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.

She's not the only one. On Sunday nights, says Connor, the shop hosts a Methodist outreach group that wanted "an unchurchy sort of place to meet--coffee shops have been critical in creating nontraditional spaces for people to have spiritual experiences. But on the flip side, we have Coffee Cauldron, a group of people who are from the occult or pagan sides of things. They get together here and talk about tarot cards and what's the latest and greatest in astrology." Saturday mornings around 9:30, an old-time music jam attracts fiddle, banjo, and harmonica players, and sometimes cloggers.

Connor says this confluence of Methodists, pagans, and cloggers is something that can't be engineered; that opening a coffee shop is like "setting a top spinning and seeing where it flies around the room. Opening a business to a community is setting something in motion, then stepping back and seeing what happens. Of course, you continue to show up to make the soup, to make the coffee, but the community makes the rest."

Distrustful of a word that often seems to mean anything and nothing, I asked: So who is this community? "Whoever comes back," replied Connor. "Here, people want to have a home away from home. That Cheerscliché--to have a place where you are recognized and somebody knows what you like to eat, what your drink is, where you can chitchat about the weather, where it's safe and it's pleasant and it's not complicated. Prairie Star isn't what I created. It's the interaction between the humans who are behind the bar and the humans who are in front of the bar."

And there, I think, I got my answer to the street-food question. For the real value of sidewalk snacks is that they serve as the glue holding a city together, the common ground for people who otherwise share only geography. Was there a need for cultural glue in some places, and did coffee shops spring up to fill that need? (I can't think of what Seattle's street food would be, either.) Did they arise as spontaneously as friendships or love affairs, unplanned, suddenly formidable? Says Connor, reflecting on her Saturday morning jams: "I had nothing to do with this--this thing emerged. Sometimes it nearly spins out of control, people dancing in the aisles, the whole room just pops. And it happens nearly all on its own."

TABLEHOPPING

LENT AT MURRAY'S: Rumormongers like myself have been fretting about news that Minneapolis's most photogenic steak house was exploring moving to another space. Well, put that to bed--it's not happening: The folks at Murray's say they're staying right where they are (26 South Sixth St.; (612) 339-0909). Better yet, as a Lenten special, Murray's will be selling a walleye dinner--walleye fillet, house salad, potato or vegetable, rolls and butter--every Friday night until April 2.

GREAT LEAP FORWARD: A few months ago I wrote about Fuji Ya, the new incarnation of an institution that opened in downtown Minneapolis in 1959, closed in 1988, and recently reopened on Lyndale under the auspices of the original chef's granddaughter, Carol Weston Hanson, and her husband Thomas Hanson. Basically, my review concluded that the new Fuji Ya was a nice try but no cigar, that the sushi was uneven and the servers sometimes obtusely clueless.

And wouldn't you know it, the owners have spent the past few months powering through an aggressive improvement campaign. Last December they introduced Teng Thao as their new sushi chef--fans will recognize Thao, nicknamed Tengo, from the sushi bar at Origami. April 1 will see the introduction of a new kitchen manager, and a new menu will follow sometime this spring.

I stopped by for lunch one day last week, and oo-la-la, things have picked up. A couple of pieces of tuna were the freshest I've ever had in Minnesota, blood red and delectable. A caterpillar roll was the epitome of caterpillary perfection: razor-thin slices of avocado on the outside, hot creamy grilled eel within. Undeniably, it was a million-mile leap ahead from my previous Fuji Ya experiences. "We weren't pleased with our sushi quality," explains Thomas Hanson. "So we got the best sushi chef in town. We've been on a path of steady improvement since we opened; this is just the latest step. We're going to be better than anyone in town. But you don't necessarily have to print that." Oops.

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