2002 Through Food-Colored Glasses

Dear Dara's year-end wrap-up



Well, I don't know if that technically counts as reader mail, because it was from a friend, but it strikes me as one of the more pithy things said about the big-city cores of these Twin Cities these days, which are becoming almost vertigo-inducing with our shocking international diversity. Is there anywhere else on earth where such brand-new immigrants from such far-flung places as Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central America interact? Granted, it gets a little frustrating sometimes, as evidenced by the morning I looked out my front window to find two African women in a state of terror abandoning a car in a flower garden. But that's a lot more interesting than nothing ever happening. Flowers grow back, and in a few years I think we can expect the West African restaurant scene to flower as well, because the Southeast Asian one is going great guns, and the Mexican and East African ones are coming along quite nicely (which, I think, correlates pretty closely to each nationality's time of arrival).

Year of the yum: Some of 2002's best
Year of the yum: Some of 2002's best

Looking back over 2002, some of the highlights were definitely in those cuisines. House of Lalibela, the Ethiopian restaurant on East Lake Street, was one treat: Finally, a stylish, earthy, sophisticated restaurant in which to enjoy the dusky flavors of Ethiopian food paired, as it should be, with raisiny, unusual Ethiopian wines. The Campiello of Ethiopia! It's about time. Mexican food has been the story in utero this year, if that's not too gross a phrasing. Chico's out in Edina has some great dishes--the lamb borrejo, the shrimp cocktail--in a barely reconverted strip-mall chain that leaves much to be desired. The tamales at the to-go counter of La Loma (in the Mercado Central mall, at the corner of Bloomington and East Lake Street) are fantastically good. So are the stews at El Burrito Mercado, another counter-service spot, though this one is in a giant grocery store on St. Paul's south side. And there are a few other Mexican dishes worth seeking out: The carne asada at El Mariachi, in the old Rainbow Chinese spot off Nicollet Avenue, is still the best in town; the pulled-chicken tacos at Garibaldi, near Nicollet and 27th are puckery, spicy, and unforgettable. The dishes are here, and so you get glimpses of the restaurant that may come one day, but it isn't here yet. 2003? 2004? We'll see.

Southeast Asian restaurants are another story: the pride and glory of the upper Midwest, if you ask me. At Tai-Hoa Barbecue I had crisp roast pork in which the delicious juxtaposition of lush fat and potato-chip-crisp skin made language impossible. I had countless bowls of bún at Quang, the sweet of sugar-cane-grilled shrimp bouncing against the subtlety of tender noodles and springtime of the licorice- and chile-edged herbs--those things are like riotous flower boxes. And if I haven't said good things every single week about the chicken-and-egg-noodle soup at Jasmine Deli, in which complex broth showcases the mellow comforts of chicken soup--why, if I don't mention that every week it is because you only hurt the ones you love.

And the Saigon Café--another beloved! That messy jewel provided me with fierce and fiery pork sandwiches, gamy, chile-tinged shrimp hot pots, and wonton soups the tops of which were so festooned with smoky fried onions and curls of crisp green onion that they looked like they were topped with lace. I consciously forced myself to stop writing about Saigon so much last year--my friends had begun to mock me--but I maintain that the purest intersection of physical dive and culinary heaven that the Twin Cities has to offer perches on that blessed Frogtown corner near Dale and University.

But did I make it to every restaurant and have every dish last year? Hell no. And so I turned to a couple of my most loyal correspondents, local readers and eaters who get out almost as much as I do, and I asked them about their favorite dishes of the year. Kirsten of Minneapolis says the Zinc frites (though, sadly, the place is closing, so nyah nyah nyah), as well as B.T. McElrath's cinnamon star-anise truffle, and the beet soup at Ecopolitan; and her husband says the tempura fries at Aquavit. Bob of Seward says Bobino's coq au vin, and Café Barbette's tuna-avocado-tartare. Ray of Minneapolis says Basil's has great service and is endlessly overlooked. Dave 2, of Minneapolis, and no relation to Dave 1 above, says his best dish of the year was the bison tenderloin at Zander Café: "Tender? It's more difficult to cut through water."


Dear Dara,

Lord knows you make every restaurant sound like the first time you ever fell in love.

Red Clay

Dear Red,

Well, surely not every restaurant. They wish, really. But all in all, Lord knows, 2002 was a very good year. And so, the short answer: Yum.

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