Tin Tea (Northfield, MN)

Northfield, Minnesota may be the only college town in the US with two colleges but not even one restaurant serving pho. We’re now one step closer though: as of this summer we have our first Vietnamese restaurant. Tin Tea opened in June as a Vietnamese tea specialist and that is still what they are. In August they began serving a selection of banh mi as well. I was tipped off to this by my friend Ben and was delighted to discover that he had not been exaggerating when he’d said the banh mi was very good indeed. About a month ago they added spring rolls to the menu. Now, I know what you’re thinking: surely, pho is next. Alas, that is unlikely to be the case (read on to find out why). But what they do serve is all very tasty and enough reason to wish devoutly that they will continue to do well.

They are located not in or near the town’s main business drag of Division St. but further south on Highway 3, in a shopping strip almost all the way to Dundas. It is a bright, attractively done up space, though on first entry you might think you’d wandered into a swanky hair dressing salon’s waiting room. The bright dining room as you enter looks more like a living room, with couches alongside a few tables. You go through to the next room to order at the long counter. I’ve not eaten in yet and so my system is to call in the order and show up just when it’s ready. And that way in the event they’re out of banh mi or spring rolls for the day you won’t make the trip for nothing. (You can also follow them on Facebook to keep abreast of this sort of thing.) And while I’m being useful, I should note that they’re shut on Monday and Tuesdays.

One would think that if they were downtown, closer to the two colleges, they’d do really boffo business. But their location is not too far from Northfield High School and my sense is that they get a fair bit of boba custom from high school students. In the event that you live in town and haven’t been there yet, they’re in the same strip as Gran Plaza. They’re located between a church and a hospice so if anything goes wrong you’re covered both in heaven and on earth. But nothing will go wrong if you order their banh mi or spring rolls. Of these the former are available every day (unless they run out) whereas I believe the spring rolls are currently only available on the weekend (do correct me if I’m wrong about this).

I should say here that as we are a household that does not drink Vietnamese milk teas or boba my brief review does not have anything to say on that front. If you’re looking for a detailed breakdown of the relative merits of the teas they offer this is not the review for you. Of course, if you have opinions of your own on that front you should feel free to share them in the comments. I am here only to tell you about the banh mi and spring rolls, all of which I have consumed.

Of course, consuming all of their banh mi and spring rolls is not a huge achievement—and I didn’t consume them all at once—as it’s not the largest menu. They serve five kinds of banh mi—with grilled pork, grilled chicken, mixed cold cuts, cha lua (Vietnamese forcemeat) and tofu—and two kinds of spring rolls—with shrimp and pork. The baguettes for the banh mi are procured from a location in St. Paul and are of a very high quality with a good snap and crack. And the sandwiches as a whole are very good too with generous proportions of the main ingredient as well as pickled veg etc. I should say here that the pro move is to pay a tiny bit more to get extra paté in your sandwich, as the default doesn’t have a whole lot of it. And unless you really can’t handle the heat you should ask for the optional jalapeño as well—a good banh mi needs that little bit of bite to round out the flavours.

My personal rankings of the five options are as follows:

  1. Cold Cut Lover (which is also the name of my folk-punk band)
  2. Cha Lua
  3. Grilled Pork
  4. Tangy Tofu (the name of our first album)
  5. Grilled Chicken.

But I’d happily eat any of them if you’d like to buy me one.

The spring rolls are good too, if not quite at the level of the banh mi. It is my hope that they’ll eventually expand to offer more options with fillings (and that this might be true for the banh mi as well—a meatball version would be nice). Now why can’t we expect pho to be added to this menu? Well, I was told that the kitchen in the building is not set up for the preparation of hot foods. I suppose it’s possible that at some point it could be fitted for that purpose but it’s not on the horizon. But I do wish it were possible because the quality of what they do serve suggests their pho would be very good too.

For a look at the space and the food, launch the slideshow below. Scroll down for thoughts on price etc.

While the banh mi is priced a little bit higher than you might pay on University Avenue in St. Paul—where lots of Vietnamese restaurants are competing with each other—it’s still very good value for what it is. One sandwich makes a good lunch and it’s easily my favourite sandwich in Northfield. If you haven’t eaten their food yet I encourage you to go; and if you haven’t eaten it recently I encourage you to go again soon. It’s in all of our best interest if they do well and expand the menu or perhaps move to a location where a hot kitchen may be possible. It really would be great to not have to drive at least as far as Lakeville for Pho—and really there’s no dish better suited for the Minnesota winter.

Alright, I’m not likely to have another Northfield review for a while. Next week’s review will quite likely be of a Mexican restaurant up in Minneapolis.



4 thoughts on “Tin Tea (Northfield, MN)

  1. Not really in your neck of the woods, but my favorite banh mi is the BBQ pork at Ha Tien in the old Byerly’s on Suburban. Not cheap, but worth it. The bread (swoon) and you can ask for it to be exactly how you like it, extra whatever or not. They have really stepped up their game in the deli. A couple of weekends ago I got some turnovers from the bakery. If you are a baked goods person get yourself there. Our favorite was the cocount. Traveling with fresh bakery procucts however is always a tricky proposition.


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