribs
Something I noticed driving through the south is that barbecue joints, as advertised, are everywhere. In small towns, in strip malls, behind gas stations on the side of the highway. And by most accounts, you can't really go wrong; if it's smoked, it's generally good. But one of the more highly touted eateries in Memphis is Central BBQ, located in a semi-hip (but not quite) residential neighborhood a couple miles away from downtown. While by no means a behemoth or a chain, Central is certainly more than a hole in the wall, with an indoor and outdoor seating area, its own parking lot, and plenty of literature on its catering, cross-country BBQ shipment services, and various 'green' initiatives. No, it's not a behemoth, but it certainly knows its place on the hierarchy of Memphis BBQ joints (and that place is: high). The service was fast and friendly, the seating was limited (I actually shared a table with a family in town from Maine), and the BBQ was every bit as good as hoped (vinegar sauce!). Nice. That said, my experience helped inform one of my new BBQ maxims (yep, I've got maxims now!), which is that there are many subtly different BBQ's in this nation of ours, some better than others, but no one is superior. Here I was, in Memphis, a true barbeque mecca, wholly satisfied and happily impressed, but not transformed. Is there BBQ plateau? I think there might be. A point at which BBQ is simply perfect, and can get no better. Atop this plateau, you'll find dozens, hundreds, of variations and options, but the quality of each is essentially equal, a matter of personal taste. Yeah, Central BBQ was great, and I'm glad I went there, and you should too should you ever be in Memphis, but there is nothing inherent in Memphis that makes it's, or Kansas City's or Dallas' or Raleigh's, BBQ any better than our own.
Mr. D's Country Store
Fried chicken buffet
Did you know that Greg Maddux, over the span of his four straight Cy Young winning seasons, had an era of 1.98? Is that not incredible? And to watch Greg Maddux pitch, you'd think nothing of it. He didn't overpower, he didn't get cute. He just pitched exactly how a pitcher is supposed to. And he was unbeatable. The connection I'm going to make here should be obvious: The fried chicken at Mr D's, a highly praised little southern cookin' buffet located in a former country store in a practically non-existent town on the side of a highway in western Mississippi, tastes exactly like fried chicken should taste. Not flashy, not cute. It is the Greg Maddux of fried chicken. And it's almost enough to make you cry.
Special attention must be paid to the owner of this place, Mr. D himself. This guy is the definition of personality, to the extent that I fear his employees constantly want to smack him. He's probably there every hour of every day they're open, cooking, bringing food out the buffet, and talking to every single person eating there. Those who wanted to talk to him more, he gave them all the time they wanted, talked about cooking, talked about his recipes. No secrets. Those like me, who just were enjoying their food, he gave a very pleasant greeting to, and let us eat. The line I kept hearing from him was, "It's all you can eat, don't feel bad for the cook!" He's just one of those people. Even if the chicken wasn't the most beloved in all of Mississippi (which it is), people would still come to this place.
(Oh, and they had amazing potato salad, too. And amazing cole slaw. And amazing black eyed peas. And did I mention pork ribs and chicken fried pork chops? Cornbread was a little dry, though).
Little Rock, I quickly learned with a little online research, is not a food town. "It's the south," you'd think, "there's gotta be great places!" Not really. But the one that everyone, including William Jefferson Clinton himself, recommends, is Cotham's. Located in a broke down old antique store 10 miles outside the city, Cotham's is famous for their cheeseburgers. I guess Man Vs. Food recently filmed something there, so they get a lot of people like me coming through. But when I was there, I just didn't feel like a burger. So instead, to the confusion and surprise of the waitress, I ordered the catfish. If Arkansas has a food specialty, it's catfish. And while I'm never one to order it, or fish of any kind, I figured 'when in Rome,' right? It was fine. I have no gauge to judge catfish by, but it the breading was nice, crispy, but the fish had a weird mushy, fatty texture. I think that's not abnormal for catfish, which is a bit of a garbage fish as far as I know. The onion rings, however, were fantastic. Some of the best onion rings I've ever had. Just perfect onion rings. Wonderful. Yet still a voice nagged deep inside me: What about the burger? Their burger is famous. Everyone goes there for it. I would never be back, right? So I got one to go! To be honest, I ate half of it in the car before I even left the parking lot. It was, I must admit, fabulous. Flavorful, with herbs and salt atop the melted cheese. And served with only mayo and brown mustard. I've eaten very few burgers without ketchup, but they specifically gave me brown mustard, so that's all I used. It was great. And then I got the heck out of Little Rock.
