The Twin Cities Food Scene (as Seen Through Where the Star Tribune’s Food Critics Have Been Eating)

We resubscribed to the Star-Tribune this year—we’ve had an on again/off again relationship with the newspaper over the years but decided to re-up for the pandemic coverage. As we have a digital subscription we receive emails daily with highlights from the paper and one of the features that’s been getting pushed regularly is a series called “5 best things our food critic ate in Twin Cities this week”. I think this was a new feature that debuted in February—at least I don’t remember it from the last time we had a subscription. The first entry featured only selections by the paper’s lead food critic, Rick Nelson, but he’s since been joined by another food writer, Sharyn Jackson. I’ve been reading it first with interest, then with increasing amusement and also a bit of exasperation. The series, you see, may provide an inadvertent window into how the Star Tribune sees the Twin Cities food scene. What do I mean? Read on!

Let me elaborate by way of a chronological list of what and where the Star Tribune’s food critics have been eating. As far as I can make out the series debuted on February 7 and then went on a hiatus till April 24; it then ran until May 22, took another break till June 20 and has appeared weekly since. As they’re now on vacation till August the time seems right to take stock. Here is what has shown up on the lists so far (the ones in italics are recipes/home-cooked dishes). You can find the full entries by looking here.

February 7, 2020

  1. Dutch baby at Eastside
  2. Pasteis de Nata at Estelle
  3. Shakshuka at the Lynhall
  4. Kringle at Denny’s 5th Avenue Bakery
  5. Strawberry ice cream at Pumphouse Creamery

April 24, 2020

  1. Raised glazed doughnut at Sun Street Breads
  2. Grilled Butterfly Chicken recipe from Union Hmong Kitchen
  3. Orange-lime cocktail from Earl Giles
  4. Spaghetti Fra Diavolo from Martina
  5. Coq au vin and Armenian rice pilaf

May 1, 2020

  1. Elote corn Danish at Patisserie 46
  2. Pork Bolognese at Kieran’s Kitchen Northeast
  3. Blueberry muffins from Zoë François
  4. Buttermilk biscuits from Justin Sutherland
  5. Tomato soup with grilled cheese croutons

May 8, 2020

  1. Chicken shawarma dinner at Foxy Falafel
  2. Turkey momos at Gorkha Palace
  3. Dalgona coffee
  4. Al pastor pizza at Prieto Taqueria Bar
  5. Chicken, shrimp and sausage paella

May 15, 2020

  1. Italian lamb sausage pizza from Lyn 65
  2. Asparagus and pancetta-mint soup
  3. Roast beef sandwich at Clancey’s Meats & Fish
  4. Roasted chicken thighs from Bar Brigade
  5. Chocolate sugar cookies

May 22, 2020

  1. Double BH Burger at Bull’s Horn Food & Drink
  2. Pizza al Taglio
  3. All-Day Breakfast Waffle from Nordic Waffles
  4. Southwest Style Pretzels from Dot’s Pretzels
  5. Musubio Hot Dog at Meteor

June 20, 2020

  1. Rhubarb-orange pie from Vikings & Goddesses Pie Co.
  2. Mini doughnuts at the Donut Family
  3. Popcorn at the Grandview 2 Theatres
  4. “Artisan” breakfast sandwich at Rise Bagel Co.
  5. THE Chocolate Chip Cookie at the Grocer’s Table

June 26, 2020

  1. Cajun Finn at Northern Waters Smokehaus
  2. Smoked Wings at Smoke in the Pit
  3. “Sammich” at Nashville Coop
  4. Sungold tomatoes from Dawn2Dusk Farm
  5. Strawberry shortcake with biscuits from Hot Hands Pie & Biscuit

July 3, 2020

  1. Doughscuits at Trattoria Mucci
  2. Pancakes at Milda’s Cafe
  3. Double cheeseburger at Stewart’s
  4. Cauliflower wings at Trio Plant-Based
  5. Joe’s Brrr Bar at Sebastian Joe’s

July 10, 2020

  1. Ice cream at Bebe Zito
  2. Chicken in a waffle cone at Blue Barn
  3. Pasta pouch from Due Focacceria
  4. Blueberry croissant at Solomon’s Bakery
  5. Overnight waffles from “How to Cook Everything”

July 17, 2020

  1. Mini choux from B’beri Desserts
  2. Avocado toast from Mill Valley Market
  3. Soulroll from Wendy’s House of Soul
  4. Sweet basil vanilla ice cream from La La Homemade Ice Cream
  5. Heirloom tomato sweet corn BLT from Birchwood Cafe

