Minneapolis and St. Paul may be referred to as the Twin Cities but they do not wield the same cultural power. Yes, the actual state Capitol may be in St. Paul but as far as Twin Citizens and the world outside are concerned, the cultural capital of Minnesota is Minneapolis. And this is true of the reputation of the two cities’ food scenes as well. I don’t know if denizens of Minneapolis feel smug about this; I do know that many denizens of St. Paul feel angsty about it. Thankfully, I, a resident of a small town 50 minutes south of both Minneapolis and St. Paul am here to settle this once and for all: the best food in the Twin Cities is in St. Paul, and what’s more, it’s on and around one 3 mile stretch of University Avenue, from just west of Snelling to just east of Western. You may disagree but I hope you like being wrong.
Yes, it’s true that most of the Twin Cities’ big name restaurants are in Minneapolis or its affluent western suburbs. Such are Spoon and Stable, Alma, 112 Eatery, Tenant, Martina, Borough, Bellecour, Grand Cafe and even the house of folly that is Travail. But my argument here does not rest on arguing that St. Paul has better fine dining restaurants—though I would put Meritage up against most of the aforementioned, and I hear very good things about the newly-opened Hyacinth. No, the fact is that Minneapolis does have better restaurants if you are looking to spend a lot of money on food cooked by chefs who get nominated for James Beard awards and get breathless write-ups in the major magazines and on Eater.
But two things:
1) The food of most of those restaurants has no sense of place. I like many of them but they are almost all stops on a contemporary, cosmopolitan highway that runs from New York to Chicago to San Francisco to Los Angeles with side roads along the way. These restaurants help make Twin Citizens who worry about these things avoid cultural cringe and feel like they’re part of mainstream food conversations but very few of them are of here (though the chefs may be).
2) As good as some of those restaurants are, very few of us can eat at places like that more than once a month, if that.
Against the first phenomenon I would posit a different kind of cosmopolitan identity: one that is rooted in (more) recent immigrant communities from different parts of Asia, from Africa and from Latin America. The cuisines of these communities are remaking what it is we think of when we think of food in Minnesota; just as these communities are slowly but surely transforming what it means to be Minnesotan. You can find a Spoon and Stable analogue in pretty much every major American city at this point, but in how many cities can you find very good Vietnamese, Thai, Ethiopian, Lao, Hmong, Mexican and Cambodian restaurants in close proximity? This is what I want to celebrate about food and culture in the Twin Cities and what too little of the local news media or those flying in from outside ever pay serious attention to.
To the second point I would add that at the immigrant restaurants I am thinking of you can eat very, very well for $10-20 per head. And as much as I like eating good food in the high-end idiom, very little of it in the Twin Cities does it for me like a good meal at On’s Kitchen or Bangkok Thai Deli at a fraction of the price. At too much of the high-end here the gap between the quality (even when high) and the price (always higher) seems unreasonable to me. With the exception of the departed Piccolo and 112 Eatery there isn’t a high-end restaurant here that has ever seemed like a good deal for what it is even when we’ve enjoyed our meal (against this, see my reviews of Joe Beef in Montreal or Hedone and St. John in London).
And yes, it’s true that there’s very good recent immigrant food all over the Twin Cities metro. Indeed, our favourite restaurant is in Bloomington (Grand Szechuan). But for sheer concentration you cannot beat the stretch on University Avenue that runs from, yes, On’s Kitchen to Bangkok Thai Deli. Now, you might say that the stretch of Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis that does bear the sobriquet of “Eat Street” is far more compact. That’s true. But it’s also true that most of the individual restaurants on those few blocks are unremarkable. By contrast, on and just off that stretch of University Avenue are the five best Thai restaurants in Minnesota, some excellent Vietnamese restaurants (both traditional and innovative), excellent Ethiopian restaurants, very good Mexican restaurants, the best (only?) Cambodian restaurants in the Twin Cities, and even solid barbecue and ramen. And what’s more, there are also major markets, indoor and outdoor, as well as a very good Filipino food truck. The highs are very high and the baseline is very good too; and you don’t have to make a reservation. If you want good food in the Twin Cities this is the stretch of concrete you want to be cruising. And you don’t even have to be in a car! The Green Line will take you up and down and back again.
So, where should you be going and what should you be eating? Let the slideshow that follows be your guide. We will begin at On’s Kitchen and go east to Bangkok Thai Deli with stops at Fasika, Demera, Ngon Bistro, Ichiddo Ramen, Big Daddy’s, Kolap, Lao Thai, Trieu Chau, Cheng Heng, Thai Garden and Thai Cafe. I will recommend two dishes at each stop.
