St. Paul's Cheeky Monkey deli puts the sandwich front and center

Deli succeeds gracefully as an everyday kind of place

Cheeky Monkey's sunny, two-sided dining room has crimson walls, blond hardwood floors, and a view of Selby Avenue's comings and goings. It's furnished with several small tables, a large, farm-style eight-seater, and a few leather couches and reading chairs clustered around a fireplace. The space can—and does—accommodate families, business meetings, and girlfriends gabbing over glasses of wine. In many ways, Cheeky Monkey reminds me of D'Amico & Sons, except that most diners eat with their hands—because here, the sandwich is king.

Practically every culture eats sandwiches in one form or another, whether it's the Mexican torta, the Vietnamese báhn mì, the French croque monsieur, or the oh-so-American Fluffernutter. While sandwich-making doesn't necessarily require advanced culinary skills, most home refrigerator inventories, with their stocks of wilted lettuce and bread loaf heels, can't compete with the vast array of freshly sliced and diced fixings behind a sandwich shop's Plexiglas shield. There's a reason Subway has quickly become the world's second-largest fast-food company.

Yet the sandwich still struggles to shake its stigma. Although it gained notoriety by gracing the manicured hands of aristocracy (it's thought to have been popularized by the 18th-century Englishman John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, who supposedly liked the one-handed meal's ability to sustain him through lengthy stints at the gaming table), the sandwich has long been perceived as a second-class meal. Will this ghettoized foodstuff ever break free of its lunch-bucket confines and claim a place at the dinner table?

The portable pot roast: Cheeky Monkey serves it with horseradish, arugula, and pickled red onions
Jana Freiband
The portable pot roast: Cheeky Monkey serves it with horseradish, arugula, and pickled red onions

Location Info

Map

Cheeky Monkey

525 Selby Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55102

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: St. Paul (Downtown)

Details

CHEEKY MONKEY
525 Selby Ave., St. Paul
651.224.6066; cheekymonkeydeli.comentrées $5-$10; sides $1-$4

With practicality and frugality back in vogue, the sandwich may be poised for just such a transition, especially with the emergence of chef-driven delis like Be'Wiched in Minneapolis and the new Cheeky Monkey in St. Paul. This winter, the former home of Zander Cafe reopened as a bright, casual eatery run by a onetime Zander cook. The name Cheeky Monkey, says chef/co-owner Matt McArthur, is a British term for a smart aleck or troublemaker that you might remember from Mike Myers's Saturday Night Live sketches about Simon, the kid in the bathtub who liked to do "drawerings" ("Don't look at my bum, you cheeky monkey!"). The name adds a hint of irreverence to the value-driven neighborhood hangout.

Cheeky Monkey keeps costs down by employing a service setup that involves placing your order at a counter and toting a number to your table—and the requisite awkwardness of flagging down your food, DIY dish-bussing, and occasionally dealing with the mess left by previous diners. This system is never an elegant one, but it doesn't oblige a full-service tip, so I doubt most customers mind the effort. Colorful chalkboard menus display the kitchen's offerings with bold, cartoon-like graphics (the Cheeky Monkey mascot features a winking primate reclined on what looks like the London Underground logo). A dozen-plus sandwiches, all priced at $7 or less, make up the core of the menu and are sometimes featured as specials, such as the thick-stacked corned-beef-and-sauerkraut served on St. Patrick's Day. The best sandwiches are those that seem to contain everything but the kitchen sink. The Cuban, for one, is filled with smoked ham, shredded pork, and sweet pickles, all glued together with mustard and gooey Swiss cheese. The bread is perfectly toasted, and its thin crust replicates the delightful crunch of tucking a few potato chips into a sandwich. The New Orleans-style muffuletta is another grand mash-up: two kinds of ham, salami, and provolone spread with a zesty olive giardiniera and stuffed into a ciabatta roll. Compared to the notorious deli tuna sandwich that caused a New York City Whole Foods employee to be fired (he had saved the sandwich from post-shift disposal, planning to eat it), these might be worth risking your job.

A few of the entrées—the pot roast, the meatloaf, and the cumin pork shoulder—are also served in sandwich form, which is generally the superior version. The pot roast sandwich comes with pickled onions, fresh greens, horseradish, and a crusty ciabatta, whereas the entrée version contains just slow-cooked beef and carrots. The meatloaf was a little meek, even as a sandwich, where it was stacked with burger-esque toppings of cheddar, bacon, spicy mustard, and pickled chiles. That still didn't give it enough zip—it could have used a tomato slice or a slather of gravy, and a replacement for its dried-out toast. The cumin pork shoulder, sprinkled with a few cilantro leaves, was perfectly tender, but it begged for more seasoning—or salt, at least. These generous portions of meat aren't really a balanced meal, so they're perhaps better shared with another person and supplemented by a couple of starch or vegetable sides.

Among the à la carte items, the seasonal greens are a must-order. Curly kale was cooked to a vibrant shade of emerald and was tender enough that its crinkled edges were almost fluffy. (They blanch the kale first, then sauté it in olive oil with a bit of garlic and lemon, to keep it soft without getting mushy.) I know what you're thinking—kale to die for, really? But this kale will win you over. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for the grits—though the first time I dug into a creamy, mascarpone-laced, bacon-topped bowl, I found myself scraping up every last bite. The second time I ordered the grits, hoping for the same savory dessert, they seemed woefully under-salted and had lost their previous magic.

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