I knew I had gotten in too deep when I stood eyeing the tray of lychees in the buffet at New King’s, located in Brooklyn Center, and started wondering: What would Ferran Adrià, the Spanish father of molecular gastronomy, do if he were locked in with this spread, with its four sections of raw stuff and cooked stuff, hot stuff and cold stuff, doughnut-like stuff and king-crab stuff? Would he make little ice-cream sandwiches with cucumbers on the outside and lychees in the center? Would he lug some doughnut holes over to the Mongolian barbecue and have them stir-fried with pork? Would he take king crab and marry it to cantaloupe chunks?
Surely this was how new cuisines were birthed! Then again, maybe not: What was the red goo on the bananas?
Then there was the time when I was trying to convince the art director of this magazine of the beauty of what I called the “Five Dollar Box of Infinite Falafel”—a square tray from the buffet at Holy Land in Minneapolis, crammed with whatever you can shove in there during the last few minutes before they shut it down.
“That doesn’t exactly sound…pretty,” he said.
“It’s amazing!” I insisted. “Picture it: You can just keep cramming food in there till you can’t cram anymore. It gets so heavy!”
In the end, no photos were commissioned.
In my defense, I was on fire with my quest to find the biggest bang for the buck in Twin Cities dining. Now, when I say bang for the buck, I don’t mean just where to eat cheaply, because fast food and junk food are going to win that battle every time. No, what I mean is: Where can you get the most for your money: the most pleasure, the most skill, the most memorable meals, the most delight?
What I found surprised me. The Twin Cities is full of bargains. There are bargain happy hours and bargain buffets where you can stuff yourself silly, of course, but there are even bargain steaks and lobsters—as long as you know where to look. In fact, my digging revealed that there are even ways for people to eat at the tippy-top of the Twin Cities dining scene and still get more bang for their buck: For instance, did you know that if you call up Porter & Frye and request a tasting menu, chef Steven Brown will consult with you personally to devise a menu directed to your exact taste? I had no idea.
I do, however, have more than two-dozen ideas on how to eat smarter, how to get more bang for my buck, and how to live more lushly when eating out in the Twin Cities. And now you do, too.
Stella’s Fish Café
Best for: budget-conscious seafood lovers
The rapper 50 Cent will forever be immortalized for penning the line: “I love you like a fat kid loves cake.” Fifty cents, the parking-meter worthy amount of money, will forever be immortalized in the Twin Cities for buying you really good oysters during the Friday “Oyster Orgy” at Stella’s Fish Café in Uptown. Yes, I’m talking about Stella’s, that restaurant under the best rooftop patio in town. Show up at Stella’s between 3 and 6 p.m. on Fridays, and you can get oysters—fresh, real, really good oysters—for 50 cents each. Fifty cents! (A lot of places charge $3.50 or $4 a bivalve.) Not only that, but they arrive on a bed of ice in a pretty, shallow tin bucket along with all the grace notes of a real oyster bar: lemon wedges, a little house cocktail sauce, and so on. The last time I dropped by Stella’s, the oyster of the day was from Totten Inlet in Puget Sound, in Washington state; they had the sweet, muddy, ocean-and-apple-butter taste of classic West Coast oysters.
There’s also $3.50 a pound shrimp. I’m a shrimp-snob; I usually find inexpensive shrimp to be too small, and I get the screaming wim-wams if they’re not properly de-veined or if they’re sodden from sitting around in melting ice. But Stella’s peel-and-eat shrimp are good sized, fat, pink, sweet, and tasty. Also: Tap beer, including Stella Artois, house wine, and drinks are all two for one during Stella’s happy hours.
They also offer a number of happy-hour appetizers, like a pair of rare seared ahi tuna–steak sliders with fries for less than six bucks. The tuna has a nice char-grilled flavor to it, and the fries are decent. If you’re doing the math, all of this means you can eat yourself silly on premium seafood for about 12 bucks.
