From taquerias to fine-dining hot spots, these 29 restaurants offer the most bang for your dining dollar in the Twin Cities
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The Twin Cities has great Latin food—if you know where to look
In my not-so-humble opinion, Mexican food has an undeservedly bad reputation in the Twin Cities. Yes, there are certainly plenty of places willing to deep-fry an ice-cream chimichanga, serve it with nacho cheese sauce and call it “Mexican.” But with the influx of honest-to-God Mexicans (not to mention El Salvadorians, Hondurans, and Ecuadorians) in the last five years, the quality of Latin and Central American food in these parts has improved exponentially.
If you want to avail yourself of the new bounty, the first thing you should do is think about masa. Not the place on Nicollet Mall, but the foodstuff. Masa is dough made of ground corn—akin to pasta dough made of ground wheat—and, like pasta, it can take on all sorts of guises in the hands of a talented cook: It can be plump and gooey. It can be crisp and toasty. It can be sturdy and creamy. And for my money, the best masa artisans in town can be found at one of the four outposts of Taqueria Los Ocampo.
The big draw at Los Ocampo is that they make all their masa creations from scratch: The gorditas are about the size of a hockey puck, and they combine a tender, pancake-like center with a nice crisp exterior. The quesadillas have absolutely nothing in common with the grocery-store variety. Instead, they’re as creamy in the middle as buttery polenta. Huaraches are named for shoes, and not without reason: They’re long, footprint-sized ovals that boast lots of little spots of char. But even the plain old tortillas and plain old tacos at Los Ocampo are great: bready, sturdy, with a home-cooked essence to them. The tlacoyo are masa pancakes blended with meat or cheese and griddle-fried—greasy but good. Also good here: the posole, the chicken-soup for the Mexican soul: Order it and you’ll get a bowl of flavorful broth, a choice of shredded chicken or pork, and—to season the soup—a little pile of oregano, fresh limes, avocados, radishes, and chili oil, as well as a side of two tostadas. Get an order of posole and a couple of masa treats and you’re eating gloriously—and well south of $20.
Mañana, in St. Paul, is a dingy but lovable Salvadorian restaurant that offers another great take on masa, namely, the pupusa: Tender, nicely crusted masa cakes stuffed with your choice of cheese or chicharron (pieces of fried pork belly), or both. It comes with a spicy pickled cabbage salad called curtido.
My other favorite taquería of the moment is Taqueria La Hacienda, which specializes in the street foods of Mexico City. The alambres are exquisite: steak, roast pork carnitas, chicken, or, most gloriously, “al pastor” (a sort of Mexican gyro-cone made with pork, spice, and pineapple), fried with onion, bacon, and bell peppers until the whole thing achieves the general taste and texture of the best possible corned-beef hash—without those pesky potatoes. Each alambre is served on a bed of little tortillas, and it’s phenomenally delicious. And nothing in the restaurant costs more than $9.
|Taqueria Los Ocampo |
809 E. Lake St.,
828 E. Seventh St.,
1515 E. Lake St.,
I tried what felt like a million buffets for this story, but I only encountered one which I felt like trumpeting from the rooftops: Big Marina in Columbia Heights. Over the years, this restaurant has changed owners, but it always has the same down-at-the-heels furniture and the same utterly bizarre décor—including a mammoth lava-rock fountain surrounded by dangling clusters of plastic grapes. It’s very Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But on my most recent visit, the place had been reborn into an exceptional buffet, catering largely to the northern suburbs’ African, Indian, and Middle Eastern communities. The cold half of the buffet, for instance, offers fresh tabbouleh made with loads of springy parsley, lemony grape leaves, soft yeast bread stuffed with garlic-touched spinach, a lovely cucumber salad with a yogurt dressing, and a shockingly good chicken salad made with apples and celery. There’s also a delicious, roasty-toasty baba gannouj and good hummus, and—on one of my visits—platters of small eggplants split, roasted, and topped with a finely chopped bell-pepper relish. Wonderful. The hot part of the buffet isn’t nearly as good, it’s mostly plain-Jane hearty fare like baked chicken, though it did have some zesty and charming little lamb kofta kebabs, like meatballs simmered in a spicy broth. The lemon-zest rich spice cake and a beautiful cardamom-perfumed carrot bread were dessert stars.
