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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Specialty Beer Store
The Four Firkins
The Four Firkins may be Minnesota’s only emporium devoted exclusively to craft beer. No whiskey, no wine—just beer. And lots of it: between 800 and 1000 brews, depending on the season, stacked wall-to-wall in a shop that keeps its light bulbs cloaked in UV filters and its thermostat locked at 60 degrees. The selection is up-to-the-minute (see: Steel Toe Brewing, the state’s newest beer maker), but some of the most popular items are centuries old, including rare Trappist beers. There’s even a mini beer museum, with vintage barrels and cases displayed under glass.
☛ 5630 36th St. W., St. Louis Park, 952-938-2847, thefourfirkins.com
Launched this August, local soda label Joia boasts flavors so adventurous and exquisitely gourmet—Pineapple Coconut Nutmeg, Blackberry Pomegranate Ginger—you’d think a seasoned bar chef dreamed them up. In fact, a seasoned bar chef did: Joia founder Bob Sanford tapped Dan Oskey, the famously ingredient-obsessed mixologist from St. Paul’s Strip Club, to be Joia’s taste engineer. Even better, the fruity sodas are made from all-natural ingredients and are caffeine free–much more juice than jolt.
Consider it childhood in a bottle: true throwback pop, made from pure sugar cane and sold in classic American flavors like cream, root beer, grape, orange, and strawberry. The company’s been operating out of Spring Grove, in southern Minnesota, since 1895, so rest assured that its nostalgia—the old-timey delivery truck printed on its six-packs, its promotional use of photos of small-town kids fishing—is both earned and legit.
Ice-Cream Drink (for Adults)
Burger Jones's Dirty Den Mother
If you’re a bar, especially one with flat screens blaring NFL games, the best way to ensure that your customers will not feel ridiculous ordering a milkshake is to lace it with liquor. And maybe to give it a slightly ribald name. Order Burger Jones’s Dirty Den Mother—ice cream blended with crême de menthe and crême de cacao, striped with chocolate sauce, and topped with whipped cream, mint leaves, and a cherry—and you’ll get some odd stares. But screw ’em. This drink is as decadent and joy-filling as any good milkshake—perhaps even more so with its nice twinge of alcohol.
☛ 3200 W. Lake St., Mpls., 612-746-0800, burgerjones.com
A cocktail bar should feel cloistered—especially if it’s located in downtown Minneapolis. And Bradstreet Crafthouse, windowless and sumptuously dark, is so cut off from the bustle of First Avenue that you feel like you’re drinking inside a muffled dream. Or in another era. See that heavy velvet curtain? Pull it back and reveal the Parlour Room, a secret, swanky bar-within-a-bar, the closest thing the Twin Cities has to a speakeasy. The drinks are old-school, too, scratch-made with house-pressed juices, house-made bitters, specialty syrups, and tennis-ball sized spheres of ice that are 40-percent colder than your typical cubes.
☛ 601 First Ave. N., Mpls., 612-312-1821, bradstreetcraftshouse.com
Ice-Cream Drink (for Kids)
The Drive In
Kids love gimmicks, and what’s a drive-in if not a bonanza of gimmicks? Minnesota’s archetype of the genre, the 55-year-old Drive In, goes all out: a giant, rotating mug of root beer for a road sign; a wait staff of teenage “car hops” in poodle skirts; a sound system pumping 1950s-era rock ’n’ roll. There’s even a mini-golf course. Your kids will flip. You might, too, if you order the root-beer float, the Drive In’s pièce de résistance, poured with house-made root beer.
☛ 572 Bench St., Taylors Falls, 651-465-7831, taylorsfalls.com
Perhaps the world’s most perfect cocktail vodka, 45th Parallel is so smooth it’s almost atmospheric, like gulping 80-proof oxygen. And it’s local. So local, in fact, that founder Paul Werni need drive only seven miles from his New Richmond, Wisconsin, distillery to visit the single-family farm that grows his vodka’s corn—a farm located on the 45th parallel, exactly halfway between the North Pole and the Equator. It’s so local that all mashing and fermentation happen on-site, an unheard of rarity in the vodka world. In other words, Parallel 45 nails the small-batch, DIY thing. You’ve heard of farm-to-table. This is farm-to-bar.
Tavern on France
Tavern on France’s Build-A-Bloody Mary is not for the decision-phobic. It’s for the voting enthusiast, the democratic-minded drinker that wants choices and demands that her voice be heard. Instead of a menu, you get a mini ballot. Check your top two preferences in the Meat/Cheeses category (we’ll take pepperoni sticks and cheddar-cheese cubes), your top four in Vegetables (hot dilled baby corn, pickled asparagus, jalapeño-stuffed olive, and pickle spear), a heat flavor (horseradish), and, of course, a vodka (Absolut Peppar, please). After that, the bartender does all the work, and you get exactly what you want.
☛ 6740 France Ave. S., Edina, 952-358-6100, tavernonfrance.com
This is not your grandmother’s tea shop—unless your grandmother happens to be an internationally recognized tea and tisane authority who regularly visits blenders in Germany, brokerages in Kolkata, and growers in China. That’s what TeaSource founder Bill Waddington does (when he’s not serving on the Board of Directors of the American Premium Tea Institute, of course). And, lucky for us, he brings his wealth of knowledge to a pair of retail stores where you can sample and purchase over 250 different brews. Oolong, chai, puerh, caffeinated, herbal: it’s all there.
☛ 752 Cleveland Ave. S., St. Paul, 651-690-9822; 2908 Pentagon Dr. NE, Mpls., 612-788-4842; teasource.com
The Aster Café's Jalopy
The Jalopy. It’s the automotive world’s quintessential lemon. And yet the drink at the newly revamped Aster Café is hardly a clunker at all. Each day, the staff drops two huge bags of loose-leaf, lemon solstice tea into a jug full of Jameson Irish whiskey. Two hours later, they’ve got a boozy, dark brown nectar, a few shots of which go into an ice-filled pint glass and then are drowned in Fentimans ginger beer. The result? A whiskey-lemon, fizzy ginger jam session that swaps earthy bitterness for cloying tang.
☛ 125 Main St. SE, Mpls., 612-379-3138, aster-cafe.com
Masu's Watermelon-Pickle Pop
Most Asian menus warn about spice levels. Masu’s non-alcoholic drink menu worries about your tolerance for sweet. Libations range from the demure Plum Lemon Tea to the glucose-jolting Disrespectful To Thirst (a Jolly Rancher-esque berry lemonade). You want the one in the middle: the Watermelon Pickle Pop. This sunset-colored lemonade, made with pickled watermelon, hits a symphonic balance of fruit and ferment. You get all the slushy sweetness of the melon, plus the sour acidity of the pickled rind. Top it with a lemon slice, and you’ll never crave an Arnold Palmer again.
☛ 330 E. Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-332-6278, masusushiandrobata.com
Best Wine Bar
102 Second Ave. S., Stillwater, 651-439-1352, domacinwinebar.com
4 Third St. SW, Rochester, 507-292-1628, sontes.com
France 44 Cheese Shop
1573 Grand Ave., St. Paul, 651-698-3391, france44.com
1600 W. Lake St., Mpls., 612-827-5710, barbette.com
3745 42nd Ave. S., Mpls., 612-729-4200, theriverview.net
6001 Shady Oak Rd. S., Minnetonka, 952-426-0522, pairingsfoodandwine.com
415 N. First St., Mpls., 612-333-4305, toastwinebarandcafe.com
[ Readers’ Pick ]
Voted on by Minnesota Monthly readers at MNMO.com
Best Local Brew