Best of the Twin Cities 2011
Variety is the spice of life, right? Sure, but we think the wondrous mix of things to do, eat, drink, buy, and enjoy in the Twin Cities is better described as, well, pretty sweet. It’s a veritable Candyland out there, and on the following pages we highlight the things that make us feel good as gumdrops. The tastiest focaccia (the best Dara’s ever eaten). The hippest cover band (they know Weezer’s The Blue Album front to back). The most honest auto-body shop (they do exist). And, yes, the best candy store. Admit it, we’re spoiled rotten here. And that’s a good thing.
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Given that banh mi is now the food culture’s sandwich obsession du jour, it’s not surprising that expectations have grown irrationally high for these scrumptious little Vietnamese subs. Thankfully, the great Jasmine Deli comes correct (as always). The key is the bun, and owner Le Truong’s house-baked wheat baguettes hit the perfect balance of crust and crumb. Upon first bite, the crisp outer shell flakes apart, giving way to a golden chewiness. Inside, a medley of pickled veggies tangos nicely with marinated pork, chicken, or mock dock. And at only $4 a pop, Jasmine’s banh mi might be the Cities’ best lunch on a budget.
☛ 2532 Nicollet Ave., Mpls., 612-870-4700
It’s a good thing Lucia’s offers its rotisserie chicken to go. Because it’s quite likely you’ll want to rip into it all wolf-like and ravenous with your bare hands—and that behavior simply won’t fly in this genteel café. So take the bird home. There, you can feast as shamelessly as you want on the white meat, all juice-plumped and tender, or finger-scoop the golden, herb-basted skin that sloughs off in slippery and delicious piles. Just make sure to grab extra napkins.
☛ 1432 W. 31st. St., Mpls., 612-825-9800, lucias.com
Why do we love the pho at Ngon Bistro? It’s all about the broth. Since this traditional Vietnamese noodle soup is enormous in size and 70-percent liquid, the robustness of the broth is what really makes pho a meal. And the broth at Ngon is like a six-course feast. It’s satisfyingly salty, seasoned to a beguiling complexity, and utterly slurpable. Order “The Special,” and enjoy four different kinds of beef (meatballs, beef flank, beef brisket, lean beef) as well as a dense tangle of noodles. Get through one bowl—the size of a kiddie pool—and you’ll feel like a champ.
☛ 799 University Ave., St. Paul. 651-222-3301, ngonbistro.com
Butter Café and Bakery
Is there such a thing as exceptionally ordinary? The BLT at south Minneapolis’s Butter Café and Bakery has us thinking there is. There’s no baroque reinterpretation here, no blasphemous straying from the holy trinity of bacon, lettuce, and tomato. Instead, Butter delivers this sandwich in its delicious quintessence: whole-grain toast kissed by mayo, hearty slabs of organic bacon, plump and seedy tomato slices, and a frilly skirt of fresh lettuce. It’s proof that while you can’t reinvent the wheel, you can sometimes make it roll more smoothly.
☛ 3544 Grand Ave. S., Mpls., 612-521-7401, butterbakerycafe.com
The great thing about the food at Evergreen Chinese is that you can fill a generous banquet table with it, and never repeat a dish’s flavor profile. Fried tofu with crispy soy flakes is a version of sea bass with soy flakes, all spice and lively texture. The pepper-fried mock pork brims with ginger and is thick and meaty. The slick and savory eggplant with garlic is as rich as the most intense Italian ragu. The Vietnamese curry mock duck is sweet and fragrant. And that’s only the smallest fraction of this extravagantly various, terrifically delicious wide-ranging array of vegetarian triumphs.
☛ 2424 Nicollet Ave., Mpls., 612-871-6801, evergreen-chinese.com
St. Paul Cheese Shop
Most sandwiches suffer from a lack of imagination. Not so at the St. Paul Cheese Shop. Take the Northern Lights bleu-cheese sandwich, for instance: its not-too-hot smear of garlic confit, sweet fig jam, and handful of greens proves that a cheese sandwich can explore heights of umami and depths of spice. Tuck the duck pancetta with basil pesto and chevre into your lunch sack and you’ll have a restaurant-worthy experience right at your desk. And when the shop presents a special of house-made chicken liver or house-smoked tongue sammies, you’ll realize that these sandwiches are made not only with creativity, but soul.