Those looking for similar cuisine packaged as takeout are advised to report to Crescent Moon Bakery. The place used to be a foodie ace-in-the-hole, with its elegant muraled walls and delicious Afghani food. However, in recent years they’ve targeted their energy towards catering, and coolers full of soda now dominate the main dining room. Eating there now feels like eating in a Super-America. That said, the food is still excellent. Get takeout, and try the Afghani Combo for two for $28.99, which easily feeds two adults and a couple of little kids (there’s also a combo for four for $44.99) with three sorts of kebabs (beef, chicken, and lamb), a pile of beef stew, gyro meat, lots of basmati rice topped with sweet stewed carrots and raisins, fresh baked bread, salad, and lots of things to spice up the meats, including a minty sauce that’s halfway between a chutney and a salsa, a yogurt sauce, and a hot sauce.
There’s been something of a frenzy among self-styled food-obsessives over the newest all-you-can-eat Asian buffet, the aptly named 98 Pounds, which is either named for the fact that it’s right on 98th Street, or that, while there, you are likely to be elbowed in the gut by a small, fierce woman attempting to carry 98 pounds of king crab back to her table. King crab is what it’s all about here: your desire to eat more than your $11.79 worth, their desire to entice you to eat something else. To its credit, 98 Pounds actually looks like a restaurant, with dark wood and decorative vases, and the people running it are very nice. But, for my money, you can actually eat a lot better, if not a lot more, at scads of places for the same price. For instance, you can eat at the New King’s Buffet in Brooklyn Center, which has the same king crab, an ever-popular Mongolian buffet, and some Chinese dishes that are actually good, like steamed catfish made with lots of ginger and scallions that was vibrant, fresh, and simple. And, of course, soft serve.
|New King’s Buffet |
5927 John Martin Dr.
|Big Marina Grill & Deli |
4755 Central Ave. NE
|Crescent Moon Bakery |
2339 Central Ave. NE
With steak prices at some places creeping toward triple digits, thrifty carnivores have been left in the dust. Or have they? If you really know your meat, you’ll find there are still a few good bargains out there. King of the budget steak houses has to be Carpenter’s, going strong since—this isn’t a typo—1891, in Hugo. How does a restaurant survive the Great Depression, two world wars, and the birth, death, and re-birth of New Kids on the Block? By offering steaks at prices that no one can believe. For instance, the “Chef Tony Special,” a 16-ounce, big, juicy well-charred steak costs an astonishing $13.95. The Chef Tony steak has great flavor, but it’s off the bone. If you’re a steak purist seeking a rib eye, Carpenter’s has it for $18.95. The downside? Carpenter’s is relocating next spring to a new building a few hundred feet from the current one, which means they’ve stopped all improvements on the soon-to-be-demolished original. Expect an interior that looks like it’s been rode hard and put away wet. It’s a place to bring your best friend, not your best girl.
Closer into the city is a place where you can bring your best girl: northeast Minneapolis’s Red Stag Supper Club, home of the best metro-area steak to be had for under $20—namely, their top sirloin. If you haven’t been to the Red Stag since it opened a year ago, it’s worth a revisit. When Kim “Bryant Lake Bowl” Bartmann opened the place, it was ambitious in many directions. The space was as green as green could be, LEED-certified and full of bells and whistles you couldn’t eat, like future-forward hand-dryers. What you could eat was ambitious, but unfocused. Chef Bill Baskin seemed to have a hundred muses. Now it has mellowed into a much more usable supper club. The star appetizer, a pile of simple, delicious fried smelt, remains. The meaty, fresh little bites arrive in a cone big enough to share; skip the tartar sauce in favor of a little squirt of lemon and you’ll find the true taste of north country. The Red Stag’s top sirloin is served sliced across the grain, allowing the mellow, berry-like, grass-fed taste to shine through. Sides of creamy, appealingly textured mashed red potatoes and a summer squash ratatouille are delicious. The wine list is better than ever, too; add a glass of a food-friendly bargain such as Peterson Winery’s Zero Manipulation Rhone blend to the table, and you’re living the supper club dream of a previous generation: The food you want to eat at the price you want to pay. I guess every generation really does need to reinvent the wheel.
