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Pistachio caramel cupcake at Groundswell

I wandered into Groundswell in search of one last taste of the holiday season: a spritz cookie-flavored latte. The seasonal (and indulgent) mix of creamy coffee and rich almond syrup made in-house is hanging around through January. Then, because I was already transported back to the heyday of the holiday season, meaning that the January food reset could be left by the wayside, I thought why not indulge in a cupcake?

Groundswell, on the corner of Hamline and Thomas avenues in St. Paul's Hamline-Midway neighborhood, has been a wonderful coffee shop, bakery and cafe since opening in 2009. It's also my reigning favorite stop for cupcakes. The pastry case empties quickly, so it's an excellent excuse to have cake for breakfast. The flavor of the month is pistachio caramel ($3.75). Plush, airy cakes are studded with meaty little nuts, adding a slightly savory edge to the base while the buttercream topping is fluffy, just-sweet-enough heaven. The whole business is squiggled with a thread of salty, buttery caramel. Clearly, way better than the average person's toaster pastry breakfast/dessert. (Joy Summers)

1340 W. Thomas Av., St. Paul, 651-645-6466, groundswellmn.com. Open 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Tue.-Sun.

Pizza croissant from Nouvelle Brewing
Pizza croissant from Nouvelle Brewing

Sharyn Jackson, Star Tribune

Pizza croissant at Nouvelle Brewing

A few weeks ago, I grabbed one last pizza from Pig Ate My Pizza, the Robbinsdale pizzeria that the Travail Collective closed at the end of the year. This week, the collective opened Nouvelle Brewing in its place, and yes, pizza is still on the menu (plain cheese and the Bay of Pigs, a Cuban sandwich-inspired pie). But there's also something new for pizza lovers — the pizza croissant.

This is one of those where-have-you-been-all-my-life inventions that make perfect sense once you're introduced to them. And it's exactly what it sounds like: flaky pastry coiled into a nest around a little stack of pepperoni and cheese. Red sauce comes on the side for dipping. The whole thing is sprinkled with snowy Parmesan shreds and the former PAMP's familiar and unmistakable seasoning blend of black pepper and fennel pollen. For sad fans of the cult-favorite pizzeria, the $9 pizza croissant might redeem the changeover.

Get an entree while you're at it. They're predictably delicious and as rich and decadent as anything Travail touches. Pork belly with electric green curry ($16) for lettuce wraps was a highlight, as was a smothered roasted chicken leg ($15) in an outrageous Parmesan cream sauce I would drink if I could. (Sharyn Jackson)

4124 W. Broadway, Robbinsdale, 763-537-7267, nouvellebrewing.com. Open 3-9 p.m. Wed.-Fri., noon-9 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

A spicy bulgogi seasoned pork banh mi from United Noodle.
A spicy bulgogi seasoned pork banh mi from United Noodle.

Joy Summers, Star Tribune

Bánh mì from United Noodle

Wandering into United Noodle, I was dreaming of the days when the Minneapolis grocery store had a deli that made steaming bowls filled with rich flavors. Instead, I opened the door of this hidden treasure to find a man encased in a small plexiglass stand, diligently making fresh bánh mì ($5.99). Nabbing a just-made, still warm sandwich right inside the door makes it a perfect stop for a quick lunch or dinner for those looking for an easy COVID-cautious takeout option.

But it's hard not to get sucked into the grocery store, where there are so many delicious things to be found. From condiments like yuzu marmalade to stacks of ramen packages to a butcher counter with American wagyu beef and a giant frozen dumpling selection, there is no shortage of options for cooking up a quick meal or feast.

However, ravenous hunger was imminent and the bánh mì was a hefty antidote. Inside my car I took off my mask and inhaled the savory aroma. The crusty bread was pillowy within and the spicy pork bulgogi special was vibrantly saucy, tender and juicy, tempered by crisp cucumber, lively cilantro and jalapeño. After inhaling half, I carefully wrapped it back up, re-masked and went back in to grab another for dinner. (J.S.)

2015 E. 24th St., Mpls., 612-721-6677, unitednoodles.com. Bánh mì available daily from 11 a.m. until sold out. Limited availability during Chinese New Year.

A big taste of Iowa in the heart of St. Paul.
A big taste of Iowa in the heart of St. Paul.

Joy Summers, Star Tribune

Iowa Pork Tenderloin Sandwich from Pillbox Tavern

In another pre-pandemic lifetime, I was tucked into a black SUV winding down a back country road in Iowa with a handful of friends in search of a legendary sandwich. It was exactly the kind of adventure that can bond a crew.

We'd embarked on the road trip to visit a more highbrow establishment down in Dubuque, but took this route when I realized we had the opportunity to taste one of Iowa's great contributions to society: the comically large pork cutlet sandwich. The place we found was by a frozen river and more of a shack than a sturdy building. But oh, that sandwich. They were so big we split them. A crackling schnitzel-like crust hugged every craggy edge of a piece of pork pounded within an inch of its life. It wore the bun, rather than was held by it, like a little derby hat on a piece of meat the size and shape of Lake Superior. It was as much an embarrassment of a lunch as it was a core memory. Some sandwiches stay with you.

It's a dish I always seek out when I'm in Iowa, but it's not as common here. So when I spotted the Iowa ($15) on the menu at Pillbox Tavern in downtown St. Paul, I knew it had to be mine. The kitchen crew is kind enough to cleave the crispy hunk of meat in half for an easier approach, but the flavors are all spot on. The crispy nubs of crust are lightly seasoned, allowing the simplicity of the tender pork to shine through. Dressed with a dollop of mayo and superfluous tomato (this is not the time for fruit), it is hearty winter eating. (J.S.)

400 N. Wabasha St., St. Paul, 651-756-7566, pillboxtav.com. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.

Cold brew from Gus Dean Coffee.
Cold brew from Gus Dean Coffee.

Sharyn Jackson, Star Tribune

Cold brew from Gus Dean Coffee

When I received my delivery from Gus Dean Coffee with two half-gallons of flavored cold brew concentrate, there was a little handwritten note tucked in the bag. It said, "Let's try not to be too hard on ourselves. New Year's resolutions are all about intention." Signed, Gus. The note is a nice touch from the Eagan-based artisanal coffee roaster, which provides coffee delivery across the Twin Cities metro.

I fully subscribe to that philosophy, by the way, and my resolution intention of 2022 is to consume less sugar. These cold brew concentrates make that a little easier. (The half-gallons are $19.95, and you can also order beans if you'd rather brew it hot.) They come in a bunch of flavors that evoke sweet treats, but without any actual sweetener — salty caramel, spiced buttered rum, etc. A glass of Gus Dean's Campfire S'mores cold brew with a splash of oat milk has been my little afternoon treat all week. (S.J.)

Delivery only. gusdeancoffee.com.