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A confession: I am sometimes so busy that I bank by iPhone, while doing laundry, while wearing my 9-month-old in a camping backpack, while her little arms stick out like teeny-tiny arms of Vishnu and knock over tubs of detergent. It’s a life.
It’s a life that has led me to realize that takeout is essential to today’s high-performance successful synergistic multi-platform professional. Or even just anybody with a job. Let me explain: Once I made Mexican food from scratch. I drove myself to El Burrito Mercado in St. Paul, purchased all the chilies, all the spices, all the meats and herbs and vegetables. The next day, I woke up bright and early and got to roasting, puréeing, straining, and mincing. By sundown every dish in my kitchen was dirty, I had punched a hole through my strainer, my hands were the color of burnt oranges, and I had a feast about half as good as the takeout I had blithely bypassed at El Burrito Mercado.
Never again. Because outsourcing is what smart time-managers do. They identify situations where someone can do things better, cheaper, and more satisfactorily then they can, and then they delegate. And takeout is the cheapest, smartest outsourcing you can do: Chefs with years of training make your food and charge little more than the ingredients cost, because that’s the business model of restaurants and grocery stores. Exploit it!
To help you exploit it, I spent the last couple months driving in grand loop-de-loops through the Twin Cities, looking for the very best takeout, in every neighborhood, in every cuisine. What I found surprised me: Charlie Trotter’s former pastry chef sells soup by the quart at the Salty Tart in the Midtown Global Market. Some families have this high performance thing all figured out, and have standing orders at Be’Wiched, where hot-shot chefs make them dinner once a week. Masa, Minneapolis’s fine-dining Mexican restaurant, packs up their four-star food in family-size portions.
Surprised? I was. I was so surprised I decided to limit this story to surprises. Which means that you’re on your own for pizza, Vietnamese, Byerly’s, Lunds, Kowalski’s and the co-ops. Yes, those old reliables are all great, but I’m here to tell you what you don’t know, not what you do.
So keep this issue in your desk drawer at work, or in your back seat, or next to your home phone. And the next time the baby on your back throws your phone in the dryer and makes you wonder how life as a high-performance professional could be a little easier, you’ll know where to turn.
Sushi makes fantastic takeout. It’s cold, so it doesn’t suffer whatsoever in transit. Sushi restaurants have better, more diverse, and more skillfully prepared fish than you’ll ever find in a grocery store. And most sushi spots are delighted to make takeout because it gives their chefs something to do during their downtime.
There are three tricks to know when getting sushi takeout: One, don’t even think about putting in an order at 7 p.m. on a Saturday and expect a quick turnaround. Place your order in the afternoon or early evening for pick-up at a specific time: It makes everyone’s life easier. Two, learn to appreciate chirashi sushi. Chirashi sushi is basically a halfway point between nigiri—those thumb-sized fillets of fish pressed onto pads of rice—and sashimi, which, of course, is just the fish. When you order chirashi sushi, you get slices of fish on a big bowl of vinegared sushi rice. The reason this is good? Because you get all the ultra-high-quality fish the sushi bar stocks but you’re not paying for someone to mold it into those little high-skilled-labor and labor-intensive nigiri pieces. You get more high-quality sushi fish for your takeout dollar.
Consider Wasabi, the Japanese restaurant on Washington Avenue near the Metrodome. It’s had a hard time establishing itself in the local consciousness because it’s not as hip or upscale as some. If you ask me, their hook should be: Where your sushi take-out dreams come true! All their sushi combos are actually a dollar or two cheaper than they are for dine-in customers, and they offer these very big platters of sushi perfect for family dinners: There’s the $36 sushi for two, which comes with 18 nigiri pieces, two sushi rolls, and miso soup for two; and the $65 “treasure boat,” which can feed three or four people. Best of all, Wasabi’s takeout sushi is wonderful. When I picked up my order, all the sushi was carefully lined up in trays in a way which made it impossible for anything to fall over; the miso soup was in separate containers, and the manager even helped me out to my car, navigating the restaurant’s front steps amid falling snow. At home, I found that all the sushi was gloriously fresh. The salmon was silky as satin, the yellowtail so fresh that it crunched, and the white tuna weighty and sweet. “Why would anyone ever get grocery-store sushi?” marveled my husband. “I think nobody even knows you can do this,” I said. “But they will.”
What to Order: The sushi for two, the Treasure Boat, or any of their many combo meals, like the various “American Favorite” meals that showcase the very fresh tuna, salmon, and yellowtail.
