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Shanghai pork soup dumplings at Teahouse

Food plays a significant role in the 2001 animé classic "Spirited Away." The heroine Chihiro works in a spa for spirits while she tries to save her parents from a witch's spell — a mess they got into by gobbling down heaps of food that wasn't theirs. As she tries to figure a way out, Chihiro processes her emotions over a nourishing rice ball, and comes up with her best idea while pecking away at a steamed bun. Naturally, after catching a screening for Studio Ghibli Fest 2023, I left the movie theater with the munchies.

Fortunately, it was a short walk across the parking lot to my favorite post-movie restaurant, Teahouse. The restaurant's vast menu culls from many of China's famous food regions. Sure, Japanese food would have been more thematically appropriate, but who could resist the scent of stir-fried ginger and onions perfuming the entire strip mall?

Big steaming bowls of beef noodle soup, crispy duck, mapo tofu and chao fun are some of my family's favorites. And there's also a compact dim sum menu, which is available all day when Teahouse is open. After talk of dumplings in "Spirited Away," the Shanghai pork soup dumplings ($15.75), or xiaolongbao, were a must-order. Eating them is always a project, but a fun and rewarding one. Tender dumpling skins yield to the tiniest nibble and release a gush of rich broth (careful, it's hot) that you slurp up before getting to the pork encased within. They might not have broken any witch's curses (who's to say, really?), but they do indeed contain some kind of magic.

Side note: Plymouth's Willow Grove shopping center is a bit of an international food destination. Behind Teahouse is Samarkand, an Uzbeki restaurant with entertainment on weekends. There's also a Russian grocery and a combined taco place and burger joint. Progressive dinner, anyone? (Sharyn Jackson)

88 Nathan Lane N., Plymouth, 763-544-3442,

The Benedictos at Iconos Gastro Cantina in Minneapolis.
The Benedictos at Iconos Gastro Cantina in Minneapolis.

Nicole Hvidsten, Star Tribune

Benedictos at Iconos Gastro Cantina

If you're a fan of Mexican food, this is a great place to live. From corner taco shops to fine dining, there are a staggering number of outlets across the Twin Cities metro area that can satisfy any craving or introduce you to something new. It's hard not to keep revisiting old favorites, but expanding your horizons can yield unexpected results. That was the case when a midday Saturday taco craving turned into a surprise brunch find at this LynLake spot.

We passed by the tres leches French toast, chilaquiles, carnitas hash and breakfast burritos and went straight for the Benedictos ($14), which served up everything I love about both Mexican food and brunch on a platter. Housemade sopes, a thick tortilla-like masa cake, is topped with refried black beans, juicy carnitas and a poached egg before being drizzled with a chipotle hollandaise sauce and topped with jalapeños. Every bite was pure, flavorful magic. Served with a side of roasted potatoes and peppers, it was the complete breakfast package. (Bonus: It's gluten-free.) And just because it's breakfast food doesn't mean you can't start with chips and a salsa flight ($6) or a margarita.

Iconos is the best of both worlds on weekends. Brunch is served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, which is a fine antidote to the 1 a.m. closing time on Fridays and Saturdays. (Nicole Hvidsten)

2937 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., 612-824-0800,

Elote shishitos from Red Cow in Wayzata.
Elote shishitos from Red Cow in Wayzata.

Sharyn Jackson, Star Tribune

Elote shishito peppers at Red Cow

I stopped in to the new Red Cow in Wayzata on its third day open. The place was packed, and despite being located in that still-has-that-new-car-smell Promenade development, it felt like it had been there for years. Wayzata is the sixth location — and the first in the suburbs — for restaurateur Luke Shimp's burger empire. And it's a little different from the others in that it's the first with a menu overseen by the company's new corporate executive chef, Adam Lerner.

Lerner comes from Ann Kim's Vestalia Hospitality, and before that, Tim Niver's Saint Dinette. "He has an elevated approach to cooking and menu development, and that's an attribute I was on the hunt for," Shimp said of the new hire. With Red Cow now 10 years old, "I feel our continuous quest for pushing burger and tavern fare played perfectly into Adam's culinary skill set."

Lerner, with fellow chefmate Trevis Langley, has already put his stamp on the menu with a few new items only available in Wayzata. You can get straightforward poke bowls (with sesame tuna, ponzu pork belly or teriyaki chicken), the intimidating chowder fries (topped with soup and cheese curds and and and ...), and these lighter blistered shishito peppers ($13). A pile of them is drizzled with a cooling cilantro-lime sauce and sprinkled with crushed corn nuts for crunch. Each pepper is a roll of the dice when it comes to the heat factor, a guessing game disguised as an appetizer.

The new menu items will roll out at other Red Cow locations by the end of the year. (S.J.)

881 Lake St. N., Wayzata, 952-460-1220,

Brake Bread’s cardamom spinners are a day brightener on West 7th.
Brake Bread’s cardamom spinners are a day brightener on West 7th.

Joy Summers, Star Tribune

Cardamom Spinner at Brake Bread

Last year I had a friend who successfully dodged one particular holiday song for most of November. It was a game where the players must avoid at all costs the soulful, lamenting strains of "Last Christmas" by Wham! It wasn't that she deplored this gorgeous nugget of audible cheese, but more that the song has been too pervasive. It's everywhere — the grocery aisles, HomeGoods, even Jiffy Lube! — and almost impossible to escape.

This year, I heard those sweet, bouncy chimes of the synthesizer on Nov. 1. Even with the tenacious eye makeup of my Halloween costume still clinging to my face, it was official. The holiday season has begun. And with that: I'm ready for cardamom.

Everyone has their own hallmarks of winter baking — the homespun aromas that trigger the warmest of memories — and mine are coated with cardamom sugar. The warm spice, the sandy crunch of sugar — there is just nothing better.

At Brake Bread, the cardamom spinners (two for $7) have been on the menu since Nate Hogue and Micah Taylor parked their bike-delivered bread subscription service at this home base. The naturally leavened bread is still available to be ordered for delivery around the neighborhood, but as of this week, their bakery window hours have expanded to Thursday through Saturday mornings. (Now with Roots Roasting coffee drinks.)

But those cardamom spinners are just the right combination of heady cardamom and tacky sweetness whirled into a breakfast treat as warm and sweet as the musical stylings of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. (Joy Summers)

1174 W. 7th St., St. Paul,

Tiger Sugar Creme Brulee from Niko Niko.
Tiger Sugar Creme Brulee from Niko Niko.

Sharyn Jackson, Star Tribune

Tiger Sugar Crème Brûlée from Niko Niko Boba

Ever since Jonathan Chong and Yenni Chen, spouses and business partners, took their Twin Cities bubble tea franchises independent this fall — converting their nine locations (and two on the way) from Chatime to Niko Niko Boba — they've been drawing a lot of new customers. Myself included.

"People are excited to support us knowing that it's now locally owned," Chen said. "We get new customers, too, with the brand's fun, modern look. People who never noticed us before are coming in, as the new store look is so vibrant."

It caught my eye on a recent stroll around the Mall of America's third floor. In particular, a picture for this tiger-striped seasonal specialty that combines drizzles of molasses-like brown sugar syrup with milk (almond milk for me). The hallmark of the Tiger Sugar Crème Brûlée ($6.50 for a medium) is the torched topping, a thin pudding that swirls into the drink, its caramelized sugar crackles infusing it, said Chong, with "just the right amount of toastiness." It's like a chocolate milk for grown-ups. (S.J.)

Multiple locations,