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Jon Cheng's path to the Twin Cities wasn't direct, but it was delicious.

Before landing in Minneapolis, he lived and wrote about food in London, New York and the San Francisco Bay Area. His career as a restaurant critic started long before.

By age 9, Cheng, who grew up in Singapore, was the person his family relied on to order at restaurants, because he unerringly found the best dishes on the menu. While other children played games, Cheng wrote reviews on TripAdvisor, where many people rated his reviews as helpful, encouraging him to continue seeking out food and opportunities to write about it.

Now that he's been eating his way through the Twin Cities for three years — his first Star Tribune review appeared in November 2021 — he put his fork down to answer reader questions about his methodology, the one food he can't resist and what food he thinks is overrated.

Q: Why did you become a restaurant critic?
A: My love for restaurant criticism first and foremost stems from my love of food, and my desire to tell people about it. Having moved frequently — abroad, as well as different cities in the U.S. — I've always found the best way to get to know a city is through its cuisine. That it tells a unique story about individuals and the subcultures they represent is even more of a reason to write about them. I am not a chef, nor do I have formal culinary training, but the way I evaluate, hopefully, telegraphs the experiences I've accumulated as a diner at large. My goal was to be fair and exacting.

Q: How do you choose restaurants to review?
A: Any new restaurant is eligible for a review. We — my editor, Nicole, and I — prioritize eateries that offer something new to the dining public; therefore, chain restaurants are often excluded. As a rule of thumb, most restaurants that have been written up as a "First Look" will get a review. If an older restaurant repositions (new chef, new menu, new concept), we will consider it, as well. The Kenwood is an example. And if a restaurant that I reviewed earlier during my tenure as critic changes its food dramatically, I will consider a revisit.

These rules do not apply to restaurant features, which include stories like the 10 best tacos in the Twin Cities and the best places to get pho. If it doesn't have a star rating, it's technically not a restaurant review.

Critic Jon Cheng writes starred reviews as well as  features, like where to find the best pho in the Twin Cities area.
Critic Jon Cheng writes starred reviews as well as features, like where to find the best pho in the Twin Cities area.

Jon Cheng, Star Tribune

Q: What is your thought process behind star ratings, and why do you give stars?
A: My "new" rating system caused a stir when I came on as a critic. Oftentimes, what I put in words may not directly translate to the rating I decide on. But creating more variance between restaurants, in my view, better separates the truly good from the merely good. So let me put this uncertainty to rest: A two-star restaurant is a good restaurant. It's a restaurant that I recommend diners visit. Many restaurants nationwide — including in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles — are two-star eateries that I would happily return to. A three-star restaurant underscores that recommendation, and anything above that — 3½ or four — is worth a special journey.

If I had a choice, I would abolish star ratings in the industry as a whole, but not everyone has the patience to closely read 1,000 words. Stars give readers a visual cue — and generate discussion.

Q: How much of the menu do you try before writing a review?
A: Everything, but not all at once. I know restaurants need at least two months to build, adapt and course correct. At that point, I start making "official" review visits. I like to pace my review over three visits over a month. Sometimes four. However, I am not always a stickler about this rule. There have been occasions when I have visited the same restaurants twice in a week, often due to a deadline.

Multiple visits often give leeway to "bad days" at restaurants. I like to give the benefit of the doubt to restaurants that may have overcooked a protein or went a little too heavy-handed on seasoning. So that means I might try a dish twice, maybe thrice. Consistency also means something.

Q: What is one menu item you can't resist?
A: I grew up on an island, so I have a particular weakness for seafood. I know it can be a challenge to find great seafood in a landlocked state like Minnesota, but it surprised me how many places serve memorable fish dishes here. Despite the tendency to overcook fish, especially shellfish — a fallacy that cannot be faulted for the way things are preferred here — I cannot resist a dish with scallops.

When Demi opened, it captured the attention of diners and critics.
When Demi opened, it captured the attention of diners and critics.

Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

Q: Where are the best places to go for a special celebration that's a splurge? On a budget?
A: My splurge picks for special celebration restaurants are Gavin Kaysen's Demi (212 N. 2nd St., Mpls., and Alex Roberts' Alma (528 University Av. SE., Mpls., Demi is squarely a four-star restaurant: intimate, progressive and you feel coddled. Adam Ritter runs a tight ship of chefs whose sole objective is to surprise and delight the diner at every turn. It did for me during the several occasions when I made my pilgrimage there. The restaurant also has a more affordably priced ($105), shorter menu option offered on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.

Alma's menu is a little more classic and gently priced. The restaurant has a level — and brand — of consistency, which means that the balsamic–glazed squab I had a year ago will probably be just as good today. And it is. The chef who runs the kitchen, Lucas Rosenbrook, churns out many unpretentious but delicious classics in the $95 tasting menu — not cheap, but tremendous value. I've never had a single bad dish there.

If I'm on a budget, I always give Snack Bar (800 Washington Av. N., Mpls., a whirl. The setting is appealingly clubby, and the quality of food is just as great as it is at sister restaurant Bar La Grassa next door. A celebration often means large-format, and the pizzas here — big, chewy cornicione, thoughtful toppings — are some of the best in the Twin Cities. As is the fete-worthy German chocolate cake. The cozy, smooth leather booths also make for great first-date meals (or at the long bar, should you choose to test the waters).

Q: What food do you think is underappreciated? Overrated?
A: Good, authentic Italian food is underappreciated — and slightly lacking — in the Twin Cities. This was relayed to me by a colleague, and I cannot agree more. There is no shortage of great Italian American, red-sauce eateries, including the ones I mentioned before, plus Broders' Cucina Italiana (2308 W. 50th St., Mpls.,, Mucci's Italian (786 Randolph Av., St. Paul and IE Italian Eatery (4724 Cedar Av. S., Mpls., I do love well-made alfredo, and I don't turn up my nose at satellite dish-sized pastas smothered with chicken. But there is a real opportunity for more intricate filled pastas and lighter, more complex sauces. A recent visit to a new restaurant may change my mind about this, though. Stay tuned.

Most other cuisines are justly rated, but one food in particular, cheese curds, is overrated. I love greasy food, and I never can make healthy amends for all the crisp, oil-weeping fried chicken I consume. But cheese curds have a kind of texture and taste that recalls mozzarella sticks on the tail end of mutation. Not that I need to stir anything up, but I feel the same about Juicy Lucy burgers.

Kahluna in Minneapolis is a relaxing (and quiet) place to dine.
Kahluna in Minneapolis is a relaxing (and quiet) place to dine.

Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune

Q: I am finding it increasingly difficult to carry on a conversation in a restaurant. Can you recommend a restaurant on the quieter side?
A: Most steakhouses in the Twin Cities do a great job controlling noise, mostly because of all the heavy drapery and carpets. Other restaurants that I return to for food, atmosphere and noise include the Bungalow Club (4300 E. Lake St., Mpls., and Khâluna (4000 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., Both are transportive (one to a home; another to a resort) and relaxing places to dine. For brunch, I frequent Victor's 1959 Cafe (3756 Grand Av. S., Mpls, Yes, the kitschy, graffiti-fueled walls are noisy, and the line outside may suggest rowdiness within. But inside, you can almost hear a pin drop.

Have a question for Jon? Reach him at or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.