Berries in Cuba

Hello, neglected little blog! Who would have thought I would return to you after a trip to Nokomis to get my taxes done? Here, I learned not to underestimate a smiling tax lady who played 1980s music, and managed to keep a conversation going while filling out the dreaded form  in an embarrassingly short time. Nor to disdain the neighborhood breakfast joint next door, which rejoiced in the name Berry Sweet Café.

It turned out to be a sunny brunch restaurant with an enticing selection of Cuban and Mexican offerings, plus the waffles and pancakes with whipped cream that some people seem to insist on eating for breakfast. The neighbors were certainly a more varied bunch than in Uptown, where I usually get brunch. An African-American family, young Af-Am woman in military fatigues, and a Mexican family speaking Spanish filled out the tables, and  I couldn’t believe how it felt like LA. I think the nearby military base had something to do with the mix of people, so I suppose I should thank the army for being more egalitarian, ironically, than many other local employers.

I was tempted by the Cuban breakfast (eggs, plantains) but the memory of the late lamented La Rosita in Morningside Heights made me crave black beans to go with the eggs, and they had none here. Not even with their huevos rancheros, which I would happily have ordered too. So I reasoned that it was close enough to noon to get a Cuban sandwich instead – and it was a good call. The roast pork squished together with ham, cheese, and pickles in the sandwich was perfectly cooked. The whole thing was a lovely balance of textures and mild flavor, just right with coffee for brunch. I did experiment with a shot of flavor through the selection of hot sauces, trying out the Bufalo red jalapeno sauce (a bit bland) before settling for the reliable Tapatio, which gave my palate just the wake-up call it needed.

So, I recommend getting taxes done by a pro instead of stressing about them for an entire weekend, as well as venturing out into unknown Minneapolis neighborhoods with cheesily-named cafés. Both can brighten up your Saturday.


Evergreen Chinese: A Family-Style Restaurant Where the Family Hasn’t Redecorated Since 1985

It looks sketchy but smells promising, I thought on climbing down the stairs to this basement restaurant on Nicollet Ave. There are white fluorescent lights and a distinctly old-school Chinatown aesthetic. The apparent owner is working the room himself, taking orders in haphazard fashion, while a younger woman (daughter?) is playing with her phone at the front counter. It is 8 pm, and the room is sparsely filled with grad students and a group of feisty older women. It looks like Evergreen is struggling to compete with more bourgeois restaurants down Eat Street, but it has its loyal clients. The menu certainly isn’t dressed up with pretty phrases – it’s long and descriptive, just as I like, and worthy of your careful study.

Evergreen is distinctive for being able to make everything on the menu vegetarian, and it also has a good long list of straight-up vegetable options. I opted for the strangest sounding starter, a squid soup with fish paste – but sorry, they were out. The wonton soup I settled for was nevertheless fine, appropriately mild flavored without being bland. For main course I had a hard time choosing between an item on the chef’s recommended list, Three Cup Tofu (with rice wine, ginger, garlic, and basil) and Black Mushrooms with Tofu, opted for the former, and was glad I did. The tofu squares were fried (not very healthy) and lightly bathed in tangy, garlicky, soy-based sauce as well as lots of Thai horapa basil. My friend’s stir-fried vegetables were a good complement – a mix of snow peas, broccoli, bamboo shoots, and some usual Chinese-American suspects (celery, water chestnut, carrot). The portions were generous but we polished them off.

In conclusion: order from the chef’s specials, go for the stuff that sounds different (it’s usually Taiwanese), and plan on rounding off your evening in warmer light and bourgie comfort elsewhere.

A little Szechuan pepper

Thursday lunch is a lovely space of time when I’m done with a compressed teaching week, and able to explore the exotic East of campus. Usually my lunch companion and I clear our respiratory tracts with bubbling stews at Tofu House. This Thursday, however, we felt like a change. A friend who knows Chinese cuisine and its local iterations had recommended Little Szechuan at Oak and Washington.

It was certainly a popular spot, I found when I sailed in from the bitter cold. A long line snaked to the buffet, and a waiter tried to entice me to join. The steam table looked rather Chinese-American, though – all deep-fried chicken squares sautéed with cornstarchy sauces. No, I said, making a peremptory decision to forgo instant gratification for quality food. Let’s order from the menu. Some pork dumplings tided us over while a frazzled waitstaff of three ran around the large (and not particularly cosy) room. They were acceptable stomach-liners.

For lunch proper, I had decided in advance to order Twice-Cooked Pork Belly, in loving memory of Dynasty Chinese restaurant on 110th and Broadway. But my friend’s choice of Chilli Fish inspired me to turn adventurous, and I pointed to the picture of a fish stew with Szechuan peppercorns on the menu. It looked plain, but sounded interesting. It was to be a while before I uncovered the mystery. My friend’s fish arrived first, a giant plate of white fish (walleye?) with nice slices of red and green chilli peppers and a judicious drizzle of spicy sauce. Since the portion was plentiful, and I was hungry, I stole a bit and was very happy with my theft. The balance of bland fish and hot accents was lovely. Indeed, I even told the waitress not to worry about bringing my delayed dish if it had not already been cooked. But in keeping with Murphy’s Law, my order appeared moments later.