My visit to Stella’s nearly completely changed my view of the place, which was that it was a place where people too young to know any better do shots and meet their first husband. Now I realize why full-on adults from the neighborhood crowd the tables starting at 3 o’clock. If you want a table, you need to get there before 4 p.m. 1400 W. Lake St., Minneapolis, 612-824-8862
Barrio Tequila Bar
Best for: drinking and dining
The main problem with award-magnet Tim McKee’s cooking is that I want it more often than I can afford. So when Barrio Tequila Bar debuted with 13 dishes priced at $7.50, and seven priced at $4 or under, I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. This couldn’t be true, could it? But it is true. For now, please know that the $4 spiced shrimp taco, with grilled tomato-mint salsa, is as light and lively as clicking castanets, and that the fried mahi-mahi taco with its citrus-cucumber pico de gallo is the best fish taco I’ve ever had in Minnesota—and I’ve had dozens. To find out more, check out my full review on page 99. 925 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, 612-333-9953
Salut Bar Americain
Best for: Sunday dinner with the family
Here’s a bit of useful information: Salut, the French restaurant that features glimmering fresh seafood, a fat wine list, and some of the best burgers in town, is owned by Parasole Restaurant Holdings, the local company that also owns several notable Twin Cities restaurants, including Figlio, Pittsburgh Blue, Manny’s, and Chino Latino. Why should you care? Because one secret of local budget dining is to know that most Parasole restaurants (though not Manny’s) offer specials on Sundays for under $10. And Salut has one of the best of the bunch: a three-course prix-fixe lunch for $9.95, or a three-course prix-fixe dinner for $15.95. Seriously! A Sunday dinner at a nice restaurant for under $20. Bring the whole soccer team, why don’t you? 5034 France Ave. S., Edina, 952-929-3764; 917 Grand Ave., St. Paul, 651-917-2345; information about Sunday deals at other Parasole restaurants is available at parasole.com
Best for: Power lunches for the parsimonious
One of the great joys of my life is bringing people to Vincent for lunch. The room is pale and elegant, and somehow seems eternal. It also seems like it should be in Manhattan. Why is that? Is it the bread in the little flowerpots, the sweet butter, or the light glinting off the skyscrapers outside the vast windows? When you learn you can get a two-course lunch for $12.50, you know it’s not New York. A typical offering might be orecchiette pasta with roast chicken, corn, sautéed mushrooms, and a creamy truffle-Parmesan sauce followed by a warm plum and frangipane tart. As my friends swoon over the food, I tell them that the few times I’ve talked to Eric Ripert, the world-famous chef of New York’s Le Bernardin, he has told me that his old friend Vincent Francoual, Vincent’s chef and owner, is the more talented of the two. “Why don’t I ever come here?” my friends always ask. I just try not to look smug, happy in my knowledge that one of the city’s great treasures is hiding in plain sight. 1100 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, 612-630-1189
Best for: Locavores
When chef Alex Roberts opened Brasa, the place was quickly heralded as the greatest cheap restaurant in the Twin Cities since Punch Neapolitan Pizza. But how has it held up in the year-plus it’s been open? A recent visit found that, on one hand, not much has changed: The place is still all about locally sourced meats and fine-dining quality side dishes. The grits are still staggeringly creamy, the slow-roasted pork still spoon-tender. Yet, on the other hand, lots of little things have been tweaked: The skin on the rotisserie chicken is spicier and crisper than it used to be, though the meat is still sweet and tender. The red velvet cake is subtler, moister, and better, and the service is now practiced and easy. Today, Brasa seems like more of a bargain than it’s ever been: How nice that they don’t have appetizers, and how nice that the vast combo plates—two meats and two sides for $14.50—will leave even folks training for marathons comfortably full. 600 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612-379-3030
Lucia’s Wine Bar
Best for: A Frugal- Gourmet Feast
