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Cinnamon rolls at Red Bench Bakery

To baker/owner Andy Mooney, "cinnamon rolls" and "sugar rush" are mutually exclusive.

"There's a place for Cinnabon, but I felt like we could do something different," he said.

And how. His version ($3.50) is both restrained — thanks to a disciplined approach to sweetness — and over the top, because they enlist the same laminated dough used to make the bakery's excellent croissants. Mooney's reasoning is simple.

"Rather than killing ourselves making a bunch of doughs, we're building a great line of products with our laminated dough," he said.

Smart. That butter-laden dough, sprinkled with brown sugar and cinnamon, is wound into fist-sized, seashell-like spirals, and then the oven's transformative powers get to work, fashioning crinkly, delicately crispy exteriors, and soft, honeycomb interiors. The finishing flourish is a judiciously applied vanilla glaze.

Elegant and gently sweet, the irresistible results could never be mistaken for their ponderous, cavity-inducing counterparts. Mooney has obviously struck a chord at his three-year-old bakery, because over the past 12 months, cinnamon roll sales topped 23,000.

"It's an insane number," he said with a laugh. "People have been doubling down during the pandemic. Right now, everyone just wants to indulge."

500 N. Chestnut St., Chaska, 952-361-5509 (7 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 7 a.m.-noon Sun.) and 284 Water St., Excelsior, 952-474-5608 (8 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Sat., 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Sun.), redbenchbakery.com.

Tonkotsu Ramen at Bull’s Horn in Minneapolis.
Tonkotsu Ramen at Bull’s Horn in Minneapolis.

Provided

Tonkotsu ramen at Bull's Horn Food & Drink

Last January, chef/co-owner Doug Flicker spent three weeks in Japan with his wife and business partner Amy Greeley.

"It was a life-changing trip," he said. "I liked ramen and thought I knew something about it, but then I went to Japan, and it blew my mind."

Shortly after their return, the pandemic hit, and the world changed.

"I needed to find something to occupy my mental space, and cook for people, and teach myself something so I wouldn't go crazy," he said. "This slowly blossomed from there."

"This" is his extraordinary ramen, which he packages in kits ($15) that require a bit of cooking and assembly. Fortunately, the informative instructions leave nothing to chance (which gives me hope that Flicker, one of the region's shining culinary talents, will one day write a cookbook) and the basic tasks fill the kitchen with the intoxicating scent of pork broth.

Within 15 minutes I was reveling in a peak restaurant-quality dining experience that was disguised as takeout, with painstakingly prepared components coming together to create steaming bowls of complex, harmonious, soul-soothing flavors.

The menu changes frequently. I lucked into a nuanced tonkotsu with smoked pork belly, and a dazzling miso with creamy pork jowls and firm, briny razor clams. Talk about mind-blowing: We're barely a week into the new year, and I'm already certain that Flicker's handiwork will have a place on my 2021 best dishes roster.

Ramen is available Tuesday through Sunday, and preordering is required. For same-day pickup, send an e-mail to ramen@bullshornfoodanddrink.com by noon ("If you e-mail by 11:55, you can get ramen that night, but if you e-mail at 12:05, you can't," said Flicker). For next-day ordering, call 612-208-1378 between 4 and 8:30 p.m. Contactless pickup begins after 4 p.m.

4563 34th Av. S., Mpls., 612-208-1378, bullshornfoodanddrink.com

Steak N Eggs sandwich at Cafe Astoria Side Hustle.
Steak N Eggs sandwich at Cafe Astoria Side Hustle.

Rick Nelson • Star Tribune

Steak N Eggs sandwich at Cafe Astoria Side Hustle

Chef/co-owner John Occhiato is using this three-month pop-up at Cook St. Paul as a kind of menu laboratory. He and partner Leah Raymundo are in the midst of expanding their charming Cafe Astoria, and the restaurant's current kitchen doesn't have the capacity to handle the sandwiches, bowls and other items that they plan to serve when the new space opens in the spring.

Enter Side Hustle (bonus points for that clever name), where diners are clearly benefiting from Occhiato's playful experimentation.

There are nearly 20 sandwiches on the roster. Most are breakfast-focused, but a few land in the fried chicken realm. There's a double-patty burger, too, garnished with kimchi from Cook owner Eddie Wu.

This is inspired sandwich-making. Scrolling through Instagram, I'd spied this knockout, which stacks beefy, thinly sliced short rib with caramelized onions, gooey American cheese, a fried egg and arugula into a toasted brioche bun ($11), an eternally appealing combination made better by Occhiato's obvious attention to detail.

