Eat At Cecil's

Cecil's
651 South Cleveland, St. Paul; 698-0334
320 City Center, 40 South 7th St., Mpls.; 341-0170

FOR NEARLY HALF a century Cecil's has been a St. Paul institution, pleasing customers with fat Reuben sandwiches and ice cream sundaes as sloppy with hot fudge as you could hope for. There can be no doubt that Cecil's is a family place, what with all the children spilling out of wooden high chairs as they chew on crayons and lick ice cream cones. The walls are decked with sentimental portraits of small girls in white dresses and veils, fresh-faced teenagers, brides riding a carousel horse, and my favorite, a chunky, jowled adolescent boy glowering over a full drum kit with the entire setting bathed in pink light.

It's also the kind of place that leaves no doubt as to what you're meant to do there. This is no place for touting your intellectual theories, having power lunches, or leering over your date. Eating is taken seriously here, so you'd better buckle up (or rather, unbuckle a few notches). Blintzes ($5.75) are just the ticket if you're looking for something to share--three crispy, golden, rolled-up crepes, their bellies overstuffed with warm farmer's cheese and served with large paper cups of sour cream and strawberry jam. For yourself, you'd do well with Cecil's famous Reuben, available in six varieties, from turkey to vegetarian with plenty in between.

My friend was mesmerized by his spicy Reuben, his hands greedily wrapped around his butter-soiled, grilled dark rye bread that sandwiched a heavy cargo of thinly sliced hot pastrami, pepper cheese, hot and tangy sauerkraut, and a thick layer of spicy mustard ($6.25). The slightly lewd-sounding pastrami 'n schmere ($5.75) was also fabulous, hot pastrami on rye heavily topped with raw onions and a thick layer of cream cheese. All sandwiches are served with a bountiful side of either potato salad, cole slaw, sweet and sour slaw, chips, French fries, or pasta salad, with a big fat kosher pickle to boot.

The honey pecan chicken salad ($6.45), a relatively new selection, was a bit less worthy than the other offerings; it consisted of grilled chicken breast served on a bed of lettuce and chopped tomatoes, the whole thing sprinkled with honey-grilled pecans, doused in a honey-mustard dressing, and repressed by more bland black olives than you've ever seen in a single dish.

Our waitress was motherly and doting, making sure we added plenty of lemon and honey to our tea to kick our disagreeable colds, and chastising us for having so much trouble finding the lavatory.

If you're stuck out in Minneapolis, you'll be happy to know that Cecil's has a nesting spot in City Center, on the edge of the food court of all places. But even between the Mickey D's and other franchises, Cecil's manages to create atmosphere, almost enough to make you forget the sterile chaos of the shopping center. The blow-up pictures of hot dogs add something beautiful as well.

The service is just as friendly at City Center as it is across the river, and the food just as homey. My friend and I couldn't have been more charmed with our cups of soup, one a cold borscht, a clean consommé with three small dollops of sour cream swirling on top (all soups are $2.05/cup, $2.75/bowl). The same goes for the lox burger, which features fat slices of salmon, tomatoes, pickles, and whipped cream cheese resting on a bagel and sided with a thick stack of raw onions.

For my part, I felt like a horse on Derby day in front of a mountainous plate of Cecil's salad, a mixture of minced lettuce, diced tomatoes, chopped turkey, pastrami, and fresh parsley tossed with a homemade dressing. That, along with a side of thickly buttered black Russian rye, makes a meal formidable enough to keep you fueled for hours. Opposite, but equal in beauty was the sweet and sour cabbage borscht, a piping-hot, vinegary marriage of shredded beef, cabbage, sweet tomato chunks, celery, and carrots.

The dessert selection reminded us of home, too: excessive sundaes piled in whipped cream ($1.95), a cheesecake that seemed to be at least a foot high ($2.95), and hot apple cobbler served with what must have been a pound of vanilla ice cream ($3.95).