I've decided I like frozen custard better than ice cream. Really. So of course I had to go to this Ted Drewes place in St. Louis, which everyone from the area just looooooves. So I stopped in one of the two locations and got a big ol' pile of custard topped with pecans, chocolate, and caramel. I can't say it was any better than any other frozen custard I've had (Liberty's and Glaciers' in particular), but it was just as good. But I think part of Drewes' appeal is the atmosphere. It's a cruddy old building in parking lot of a cruddy old neighborhood. The sign is hand painted, the menus are photo copied, and all the employees seem to give a damn. Everyone gets their custard at the window, and stands around the parking lot eating it. Cheesy as it sounds, it's truly a neighborhood place, where everyone goes no matter what part of the city their from, how much money they make, what they do, blah blah blah. Later in the week a lady working at the hotel where I returned my rental car saw my Ted Drewe's cup and chided me for not bringing some for everyone. I guess the people of St. Louis truly love Ted Drewes.
Pork tenderloin sandwich
I can't think of anywhere in Minneapolis that I can safely compare to B&B Grocery Meat and Deli. Imagine walking into a nasty old corner convenience store (on, say, 35th and Chicago), and then noticing there's a full-on butcher shop hiding in the corner. And then you go to that corner and find that they serve homemade deli sandwiches with their own fresh meat. And then you order their breaded pork tenderloin sandwich (because it's Iowa, right?) and it's the size of a frisbee. And it's on a crappy white bread bun with a slop of ketchup and mustard, and a couple pickles. And not only does it manage to not be a greasy, gross mess, but it's actually quite satisfying. Plus, you can buy some autographed baseball cards on your way out.
Sven and Ole's
I love the fact that, like Wall Drug, Sven and Ole's has become a famous vacation institution thanks to its free bumper stickers; I had heard of Sven and Ole's pizza in Grand Marais before I even knew where Grand Marais was. But unlike Wall Drug, which is a surprisingly interesting and novel place in the middle of nowhere, Sven and Ole's is shockingly normal. Not too big, not too small, isn't trying to be crazy or zany or homey or anything. It's just a decent place to get some decent pizza (which tastes, in my opinion, like really good Godfathers pizza. Not the best in the world, but totally satisfying). If they didn't hand out free bumper stickers with your order, they'd be an anonymous family pizza joint struggling in a quaint vacation town with plenty of other dining options available. And yet here I am writing about it. Go fig.
Mon Ami Gabi
French onion soup
Oops, I forgot to post about Mon Ami Gabi. Not a whole lot to say, I guess. It's one of the Paris Hotel's "French" restaurants on the ground floor of their hotel, where Libby and I stopped in quick for a fast pre-dinner. We shared a fantastic cup of French onion soup, and a less-than-fantastic grilled cheese and short rib sandwich. Oh, and some top-notch fries. The place was not too dissimilar to Salut, really. Sort of an American steakhouse/bar with a few French touches. Better atmosphere, maybe. But if I had to choose the better French onion soup, I'd have to go with Salut. Basically, if you were on the strip near Paris and wanted a decent lunch, you could do worse.
