My friend Josh is well traveled, and though not fanatical about the latest dining trends, he will travel (within reason) for food. He hails from Switzerland, London, Singapore and, most recently, Chicago. What better way to explore his surrounds than by visiting another Midwestern neighbor?
His visit may have been short, but I had planned several stops to showcase what the Twin Cities has to offer. While there are plenty of worthy destinations across the metro area, we focused on the area I knew best — home.
Day 1: A late start
His short flight is expectedly delayed. No matter: I had already built in a buffer. Where to go for a late-night meal, not far from where I live?
Spoon and Stable was an obvious choice, though I had been there recently. And I wanted to walk Josh through more of the North Loop neighborhood. At 9:30 p.m., there's something deeply comforting about Old Faithful — Isaac Becker and Nancy St. Pierre's Bar La Grassa. Finding a fault with the food at this clubby restaurant is as rare as finding trouble with a Toyota Corolla. When the same dish is executed and honed every evening for nearly two decades, you would expect nothing less.
The ziti with shrimp and rich vin santo cream ($28) will silence any restless gourmand, as would my other go-to order — the branzino ($45), which tonight was unapologetically oily, fleshy and sweet. This is all tempered by a jungle's worth of dill, and a liberal squeeze of grilled lemon. We had terrific Brussels sprouts draped with paper-thin lardo ($14) to match and gave in to a Friday special — bruschetta ($14) slathered with creamy carrot purée and a heap of pork shoulder, which was supremely fatty in parts while crackling and dark at the edges.
When food is this good, you can build appetite for dessert. And if not, I wasn't going to let the evening slide easily. So, we walk over to Becker's Snack Bar and get the crème brûlée doughnuts ($10) to go. You must eat them quickly, because there's no better feeling than something warm and fluffy under that glossy, brittle crust, juxtaposed against cold, vanilla-rich cream. I propose a second dessert, the Honey & Cream Cake ($15), at Spoon and Stable, as we've technically just had one to share.
But Josh is already in stupor. Should we spice things up and head to Cuzzy's? As far as dive bars are concerned, this one more than fits the bill with the damp, raucous, tavern-like atmosphere. Also a no vote. We call it a night.
Day 2: A marathon awaits
The next morning, we set off for Victor's 1959 Café for inspired Cuban fare, well intentioned graffiti and the homeyness of it all. "This is late breakfast," I warn, after a short 15-minute wait around 11 a.m. Which was ironic, because I took charge of the ordering: a Bistec Criollo ($18.25), a showcase for those juicy nubs of steak sautéed with green peppers and onions; the excellent Cuban bread as our optional side; and the frisbee-sized corn pancake ($7.25), which uniquely nails the sweet-salty diaspora. I attempt to slip in an order of the wild rice porridge, another favorite, but Josh reminds me of what I had reminded him before.
Fine. We walk it off and head to Lake Bde Maka Ska. It's Josh's first time in Minnesota and he ought to visit at least one of the 10,000 lakes. After building nearly an hour's worth of appetite, we chance upon Black Walnut Bakery — this was my plan all along — and stop for Sarah Botcher's iconic egg sandwich ($11). Croissant bread is pressed into a panini with thick, soufflé-like egg patty, along with Gruyère and a prodigious amount of butter. There's nothing like it. Nor is there anything like the banana cream pie ($6.25), which I was about to order but was swiftly vetoed.
I take Josh to do more touristy things around the Twin Cities, until around 4 p.m. Time for afternoon tea. We drive to Northeast because Josh watched "Chef's Table: Pizza" and wanted to try Ann Kim's pizza. I wholeheartedly agree to cede control, but note that this was already baked (no pun intended) into my plan. For cool vibes, I suggested we go to Kim's speakeasy adjoining Young Joni. At this time of day, getting two bar seats for a front-row view of those retro record-players was a breeze. Finding the speakeasy wasn't — much to my embarrassment. We share the unsung La Parisienne ($23) — my favorite of the pies — which was a perfectly balanced amalgam of prosciutto, Gruyère, ricotta, brown butter, caramelized onion and mustard seeds.
"Just one more slice," Josh begs, but this time I step in and tell him no. We box up the pizza and head a few doors down, to Oro by Nixta, where I found a new favorite dish: the lengua taco ($7 each). Slippery organ meat is cooked until tender, with a little heat from the chile de arbol that's softened by the cured onion, and it's all snugly wrapped within those mythical corn tortillas. "Just a taco each?" asks co-owner Kate Romero. "Are you sure?" Yes, unfortunately.
Since it's around 5, and within the zone for afternoon tea — we both lived in London, thereby wordlessly echoing each other's dining habits — we head to Mara. Apologies to chef Thony Yang; we didn't come in for savory food, rather for the Chocolate Decadence ($15). Executive pastry chef Eddy Dhenin's chocolate dessert has no fault, and eating it slowly enables you to appreciate the truly decadent but somehow weightless flourless chocolate cake, along with a porcelain-smooth Manjari sorbet. But we don't eat it slowly, finishing it in less than a minute. It's now almost 6, and dinner is in two hours.
"Rest?" Yes, so back home we go. Somehow, watching food documentaries gave Josh the will to work up another appetite — I didn't need to, not that I'm proud of this — so we slowly make our way to Gori Gori Peku for drinks. At 7 p.m. on a Saturday, there was a wait. Should there not have been? I make an executive decision to go downstairs to Sanjusan, with lesser vibes at the bar but equally unique old-fashioned cocktails. We drink until the hour, then head to dinner. This one is a review dinner, so I won't share details about our experience. You'll just have to wait.
After dinner with friends — proof to Josh that I maintain some semblance of a social life — I suggest a nightcap at Little Tijuana, but our group is already bursting at the seams. I don't know what all they ate that afternoon, but I, too, have limits, so Little T's scallion pancake wrap with hoisin beef ($13) will also have to wait.
Day 3: A taste of culture
The next morning, we set off for early brunch and venture farther to Linden Hills, where Daniel del Prado's mainstay, Martina, awaits with potato churros ($12) and dependable Sunday fare. I ask our server if they'd serve his panqueque during brunch — I think about it often — but understandably, they didn't. So instead we got the almond flour pancakes ($16) alongside empanadas ($15), crab Benedict ($25) and choripan ($17). Because they were my go-tos, we finish everything and depart for the wonders of the Mall of America for a dose of loud American consumerism, followed by nature at Minnehaha Falls.
All that (flat) walking and (gentle) hiking fueled us for our next meal, at 2:30 p.m., at the American Swedish Institute's Fika. I muttered something vaguely intelligible about the bountiful Swedish presence in this state while we politely made our rounds upstairs, before making a beeline to the counter and ordering the beautifully composed gravlax ($18) — the silky ribbons of cured salmon and housemade rugbrod (Danish rye bread) — and the light, not-too-sweet apple cake ($11). How about the kanelbullar (cinnamon bun) to go, for the journey back to Chicago? Alas, food is no longer on Josh's mind.
Josh thanks me for the weekend and, in true Midwestern fashion, politely admonishes me for the frenetic culinary pace of the weekend. "I have a bit of stomach pain, but it's nothing, really. Just all these cramps. I'll be fine."
A whirlwind weekend
Critic Jon Cheng made the most of his time with a friend visiting Minneapolis for the first time. On his itinerary:
Spoon and Stable, 211 N. 1st St., Mpls., spoonandstable.com
Bar La Grassa, 800 Washington Av. N., Mpls., barlagrassa.com
Snack Bar, 800 Washington Av. N., Mpls., snackbarmpls.com
Cuzzy's, 507 Washington Av. N., Mpls., cuzzys.com
Victor's 1959 Cafe, 3756 Grand Av. S., Mpls., victors1959cafe.com
Black Walnut Bakery, 3157 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., blackwalnutbakery.com
Young Joni, 165 13th Av. NE., Mpls., youngjoni.com
Oro by Nixta, 1222 NE. 2nd St., Mpls., nixtampls.com
Mara, 245 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., mararestaurantandbar.com
Gori Gori Peku, 33 1st Av. N., Mpls., kadonomise.com
Sanjusan, 33 1st Av. N., Mpls., sanjusanrestaurant.com
Little Tijuana, 17 E. 26th St., Mpls., littletijuanampls.com
Martina, 4312 Upton Av. S., Mpls., martinarestaurant.com
Fika, 2600 Park Av. S., Mpls., asimn.org/visit/fika-cafe
Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune's restaurant critic. Reach him at email@example.com or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.