Asian Fusion Redux

Three Minnesota food sensations prove that Asian fusion is a trend whose time has come—again

Asian fusion was an all-American cuisine. It gave shape and meaning to our melting-pot cooking culture, especially in the 1980s when a great new influx of Asian immigrants met a great new boom in serious American cooking. Two of its most important practitioners were Wolfgang Puck, whose California restaurant, Chinois, defined a style of using French techniques to unite small-farm ingredients with Asian flavors, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the Alsace-born, New York City–defining chef whose restaurant, Vong, brought Thai flavors into the vanguard. Once California and New York were well saturated with fusion restaurants, the chefs came here, in the way that established brands seeking new markets do, specifically as Puck’s 20.21 at the Walker Art Center and Vongerichten’s Chambers Kitchen. Of course, they were run out of town on a rail, with Chambers and Jean-Georges parting ways in 2009 and 20.21 closing last winter. Despite those restaurants’ failures, however, it’s evident that Minnesotans have developed a fascination with Asian fusion of the homegrown variety. There’s an Asian fusion trend taking shape in the Twin Cities right now, and it’s as homegrown as wild rice.

Green Spoon: Speaking of wild rice, how would you like to try a sushi roll in which lefse is rolled around wild rice? That’s chef John Robinson’s Minnesota Roll, available select Thursday nights at Green Spoon, a new café between Prospect Park and the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Green Spoon is a counter-service restaurant in the spirit of French Meadow, Café Latté, and the Birchwood, serving chef-quality food from dawn till late. Robinson conveys a spirit of amused adventure as a chef, as seen in dishes like the Minnesota Roll and a “Garbage Plate,” in which grilled hamburger patties are coated with a hot sauce made of meat (no, seriously, a hot sauce made of meat) and served on a bed made half of pasta salad, half of deep-fried hash browns. Robinson says the garbage plate is a late-night special of Rochester, New York, his hometown. I tried it and can report that it’s sort of good in a way—the way in which you wish you were drunk and 21 and playing video games at four in the morning with your best friends. If you lack those circumstances, it’s probably a dish best skipped in favor of Green Spoon’s other strong suits, featuring elevated farm-driven fare and Korean-touched American grub. The farm-driven fare dates to Robinson’s time as a cook at the Westin’s B.A.N.K., where he developed a taste for such top-shelf ingredients as the Wild Acres chicken which fills his classically French and uncommonly good chicken potpie, along with a buttery velouté and vegetables from white-tablecloth restaurant staple Dragsmith Farms. More Dragsmith veggies were to be found in a terribly pretty salad simply called “The Local Salad,” with watermelon radishes like little slices of sunshine and golden tomatoes.

As good as the simpler things here are, I expect the restaurant to make its name on the more craveable Korean-accented comforts, such as the kimchi-topped pulled pork and Korean-spiced Philly cheese-steak sandwiches. The pulled pork is brilliant: a soft sweet roll piled high with lush pork barbecue, the whole thing layered with zingy, spicy, pickled-cabbage kimchi. Kimchi, of course, is the Korean way of preserving vegetables through fermentation; the light cabbage kimchi used for this sandwich acts like the coleslaw atop a traditional Memphis-style barbecue sandwich, but with a little kick. The Korean Philly cheese steak is Green Spoon’s other standout: grilled Korean-soy-and-spice-marinated sirloin combined with peppers, onions, and plenty of gooey cheese. It more than hits that magic cheese-steak trifecta of melty, meaty, and craveable. Robinson told me he came up with the Korean-inflected dishes when the owner and general manager, both from Seoul, brought in their own food to share. “I’d be eating the kimchi and think, ‘This is crazy good, we have to use it,’” Robinson says.

Despite its proximity to the U, the restaurant is probably a few too many steps off campus to attract students. But once the residents of leafy Prospect Park realize that Green Spoon delivers, that kimchi-topped pulled pork is going to be a
Friday night staple.

Pizzeria Lola: Speaking of kimchi, have you tried the kimchi-topped pizza at this year’s locavore pizza sensation Pizzeria Lola? I did, and it’s astonishing, the biscuity, bready dough serving as a perfect foil to the electric zing of the cabbage pickles and the sticky hot glaze of Korean gochujang chili sauce. “I actually made the Korean pizza because I was being a bit of a wild scientist in the kitchen,” Lola’s owner, Ann Kim, told me. “I put it on the menu as a special, then took it off. But people were asking for it every day, so I ended up putting it on the menu permanently, and it’s taken on a life of its own. People who’ve never had kimchi in their entire lives now know it only from pizza, and order it again and again.” Once you taste this pie, called the Lady ZaZa and made with Kim’s mom’s kimchi recipe, the counterintuitive-sounding pizza actually starts to feel intuitively logical, even intuitively necessary. After all, Southern Italy is known for its use of chili peppers and its tangy vegetable antipasti like caponata and pickled peppers: is a kimchi pizza really so different? Okay, yes it is, but in a town with a history of sauerkraut pizzas, this bit of Italian-Korean fusion fits right in.

Vellee Deli: The last new and notable use of kimchi in Minnesota’s selection of Asian fusion cuisine is made on the Vellee Deli food truck, a truck which, if it were a brick-and-mortar joint, would be in the running for best cheap restaurant of the year. Yes, the food’s that good. Like all food trucks, the Vellee Deli is best tracked through the Internet on Facebook and Twitter. And track it you should, mostly for options like the Korean barbecue burrito: savory, salty, falling-off-the-bone short ribs combined with cabbage kimchi, rice, romaine, and smoky Mexican salsa roja. Each bite is beefy, zesty, herbal, robustly spiced, and shows off what a good chef can do when she chooses to walk on that fine tightrope separating too, too much and unforgettable oomph.

In this case, that chef is Joyce Truong, whose family hails from Vietnam. Truong opened the truck with her boyfriend, Will Xiong, whose family is of Hmong descent, and who has some relatives living in France and others running a Thai restaurant. Truong marshals all those influences into a menu of craveable delights, including a few truly stellar sandwiches. I’m torn between which is the better sandwich, the Hmong-influenced “Mojo,” a banh mi-style creation made with lemongrass sausage, perky pico de gallo, lots of cilantro, and a tart fresh papaya salad—all of which come together in a beautiful interplay of fresh and powerfully savory—or the more traditional Vietnamese barbecue banh mi, with a beautifully creamy and garlic-laced paté uniting fresh pickled vegetables and tender, caramelized pork. Both of these join Twin Cities hall-of-famer sandwiches like Clancey’s subs, French Meadow’s grilled beauties, and Maverick’s roast beef. Be sure to get to Vellee Deli soon—Xiong tells me they plan to shut down once the snow flies. Yes, we must all plan for snow. It’s awful. But on the other hand, the change of seasons will no doubt bring something as wonderful and unexpected as this sudden Asian fusion renaissance. Kimchi Christmas cookies anyone?

Green Spoon: 2600 University Ave. SE, Mpls., 612-208-0529, Pizzeria Lola: 5557 Xerxes Ave. S., Mpls., 612-424-8338, Vellee Deli:

The Perfect Dish

A watermelon-lime juice and a Mojo banh mi sandwich from Vellee Deli. This sandwich deserves national attention: the spicy, lemony, fragrant Hmong sausage; the tender, sweet, pillowy roll; the alternately lush and crunchy Vietnamese pickle and Mexican salsa toppings. All these wonderful things unite to deliver a knock-out punch of sweet, savory, spicy, crunchy, and chewy, everything you could want in one dish. That’s some sandwich.