Grand Szechuan, 2016

Grand Szechuan: Szechuan Cool Noodle
Grand Szechuan is the restaurant we eat at most in the Twin Cities area. I stopped posting regularly about our meals there a couple of years ago, as otherwise things would get pretty monotonous. As I did last year, I instead have for you an end of the year round-up drawn from a number of meals eaten this year. It highlights mostly dishes that have not been featured before, as well as a few old favourites. A few new things entered our rotation this year and we also got around to eating for the first time a few things that have always been on the menu. Whether it’s to eat old or new things, we’re always glad to walk in their door. Continue reading

Thai Curry House (Burnsville, MN)

Thai Curry House: Guay Tiew
Living an hour south of the Twin Cities is no fun if you enjoy eating out. We live in a town with two colleges that somehow does not have a single Thai or Vietnamese restaurant—though given the state of our Chinese restaurants and the lone Indian restaurant that’s probably not a bad thing. The only decent food in town, really, is very casual Mexican at El Triunfo and there’s only so many times we can eat there in a month. Things don’t improve very much as you go further north. Not, in fact, until you cross the river into Bloomington: there Grand Szechuan heaves into view. But if you were looking for Thai food it used to be that you’d have to go much further to get anything that even went past passable status.

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Piccolo VIII

Piccolo: Black cod with kohlrabi dashi, nori, and charred cippolini onions
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone: the best restaurant in the Twin Cities, and one of the best in the country, is closing. Yes, Piccolo will serve its last meal on March 11. Read Chef Doug Flicker’s announcement here. Why they’re closing is not entirely clear. My best guess would be some combination of the (not-so) slow death of the market for serious food for adults, a desire to go out on his own terms, and a desire to do something else after seven years of Piccolo. The good news is we are not losing Doug Flicker: his stamp will be on the new Esker Grove at the Walker Art Center; Sandcastle will still be around at Lake Nokomis for people who want lakeside food that raises the bar for the genre; and he will doubtless surface soon elsewhere (though if it’s at the helm of a burger and ramen shop I will not be happy). The bad news, again, is that Piccolo is closing.  Continue reading

The Rabbit Hole (Minneapolis)

exterior
The Rabbit Hole’s first incarnation, about four years ago, was as the Left-Handed Cook, a counter among many other counters at Minneapolis’ Midtown Global Market. Run by two young, ex-Angeleno Korean-Americans, Thomas and Kat Kim (and named for her nickname for him), the Left-Handed Cook was quite popular when it opened. We never got around to eating there, though we’d always talked about doing it (we just haven’t been eating much at the Midtown Market in recent years). Then in late 2013 they closed it down and re-opened a little later within the Midtown Market as a proper sit-down restaurant, the Rabbit Hole. We talked about eating there as well for a good while and now we’ve actually gotten around to doing it. I wish I could say we liked it as much as we were hoping we would.  Continue reading

Pho Hoa (Minneapolis)

Pho Hoa: Pho
A few weeks ago I started what I described as a slow-motion survey of noodle soup-centered meals in the Twin Cities metro area. My first report was of lunch at Pho 79 on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis. I’m not going very far from it for the second. Pho Hoa is almost across the street from it. Unlike Pho 79, Pho Hoa is part of a larger chain—it’s the local franchise of an operation that extends not just to California, Florida, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Washington and Utah, but beyond the U.S. to Canada, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan. Also unlike Pho 79, it is in a large strip mall’ish complex and as such has ample parking in front—which makes it far less of a pain to get to than Pho 79. That in itself would not be a reason to eat there if the food was not good but I’m happy to report that our one lunch there was quite good. Continue reading

Pho 79 (Minneapolis)

Bun Bo Hue
November in southern Minnesota this year has been relatively warm and mild. Until a couple of days ago, that is. It got cold last Friday and then today winter more or less arrived with freezing rain and snow. Ah, the first day of driving on slick roads! A more positive way of thinking about winter is to think of it as noodle soup season, and I have always believed in accentuating the positive. And so throughout the winter I am going to post brief reports of noodle soup-centered meals around the Twin Cities.

This will also mean a sharp uptick in my Vietnamese coverage. In case you’re wondering, Minnesota has a decent-sized Vietnamese population (26,000 at the last census) and most of them live in the Twin Cities. My guess, based on Vietnamese store-fronts, is that St. Paul is really the Vietnamese hub of the Twin Cities, but my “tour” will begin in Minneapolis, on the stretch of Nicollet Ave. known as Eat Street. First up: Pho 79. Continue reading

Cam Ranh Bay (Burnsville, MN)

Bun Bo Hue, Cam Ranh Bay
Here is another entry in my fitful series of reviews of restaurants south of the Twin Cities. Cam Ranh Bay is in Burnsville and whether there’s a good reason to go there depends on a number of factors. If you live in St. Paul or within reach of “Eat Street” in Minneapolis, the answer is “no”. There’s far better Vietnamese food to be found there. But if you live south of Burnsville there aren’t very many options. Pho Everest in Lakeville has serviceable pho and decent banh mi and not very much else (caveat: I have not been in more than a year). I’m not aware of any other Vietnamese places of note. And frankly, there aren’t very many restaurants of any genre of note in that general area. Which means that if you are a Costco member and the Burnsville Costco is your store of convenience—or if the closest movie theater to you is the Mueller multiplex in Lakeville or the Odyssey in the Burnsville Center—or if you just happen to be on the 35 and not able to wait till you get a little further north…and if a burger is not what you are in the mood for, then Cam Ranh Bay may be for you. Just keep your expectations in check.  Continue reading

Tongue in Cheek (St. Paul)

