The older and smaller of Minnesota’s Twin Cities boasts a food scene sec­ond to none

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - TRAVEL - By Me­lanie D.G. Ka­plan

ST. PAUL, Minn. – Twin schmin.

When I re­cently vis­ited St.

Paul, I was vaguely aware of an­other city nearby. I saw sky­scrapers in the dis­tance and heard men­tion of a twin — a spark­lier, sassier, busier, big­ger city slightly to the west. A city that gets first billing and all the love.

I reg­is­tered that other city in my mind and then dis­missed it al­to­gether. Be­cause St. Paul, I dis­cov­ered, is more fun than sec­ond fid­dle and too im­por­tant to be an af­ter­thought.

St. Paul is the cap­i­tal of Minnesota, the older and smaller of the Twin Cities. It’s qui­eter and more re­laxed, whole­some and fam­i­lyfriendly, with an air of ro­mance, as though it’s wink­ing at a by­gone time. St. Paul is hardly a sleepy town — it at­tracts big-name en­ter­tain­ers, goes hockey crazy in the win­ter and this year opened Al­lianz Field, a gleam­ing world-class soc­cer sta­dium. I ran out of time dur­ing my visit be­fore I ran out of highly rec­om­mended restau­rants.

Lo­cal faves

“One bite. Like an oys­ter.” The friendly bar­tender at Tongue in Cheek in­structed me on how to eat the “teaser,” or amuse-bouche, I’d or­dered — a large spoon art­fully packed with col­or­ful in­gre­di­ents. “You should get it in four fla­vors: basil, blue­berry, tof­fee peanuts and then the funk of the blue cheese.” He was right. It was the most in­ter­est­ing sin­gle bite I’d taken in re­cent mem­ory. The rest of the meal at this cozy spot on the gritty east side of town was just as fla­vor­ful: a pea shoot and bur­rata salad with stone fruit and pine nuts; zuc­chini pad thai. The menu also has meat op­tions, such as fried chicken ra­men. Five­course “car­ni­vore” and “her­bi­vore” tast­ing menus, $70 and $65, re­spec­tively, are avail­able for din­ner; brunch is served daily.

If you’re look­ing for more taco than the over­priced, dainty

“street style” op­tions that have been pop­ping up ev­ery­where re­cently, head to El Bur­rito Mer­cado, an in­sti­tu­tion on St. Paul’s west side (con­fus­ingly on the south side of town). At the cafe (there’s also a sit-down res­tau­rant), I or­dered two huge tacos for $6 and sat, lis­ten­ing to salsa mu­sic and talk­ing to a mus­tached Mex­i­can man who works at Viet­namese and Chi­nese restau­rants. Lo­cated in an area that’s called District del Sol for its many Latino-owned busi­nesses, El Bur­rito Mer­cado has been a fix­ture for decades. At the mar­ket, pinatas hang from the ceil­ing and shop­pers read signs in Span­ish, buy­ing sou­venirs; Fanta bot­tled in Mex­ico; freshly made tamales, em­panadas and guac; and bak­ery items like tres leches cake and cook­ies the size of por­to­bello mush­rooms. Re­turn in May for the neigh­bor­hood’s Cinco de Mayo cel­e­bra­tion, one of the largest in the coun­try.

Guide­book musts

I was eat­ing my mush­room toast on the pa­tio at Hol­man’s Ta­ble one morn­ing when a small jet landed nearby, tax­ied down the run­way and stopped on the tar­mac, mere feet from my break­fast. What a way for an avi­a­tion geek to start the day! Hol­man Field, the one­time head­quar­ters of North­west Air­lines, opened this all-day res­tau­rant be­fore the 2018 Su­per Bowl to feed hun­gry VIPs ar­riv­ing in their pri­vate jets. Now, most of the 100-plus daily take­offs and land­ings are cor­po­rate air­craft (no com­mer­cial flights means no se­cu­rity has­sles), and the res­tau­rant is a great spot for pilots and pas­sen­gers to grab a bite. Let’s just say I was mes­mer­ized by ev­ery lit­tle plane that landed be­fore me, wob­bling down the run­way. A float­plane took off, a Black Hawk he­li­copter was towed into the Minnesota Army Na­tional Guard hangar, and I couldn’t imag­ine be­ing more de­lighted if a Richard Scarry book came to life. Even­tu­ally, I re­al­ized my toast was cold — a shame be­cause the food is too good to be for­got­ten. In­sider tips: Bring binoc­u­lars and down­load the LiveATC app to lis­ten to air traf­fic con­trol. Ask to sit in the view­ing area on the tar­mac, and or­der a Red Eye or Air­mail cock­tail around the firepit.