The fish stew looked every bit as bland as its menu picture, but was full of delicate flavor from the peppercorns and good broth. Tiny bunches of bokchoy and slices of jalapeno added welcome diversions. I asked also for chilli sauce, which turned out to be a coarse grind of mild red chilli and Szechuan peppers. Thus spiked and perked up, the fish offered as much winter comfort as any flashy red Korean stew. Moreover, the portions were giant (in keeping with higher prices) and each of us took back a healthy box of leftovers. I smiled in condescending pity at folks waiting in the long buffet line on my way out – they knew not what they missed. But at least the waiters got a break.

Nico’s Tacos: Or, You Will Regret Not Making the Trip to Powderhorn

This taco and tequila bar is set in a wooden house not far from me, and I had walked by several times thinking I should try it some day. That day came: its location made it the spot for a cosy drink and dinner before a show at the Walker. And, unsurprisingly, its food was less than stellar. But it offered fascinating ethnographic insight into the dining habits of the Upper Midwestern white family on a Friday night.

The first room we entered had a vast, square table at which about twenty people seemed to be seated. They looked like different generations of an extended family, sulking, smiling, and sampling guacamole out of giant mortars. Once my friend and I had recovered from the shock of being served by white waiters in a Mexican restaurant, we put in our orders for margaritas and tacos. Surely we wanted some guacamole to start with? asked our waiter, reminding us to honor a sacred rule of Midwestern Mexican dining. Fine. It came at the right time to drink with, even if it was salty and spiked with bottled lemon juice. The house margaritas were thankfully excellent, and made with good silver tequila.

The tacos: pork with salsa verde, bad; barbacoa, pretty good. I also got a tamale with chicken – decent. All of the food was sadly lukewarm. Nico’s might consider investing in those wide, thin skillets that New York taquerias used to get their food out nice and hot. But I might be sad to see it lose its cultural specificity.

Malaysian heat in a Minnesota winter

Eat Street is where you go for a bit of Uptown’s Bohemian past. The Peninsula restaurant adds a New York twist to this stretch of hipsterdom (what else can you call a block that features an upmarket donut café?) with good, hot Malaysian food. The head chef is apparently from Penang in New York, where I first ate Malaysian. Peninsula on Nicollet is a less elegant space – more cavernous than lush – but absolutely makes up for spartan decor with complex spicing.

The most authentic-sounding parts of the menu are the chef’s specials and the noodle section. Here’s where you find rendang and Singapore-style rice noodles. The other sections nod to Indonesian food (such as nasi goreng) and Thai-style curries. None of my dining companions looked less than delighted at their choices, however. The roti canai was divinely spiced and fragrant with lemongrass – not to be missed! My wide rice noodles with shrimp and squid were delicious and generously portioned. As at all noodle joints, you need to season with extra salt or chilli, and a minor quibble is that these were not on the table. A friend’s beef stirfry was enough for two and apparently very good. Another enjoyed red curry brisket, and a third had beautiful fried tofu squares with peanut sauce. We all left very full and, in some cases, with leftovers. The service could not have been more speedy or smiling.

Deprived of other things to critique, I can say only that this restaurant is not a space in which to linger. The pace of service and lack of atmospheric details like music make you want to head over elsewhere soon after, even if it’s only for a digestive smoke by the door.

An unlikely izakaya

The end of semester is here! Grading is done, after a few attempts to procrastinate via elaborate cooking projects. And the lights of the cinema beckon to the liberated academic. A friend and I decided to meet for pre-movie drinks and Japanese bar food at the Uptown branch of a respected Minneapolis sushi restaurant, located next door to the cinema. Origami has a tempting happy hour, where several small plates are available for sampling. It does not seem to have renovated its space, however, from a previous incarnation as a frat-boy bar. Never mind. Japan is the land of frat boys par excellence, I have learned from a series of movies. Let’s try out the drinking food.

Tako yaki, or octopus-stuffed fried batter balls, are a must. I also ordered kurobata beef sausage with kimchi and, as an afterthought, Manila clams (never had Japanese-style clams before). The afterthought was the best of all. It is cooked in a Korean-style red paste with plenty of sesame and some pickled cucumber. The takoyaki are sadly mushy, and the octopus is lonely with no ginger or scallion. The sausage is a Polish bratwurst-style hotdog, in full smoky mapled glory, skewered, sliced, and made to masquerade as Japanese. The accompanying kimchi tastes only of salt. My friend is not very impressed with her sushi, either.

I do feel sorry for the lovely Japanese waitress, with her pink hair and assiduous service, who must know well that this is an egregious misrepresentation of her homeland. I wonder if Origami gave its chefs just one lesson in cooking izakaya food, and then left them to their own devices with subpar ingredients. Personally I would inflict on them a 400 page tome on the drinking foods of different cultures where drinking is no excuse for eating garbage. If anything, some of the great cuisines of the Middle East (such as Lebanese and Turkish mezze) are designed to be eaten with alcohol. Japanese izakaya food deserves similar respect. And not all your clientele are 27 year old frat boys, Origami.

Hello from a transplant to Minneapolis who lives to eat

Minneapolis is the artiest town on the prairie, they say. But woman cannot live by art alone. She needs food, which is an art form in its own right. The restaurant cooks of this fair town sometimes get it right, but often serve the culinary equivalent of adolescent poetry. This blog documents hits and misadventures, in the hope of offering a more skeptical alternative to Minnesota Nice restaurant reviewers on Yelp.