Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Best of Hungry in Southwest

As the year comes to a close and I spend more time dining with friends and family instead of in restaurants, I thought I would put out a "Best of" list. Now keep in mind this is just the opinion of a few folks who do not have heavy duty food credentials, but just love to eat, and love to dine out often. Please feel free to comment and offer your opinions. Dialogue is always welcome!

Best Neighborhood Cafe: Blackbird Cafe
I love the atmosphere, the servers are friendly and the menu is dynamic and inventive. You can usually call ahead and get in quickl, and it's conveniently located for anyone living in SW but not to far from Lyndale and the surrounding highways.

Best Small Plates: Cafe Maude
I love sharing plates of different foods with friends and dining companions, and Cafe Maude is set up to make that happen. Their cumin and honey kissed chicken wings are simply delicious.

Best Burger: The Lion's Tap
It's pure, unadulterated burger bliss. Nothing fancy, just a good old-fashioned burger dive. The 112 eatery gets a hefty Honorable Mention nod. Their burger couldn't be any different then what you can get at Lion's Tap, but it's really, really good.

Best Italian: La Grolla
This one is hard, but I'm going with La Grolla. You would be hard pressed to find an Italian joint that offers more of a diverse menu and corresponding specials on a nightly basis. The kicker is that they do everything well from top-to-bottom whether its soup, pasta, seafood or any one of their traditional Italian offerings.

Best French: Cave Vin
This place holds a special place in my heart. Their servers/owner are both warm and charismatic, and their food is top drawer. Their entire kitchen staff has been on since the opening, and that doesn't happen often. It's a true testament to what they do. Their pork tenderloin is inspiring and their mussels are heralded by many as the best in town.

Best Mexican: Indio
There is plenty of really good, authentic Mexican food in Minneapolis, and I think the food at Indio is right up there. The service has been shaky in a previous trip, but it was much better the second time and the food is explosively flavorful and perfectly spicy.

UPDATE! Hate to say it, but Indio has closed. Tear! Went by on my way to Tum Rup Thai, and it was empty. I was worried, and it looks like my fears were warranted. I fear the price point would hurt them considering there are good Mexican joints near by at much lower prices. Too bad, but i know there are some other choice places in the cities to hit for some good Mexican

Best Latin American Food: Cafe 28
OK, maybe this is a bit of a stretch given the above category, but their braised pork in adobo and chilaquiles are outstanding and worth the mention. I'll be searching for a rival chilaquile offering when I head to Mexico in a few weeks.

Best Mediterranean: Shish
It may not have a colossal menu, but they do everything well from Gyros, to Shawarma and some really good Mediterranean style burger. Their kebabs are also quite nice.

Best Pasta: Broders'
They do everything well. Their homemade pasta is always perfectly al dente and anyone that serves Chingale (boar) gets some serious cred from my taste buds.

Best Sandwich: 112 Eatery
Everything they make is comforting and delicious. The Bacon, Egg and Harrisa sandwich is no different. The cilantro offers a snap of freshness and the smoky harrisa really packs a wollop. Plus it has fried egg and bacon on it, and what could be better then that?

Best Outdoor Dining: W.A. Frost
No contest. They got great booze credentials and the setting is totally enchanting. As soon as it hits 65, I'm there even if Jess and I are the only ones. Their bar menu is pretty good to. Nice and comforting on days when it might still be a bit to chilly to dine outside!

Best Bar Menu: Nick and Eddie
The offerings are tasty, made from scratch and diverse. Oh, and by the way, J.P. Samuelson is there now. I don't need to say anything more.

Best Breakfast: Zumbro Cafe
If I call a place and there's a 45 minute wait I usually abandon ship, but not here. The frittatas at Zumbro are too good to pass up. Plus I can give them my name and cell phone and run up to Great Harvest and the Linden Hills Co-op while I wait!

Best Cheap Eats: Broders' Cucina Italiana
Everything is good and fast. They make awesome risotto cakes, killer sandwiches and the pizza is no slouch either. It's right around the corner from me and really tough to pass up, especially when I need an Italian fix and the Pasta Bar is packed (when isn't it?!).

Best Grab and Go Lunch: Rustica
This is a no-brainer. Combine some dangerously good sandwich fixings from Corner Table and throw in perfect savory breads from Rustica and you can't go wrong. You can just grab them right out of the refrigerator case (I wouldn't plan on a late lunch here, they go fast!).

Best Value: Tum Rup Thai
The spice can power through any MN head cold and the dishes are rich in flavor. Plus, they're super cheap and I can't even power all the way through their colossal portions. I always leave with lunch for tomorrow and a surprising amount of cash in my wallet.

Best Deli: Be'wiched
These guys work hard at preparing/smoking their own meats and take serious pride (and they should) in doing so. The sandwiches are a lunch savior and are robust enough to blast your biceps as you shovel one down.

Best Take Out: Punch
Their pizzas are really quite good and the perfect size to split over an accompanying salad with a good companion. The toppings are fresh and flavorful and the pies always come out with a perfect crust. Plus, if you time it right you can get in and out real quick!