☛ 1573 Grand Ave., St. Paul, 651-698-3391, stpaulcheeseshop.com
Big Bowl Chinese Express, Lunds and Byerly's
If you’ve never gotten one of the take-out family meals from the Big Bowl Chinese Express locations at Lunds and Byerly’s, run, don’t walk, to get one—they’re life-changing. For just $20 on Friday nights, you get your choice of three entrees; brown, jasmine or fried rice; and a container of pot stickers or egg rolls. Try the lively Thai yellow-curry chicken, the spicy kung-pao chicken, the savory beef with broccoli—heck, try them all. You will not believe how bright and fresh everything is, and how easy it is to get a healthy dinner on the table on a hectic Friday night.
☛ At Lunds and Byerly’s, bigbowlchineseexpress.com
A great loaf of Italian focaccia bread requires three things: good oil, high-quality ingredients, and special baking skill. Cossetta’s has all three, and if you haven’t been to the St. Paul stalwart since they amped up their baking program, you really need to visit. You’ll see the loaves lined up and covered with different high-quality ingredients, like lacy tangles of onions or sun-dried tomatoes. Be sure to take a whole or half loaf home: the good oil keeps the bread fresh and delicious for a few days. Just pop a chunk in the oven, let it warm up a bit, and enjoy. So rich, so simple, so good.
☛ 211 W. Seventh St., St. Paul, 651-222-3476, cossettaeventi.com
To a certain segment of the population, Highway 169 has been rechristened as barbecue highway—because that’s how you get to Charlie Johnson’s astounding Q Fanatic. The place doesn’t look like much, but don’t let appearances deceive you. Q Fanatic is a land of wonders, offering expertly smoked and charred ribs with meat as tender as brie; pulled chicken gorgeously perfumed with smoke; and specials like dewy pastrami, ruby-red prime rib, and profoundly intense slab bacon, destined to make a sandwich you’ll remember for decades. So get out your GPS and your wet naps, and start driving.
☛ 180 Miller Rd., Champlin, 763-323-6550, qfanatic.com
Fish 'n' Chips
Anchor Fish & Chips
How to describe the crispness of the signature, sustainably harvested, battered and fried Alaskan cod from Anchor Fish & Chips? Well, it’s a crispness that’s beyond crisp; a crispness that crackles when you pierce its golden shell; a crispness that not only protects the fish from the bubbling oil, but allows it to steam and emerge as tender as custard. Each forkful of the bubbly crust and the dewy fish combine to create the ideal yin-yang of soft and hard, salty and sweet, comforting and precise. The chips are just right, too, soft, caramelized, and just porous enough to soak up plenty of curry sauce, vinegar, and praise.
☛ 302 13th Ave. NE, Mpls., 612-676-1300, theanchorfishandchips.com
New Junk Food/Bar Food
Uptown Cafeteria and Support Group
First, Tim McKee revamped the very underrated Il Gatto, changing it from a snooze to a contender for the area’s best Italian restaurant. Then we lost track of him. But look and see: he redid Cafeteria, and there’s now some seriously good bar food to be had. Handmade jalapeño poppers, fried chicken, and a destination-worthy, all-you-can-eat buffet during Sunday afternoon football games have made Cafeteria the land of bar food that even food snobs love.
☛ 3001 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-877-7263, uptowncafeteria.com
3904 50th St. W., Edina, 952-928-3000, pandolfico.com
5600 Cedar Ave. S., Mpls., 612-822-2040, fatlorenzos.com
820 W. Lake St., Mpls., 612-824-4161, jacksonscoffeeandgelato.com
11965 Cliff Lake Rd., Eagan, 651-454-7464, ringmountain.com
[ Readers’ Pick ]
Voted on by Minnesota Monthly readers at MNMO.com
The 5-8 Club