No chef has been as sensitively price-aware as Lucia Watson: Her takeaway and bakery offer some of the best meals in the Twin Cities for under $15, and enjoying a cup of soup on a rainy day in the bakery is one of the nicest cheap thrills in town. Still, for my money, the $24.95 prix fixe in Lucia’s wine bar should be bookmarked by every frugal gourmet in town. I say bookmarked because you can track each week’s new menu on their website, lucias.com. Typically, though, the three courses will include something like a huge heap of local lettuces dressed in a silky vinaigrette and topped with an artistic variety of local radishes; an entrée such as ginger and sesame pork riblets or curried vegetables with a cucumber raita, cilantro chutney, cashews, and poached chicken; and a dessert of, say, blueberry and lemon sorbet with a big sea-salt sprinkled dark-chocolate cookie. 1432 W. 31st St., Minneapolis, 612-825-1572
Best for: Date Night
Saffron is without question the most ambitious Middle Eastern restaurant in the Twin Cities. If you read restaurant reviews, you know chef Sameh Wadi is a critical darling beloved for his approach, which fuses fine-dining technique with southern and eastern Mediterranean flavors. But did you know Saffron has been offering a “tasting for two” menu Monday through Saturday? It’s true: $60 gets two people a selection of mezze (little appetizers); an entrée of lamb tagine with Medjool dates, almonds, and couscous; and a grouping of fragrant house sorbets and ice creams, such as dark chocolate with ras el hanout ice cream, cardamom-yogurt sorbet, rose and almond ice cream, or a poached pear with garam masala sorbet. If you’re feeling especially strategic, know that Mondays are also the restaurant’s half-price wine night. 125 Third St. N., Minneapolis, 612-746-5533
Best for: Homesick new-englanders
Believe it or not, there are live Atlantic lobsters to be had on a budget in the Twin Cities. During Live Lobster Sundays at Jax Café, in fact, $30 will get you a whole lobster (most are a pound and a quarter to a pound and a half), soup or salad, vegetable and potato. The only hitch? You have to call and reserve your lobster, or they won’t be able to guarantee one for you. 1928 University Ave. NE, Minneapolis, 612-789-7297
La Belle Vie
Best for: A Sensible splurge
The four-course tasting menu in the lounge at La Belle Vie has become something of a cult sensation, equally beloved by twentysomethings and the price-is-no-object Kenwood crowd. What’s not to like in a four-course meal harnessing the peerless skill and extraordinary sourcing of the state’s finest kitchen—for $40? Heck, a typical entrée such as the grilled beef tenderloin would be worth that on it’s own, and that’s not counting the Little Neck clam soup with white asparagus, chorizo air, and smoked char roe; the fish course of sautéed daurade with ramps, tomato, and rock shrimp ravioli; or the dessert of orange chiffon cake with Sauternes sabayon and orange basil sorbet. 510 Groveland Ave., Minneapolis, 612-874-6440
Best for: a date that really matters
In retrospect, it was probably Restaurant Alma that turned Minnesotans on to prix-fixe menus: People just love the egalitarian pricing structure. If you’ve never been to Alma, here’s how our James Beard–nominated restaurant works: There’s a standard menu, of course, but if you prefer (and everyone does), you can opt for the fixed price, one that allows you to choose a dish from each of the menu’s savory sections: appetizer, mid-course (sort of like an Italian primi course) of grains or pasta, and an entrée. A typical menu might include something like a starter of sweet-corn flan; a mid-course of sticky rice and roasted shiitake mushrooms with bok choy and a spicy coconut-milk sauce; and an entrée of sautéed diver-caught scallops with hen of the woods and oyster mushrooms. Every ingredient is scrupulously sourced, and the preparations are delicate, but resolutely unfussy. 528 University Ave. SE, Minneapolis, 612-379-4909
Porter & Frye
Best for: The big Birthday
Have you ever wondered what Tim McKee, the Twin Cities’ fine-dining standard-bearer, does for his anniversary? He goes to Porter & Frye. I know this because I saw a copy of the tasting menu the restaurant composed for him: 12 courses long, full of delectable little haute-farm morsels like a poached duck egg with salt-cured ham hocks, and a New York–strip steak with bison sweetbreads. As happy as I was for McKee and his wife, Amy, I was even happier to learn that the same experience is available to absolutely anybody who asks for it. Just call Porter & Frye or go on Open Table and request it. Typically, the restaurant charges $65 per person for a five-course tasting menu or $80 for a seven-course one. Once you make the reservation, Steven Brown or one of his cooks will call you to find out if there are foods you particularly love or particularly dislike. When you show up, you’ll find a menu tailored