Bread pudding french toast
We ended our Vegas trip with breakfast at Bouchon. Usually I'd imagine a place like Bouchon being a little too upscale for dirty old me, but I'd read their breakfasts were casual and reasonably priced. And Thomas Keller is sort of a deity to some people, the French Laundry and whatnot. Okay, deal. So we traveled up to the 10th floor of the Venetian, away from all the hubub and inanity of the strip, and found ourselves actually in what seemed to be a real, honest-to-god restaurant. Not the Vegas caricature of the "real" Bouchon, but what could honestly just be considered "One of three real Bouchons". It wasn't huge. It wasn't glitzy. The waitstaff was friendly and courteous. And the food, despite not really being my 'cup of tea' was all tremendously crafted. I ordered "Bouchon French toast," which was more like a bread pudding with custard and apples. A little too sour and mushy for my tastes, but you could tell it was correct. Libby liked it a lot more than me. She had some egg bake thing, which was also delicious. Top that off with some great potatoes, house-made blackberry jam, and unquestionably fresh orange juice, and you've got yourself an truly respectable French breakfast, all for the same price as the stupid buffet in your "French" hotel (who make you wait 10 minutes for a table even though you can see, as clear as day, at least 7 open tables within 30 feet of you, but they keep you waiting just so next time you'll pay 5 bucks extra for "VIP" seating, those jerks!).
My problems with Burger Bar are 3-fold.
1. The make-your-own burger concept. This place is the brainchild of Hubert Keller, a legitimate French chef who thought it would be fun to have a burger place. So why is it that there are only like 3 pre-composed burgers on the menu? Why would I be left to choose my own burger's ingredients when a guy named Hubert could've done it for me!? The guy won the burger challenge on Top Chef Masters, for cripes sake!
2. For the price, it really wasn't all that great. I built my burger with organic beef, prosciutto, provolone, and a red wine reduction. It cost me $20 bucks. The sauce tasted fantastic on its own (it would be great on a duck breast or lamb shank or something), but you could hardly taste it on the burger. It was just overwhelmed by everything else. Even the prosciutto sort of disappeared under all the beef. And the fries. They were just pre-made standard sports bar fries, but like $4. Can't you make some real french fries!? Just cut some potatoes and fry'em up! Maybe soak them in malt! I don't know, do something! I understand they're going for the whole "no BS sports bar" schtick, but the fries just seemed cheap. And the cole slaw literally tasted like nothing. Not even worthy of discussion. But speaking of the sports bar thing...
3. The atmosphere.. Awful. Just awful. Again, I'm sure they're just going for the "fun times sports bar" thing, but the interior of this place is just plain lame, especially for Vegas. Like a sub-TGI Fridays. You could pick up the place and move it into downtown Minneapolis and it would still be lame. So consider that's now in the glitz and glamour and over-the-topness of Vegas, and you wonder who ever approved of any of it. Oh, and the logo is horrible and all the waitresses were over-tanned, low pantsed, bitchy skanky Vegas chicks. They selled Burger Bar thongs! What!?
Don't get me wrong. The burger wasn't necessarily bad. The place was just so disappointing that it actually made me mad the more I dwelled on it. Ugh.
Lotus of Siam
Nua Yum Katiem
Never in my life have I had an experience like this. In my mind, it's an epic tale, but in reality, it's borderline embarrassing. So what happened is this: Lotus Of Siam is a Thai restaurant in a dirty strip mall a mile off the strip, on Sahara Ave., east of the Sahara Casino. After spending only a few minutes on Chowhound's Las Vegas boards, it became clear to me that Lotus was a must eat destination; practically every thread on the board recommended it without hesitation. There have even been national food magazines that have claimed this place to be the best Thai restaurant in North America. Whether this is true or not, I honestly can't say. Not only have I not eaten at every Thai restaurant in North America, I didn't even eat at Lotus of Siam. It ate me. So here's a tip for when you're ordering food at a "real" Thai restaurant: You know how here in Minneapolis they ask you how spicy you want your dish, from 1 to 5? Well I usually go with a 4. Spicy, sure, but very manageable. So when the waiter at Lotus asked me about spice on a scale of 1-10, I did some math and decided on 7. "That's like a 3.5, really." Logical, right? So they bring me my dish, which was pretty much char-grilled skirt steak with garlic and peppers and some lemon juice sauce on a bed of cabbage. After just one bite, I was already impressed. Perfectly cooked beef, fresh cabbage, a sauce tha--Oh my god. Oh my god. Ohmygodohmygod. I can't feel my tongue. Deep breath. Deep breath. It will cool down in a sec--no, no. It's getting worse. It's getting worse! Where's the water, where's the water!? Rice! Rice will help! Oh god the rice just burns more! Libby, Libby let me have a bite of your Pad Thai. Please! Oh god it's like there's an angry cat in my mouth!. And so forth. You get the picture. Easily the spiciest thing I've ever eaten. By the end of the meal, I could actually feel my body temperature rising. I was sort of light headed, and felt even a little nauseous. And yet I ate nearly 3/4ths of my dish, because it was so damn good! And Libby's pad Thai was probably the best I've ever had. And yet I could barely enjoy any of it, because I was just trying not to cry like a girl. In the end, I gave in and asked the waiter for something to help with the spice, and they brought me a tea with cream that worked miraculously, despite setting off an obscene chemical reaction in my stomach. It was truly an event. So in the end, I really wish I could've given it another shot, and next time I'm even anywhere near Las Vegas, I'm going out of my way to eat there again (maybe at like a 4/10 this time). But it might take a while before the night terrors end.