Best in a Bun: Kramarczuk's
These guys make unreal sausages in just about every style you can imagine. They're great at lunch, or swing by any day and grab some to bring home to grill. They're awesome on a good roll with some substantial mustard, or all dressed up however you like!

Best St. Paul Institution: Cossetta's
I love this place. They have a great Italian deli and serve up heart warming pastas, sandwiches, pizzas and other Italian favorites. It's cafeteria style so you can get your food quick and chow down with some good friends. It's been around for years and is the place to head to before a game or a night out in St. Paul.

Best Minneapolis Institution: The Convention Grill
This joint is your classic Malt Shop. Their burgers are nice old-fashioned offerings, and their chicken soup is old-school good. The chocolate-banana malt is unreal and the old surly waitresses are one of a kind.

Best Place for Food Lovers: Midtown Global Market
Whether you are looking for some quick, tasty food or running into grab some quick produce or ethnic wonders, you can make it all happen right here. I like to go down and hit one of the stands (Los Ocampo is a favorite) then pick up a few things I can't find at other area groceries. It's nice stop on a cold winter day, or the perfect place to grab ripe avocados for a spur of the moment summer fiesta.

Best Comeback: Levian
I used to love to watch Steven Brown labor in his kitchen at Levain, and when it shut down I felt heart broken. Then it reopened and I was a bit bashful to return without Steven at the helm, but I decided to head back and was overjoyed with the results. The watercress soup was delightful and the tenderness of the short ribs was intoxicating. I am dedicated to getting back there in the depths of winter for their truly comforting aromas and winter-ready menu.

Best Dessert: Gigi's
Their Key Lime Tart is the gospel of all tarts. It's so lush and bright and silky smooth. The lime zest offers a nice robust touch to the creamy, tart filling and their is simply nothing better to cool off with in the summer. Their case is always full of great dinner options and their date friendly dinners are cheap and super tasty.

Best Atmosphere: Bar Lurcat
This is the perfect place to throw on something fancy, sip on a powerful cocktail and work your hardest to not stain your new outfit with the wonderful juices rolling off the perfectly sinful Cafe Lurcat mini burgers. Just be sure to wipe up any sugar crystals left over from the mini donut binge before you finally work up the courage to approach that vixen in the corner.

Best Salad: Wildfire
OK, OK, I know. I don't dig eating at malls, but their chopped salad is huge and filled with the good stuff! Bacon, chicken, and avocado? It could drive a sane man crazy, plus it's big enough to actually fill you up! It's quite good, and the take out counter lets you get in and out quick!

Best Fries: Meritage
I didn't expect it either, but these were seriously helped out by the bold and salty hanger steak they accompanied. They were perfectly salty and crisp and just down right delicious!

Also, Duplex gets Honorable Mention for their tasty little Sweet Potato fries. I've become disenchanted with the place over the past year, but I have to give credit where credit is due, because those suckers are tasty!

Best New Restaurant: Heidi's
The first meal I had their was a spiritual event I thought could not be recreated, until I arrived the second time. The meal was just as good, and the service much more polished. I've enjoyed everything I've devoured there, and I feel good knowing that Stewart is painstakingly crafting my meal back there in his own little food sanctuary. I'll have to get back again to see if they can pull it off for a third time and my gut (my best advisor) leads me to believe I'll be just as satisfied time and time again.

Have a wonderful Christmas and let me know YOUR "Best of" list. I need some new places to eat!

Happy Eating,


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Recession Saviors - The Bar Menu

I tend to cruise Twin Cities based food blogs and magazines quite frequently, and can't help but notice that just about every single one of them seem to layer in stories about restaurant closings, followed by stories about ways to enjoy meals in the Twin Cities on the cheap. It's hard to justify spending money on dining out these days, but whether you go the prix fixe route, hit a happy hour, or eat early bird/night owl, there are ways to enjoy good food, and enjoy it with friends and family without taking to big of a shot in the wallet. Although all the above are great strategies, my favorite way to enjoy good food and have a good time out on the town is still the Bar Menu. Yep, W.A. Frost has a mean one, ditto for Lurcat, and know, I can add Nick & Eddie to the list.

My brother was able to score tickets to a screening of the British Advertising Awards last night at the Walker, and I jumped at the venue's proximity as a chance for me to make good on a promise to head back to Nick and Eddie to enjoy their bar menu. The deal was even sweeter, with the recent news that J.P. Samuelson had taken a position there. Needless to say, I was excited.

I plopped down on a bar stool with my brother and our girlfriends and immediately looked over the menu, which was simply a formality as I had studied the menu online well before showing up. With a pint of Guinness on the way Jess and I went over our options and we settled on a menu well suited for the frigid bite in the air. What better way to beat the cold then to enjoy a meal of smoked chicken tacos, Swedish meatballs, and a good old fashioned hot dog with giardiniera and some nice salty fries?
Now many people think of bar food as simple, and cheap for a reason, but the thing about it, is that there are many places that do it very well, and you can place Nick and Eddie in that court. The tacos were very good and made with fresh ingredients. When people think cheap, they often believe the quality must fail, but that was not the case here. Flavorful corn tortillas (no flour, folks) proved the perfect vehicle for a marriage of smokey chicken, a luscious, spicy sauce, bright cilantro and fresh lime wedges to garnish. They were simple, fresh and flavorful. Not something you may expect from a bar.