I think this list speaks for itself but let me make some observations anyway. The first is that this list is, how shall we say, very, very mainstream American and very, very white. Of 55 entries across 11 lists only four are dishes from immigrant cuisines. One of these four is a recipe (of a dish from Union Hmong Kitchen). Adding Southern and Black food takes the count up to six, one of which is also a recipe (Justin Sutherland’s biscuits). Reading this list you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Twin Cities has no Thai food, no Chinese food, no Somali food, no Ethiopian food, no Japanese food, no Vietnamese food, and barely any Mexican food (I’m listing here only the cuisines that are widely represented in the metro area). Meanwhile the list includes the following: two supermarket purchases; four ice creams; doughnuts, muffins and pastries galore; three entries on pancakes and waffles; a few each of burgers and pizzas (the lone Mexican restaurant entry is also a pizza); and even popcorn from a movie theater. (Please do correct my math if you see any errors in counting.) It’s not just white American food that is over-represented here, it’s comfort food, and dare I say, there’s something almost infantile about much of the list (ice cream! pancakes! popcorn!).

Clearly the Star Tribune has not joined the nation-wide push to expand diversity in food coverage. Now, I know that this series does not comprise the entirety of the Star Tribune’s restaurant/food coverage; but it does seem significant nonetheless. Howsoever unintentionally, it projects a snapshot of the paper’s view of the local food scene and of its implied audience. One would have hoped that the pandemic would at least have opened up possibilities for greater coverage of non-p.r driven minority/immigrant-owned restaurants that the paper does not usually review but so far, at least, it’s an opportunity wildly missed.

This list also seems to suggest the kinds of things their food writers—one of whom is their restaurant critic of many, many years—eat when they have their druthers. One wonders what Rick Nelson’s context for reviewing the occasional Asian restaurant he does review in the paper is when he doesn’t seem to eat at any of them when he’s not on assignment. This may be and probably is unfair to some degree but I’m going off their lists not mine. Individual writers are of course free to eat and like whatever they want—and I’m sure the things they’ve been eating and the places they’ve been eating at are good . But if you’re writing not for a modest blog but for the state’s paper of record I think it behooves you to provide a more expansive view of the food in the metro.

But let me not end on such a negative note. Let me instead try to help Nelson and Jackson out by suggesting a few places they could go to eat at over the next few months that would expand their view—and more importantly, their readers’ view—of the Twin Cities’ diverse food scene. These are all restaurants that have either been open for takeout throughout the pandemic or have re-opened in the last month and a half. (And if you’d like to diversify your cooking repertoire let me suggest you try a recipe of two from a plucky Indian food blogger I know—he’s a bit of a jerk but the recipes are good.)

  1. Grand Szechuan in Bloomington
  2. Szechuan Spice in Minneapolis
  3. Bangkok Thai Deli in St. Paul
  4. On’s Kitchen in St. Paul
  5. Fasika in St. Paul
  6. Cheng Heng in St. Paul
  7. Homi in St. Paul
  8. Andale Taqueria in Richfield
  9. Kabob’s Indian Grill in Bloomington
  10. Kumar’s in Apple Valley

And for suggestions for what to order when you’re there take a look at the slideshow below.

Okay, I’ll be back in a couple of days with my next Twin Cities pandemic takeout report!

13 thoughts on “The Twin Cities Food Scene (as Seen Through Where the Star Tribune’s Food Critics Have Been Eating)

  1. We also subscribe to the STrib. I looked at maybe two of these lists, ignoring them for the most part because so many entries were, as you implied, a sugar-fest.

    I see the lists as falling in with their general coverage of the Twin Cities food scene, not being champions of small independent restaurants unless they’re led by a James Beard-adjacent white guy or Anne Kim (no slam on her; it’s just their track record). They don’t seem to cover the kind of workmanlike restaurants you noted unless, for some reason, they “go viral.” Readers who rely on the STrib’s guidance are missing out on lots of good food (usually at restaurants with reasonable prices and no waiting for service).

    What would it take to get Rick Nelson’s attention on this?


  2. I appreciate your write up about the lackluster reporting on the TCs otherwise very diverse food scene.
    At the bottom of your article, you said to check out the recs from (your) suggested restaurant pics, and scroll through the pics for specific items. There was only one pic- I’m wondering if this was a fluke, system issue, or what? I’d genuinely like to know what your suggestions are.


