The Street Within

Prairie Star Coffee House
2399 University Ave., St. Paul
(651) 646-STAR (7827)
Hours: 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday; 8 p.m.-7 p.m. Saturday; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.

New Orleans: poor boys. Philadelphia: cheese steaks. Chicago: red hots. But what is the street food of Minneapolis and St. Paul? This was puzzling me the first week in January, as I swam the streets of New York, waves of street snacks cresting at every corner: pizza slices, bagels, knishes, sandwiches hot and cold, big and small.

Regular readers know that I go through life muttering, "Anything they can do, we can do better," but this one really had me stymied. Yes, at the State Fair there is an ocean of street food. But there's no Pronto Pup stand on Nicollet Mall, no walleye-on-a-stick booth on St. Peter.

And yet I know that long ago, when Minneapolis was full of seasonal laborers moving from lumber camp to farm to flour mill and back again, downtown was overflowing with salty snacks. So much so, in fact, that nigh 95 years ago, on March 25, 1904, Minneapolis city leaders found it prudent to encourage sobriety by banning the briny free lunches many bars offered. Or so said Daniel Rosheim, in his memoir, The Other Minneapolis, and I believe it, because every time I taste the face-puckering cheese toasts in the bar at Murray's, or see the buckets of herring at Liquor Lyle's, I am reminded of that almost-street-food heritage. But still, what have these cities served to me lately?

Coffee, mostly, judging from the ten java shops within ten blocks of my house. And so one recent night, I was pinging around the streets in search of good food. It was one of those evenings when the winter wind pierces and the ice on the road cracks into child-trapping crevices; the time was 7 p.m., but it seemed like the hour before dawn in postapocalyptic Alaska. Until I crossed the threshold into a coffee shop, and there they were--people. People eating, drinking, flirting, sulking. Little people coloring, big people reading. Maybe, it occurred to me, Minneapolis street culture, forced indoors for half the year, has just stayed indoors? Maybe these cities have coffee-shop food instead of street food? This neat little thesis breaks down, of course, once you start sampling coffee-shop fare, which by and large is made off the premises: muffins, cookies, biscotti, sandwiches that arrive plastic-wrapped and computer-labeled. But when you stumble into a place like Prairie Star, a sweetheart of a spot where everything's handmade and heartfelt--well, then it does seem that maybe lattes are our cheese steaks, bowls of soup our red hots.

I put my theory to Teresa Connor, the owner of Prairie Star, and she ventured that the Twin Cities historically haven't been fertile ground for street culture: "It's that cross between farming and industry--a strong family was critical for survival. People just didn't go out as much. When they were done with work, the home was the center of their lives."

Connor, who spent 15 years as a social worker before opening the first incarnation of Prairie Star in Minneapolis's Warehouse District in 1993--she now jokingly calls herself a "licensed, independent clinical espresso jerk," says her place harmonizes nicely with Midwestern tradition: "It reminds me of those little spots where farmers come in after their first round of chores, to touch base, to trade information... People come in [here] with those same kinds of rhythms. I like being that place."

But "that place" changes, depending on who shows up. When Connor and her then-partner Cory Howard ran Prairie Star in Minneapolis, it was an artists' haunt and a refuge for office-workers hiding out from the rat race. When the two lost their lease in 1997 and had to move across the river, the coffee shop's character changed with the location: It became bigger, brighter, acquired high tin ceilings and lots of tables, and generally came to look more like an expanded kitchen than the dusky hideout it had been.

Prairie Star's coffee is predictably good, attentively made from fresh-roasted beans. But it's the food that stands out: The sandwiches ($4.25) are the kind you'd make if you stayed home for lunch and had a kitchen stocked with things like raspberry chutney, a perky marinated tuna salad, provolone, salami, roasted red peppers, and hummus. The soup--a ham-and-greens full of wings of kale and blocks of ham, a white-bean-butternut-squash flecked with red chard, an ingenious red-and-yellow-double-potato--is chunky and handmade every morning. I always order the soups with bread and fruit on the side, just to see the little artwork the barista makes of sliced baguette with crackers stuck in the incisions, a few just-cut chunks of seasonal fruit. This presentation of bread, fruit, and soup always touches my heart. It seems so much like a snack a mom would make--and sometimes does, when she isn't also dealing with laundry and bills and two part-time jobs. (Soups are also available bread- and fruit-free, at $2.75 for a cup or $3.75 for a bowl; with all the trimmings, they cost $4 for a cup, $5.50 a bowl.)

Lolling around a sunny Prairie Star for a few afternoons, I found Connor's farm-chore metaphor pretty appropriate: In addition to your stereotypical latte sippers, regulars include a good number of paint-spattered men on break from industrial jobs along the Midway. There's also Edna, who comes in every day, weather permitting, for coffee and a piece of chocolate. Edna told me about her husband, who fought in World War II, and of moving into the St. Anthony neighborhood with her father-in-law 50 years ago; now in her 80s, she seems to use Prairie Star as a sort of parlor away from home.

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