Step back in time at the Com­modore, an art deco and Jazz Age res­tau­rant and cock­tail lounge in the Cathe­dral Hill neigh­bor­hood. Per­haps best known as a fa­vorite spot of F. Scott Fitzger­ald’s (the writer and wife Zelda lived up­stairs in the early 1920s), the leg­endary res­tau­rant has its own col­or­ful his­tory — home to a base­ment speakeasy dur­ing Pro­hi­bi­tion and a des­ti­na­tion for Chicago mob­sters. Beau­ti­fully re­stored and glam­orous, with a killer bar, the Com­modore serves starters in­clud­ing lob­ster dev­iled eggs and Wal­dorf salad and en­trees like seven-spice cau­li­flower and beer-bat­tered wall­eye. You’ll want to dress up here, to honor the his­tory and ro­mance of the Com­modore, which turns 100 in 2020. Toast the Fitzger­alds with a gin cock­tail named for him and a sparkling wine con­coc­tion named for her. (In the sum­mer, take a Fitzger­ald walk­ing tour with the Minnesota His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety.)


Keg and Case West 7th Mar­ket, a food and re­tail hall that opened last year in the old Sch­midt Brew­ery, was de­scribed to me by St. Paulites as a lit­tle “too hip” and “too glossy” for St. Paul, maybe more at home in that other city to the west. I pre­dict even the lo­cals who said this will, in time, come to love the mar­ket. En­ter­ing, you see a daz­zling, 15-foot-high mush­room grow cham­ber at For­est to Fork, a shop that sells wild for­aged and cul­ti­vated mush­rooms (more than a dozen species at any given time, count­ing the 800 pounds that grow in the cham­ber each week), for­ag­ing sup­plies, books and tools. You can find an “Edi­ble Mush­rooms of Minnesota” cal­en­dar, mush­room cocoa mix, a “brush­room” for mush­room clean­ing and “Mush love” stick­ers. Also at Keg and Case: House of Halva, where you can or­der a tahini smoothie and hal­vah in un­ex­pected fla­vors like cof­fee; Spin­ning Wylde, of­fer­ing cot­ton candy in more than 50 fla­vors (black licorice, rum and coke); and In Bloom, which cooks all its food over fire.

It’s easy to for­get, when you’re walk­ing past the crowded indoor stalls or out­door veg­etable stands in Hmong­town Mar­ket­place, that you’re in the Mid­west. The sounds, smells, voices on TV and faces pro­claim, “South­east Asia!” St. Paul is said to have the na­tion’s largest Hmong pop­u­la­tion, and when lo­cals shop here, it feels like home. Hun­dreds of ven­dors pack the mar­ket with trin­kets, soaps, bowls, cos­met­ics, tra­di­tional Hmong head­dresses and robes, plat­form shoes, DVDs, fake eye­lashes, knock­off de­signer hand­bags and cheap toys. You can also find 50-pound bags of jas­mine rice (for that friend who has ev­ery­thing) and an­other sec­tion with Asian pro­duce like rambu­tan (a rel­a­tive of the litchi), jack­fruit and gin­ger root knobs the size of my fist. There are plenty of au­then­tic and fla­vor­ful street food spots to try here and count­less restau­rants nearby. Fa­vorites are Ngon Bistro (Viet­name­seFrench) and Trieu Chau (Viet­namese).


Hun­dreds of ven­dors pack the Hmong­town Mar­ket­place, where fresh farmed veg­eta­bles are among the myr­iad items read­ily avail­able.

The Fitzger­ald cock­tail, named after fic­tion writer and St. Paul na­tive F. Scott, is a fea­tured drink at the Com­modore res­tau­rant and lounge.

Tongue in Cheek res­tau­rant, a cozy spot on the gritty east side of town, has sev­eral tasty “teaser” ap­pe­tiz­ers to choose from.

Keg and Case West 7th Mar­ket is a food and re­tail hall that in­cludes a 15-foot-high mush­room grow cham­ber and your pick of over 50 fla­vors of cot­ton candy.

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