Other top steaks for thrifty carnivores? Grumpy’s in downtown Minneapolis has a $15.95 filet mignon; St. Paul’s Strip Club offers a $16 beef “eye of round”; and Jax, the legendary steak house in northeast Minneapolis, offers a $17.95 cut of prime rib at lunch and as an early bird dinner special till 6 p.m. There’s also Casper’s Cherokee Sirloin Room in West St. Paul, which has a great steak at $20.99, the one they call “The Steak of the Millennium.”
14559 Forest Blvd. N.
|Red Stag Supper Club |
509 First Ave. NE
1111 Washington Ave. S.
|The Strip Club |
Meat & Fish
378 Maria Ave.
|Jax Café |
1928 University Ave. NE, Minneapolis
|Casper’s Cherokee |
886 Smith Ave. S. West St. Paul
Where to go when you want more than sushi
When people think Japanese, they immediately think two things: sushi and expensive. Truth be told, though, some of the best deals in Twin Cities dining are to be found at Japanese restaurants. The two biggest keys to finding these bargains is to find menus with either bento boxes—multiple courses served in a lacquer box, sort of like an ultra-glam TV dinner tray—or “teishoku” meals, which are basically supper-club style multiple-course meals. A typical teishoku meal will consist of an entrée such as grilled fish or a breaded, fried pork cutlet served with rice, a vegetable, a salad, and a bowl of soup. Tanpopo, in Lowertown St. Paul, is one of my bang-for-the-buck aces: The single room, with its cathedral-height ceilings, is peaceful and serene, and the food is always textbook perfect. Sakura is the bargain choice when you want to add some sushi to your teishoku or bento box. If you haven’t been to Sakura in a while, please know that they underwent a splashy makeover not too long ago and the restaurant space there now is as airy and stylish as a red-lacquer jewel box, which it sort of resembles. Minneapolis’s Midori’s Floating World and Obento-Ya both offer teishoku and bento box meals that will leave you feeling like you’re getting lots more than you paid for. Head to Midori’s if you want elegant home cooking, and if you’ve never had their green-tea-and-salmon ochazuke, you’re in for a treat. This soup features a broth made from green tea served with a fillet of baked salmon, and while that sounds awful, it tastes fabulous: herbal, perfumed, slightly sweet, foreign enough to be riveting, familiar enough to taste like comfort food. Obento-Ya annoyed me tremendously when it opened: How dare a restaurant specializing in drinking snacks open without a beer license? It’s like a wine bar opening without the wine. Now that they’ve got a license to serve beer (and wine and sake), though, I love them. Head here when you feel like grazing over many little courses like robata, little grilled preparations of beef, asparagus, or whatnot. The restaurant offers almost two-dozen varieties. Still, the biggest bang-for-your-buck value in Japanese dining in Minnesota is probably the eight-course “kaiseki teishoku” at Minneapolis’s Kikugawa: For $33.50, you get otoshi (little appetizers), oshinko (pickles), your choice of sashimi, sushi, or yakitori (grilled meat), a sort of teriyaki salmon, beef rolls, shrimp and vegetable tempura, and lots more, including ice-cream. Book a table in advance and you might even be lucky enough to get one at the window overlooking the river. I snared one of these once. It snowed, and Minneapolis looked like a fairy-tale snow globe. I’ll never forget it.
308 Prince St.
350 St. Peter St.
|Midori’s Floating World |
3011 27th Ave. S.
1510 Como Ave. SE
43 Main St. SE