128 Café

Making updates, yet retaining its essence

A diner’s first question, as he took his seat at 128 Café: “You still have the ribs, right?” Of course the St. Paul institution’s new chef/owner, Max Thompson, knows better than to tamper with success. The racks are as tender as ever, smothered in a sweet smoldering sauce that sparks with spice and leaves a lingering burn—the gustatory equivalent of a crackling campfire.

Even with new carpet and a fresh coat of paint, 128’s dining room, which is tucked into the basement of an apartment building across the street from the University of St. Thomas, has retained its retro rec-room vibe. (The wood paneling lends charm if not sophistication.) Assuming one of your dining companions will order (and share) the ribs, go ahead and foray into the rest of the American fare, such as pasta or pork chops. Thompson says he plans to tinker with the café’s longtime favorite appetizer—roasted garlic bulbs to be spread on grilled bread and piled with fresh mint, apple chutney, and goat cheese—though that may disappoint regulars who expect it to be permanently tattooed on the menu.

Thompson, a Minnesota native who spent time cooking on the East Coast, has been updating the restaurant’s offerings to reflect the multitude of ethnic influences on American cuisine. The kimchi soup (he’s traveled to Korea several times) is a prime example of such a successful addition. A scoop of sticky rice absorbs the spicy red broth that contains little blocks of tofu and nubs of confit pork, which shred under the slightest pressure of a spoon. The soup’s secret is bright yellow pineapple wedges that mute its savory heat with sweetness. Like the restaurant itself, the dish is comforting yet quirky—and also the perfect antidote for a case of the sniffles.

128 N. Cleveland Ave., St. Paul, 651-645-4128, the128cafe.com