Please note that this is only a partial list. It does not include stalwarts of University Avenue that we have not yet been to or have not been to since I started reviewing restaurants regularly on the blog. Such are Pho Ca Dao and iPho by Saigon; nor have we been to the University Avenue outpost of Los Ocampo. Nor are bakeries or markets with food listed. I have also not included Little Szechuan here because we haven’t eaten there since they first became a hotpot-only restaurant (on the first day, in fact) and that was nothing great—in their heyday, of course, they would have been one of the stars of this list. There are doubtless other places as well that I am omitting; if you would like to recommend them, please write in below.
But more importantly, if you have not eaten at these places on University Avenue you should fix that. And check out my fuller reviews of all these places for recommendations on more things to eat there.
Partially inspired by your post – we are going to Grand Szechuan this weekend! I remember going a long time ago before we moved to Fargo (eight years ago?). Anyway, always look forward to your posts.
That’s great. Make sure to get the triple/three flavour squid. And I can’t remember if the “country style chicken” is finally on the printed menu now but that’s a surefire pleaser as well: crisply fried chunks of chicken in a sweet and spicy sauce with green beans.
Great piece MAO. For a long time I thought it was common knowledge that University is the best stretch of food in the metro – I mean, duh – but as I started to dig into the foodie internets it became clear that this is not the case. Part of it, I think, is the dumb Minneapolis vs St. Paul thing (which is very real) and part of it is this festering notion that the “best” restaurants must have modern designs and dim lighting and $10 cocktails and hip waitstaff and perhaps most importantly must serve a certain category of non-offensive meat-and-side based cuisine (at a certain price point, too). Whatever. (For my money On’s is the best restaurant in the Cities.)
I also wonder if perception would be different University had a nifty marketing nickname like “Eat Street”. Like you say, there are some decent restaurants on that street but for nearly every cuisine there’s a better version on University (the exceptions I guess being Harry Singh’s and Peninsula, since Uni doesn’t have a Caribbean or Malay counterpart).
I’d add that iPho’s food really does transcend its silly name. Ghebre’s, a newish Ethiopian spot next to Fasika, is good. (There was another called Flamingo a few blocks down which sadly closed, replaced by a new place which I haven’t been to yet). Tay Ho has the best bun bo hue in town in my humble opinion. I know you excluded markets and bakeries but Ha Tien Market’s roast park banh mi and Trung Nam’s croissants are best in class too.
In my admitted limited travels to Chicago you can find neighborhoods/streets of concentrated “ethnic” restaurants but these seem to be focused on a particular cuisine – i.e. Chinatown, or Indian on Devon (?) Street. What makes University special is the diversity and quality – I don’t think it’s common to find a metropolitan area’s #1 Thai, Mexican, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, and Cambodian restaurants on the same street within a couple miles of each other.
Anyway, thanks for the writeup.
Flamingo’s has been replaced by Bole. Everyone I’ve taken there, including many friends with whom I’ve enjoyed meals at Fasika, have become fans. Go, and then let me know what you think!
Thanks for that. Yes, the relative proximity of these cuisines and communities is what I think makes University Ave. stand out against the enclaves that exist in other cities where there are also many vibrant communities of recent immigrants.
I have to go try out Tay Ho’s bun bo hue. Ghebre’s has been on the list for a while (Eritrean-Ethiopian, right?) as has a return to iPho—I last went to it when it was still known as Saigon.
I can’t agree with you more. I just had a tasty but rushed and vaguely annoying meal at Hai Hai in Northeast Minneapolis and the whole time I was thinking that I could have had a better and cheaper dinner at Bangkok Thai Deli, On’s, or any of the five million Vietnamese places on University.
I have not yet been to Hai Hai. I know it’s unfair and probably wrong as well but I have a knee-jerk resistance to places like Hai Hai because they seem to be aimed primarily at people who would never eat that food unless it was hipsterized for them. I will get over it and go at some point.
Hai Hai is probably worth a visit. Most of the food was really quite good, especially the banh xeo and the banana blossom salad. But don’t go on a Saturday. It was HEAVING with people. Even though we had a reservation we had to wait forever for a table, it was so dark we couldn’t see the menu, blasting music make conversation impossible, and they brought out everything we ordered at once even though it’s a small plates format.
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