The meatballs came out assembled in a circle surrounded by a rich and creamy sauce. No lumps, no chunks, just smooth rich flavors. The meatballs were obviously hand rolled, based on their texture and imperfect shape. The surface provided the perfect canvas for the sauce to adhere to, and each bite provided a wonderful wave of succulent pork and beef.

Lastly, came what I considered the crown jewel of the meal. The hot dog was perfect. A salty little treat with a good snap from the casing. Both good signs of authenticity. The house-baked bun was fantastic. It was sprinkled with Poppy seed and was far more substantial then the typical dog. The outside was a bit crisp and flaky - likely from a bit of egg wash or a smattering of butter for baking, yet remained pillowy and chewy beneath the surface. The dog tasted rich, and far from the over processed frankfurters of my youth. The explosive giardiniera added some serious heat, and flavor far beyond the aid a sport sport pepper provides to a classic Chicago style dog (no knock on the Chicago style - they are one of my favorite snacks). The stack of salty fries that accompanied the dog provided a perfect escape from the cold, and at the end of the day (night) what could be better the a good dog, some salty fries and a cold beer?

The fact that the dog and pile of fries only costs $4 is near comical, and I felt as if I was almost cheating the restaurant out of something. Nick and Eddie place a great emphasis on their scratch kitchen and commitment to superior ingredients and it plays out well at both the bar, and the table. I'll find a reason to be back there soon, because lord knows, I will find myself in need of good old dog far before the thaw here in SW Minneapolis, and I know a place where I can get a perfect summery treat.

If anyone out there has any suggestions on another good bar menu to try, please pass it along. As I noted above, I still think dining at the bar is a great way for a quick dinner, at a convenient price without sacrificing the pursuit of great food.
Happy Eating,


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Musings of Maude

I love going out to a good dinner, and it had been a while since I'd ponied up and was itching to go out and enjoy a nice night. There's nothing better then walking into a room with a great atmosphere, intense aromas and some good friends to peek your appetite. Sitting down to vibrant food, and cocktail-laced conversation is pretty much my ideal. Unfortunately, between the holidays and the economy, I haven't been able to do it as much, but I'm not going to let it slow me down much anymore.

You can't read a restaurant blog without cringing over closings and small attendance, so I wanted to make an effort to hit a good spot somewhere close to home in order to keep the money in the community much like some of the pillars of the local food movement. I figured I'd head to Cafe Maude just down the street just in case the Armatage Room was open to give a new enterprise a shot. Their wine bar menu, featured Tuesday-Sunday when they don't have a private booking looked incredibly appealing and had some really imaginative offerings. It turns out it wasn't open (instant heartache) on this particular night, but we did score a seating in the main restaurant.

The vibe was strong as normal. Good house music, a strong neighborhood pulse and the clinking of wine glasses provided the rhythm to a good night of eating. Jess and I decided to go light given the recent holiday, but we found that we didn't have to suffer at all for it. Jess ordered there roasted corn chowder - I was eyeing it myself and knew I was in for a bite (mututal understanding) so I gravitated to the nicoise olive chicken flat bread.

The soup came out first and it was a nice substantial bowl. The texture was surprising - not your cream of corn standard, and played really well - robust enough to be a meal. The corn was roasted and sweet, and the fine dice on the potatoes soaked up the flavors well while offering substance. A nice red pepper component rounded out the broth flavors, which really paled in comparison the the crispy bacon and avocado topping. bacon and avocado is pretty much where it's at for me. I think they should run for the presidency in 2012. I'd be the first to sign on. The bacon was perfectly crispy and the avocado was smooth and luscious. Needless to say this was not your status quo soup, and follows Maude's blueprint for taking simple fare and really jazzing it up.

My deconstructed flat bread came out and looked really nice and fresh. I love arugula and it's peppery bite was a welcome feeling. The flat bread itself was a bit tough, and the pickled herb spread was a bit bland, but it really allowed the other flavors to stand out and do their thing. The feta was strong and pungent - a good mix with arugula and the chicken was cooked well and played with it's fellow party-goers well. The roasted red pepper offered some sweetness, and the raw, diced zucchini was an excellent, and unconventional addition. I've never really had raw zucchini in a dish now that I think of it, and it stood up really well. The olives actually played out as a puree which was really satisfying in the fact that it could now hit every bite and wasn't limited to just rolling around on my plate. Again, deconstruction at it's finest. It wasn't the best dish I've had at Maude, but it's a creative little insight into their world, and I left satisfied and happy, which is just what I was looking for. I'll say it again, there is nothing quite like spending a nice evening with good company, great food, and an enticing ambiance.

Next time, I'm going to hit the Armatage Room for sure!

Happy Eating,

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