When last seen on these pages Cook St. Paul was the location of Golden Horseshoe, a Sichuan “residency” that ran for two months this summer, whose passing we are still mourning (my second review is here). At the time Cook St. Paul was essentially a diner, with breakfast their largest draw and no dinner service—which left room for them to host pop-ups. Not too long after the end of the Golden Horseshoe run the proprietor, Eddie Wu announced on Facebook that the restaurant was going to change form in October, now serving only lunch and dinner. This was greeted with some ambivalence by their patrons who were attached to their breakfast offerings. We, however, were intrigued. We live too far away to have ever made it there for breakfast and were interested to see what the new incarnation would be.
Here is what it is: they have turned into a counter-service restaurant primarily offering a number of rice bowls and some sandwiches. These are all very fairly priced. The rice bowls start at $4. I assume a plain bowl of this kind would get you rice and some pickles. The idea is that you choose from a list of things to add to it for another $4 each. On our visit this past weekend those options were sweet, sour and spicy chicken wings; braised and fried pork shoulder; and kaijaew or a Thai-style omelette with fish sauce. In addition there is bibimbop and a couple more rice bowl options: one featuring kimchi and bacon and the other featuring their take on Golden Horseshoe’s excellent mapo tofu. And, oh yes, mac and cheese to which you can add kimchi, if you’re kinky that way. Two burgers and a fried chicken sandwich with nuoc cham round out the mains. There are a few snacks and sides as well. The menu seems to still be growing and I was told they will be adding more items this week, including possibly a fish sandwich.
All of it adds up to a pan-Asian menu, which is something we are usually very skeptical of. However, we quite enjoyed this meal. We were a group of seven. Four adults, one teenager, and our two brats. Between us we got all the rice bowls (doubling up on the pork), the dubu kimchi, the mapo tofu and the chicken sandwich. We also got a side of their kimchi and a few orders of their vegetable mandu (dumplings).
How was it all? The rice bowls were all very good. The fried chicken is tangy-sweet with a bit of a chile kick. I might have liked my bites of the kaijaew and the pork even more though. The latter was very nicely marinated with lemongrass and makrut lime peel—however, this bowl felt a little “dry” as the pork has no sauce clinging to it like the chicken and can’t really be cut into the rice like the omelette. The missus was pleased with her dubu kimchi, which is high praise as she is generally very hard on non-Korean places making Korean things. Though in that vein she and I were both a little dubious of the kimchi served as a side. It was over-fermented, which is fine in a rice bowl (or in a jigae) but is not optimal for table kimchi. No complaints, however, about the nuoc cham chicken sandwich which was very good indeed with slaw and pickled cucumbers playing off the chicken. The so-called Koritos served with them were okay as were the mandu. The big news, though, as far as I am concerned, is that their mapo tofu is ace. It’s not identical to the Golden Horseshoe version which had more umami/funky depth from black beans but it is very good indeed; easily one of the best in town.
The space has also been redone a bit. The middle row of tables is gone and the counter sits along what used to be the back wall of the restaurant. (Those of you who have admired the wallpaper in the bathroom in the past will be pleased to read that it is as it was.) It’s nice and bright and airy. They were not terribly busy when we got there just before noon but seemed to be slowly filling up as time went on.
For a look at the space and the food please launch the slideshow below. Scroll down to see how much it all cost and what we made of it on the whole.
As you can tell by looking at the menu, this is all extremely well-priced. We were comped one $9 dish on account of having been accidentally overcharged on our last visit to Golden Horseshoe. Otherwise this would have come to a total of about $105 with tax and tip for all the food above, one ice tea and two sodas. Or $15/head all-in. That’s very good value indeed. If we lived in the neighbourhood or within easy reach we’d be there often. Living an hour south as we do it’s hard to see it becoming a regular destination for us in its own right but a destination restaurant is also not the kind of place it seeks to be. It’s a neighbourhood restaurant that wants to feed the neighbourhood at a reasonable price. It’s a worthy and daring business model and I hope it succeeds. Those of you who live much closer should check them out more often. And on occasions when we have to be in St. Paul for other shopping etc. you’ll probably see us working on some of that mapo tofu (or trying their new dishes).
Up next on the food front: a couple more New York reports (I’m coming into the home stretch). Next week I’ll have another St. Paul report, from Joan’s in the Park.