Our first real food destination in Vegas was a lunch at 'wichcraft, Tom Collicchio's sandwich joint hidden somewhere back in the dark recesses of the MGM Grand. The first thing I noticed about the place (other than the line of 20-something photography convention attendees curling out the door), was that the place had a very chain-like feel to it. I didn't know at the time, but after doing some looking I see that there are 7-8 'wichcrafts in New York, one in San Francisco, and one in Vegas. So this is definitely a big operation. And while the food was certainly at least respectable, you could tell that the 'operation' aspect of it overwhelmed the 'Tom Collicchio' aspect of it. In fact, Collicchio's name is nowhere to be seen, be it on the menus, under the logo, or anywhere else a restaurant would usually want to splash the credentials of their celebrity chef owners. Very curious. Anyway, the food: Good, but not terribly memorable. My pork was a little dry and crispy (in a bad way), the cabbage did nothing for it, and the mustard was all sort of on one side of the thing. Libby had a turkey sandwich with balsamic onions and avocado, which I actually thought was much better than mine. And we shared a chicken corn chowder soup, which was surprisingly bland. I mean, from what I know about Collicchio, he's all about fresh, natural, local foods, and letting the ingredients sort of do the heavy work. No fancy sauces, crazy spices, or anything like that. And you could sort of see that in 'wichcraft; the pork, despite being dry, tasted like pork. You could really taste the corn and chicken in the soup. The problem, I think, is that you have 5000 people (Exaggeration? No idea.) coming through those Vegas doors every day, in only a few short lunchtime hours, and their expectations probably aren't terribly high. How are you supposed to keep quality control in check in the situation they're in? All while keeping prices (to their credit) very reasonable. I don't know how much business the New York locations do, but there's no way they pump as many people through as this one. I wonder also if that's why his name is nowhere to be seen.
A pile of money on rye
Katz's is supposedly one of the last original non-chain Jewish delis in New York, so of course we had to go give it a shot on my last day in the city (since I wasn't going to have time to fulfill my dream of throwing a trash can through the window of a racist Brooklyn pizza joint). It was delicious. There is no doubt about that. And the restaurant, while very large, certainly had a legitimate charm and history to it. But holy cannoli, look at those prices! Given the swarms of people that must eat there every day, it's probably completely reasonable for them to charge $15 for a single sandwich with no sides, or $4.50 for a side of cole slaw. They do brine their own corned beef and pastrami so it's incredibly fresh, and I assume they make their own cole slaw and potato salad as well. But if I lived nearby, I can't imagine wanting to go there too often. It was probably better than Cecil's (very different, at least), and at least as good as Mort's (and now that I think about it, Mort's certainly isn't for penny-pinchers), but I'd bet if you're living in Manhattan, you probably have a handful of places that you can get a comparable meal for half the price. Although I doubt you'll find better potato salad.