TABLEHOPPING

DOWN ON THE RAILS: If you are sick of the traditional mess, distress, guilt, and insanity that big family holidays can occasionally give rise to, the Minnesota Zephyr invites you to their own Thanksgiving Dinner (Thursday, November 23 at noon and 5 p.m.). The trip promises to be scenic, with the St. Croix River Valley as its backdrop; the menu is something to behold as well, featuring a relish plate, a garden salad, cream of wild rice soup, oven-roasted fresh turkey, mashed potatoes with pan gravy, traditional bread and sage dressing, baked Louisiana yams with brown sugar and butter sauce, cranberry relish, and pumpkin cheesecake. Maybe you'll catch a glimpse of the new Zephyr Cabaret strolling singers, serenading you with the hits of the 1940s and '50s. They'll be the ones smartly dressed in shoulder pads, vintage dresses, and WWII army uniforms (probably not all at the same time) and crooning "Sentimental Journey" and "Sincerely" in your ear as you shovel in the grub. The theme of the cabaret performances beginning on Thanksgiving week and running through December 31 will be "Dreaming of a White Christmas." The price for this special holiday event is $39.95 per person ($29.95 for kids 12 and under). To make reservations, call 430-3000.

IN THE GRAVY: Congratulations to Famous Dave's BBQ for winning first place at the renowned American Royal International BBQ Sauce Contest, beating out 73 other sauces from around the country. It's now official that the Best BBQ sauce in America can be found at Famous Dave's BBQ Shack, 43rd and Upton in Linden Hills, Minneapolis , which opened last June (929-1200). Nothing fancy I hear, just some picnic tables stocked with rolls of paper towels and a kitchen overflowing with slowly smoked spareribs, baked honey corn bread, creamy coleslaw, and Southern-style baked beans, all made from scratch. For additional stuffing, add some bread pudding or fresh strawberry shortcake to your paunch. So if you haven't made your way over, there's no better time and no tastier way to fatten yourself up.

CROWNING COLD GLORY:Weather be damned, it appears that ice cream is more in season than ever, especially when dished out by Dreyer's & Edy's. They have announced three limited-edition flavors--pumpkin, peppermint, and eggnog--all available October through December. If this information is too much for you, and you find yourself writhing on the floor in agony trying to figure out just how the heck to serve them, fear no more. You're always free to call the Dreyer's and Edy's Cold Facts Hotline (1-800-888-3442), in operation October 2 through December 31, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Here's a little start on your recipe collection to get you through.

Petite Pumpkin Patch

Ingredients:

  • 4 tiny pumpkins, about 3 inches in diameter
  • 1 quart Dreyer's or Edy's Grand Pumpkin Ice Cream
  • Ground cinnamon
  • Warm caramel sauce

Preparation:

  • Pierce the bottom of pumpkin with a knife in 3 or 4 places. Microwave on High for 6-7 minutes, just until pumpkins are tender when pierced or gently squeezed. Cool.
  • Slice off the tops and scoop out seeds and pumpkin meat, leaving the shells intact. Reserve tops.
  • Using dessert plates, arrange pumpkin shells in middle of plate.
  • Place a large scoop of Dreyer's or Edy's Grand Pumpkin ice cream in center of each pumpkin shell.
  • Pour warm caramel sauce over ice cream and around pumpkin on dessert plate. Dust with cinnamon and arrange pumpkin tops to the side of shells.
  • Serve immediately.

LICENSE TO WINE: Hurrah! Broders' Southside Pasta Bar (5000 Penn Ave. South, Mpls.; 925-9202) has beaten the system, or at least made amends with it. Because of the rule restricting liquor licenses in the city of Minneapolis to commercial districts of at least seven contiguous acres, Broders' was unable to apply for a liquor license. Tom Broder managed to change this situation at the location of his pasta bar, with support from 4,000 loyal customers and the neighborhood. Says Broder, "Without this license, the good restaurant we opened last year would not have survived." So now is as good a time as any to drop in for some divine and affordable Italian cuisine, and toast their (and your) good fortune with a bottle of Italian wine (the medium-sized list ranges from a $14 bottle of Valpolicella Classico to a $40 of Amarone).

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