just for you. Please know that when I say “one of his cooks,” what I mean is one of people who have made Porter & Frye so extraordinary. Right now, the restaurant has a truly remarkable crew in the kitchen. Doug Flicker, the former head chef of Auriga, works there, as do young guns Josh Habiger (formerly of Alinea, and England’s Fat Duck) and Erik Anderson (French Laundry, Auriga). These young cooks are bringing the tricks of those far-flung food ivory towers right into the heart of Mill City. Habiger, for instance, has been perfecting a melon dish of intense ambition: He compresses melon so that the flavor intensifies and comes to resemble ahi tuna, then dresses the plate with yuzu purée, and tops it with something never before seen on earth—like, say, a heart of palm salad with fresh green coriander seeds, tiny bee balm flowers, lime-chive vinaigrette, and coriander blossoms. You thought you had to fly to Chicago to dine like that? Nope. Follow that dish with something like Anderson’s Wild Acres duck breast, served with an emerald-green fresh pistachio butter, chive-coated foie gras, foie-gras-dipped pickled cherries (in which the foie gras is mysteriously turned into a chocolate-like hard coating) and torch-toasted orange segments. Phew! The wealthiest, best-connected globetrotters in town will recognize that pistachio purée as one similar to a French Laundry trick. For the rest of us, it’s quite a relief to find you can get that level of food without needing to have a personal assistant who can spend all month trying to get a reservation for you. 1115 Second Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612-353-3500
The Corner Table
Best for: the ultimate insider experience
I like spilling restaurant secrets, and since Corner Table chef Scott Pampuch said I could spill this one, I’m practically giddy. You know what costs $125, consists of as many courses as you can handle, takes as many hours as you care to devote to it, and has previously been on offer only to chefs, purveyors, and other restaurant insiders? The kitchen table at Corner Table. Of course, this isn’t going to be seen as a bargain by everybody, but if you’ve ever looked longingly at one of those ads for a weekend in Aspen or the Virgin Islands cooking with top-name chefs, here’s one that doesn’t require a hotel. It works like this: You agree to pay $125 per person, you are assigned a server who will deal with your wine needs and clear your dirty plates, and you sit, eat, talk, question, and watch until you fall over full. The star of the show is the legendarily talkative, amusing, and entertaining Pampuch. But you and your dining partners are the guest stars (the kitchen table seats up to six). Twelve or more courses are the norm. “We put a candle on the table—that’s the ambience,” Pampuch told me. “Otherwise, you just sit there and eat whatever we put in front of you. And eat. And eat.” What will they put in front of you? Pampuch’s cooking is ingredient- and farm-driven, and tends towards elegant understatement: A simple pan-roasted halibut fillet, for instance, will be given dimension—but not overwhelmed—with preserved lemon, white bean cream, and a green-curry sauce, all of it served beside young pea tips. A riff on a salmon BLT is made by marrying wild-caught salmon, heirloom tomatoes at their peak of ripeness, true microgreens, and a smoky bacon aioli. If you’ve never been to Corner Table, know that eating there is very Alice Waters, very Berkeley. Nothing is ever very fussy, but everything is neatly made and thought through. (If you’ve never been there and aren’t yet ready to go for the $125 blow-out, consider sampling Pampuch’s cuisine by ordering the ordinary, $65-a-person, five-course tasting menu, offered nightly in the dining room.) For food lovers with a desire to go behind the scenes, this meal is beyond the beyond. “If people are particularly curious, we’ll let them see what’s in the cooler,” Pampuch told me. “One time, we actually pulled a whole lamb out of the cooler and let these four guys choose their cut of meat. I figured they’d settle on one cut, but, of course, one guy wanted the tenderloin, another wanted a piece of the leg, a third wanted chops, and the fourth wanted tongue. Luckily, we had some tongues we had braised before, because I’m not going to cook something badly just because someone asks for it. But it was kind of amazing. We’ve had people show up at 6 o’clock and stay through midnight.” 4257 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612-823-0011
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.
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