Tongue in Cheek
Tongue in Cheek opened in 2014 in a part of St. Paul that apparently has a checkered past. It has received decent reviews from the professionals (see this enthusiastic writeup from Rick Nelson in the Star Tribune) and was also recommended to me in the comments on my review of Grand Cafe, where I asked for recommendations for more places doing interesting things under the radar. I put it on my list then and in mid-August we met two friends for dinner there on a weeknight. And I’m sorry to say that I had mixed feelings about it (and they were shared by the rest of the table, I think). It’s not that it was a bad meal (though some things were not good); it’s more that too many things suffered from excess of one kind or the other: too many elements in some plates, too much superfluous technique for its own sake, too many on-trend things on one menu, too much of an effort to be inventive for its own sake. There’s talent in the kitchen but it’s trying too hard, I thought. On the evidence of the better dishes at our meal this would be a better restaurant if it just calmed down and kept things a little simpler.  Continue reading

Hmong Village (St. Paul)

Hmong Village: Pork Uterus
About two years ago I wrote up Hmongtown Marketplace in St. Paul, the mainstay of the Hmong combo food court/market scene. Here finally is a writeup of their main competition, the newer, larger and (relatively) flashier Hmong Village, further north in St. Paul. A number of people have been recommending it to me for a while but inertia and a slightly shorter driving distance had kept us going back to Hmongtown Marketplace. Well, now that I’ve been to both I can report that the differences are almost entirely of ambience—the food court at Hmong Village is less hectic and the vegetable market is enclosed. This latter fact makes it less charming in the summer—which is when we visited (in early August)—but I am sure renders it much more user-friendly for the 17 months of winter (which are almost upon us).  Continue reading

Homi (St. Paul)

Homi: Costillitas de Puerco en Adobo
Homi has been around on University Avenue in St. Paul for seven years now. Friends who work and live in the area had been telling me about it for some time now but somehow we didn’t get around to eating there until earlier this summer. This is largely because we are creatures of habit—when food shopping in St. Paul we’d eat at On’s Kitchen or Bangkok Thai Deli; our Mexican eating would happen on the way to and back food shopping in north Minneapolis—at Los Ocampo or Maya or, for a brief, glorious period, at La Huasteca. After the demise of the original version of La Huasteca, however, we were in need of a place that would fill the soulful hole in our Mexican food world (neither Los Ocampo and Maya quite fit that description). And so we finally ended up at Homi. And while I am not quite ready to say that it has helped me come to terms with the disappearance of Jose Gonzalez’s birria and barbacoa (and much else), I will say that Homi comes pretty close.  Continue reading

Sandcastle (Minneapolis)

Sandcastle (Minneapolis)
A quick post about an ultra-casual eatery: Sandcastle by the beach in Lake Nokomis park in South Minneapolis. Owned and operated by Doug Flicker and Amy Greeley (and their partner Chele Payer) since it opened in 2013, Sandcastle is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Piccolo (their celebrated fine dining restaurant that you may have read about one or seven times on this blog). There’s no five course tasting menu here, no modernist food, no foie gras-laced desserts. Which is not to say that the food is cookie cutter. You can order cheese curds and hotdogs, yes, but you can also order the Dog Flicker (a hotdog with kimchi) and shrimp and octopus ceviche. All of it is served casually and best enjoyed on the wonderful terrace/patio overlooking the lake. Sandcastle is open from early May through early October and, sure, the height of summer might be the best time to go, but it’s also a great place to be in denial about the coming of the permafrost. Grab a hotdog or a burger, get a beer (either on tap or from their visiting brewers) and then walk it off around the lake (and take your dogs too—they welcome dogs on the patio).  Continue reading

Piccolo VII

Piccolo: Black cod with sesame seed, crispy garlic, wasabi, and green juice
Five months after my last Piccolo review, here I am with a write-up of our second dinner there this year and our seventh overall. Not that we need any excuse to go back to Piccolo—we have to make a concerted effort to not just go there every time we plan a dinner out in the Twin Cities—but this visit was sparked by the intriguing news that Chef Flicker will be overseeing a new restaurant at the Walker Center that will be opening this winter. We look forward to eating there once it’s open and on its feet but the news was a good reminder that we’d planned to eat at Piccolo more often this year. Well, I am glad to say that the meal did not disappoint. Unfortunately, with the busy season at work about to start, and travel plans in October (to Montreal, if things hold) and December (to Delhi and Calcutta via Hong Kong again), I’m not sure we’ll be able to go back again this year but this meal will do nicely to tide us over to our next.  Continue reading

Grand Cafe (Minneapolis)

Grand Cafe: Sirloin
A week and a half ago I ended up having an unexpected dinner at Grand Cafe in South Minneapolis. Some friends and colleagues of mine are in a band called the Counterfactuals and they were playing an album release show at Icehouse on Nicollet. I was driving up from the hamlets of Northern Rice County with some of the band spouses (which I think made me an honorary band spouse for the night) and we met the overeducated rockers for dinner at Grand Cafe. I’m not sure why we didn’t eat dinner at Icehouse itself, but was not disappointed by the decision as I’ve eaten there a number of times previous for work-related events and it’s never quite rocked my boat. I was especially not disappointed after dinner at Grand Cafe, a place I’d somehow barely heard of, and consequently had no expectations of, but which turned out to be more than minimally decent and well-priced. (I don’t mean to damn with faint praise: Minimally Decent People was the name of the Counterfactuals’ first album and the second half of the previous sentence was only a tortured attempt to cite it; and you’ll have found this particularly hilarious now that I’ve explained the reference.) On to the meal!
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