Another hit? That same top-quality bun stuffed with a fabulous wedge of steamed pork meatloaf (a nod to Raymundo's Filipino heritage) that's dressed with crunchy pickles and a juicy tomato slice. It's a total winner and, at $8, a total bargain.

1124 Payne Av., St. Paul, 651-508-1654, 7 a.m.-3 p.m., Tues.-Sat., cafeastoria-stpaul.com.

Turkish Bagel at Cafe Ceres in Minneapolis.
Turkish Bagel at Cafe Ceres in Minneapolis.

Rick Nelson • Star Tribune

Turkish bagel with smoked salmon at Café Cerés

At her new Linden Hills shop, baker/co-owner Shawn McKenzie is inserting Middle Eastern flavors into her attention-grabbing work, and the outcomes are delightful.

The Turkish bagels are a perfect example. Their twisted, sesame seed-encrusted good looks take their cues from simit, the circular Turkish bread. Traditionally, bagels are boiled before being baked, but these are not; the exterior is as chewy as a bagel's, but the interior isn't as dense.

They're also slightly sweet, because McKenzie tosses a bit of honey and brown sugar into the dough ("I'm a little in love with brown sugar, so I incorporate it into everything I make," she said), and she adds molasses to the egg wash that's brushed on the bagels before baking.

"They're not super-traditional," she said. "But they're close."

Fine by me. McKenzie dutifully follows a few established lox-and-cream cheese rules (the smoked salmon, sliced paper-thin, is luxuriously velvety, and capers and red onion are both on board), but inserts her own welcome tweaks.

The schmear is a luscious housemade labneh — it's basically strained Greek yogurt — and its sour kick is fortified with pops of lime and garlic. Another plus is a sprinkle of McKenzie's za'atar blend, an aromatic mix of oregano, thyme, sumac, sesame seeds and freshly toasted cumin and coriander.

These beauties are available with labneh and za'atar for $5; salmon, capers and onions are an additional $6. To maximize freshness — and speed up the checkout process — they're sold in do-it-yourself kits.

3509 W. 44th St., Mpls., 612-345-4866, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, cafeceresmpls.com.

Blueberry pancakes from Al’s Breakfast in Minneapolis.
Blueberry pancakes from Al’s Breakfast in Minneapolis.

Rick Nelson • Star Tribune

Blueberry pancakes at Al's Breakfast

My Thursday morning appetite, discombobulated after a fitful night's sleep, was crying out for the restorative balm of comfort food.

In the mornings, that impulse reflexively translates into pancakes. In the Twin Cities, that craving requires (for me, anyway) a trip to what is undisputedly (for me, anyway) the 14-seat center of the Dinkytown universe.

Oh, those pancakes ($2.75 to $7.25)! Thin, tender, taken to a deep brown and jam-packed with tiny blueberries, they're so satisfying that they don't require butter or maple syrup. But pile them on anyway.

Tiny Al's is currently operating as a takeout-only operation, and I wondered: Would pancakes survive the drive home, their texture and flavor undiminished? Rather than risk disappointment, I transferred the triple-stack from their cardboard container to a plate I'd grabbed at home for the occasion (have tableware, will travel, right?) and, while seated in my parked car, inhaled my breakfast. It's a stretch, but the close quarters did remind me, ever so slightly, of Al's elbow-to-elbow real estate.

Thinking ahead, I nabbed a quart of buttermilk pancake batter ($6) — it's one of owner Alison Kirwin's many sharp pandemic survival strategies — and I'm not ashamed to admit that refraining from preheating a griddle and making pancakes, right now, is requiring a considerable amount of willpower.

My love affair with this 71-year-old treasure reaches back to about 1972. Years earlier, my father had delivered and installed a stainless-steel milk dispenser for founder Al Bergstrom, and when Dad shared that connection with me on our first of many visits, I was instantly smitten.

The food, of course, has always been a major draw, not only those pancakes but also the staff's deft approach to eggs, a hollandaise sauce for the ages, sublime hash browns and textbook-worthy waffles, all at affordable prices. The dedicated crew has an enduring commitment to the institution's oddly endearing rituals. Of course, shoebox-scaled Al's — in better times, anyway — bluntly forces standoffish Minnesotans to confront their personal space issues, a tremendous public service.

A few days ago, Esquire magazine wisely included Al's on its list of "100 restaurants America can't afford to lose." I couldn't agree more.

413 14th Av. SE., Mpls., 612-331-9991, 7 a.m.-1 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Sun. alsbreakfastmpls.com.

Note: Sharyn Jackson will return next week.

Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib