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Vegetable toast from A-Side Public House

The calendar says we should be transitioning to heavier fare, but I'll take light and green on my plate any day — especially when it's still patio weather.

That made the vegetable toast ($13) at the cheery newish A-Side Public House, a former fire station on St. Paul's Randolph Avenue, the perfect patio lunch. A hefty piece of toasted boule bread, spread with a schmear of garlicky vegetable cream cheese, was piled high with eggplant, zucchini, avocado and radish and topped with a bouquet of microgreens and pepitas. Served with lightly dressed greens (so many greens!), it was a very enjoyable — and right-sized — meal. Those looking for a little more substance, or who are at the brewhouse for an evening meal, can add chicken ($5), but it doesn't need it. Save the extra room for dessert.

Pro tip: One of A-Side's many charms is that it's a coffeehouse, too. So if you're passing by in the morning, you'll be able to scoop up a latte and a pastry from Marc Heu Patisserie. Not a bad way to start the day. (Nicole Hvidsten)

754 Randolph Av., St. Paul, 651-756-1351, asidepublichouse.com. Open 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri-Sat., and 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.

French onion soup at Meritage.
French onion soup at Meritage.

Rick Nelson, Star Tribune

Soupe à l'Oignon Gratinéeat Meritage

Along with colorful foliage, earlier sunsets and a growing impulse to browse for sweaters, a sure signal of fall's arrival is the return of my craving for French onion soup. Especially this spectacular rendition ($14.50).

This meal in a bowl, which transforms the humble onion into a culinary superhero, is the summation of hours and hours of careful attention.

Once the thankless task of peeling and slicing has been accomplished, the onions are nurtured on the stove, all day, a caramelizing process that unlocks their natural sugars. They're fortified with red wine, port wine and a splash of brandy, and after being stirred into a deeply flavorful beef stock (building its richness is a separate 24-hour ritual) they're ladled into crocks that are generously crowned with sourdough croutons and melty, gloriously decadent Gruyère and Emmentaler cheeses.

The kitchen prepares this opulent classic in 10-gallon increments, a formula that requires 50 pounds of onions.

"It started as a winter-only thing, and we'd stop making it in the summer, but people kept asking about it," said chef/co-owner Russell Klein. "I'm always blown away by how much we sell, year-round." (Rick Nelson)

410 St. Peter St., St. Paul, 651-222-5670, meritage-stpaul.com. Open Thu.-Sun.; oyster bar opens at 3 p.m., dining room opens at 4 p.m.

Pumpkin bar at Yum! Kitchen and Bakery.
Pumpkin bar at Yum! Kitchen and Bakery.

Rick Nelson, Star Tribune

Pumpkin bars at Yum! Kitchen and Bakery

Another sure signal of autumn's arrival is when pumpkin bars ($4.25) materialize next to the cupcakes, muffins and caramel pull-a-parts in owner Patti Soskin's bakery case.

"I'm not a pumpkin spice gal, but I love pumpkin bars," she said. "Probably because I'm all about the frosting."

Understandable. It's a fluffy, cream cheese-powered icing, sweet but armed with a subtle sour tang and pops of cinnamon. The bar itself is similarly dreamy: a light, spongy cake that's noticeably pumpkin-ey. No wonder these treats are so popular.

"Most seasonal items, we run them for six weeks at a time," said Soskin. "But pumpkin bars? We run them for much longer, because of the demand."

They'll disappear shortly after Thanksgiving, so plan accordingly, and the plentiful portions prompt the question: Can anyone consume an entire serving in a single sitting? Soskin has a strategy for that.

"I start by cutting them into quarters," she said. "Then I end up eating all four quarters." (R.N.)

4000 Minnetonka Blvd., St. Louis Park, 952-922-4000 and 6001 Shady Oak Road, Minnetonka, 952-933-6001, yumkitchen.com. Open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily.

Puffs in the Park from Wok in the Park.
Puffs in the Park from Wok in the Park.

Sharyn Jackson, Star Tribune

Puffs in the Park from Wok in the Park

Years ago, when Jacob Johnson worked for his brother, Thom Pham, at Thanh Do restaurant in St. Louis Park, he learned to make Pham's most famous recipe, the cranberry puff. "It was the early 2000s, and it became really popular to add cranberries and curry and onions in the cream cheese," Johnson said. "And so we thought, well, let's just take it one step further."

They started adding other sweet fruits and savory aromatics into the fried puffs — a riff on the classic Midwestern cream cheese wonton — and serving them with a variety of dipping sauces, for "different styles of sweet and sour," Johnson said.

Across the street from the old Thanh Do, which used to be in the Texa-Tonka shopping center, Johnson is the chef at another family-owned restaurant (this one by his sisters), Wok in the Park. Since the pan-Asian restaurant opened in 2008, Puffs in the Park have been on the menu ($7.95).

Johnson likes to change them every month, using the seasons to guide the mix-ins. The current flavor is his idea of a pumpkin spice cream cheese puff. He was inspired by a Laotian pumpkin soup recipe, and he stuffs them with a mixture of cream cheese with pumpkin purée, pumpkin pie spices, garlic, ginger and onion.

On the side: an orange and saffron sauce. "It's kind of like dipping into liquid candy corn goodness," Johnson said. (Sharyn Jackson)

Wok in the Park, 3005 Utah Av. S., St. Louis Park, 952-657-5754, wokintheparkrestaurant.com. Open for dine-in and takeout, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 4 p.m.-8 p.m. Sat. (Closed first Saturday of the month.)

Chocolate malt from Wagner’s Drive-In.
Chocolate malt from Wagner’s Drive-In.

Sharyn Jackson, Star Tribune

Chocolate malt from Wagner's Drive-In

After learning this week that the 70-year-old Dari-ette Drive-In in St. Paul has closed, I realized that I'd let another summer go by without pulling up to a staticky voice box and ordering a malt. I rectified that quickly with a stop at Wagner's Drive-In, a car-centric restaurant only half as old as Dari-ette — though 35 years is not too shabby.

They're known for their burgers, soup and slaw, but my 3-year-old wanted to split a chocolate malt ($3.79 for a medium). As far as drive-in malts go, it had all the elements: cold, thick and sweet. Even better (for the 3-year-old) than the ice cream were the colorful antique cars parked along the back of the lot. Wagner's might be a little rough around the edges, but, like most drive-in relics, it has its charms. (S.J.)

7000 W. Broadway, Brooklyn Park, 763-533-8262, wagnersdrivein.com. Open 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sun.