SINGULAR ST. PAUL
The older and smaller of Minnesota’s Twin Cities boasts a food scene second to none
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.
“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.
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.