Best Of :: Food & Drink
As anyone who doesn't hit the TV mute button during commercials doubtless knows by now, every local teen's favorite sobering-up-on-the-way-home-at-2-a.m. joint has been upscaling its image. One by one, Embers restaurants have been reupholstering booths a soothing purple and teal, gracing freshly painted walls with duo-tone photos of local landmarks, and rolling out a revamped menu. Much of the fare is standard Embers: steak and eggs, grilled ham and cheese, and huge pitchers of coffee. But tucked away on the back page of the menu is the best dessert innovation to hit the chain diner in decades. For the princely sum of 35 cents, Embers now serves up the "World's Smallest Hot Fudge Sundae." It's no gimmick and the waiters don't smirk when you order it. It's a single scoop of rich vanilla ice cream topped with warm, dark fudge. No word yet on whether the red-eyed crowd can order a sundae apiece and linger over it for a couple of hours, waiting for bar rush to end or Mom and Dad to go to bed.
Bob Fitch and Molly Beckstrom run a fun orchard. They set up a petting zoo of neighborhood animals out front--two woolly sheep, a pygmy goat, sometimes even their pet African pygmy hedgehog gets thrown into the mix. A local farm kid offers rides on his pony (free with a peck of apples, a dollar otherwise). Bob runs a tractor for hayrides. But you've come for the apples. Perhaps you're looking for the perfect apple for sauce, in which case Molly will steer you to Haralsons. Or maybe it's pie you have in mind, in which case she's liable to recommend Firesides. If it's just a plain, unadorned eating apple you're after, don't pass up the HoneyCrisps--Homestead has a mature stand of trees that bear those hard-to-find, honey-scented jewels, and they're well worth their premium price (about $1.50 per pound as opposed to 90 cents for more run-of-the-orchard varieties).
Where can you get Japanese cookies that sort of look like animal crackers but are called Marine World and feature ocean critters with names such as Black Porgy and Fur Seal (stamped in English on their sweet, fish-flavored bodies)? Where to look for two dozen varieties of frozen Chinese dumplings suitable for your next midnight snack festival? Thai jasmine coconuts with their husks trimmed into little hut-shape structures? Korean kimchi and pickled radishes in gallon jars? Well, we don't know about you, but we trek to this warehouse of a space hidden within an industrial complex across the street from Coastal Seafoods. On our most recent visit, we noted two more incentives: the addition of an herbalist, plus the willingness to take credit cards.
Sure, El Niño is wreaking havoc on the world's climate to the extent that you might be tempted to believe that Armageddon is at hand. Then again, four years ago there were no Big City Bagels in town, and now they are clearly in the ascendant, so things can't really be that bad. What's so great about Big City Bagels' bagels? Well, they're big. And chewy--almost fleshy--with a hard but not cereal-crisp crust. Though they come in 16 varieties, do yourself a favor and stick with the basics--plain, say, or poppy-seed, or salt, or sesame seed...or, if you must, onion or garlic. (Let's try to nip this sun-dried-tomato-jalapeño-pesto-bagel trend in the bud.)
There's no more essential activity in Western culture than the transformation of flour into baked goods. And around these parts, there are no more skillful hands than the busy ones at Turtle Bread, where that humble ingredient is turned into a stunning array of comestibles ranging from the mundane to the miraculous. For a quick tour of the wonders of flour, pick up a chewy Turtle Bread baguette, a fragrant pane agli spinachi (spinach bread), a flaky almond-filled croissant, a spectacular apple, raspberry, or key lime pie, and a handful of the monstrously tasty peanut butter-chocolate chunk cookies, chock-full of Belgian dark chocolate pieces the size of quarters. Is your bread basket full yet? You haven't even tasted half of what Turtle Bread has to offer.
Forget about the sauce. Anyone can fool the palate with the sauce. Instead, think of the meat: That's where it's at. And for the past six years, no one in the Twin Cities has treated meat better than Scott Woolsey's little shack on the southern city limits. Pork ribs highlight the menu, which also includes mouthwatering chicken, a tender steak sandwich, a wonderfully messy barbecue pork sandwich, and, for heathens, a plump brat. The sweet pork ribs, speckled with peppery spice, are massaged over the coals until they all but slide off the bone. Then, to accent the flavor, mild, medium (hot), or hot (fiery) sauce is sparingly dispensed. But as with a good steak, the flesh itself is the treat, not the trimmings. As an added incentive, Scott Ja-Mama's cooks up better than average sides, including a sinfully cheesy twice-baked potato and baked beans soaked not in leftover barbecue sauce or ketchup, but in a rich, dark jus.