Oasis of Williamsburg
I've had chicken shawarma before, and I've had plenty of gyros before, but this thing I ate at this randomly chosen Williamsburg deli was something else. It started as a standard pita stuffed with sliced shawarma--lamb and turkey in this case--but on top of that was a pile of red cabbage, some sort of peppered pickles (which, according to my research, may have been pickled gherkins), mystery onions, a tzatziki sauce unlike any I have ever seen, and a substance that can best be compared to Chipotle's hot salsa. It was like Egypt, Germany, and Mexico all crammed into one unfortunate pita. The meat, I'm sad to report, was a little bit dry, and the meat/veggie distribution demanded some creative bite-taking. But as I made my way to the middle, it was juicy and delicious and different. And just five bucks. I can't imagine finding a much better and equally filling five dollar meal anywhere, be it New York or wherever. Okay, so I could probably get a better deal on it if it was "Oasis of Cairo" (where it would likely be served to me by the immigrant deli owner, a guy from Kansas City named Andy), but the more I think about it, I don't know if I could ever find a similar sandwich in the Twin Cities. As soon as I get home, I'm storming into the Lyndale Deli and demanding gherkins, dammit! Gherkins!
Cheese omelette, candied bacon
The obvious first thought: "Oh god, someone opened a breakfast joint in the middle of Williamsburg and decided to call it Egg? Why don't you just shoot me in the head and feed my body to some free range chickens and get it over with? However, after eating there, I have nothing to complain about. For having the gall to name themselves "Egg," there was little or no sense of self-importance or preciousness in either the menu or the interior itself. The space was small and contemporary, but inviting--white walls, unfinished wood ceilings, reclaimed wood tables, that sort of thing, but lived-in enough that you wouldn't get kicked out if you spilled ketchup all over the floor (which I didn't do, thank you very much). The food was perhaps a little too pricey, but really no more than eating at French Meadow or such a place (and cheaper than Cafe Maude, although you should expect to pay a premium for suchcivilized leisure). I suffered major ordering regret--cognitive dissonance, if you will--about my omelette. I should've went with the biscuits and gravy, which Ben ordered and were spicy and just how I like them. The omelette was okay, a little too mushy in the middle, but the hashbrowns were fantastic. Very different, as well; they were basically a big ball of potato hash deep fried into what could easily be confused as a giant falafel ball. Crunchy on the outside, hash-browny in the middle. And of course, I wouldn't dare eat at this place without ordering their candied bacon, which sounds a lot more ridiculous than it really is. Basically, they cook up their bacon coated in maple syrup to create a nice layer of sweetness on the outside. Very tasty. All in all, it was probably a little too expensive, and it can be an awfully long wait to get in if you don't get there early enough. But I'd certainly go back there in the future if its space isn't taken over by a cupcake shop or discount keffiyah outlet. (Oh, and also, free homemade donut holes when you are seated.)
Sausage and red pepper pizza
For the second time this year, I found myself standing in line with a horde of bitter people for a unusually long amount of time outside a highly-regarded pizza place in a very large American city. But unlike my experience with Gino's East in downtown Chicago, this time I actually left satisfied. Granted, Grimaldi's is a completely different beast than Gino's East; we're talking about a one-off, family-owned, coal-fired pizza joint who's popularity is based solely on its reputation and quality, not a mythic regional institution who filters millions of customers a year through its several locations in search of a pizza the size of a tractor tire. The fact that it is located practically underneath the Brooklyn Bridge (very impressive, by the way) certainly doesn't hurt, either. Thin, chewy, and fresh, the pizza was much more similar to something you'd get at Punch than any big greasy pie you might find somewhere (anywhere) else. And to be honest I have a hard time finding anything particular that distinguishes it from Punch. But if you were to set a Punch pizza and a Grimaldi's pizza in front of me right now, I'd choose Grimaldi's, hands down. It was just a perfectly enjoyable pizza with good sauce, good crust, and good cheese. As we were finishing up, we were kindly greeted by who I assume is the owner, a cartoonishly Italian Brooklynite who managed to disparage Bostonians, Asians, gays, children, and himself in about 1.5 minutes, in a way that would've been charming even to gay Asian children from Boston. I believe the staff of Gino's East simply turned the lights off and spit in our to go boxes as they pushed us out the door.
Holy shit. If this place existed in MInneapolis I would see no reason ever to eat anything else. I won't go into details, because they won't do anyone any good.