  3. I’m going to take a wild guess and suggest the restaurants that the Strib seems to highlight happen to have more sophisticated marketing capabilities as well…just a coincidence I’m sure.

    Even setting aside the ownership/cuisine issue – not advocating to do this, but just for the sake of the argument – the Strib is missing out on much of the best food in the Cities, period. And they are certainly missing out on what makes the dining scene here unique. In particular the SE Asian food, not only Vietnamese and Thai but Cambodian, Burmese, and especially Hmong (you just can’t find Hmong food in the vast majority of American cities). The large Somali/Ethiopian population here has resulted in a number of really good restaurants as well. And the taqueria is well represented here too – a bit underrated in my opinion (the next frontier in this area is scratch made tortillas…I believe there’s a tortilleria opening in NE Mpls soon). There is better probably Thai food in LA, better Mexican in Chicago, Ethiopian in DC etc but the mix here, and the way these different cuisines are integrated into corridors like University Ave in St Paul, Lake Street and “Eat Street” in Mpls, is a real strength. You can find a place like Birchwood Cafe or Lyn 65 in literally every American city with 50k people in it. Not to say those places serve bad food, they’re just dime a dozen and therefore not exactly noteworthy.

    I was at a makeshift food truck court last week in a vacant parking lot on the East Side of St Paul. Among the trucks there was one making Hmong pepper chicken wings; an American BBQ truck with Hmong flourishes (rice as a side, a Hmong pepper bbq sauce); a Mexican truck with Mexico City-good tripe tacos; a pork-centered truck offering traditional pulled pork sandwiches alongside bibimbap-esque rice bowls; a boba tea truck; one selling State Fair goodies; etc. Probably a good story or two to be found there!


    • Yeah, I noted much of the same in my “True Eat Street” post from a while ago.

      But in the case of the “5 best things” lists they’re not mostly going to p.r-driven places. There are a lot of smaller places in that list; but the food culture represented by the dishes is very white. I wanted to emphasize this point in this post over the problems of p.r-driven food media and the usual Minneapolis bias.


  4. Do you have a theory as to why this is? Maybe I’m giving the Strib too much benefit of the doubt but I just can’t fathom why Rick et al happen to end up at these places and hardly any immigrant-owned businesses. Like, why in the world would you become a food critic if you just want to stay in your food comfort zone? Most “foodies” I know seek out the type of restaurants on your list, are always on the lookout for something new, etc so this just doesn’t make any sense to me.


    • I think looking at these lists—and looking at them all together they really present a striking picture—it’s hard for me to to come any conclusion other than this is the food that qualifies centrally as food to them; “ethnic” food is just something to add a little flavour on the periphery, it’s not the “real” Twin Cities food of interest to the readers of the Star Tribune. And I guess if these readers are not making their objections known to the paper then they may be accurately judging who their readers are as well.

      The missus actually asked the exact same question as you when she read this post yesterday: “Why are these people food critics if they’re so limited in what they eat?” The answer seems to be that for the Star Tribune you don’t need to eat or know immigrant or minority cuisines in order to be qualified to be a food critic.


  5. I’m sure you’ve thought of this, but perhaps you glossed over it; the answer may lie in what the Tribune perceives as the demographic of their readership to be and thereby their interests, based on this:

    According to the most recent ACS demographic report, the racial composition of Minneapolis was:

    White: 63.79%
    Black or African American: 19.36%
    Asian: 6.13%
    Other race: 4.67%
    Two or more races: 4.64%
    Native American: 1.40%
    Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander: 0.02%

    Not that Caucasians wouldn’t appreciate a more diverse reporting of the food scene, or that the Tribune should provide a more diverse coverage of said scene…but readership money talks. “Follow the money” ~ Deep Throat (All the President’s Men)


  6. I think that your critique is well written and well reasoned. I agree that the demographic breakdown doesn’t really help explain why they do this. I suppose the goal in food writing is to sell papers and maybe they think that donuts and ice cream is the way to sell papers. My bleeding-heart nature wishes that newspapers wanted food writers to be advocates for a diverse dining scene that would help readers understand how to relate to a dining scene that includes a significant amount of independent restaurants serving food that may be unfamiliar to suburban readers. Not unlike the restaurant reviews you post and that many other food bloggers post. If I read the Strib for food coverage I’d want it to be surprising and exciting to read. And, particularly now in our pandemic-impacted world where noone is traveling, I probably want to understand how food can be a way to explore culture without leaving the Twin Cities. But I’m guessing that Bourbon infused bacon donuts sell more papers.


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