903 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis
The conventional wisdom about Italian food is that it’s so good because it’s “ingredient driven,” meaning that, for a salad, you take great ingredients—ultra-fresh mozzarella, 10-year-old balsamic, and bright green leaves of fresh basil—that are so good on their own that there’s no need to enhance them with fancy technique. Of course, the problem here becomes obvious: If you don’t have the ingredients, this ingredient-driven cuisine is not going to soar like the Italian alps. Instead, it will remain earth-bound, like Italian mud. ¶ If you want your dinner to soar, please know that the mecca of great Italian ingredients in Minnesota is the grand palace of Buon Giorno, high up on the bluffs of Lilydale, just south of St. Paul. There you’ll find squid-ink pasta as black as night, mortadella as light as mist, aged balsamic as thick as molasses, and about a million ready-to-eat pleasures for the time-stressed gourmet. Be sure to look for daily specials such as a rolled pork loin stuffed with roast peppers and vegetables, Brussels sprouts seared with pancetta, and chicken breasts sautéed and smothered in a porcini-mushroom sauce. The Italian hoagies are some of the best in town. But the freezer case is really the key to a life of ease. There, you’ll find savory, complex, expertly constructed eggplant Parmigiana, creamy vegetarian lasagna, and classic meaty lasagnas. Pop a pan in your oven, warm up some Italian Wedding Soup (also from the freezer case), and busy yourself arranging meats and cheeses from the deli case into an antipasti platter. There, you’ve found the sweet spot where ingredient-driven meets easy-peasy.
What to Order: Eggplant Parmigiana; the meat or chicken of the day.
981 Sibley Memorial Hwy., Lilydale
I once spent a happy week exploring New Orleans’s world-famous sandwich culture, and found phenomenal po’boys at every turn; simple roast beef and drippings; fried fish, shrimp, or oysters—so many sandwiches fit for a feast. I’d be embarrassed to show a New Orleans native most Minnesota sandwiches; we so often settle for a “good enough” sandwich that really isn’t. However, I’d proudly escort any visitor from the Big Easy to Clancey’s, the locovore butcher shop in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis—they make sandwiches worthy of a feast. Try them. You’ll find they roast or smoke all their locally sourced meats on site, and then they gild them with sandwich toppings from scratch, like roasted strips of yellow and red bell peppers in vinaigrette, pickled onion slices, and fresh-grated horseradish sauce. They overstuff these potent, carefully considered ingredients into crisp sections of Rustica baguette until they’ve composed something big, heavy, and unique—a sandwich with the ambition, integrity, and heft of a chef-made meal. Are they just sandwiches, or shall we call them po’boys? Nah, that’s just pretentious, they’re something even better, something locally unique: New Minnesota butcher-shop sandwiches worthy of dinner-status and a carefully chosen bottle of Syrah.
What to Order: The roast beef with fresh horseradish sauce and roasted, marinated bell peppers; the ham with pickled onions, greens, and butter.
Clancey’s Meat & Fish
4307 Upton Ave. S.,Minneapolis
EL BURRITO MERCADO
El Burrito Mercado is the Xanadu, the Taj Mahal, the eighth wonder of the Mexican takeout world. When you whisk in the front door of this vast Latino market on the West Side of St. Paul, you will be confronted with so many different exciting takeout options that you will not even be even to count them all and will stand there rubbing your eyes in happy disbelief. Really. There’s hot meat available by the pound, including carnitas (roast pork) and chicharrones (meaty pork rinds). There’s every sort of sweet and bread known to Mexican kitchens, from pumpkin empanadas and tres leches cake to fanciful custard-stuffed creations. There are appetizers ready to go, like lime-cured shrimp ceviche, classic Mexican shrimp cocktail, crispy potato-cheese fritters, and vegetarian and meat-filled chiles rellenos. There are fresh tamales, chicken soup and meaty pork pozole by the quart, delicious chicken tinga (shredded chicken combined with mild chiles and sweet onions in a silky, hauntingly nuanced sauce), and a fascinating stew made with pork with chipotle and cactus strips—it’s smoky, spicy, complicated and tastes like it would take a lifetime to learn to do right. Wait, there’s more! Stews, barbecue, flavored rices, assorted bean dishes, and at least half-a-dozen fresh salsas on offer at any given moment, like an emerald-green salsa verde made with fresh tomatillos, fresh cilantro leaves, and a potent dose of jalapeños; a sweet and lively fresh pineapple salsa with red bell peppers, and a few different salsas made with smoked or roasted peppers and various combinations of tomatillo and fresh, fire-roasted, or canned tomato. Who needs so many fresh salsas? You do, because if you get a few and combine them with the bounty heretofore mentioned you’ll have hundreds of different meals. Hundreds of different expertly cooked, utterly fresh, painstakingly authentic delicious Mexican meals. Now go home, and eat like you’ve had a whole village of Mexican aunts cooking for you all day, which, in a sense, you have.
What to Order: Stews, like the chicken tinga and pork with chipotle; fresh salsas; and spicy pork or creamy chicken tamales.
El Burrito Mercado
175 Cesar Chavez St.,St. Paul