Family Values

The East Side of St. Paul has a new restaurant with stunning onion rings, and a real family core that's rare

Pop's Family Café
378 Maria Ave. N., St. Paul
651.774.6000
www.popsfamilycafe.com

The first time I saw the onion rings at Pop's, steam shot out of my ears in the manner of Wile E. Coyote, and small birds chirped as they flew in a close circle around my head. After that, the sky cracked open, a rainbow beamed down centrally on the plate, and little faeries wearing iridescent robes rode down playing small harps and dancing ecstatically, placing their little golden sandals in a special way that I intuitively knew meant: Don't drown with ketchup. I mean, these were some onion rings! Two inches thick, pillowy and plush with golden batter, light as peony blossoms, crisp as fireworks and a rocket's red glare. I bit into them, and the captured bubbles of batter tore away to reveal sweet, mild, gently caramelized strips of the noble vegetable in question. Holy cats—these weren't just onion rings, these were onion rings to base a road trip on.

Family affair: On the right, Mary and Larry Noble; to their left, sons DeAndrae, Jarrett, and Chad
Jana Freiband
Family affair: On the right, Mary and Larry Noble; to their left, sons DeAndrae, Jarrett, and Chad

So if you are one of those Minneapolis residents who consider St. Paul a foreign territory, and anything on the east side of downtown St. Paul to be part of Wisconsin, or possibly Maine, consider the gauntlet thrown down: You're going to have to get in the car if you want the best onion rings in the state. That car will proceed off I-94 and up the tricky left exit that leads up to Mounds Boulevard and Metropolitan State University, and, most importantly for our purposes, toward a truly new and noteworthy little gem of an everyday charmer: Pop's Family Café.

Pop's opened in April, the product of co-owners Lou Sudheimer and chef Larry Noble, and it is a real family restaurant, with Noble's wife, Mary, and sons DeAndrae, Chad, and Jarrett all pitching in. Chef Noble has been cooking in and around St. Paul for the last 14 years, wielding his knives at the St. Paul Grill, the Cherokee Sirloin Room, and the café at the Minnesota History Center, among other places. Before that he put in some 20 years in other kitchens around the country.

"I've been in the business for 34 years," he told me when I spoke to him briefly for this story, "cooking everywhere from little places in California to big hotel casinos. I was born in Nashville, grew up in California, met my wife in Fresno, and had our boys. But my wife used to live here a couple years back, and all she talked about was St. Paul: 'It's so nice in St. Paul. It's really nice in St. Paul.' So I said, 'Let's go!' She was right, it's a nice place to raise your kids."

Soon enough chef Noble was up to his happy ears in St. Paul family life, volunteering in the St. Paul schools, coaching baseball, and refereeing for the Catholic Association for basketball and softball. Through all the cooking and all the family life, though, he never had the opportunity to cook his favorite recipes his way: The onion rings were an idea he came up with while cooking in Mahtomedi, "But it was another guy's restaurant, and I couldn't do it. But now I can. I love to do those little things that make something go overboard with people, and they say, 'Man, that's so good!'"

In my experience, Pop's doles out plenty of things that make you say that. Fried chicken is made from scratch with plump, juicy chicken pieces in a coating so crisp and tasty you start planning your return visit before you've even finished the first piece. (Fried chicken is available in bazillions of price points and sizes, from a quarter dark meat chicken dinner, with fries or mashed potatoes and gravy, coleslaw or a dinner salad, and garlic toast, for $5.50, to a 16-piece all white meat bucket with pints of sides, for $32.) If fried chicken seems insanely decadent to you, make it vaguely healthier with a brimming plate of roast vegetables ($3.50), each half-moon of zucchini and summer squash rendered delicious thanks to a little time in a pan with well-caramelized onions.

Pop's has one of those ultimate American menus with all the good stuff, like burgers both plain and fancy, including a patty melt done right, on grilled rye with griddled onions and Swiss ($6.95, all burgers come with fries), and an open-faced chili burger ($7.25) with cheese and fresh onion. Or a hot vegetarian sandwich of portabello mushroom stuffed with sautéed spinach, roasted red peppers, and garlic, the whole thing itself roasted, covered with melted Swiss cheese, and presented with a choice of sides ($6.95). Lunch and dinner are served every day continuously from 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. and are a must-visit for anyone who spends much of their workday in a car or truck; of course St. Paul police are becoming regulars.

Is it the food, or are they simply alarmed because a 14-ounce walleye fillet priced at $11.95 is a steal? Ba dum sha! In any event, that walleye comes with a loose homemade tartar sauce livened up with chopped hard-boiled egg whites and capers, and is offered either grilled, with a lemony spice rub, or crisply fried. Got half-pints? Half a dozen kids' meals, priced from $3 to $3.75, prove that chef Noble is deeply in touch with what it takes to make the under-10 set happy. And I haven't even mentioned the breakfast!

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