Beef and plantain arepa at Hola Arepa
The first time I met this arepa, I was surreptitiously eating off my dashboard while illegally parked — hoping against hope I could get one more bite before the parking police crept up on me. I'd made this poor parking decision several years ago because I'd been hearing rumblings about a fabulous new food truck in downtown Minneapolis. The intention had been to hop out, order a sandwich, get back in the car and enjoy my lunch somewhere that involved a table. Instead, once I took that first bite, I had to see it through.
The truck was Hola Arepa. Much has changed in the intervening years: Christina Nguyen and Birk Grudem parked the truck for a brick and mortar. Then came a second restaurant, Hai Hai, where Nguyen was twice recognized with a James Beard Award nomination. Meanwhile, I've learned to plug a meter with plenty of extra time. We've all grown so much.
These plush cornmeal (gluten-free) cornmeal cakes are positively stuffed with juicy braised beef and just barely sweet plantains ($15). The arepas are crusty-crisp on the outside and warm and cozy on the inside. Along with some crumbled queso fresco and a few pickled onions, the whole dish is dressed in a verdant Hola sauce.
When the weather turns warm and patios start to reopen for the season, I still think of these arepas and the color turquoise. Luckily, Hola Arepa sports two patios that are perfect for sunshine dining. And no meters. (Joy Summers)
3501 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-345-5583, holaarepa.com
Chicken shawarma sandwich at Ed's Deli
"Have you heard about the Lebanese deli in the gas station?" This is what passes for water cooler chatter when you're a food writer. We'd received a reader tip about a convenience store that apparently houses one of the best Lebanese delis in the metro area. Sounded like a food adventure to me.
Sure enough, I found Ed's in a Super USA in Lauderdale, close enough to the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus that the student body should really take note. The exterior is unassuming; it's easy to imagine people buzzing right by without realizing what they were missing. Inside, the waft of roasted veggies and meats hits like a lofted kebab. A cold deli case is filled with ready-made items, like Lebanese meat pies and deviled eggs. But the freshly prepared foods smell too good to resist.
After I'd ordered my chicken shawarma sandwich ($7), the man behind the counter —presumably Ed — asked, "Do you like spicy?" Boy, do I. He assembled a paper boat filled with richly spiced beef, fresh veggies and pickled jalapeños. It was like a free appetizer before the main event — and it was scrumptious. Tender, juicy meat mingled with fresh parsley, tomatoes, pickled peppers and more. I devoured it before my sandwich arrived.
But that sandwich. Rolled up and plush like a sleeping bag waiting to unfurl, it couldn't even be contained by one piece of tinfoil — this beast required reinforcements. Inside were huge hunks of gently spiced chicken, grilled onions, soft peppers, freshly made French fries (Presumably Ed assured me they make them fresh daily) and the coup de grace: a hefty dollop of the most powerful and delectable toum, a Lebanese garlic sauce. All of this was piled into a giant round of tender flatbread.
The sandwich was roughly the size of my forearm and it's a good thing. As I was happily radiating garlic, I made my husband eat the other half. And then I promised to take him with me on my next adventure to Ed's Deli. We definitely need to know more about that beef. (J.S.)
Ed's Deli, 2424 W. Larpenteur Av., Lauderdale, 651-644-7982
Hainanese Chicken at Peninsula Malaysian Cuisine
Hainanese chicken rice, a Southeast Asian staple, can take on many forms, depending on the region from which it originates. In its very basic form, chicken, skin intact, is boiled in a ginger and scallion-inflected bone stock. Rice is half the appeal, as it's cooked in some of that reserve stock, as well as enough chicken fat to coat each granule with unmistakable flavor.
Time and patience is half the battle, and I'm glad Peninsula Malaysian takes its time to coax as much flavor as it can out of that rice. The chicken, too, is lush and silky, as it should be when there's not much else to it. That's why the side condiments — a chile sauce and my preferred ginger-scallion relish — bear so much weight.
The dish transports well, at least in the 20 or so times I've ordered it. I've never eaten it at the restaurant for that reason. Pro tip: One order ($14.99), plus an extra side of rice ($2), will easily feed two, maybe three. It's not just a knockout dish, but an affordable one, too. (Jon Cheng)
2608 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-871-8282, peninsulamalaysiancuisine.com
Chocolate raised doughnut at Wuollet
When I was little, trips to our small-town bakery were always a highlight of running morning errands with my mother. The screen door would slam behind us just as the sugary perfume would hit my little nose. The case was lined with tall, yeasted doughnuts, saucer-sized cookies and more. The raised doughnuts were always my favorite, but I'd also get to leave with a free sugar cookie, which presented a dilemma once I was reinstalled in the way-back of the station wagon: Which one should I eat first?
I thought this was a core memory of my rural upbringing. So I was surprised to learn from my husband that he had almost the exact same memory, just in the city and at a different bakery. His mom brought him to Wuollet.
Even though it's one of several Wuollets located throughout the metro, my family still treats the one on Grand Avenue as the special doughnut stop for our kids. Recently, I brought my newly minted 13-year-old in for a birthday breakfast. He spent a long time drinking in the selections and absorbing that crackly-sweet aroma before making his choice: a sky-high, freshly fried raised doughnut, dipped in chocolate ganache. I counted out change for the $1.75 price tag.
Even though he's too big to fit in the way-back, I hope he remembers these moments forever. (J.S.)
1080 Grand Av., St. Paul, 651-292-9035, wuollet.com
Beef patties at Jamaican Caribbean Cuisine
It's the vibrant, golden color of a great Jamaican hand pie that first catches the eye. While most cultures boast their own version of the one-handed, meal-on-the-go of pastry crust wrapped around filling, it's the color of this particular dish that stands out as almost incandescent. Turmeric dyes the crust a color that's reminiscent of a blazing red sunset and the golden washed optimism of an early morning sunrise.
The beef patties at the just-opened Jamaican Caribbean Cuisine are perhaps the sunniest and tastiest version of this dish that I've had in the Twin Cities. Already, the dish is a stunner on the outside, but what had me planning an immediate return trip is the flavor.
Layers upon layers of flaky crust, traditionally made with suet, shelter the tender filling: rich, soft meat that's expertly seasoned and spiced with Scotch bonnet chiles. The heat is a slow build, but the gorgeous flavor of the pepper shines through, bringing an almost fruity balance to each crusty, savory bite. It's a wonder of a meal for just $4.
1237 W. Larpenteur Av., Roseville, 651-340-1185, jamaicancaribbeancuisine.com