Best Of :: Food & Drink
Sawatdee remains the queen of all local Thai restaurants with its three-pronged crown. Prong one: an expansive menu made up of nicely done dishes that run the gamut from simple to sophisticated. Prong two: that elegant, brightly saturated decor. Prong three: the ever-friendly service. Competition--from Uptown's new Chiang Mai Thai and St. Paul's much beloved Ruam Mit Thai--has been keeping the Thai scene lively, and both places make a couple of dishes (including pad thai) that surpass Sawatdee's. But until they ramp up the totality of their dining experiences, they will just tend to highlight how powerful the famed Sawatdee hospitality really is.
Fall. Minnesota. Apples. Any questions? Well, yes: Like, are there any among the 40-some apple orchards listed in the Minnesota Grown directory (visit www.mda.state.mn.us, or call (651) 297-8695) whose trees aren't drenched in toxic sprays four or five times during the growing seasons? Answer: Only one that we could find--and as luck would have it, it's hidden inside one of the metro's loveliest and least appreciated parks. The Carpenter Center still resorts to one pesticide spray, applied in July, but otherwise battles the bugs through a variety of ingenious "Integrated Pest Management" methods. You can't gather your own (picky pickers waste at least half of an orchard's crop, notes center director Jim Fitzpatrick), but who needs the extra labor when there's so much else to do? Spend your time exploring the center's extensive nature trails or--on the last Sunday in September--taking in the fall apple festival's full program of entertainment and education. Then just pick up as many five-pound bags as you can carry: All the standard varieties are represented, along with a few old-timers bearing names like Chieftain and Oriole.
This Asian market is reminiscent of a small-town grocery store: No one pays much attention to what's in the cluttered front window, because it's the inside that matters. Truong Thanh's long aisles hold oodles of noodles, fish sauces, and containers of dried, preserved plums, prunes, mangos, and olives. The little bakery section in the front holds, among other things, that insanely sweet rice cake that looks and acts like Knox Blocks--it comes in a bazillion nonfood colors and jiggles at the slightest touch. In the other front corner is a comprehensive medical section with pills and herbs and salves, including some kick-ass licorice menthol cough drops that come in a parrot-green metal case (like the old Sucrets box) with a red inscription. Just as with an old-fashioned grocery store, the far back (past the fresh produce, meat, and the live catfish in a tank) holds housewares: floor mats, pots, pans, dishes, Goliath-sized mortars and pestles. And on the north side, the crowning glory of Truong Thanh is its selection of herbs, filling an entire refrigerated case. A bunch of amazingly fresh basil, which prepackaged at Lund's would have gone for two dollars, set us back a mere 32 cents.
Unlikely as it may seem, the local bagel picture is getting bleaker. Not content with having added corrupting influences like jalapeño, blueberry, and chocolate, now those crazed bakers seem to be trying to fuse muffins and bagels in unholy demon-child flavors--lemon-poppyseed, chocolate-cherry, orange-almond. Only Big City Bagels makes the crusty boiled wonders the way they're supposed to be, with a dense crumb, chewy, glossy crust, and indelicate seasonings like garlic, sesame seed, and crusty piles of plain old salt. Frankly, the only way Big City could improve matters further (they also toast bagels, make bagel sandwiches, and melt cheese on bagels--mmmm, cheese) would be by taking out a contract on these double-raspberry-streusel bakers for us.
Per its name, Turtle Bread Company started five years ago fashioning excellent European-style bread--earthy sourdoughs, springy baguettes. Then they moved into specialty loaves: an essence-of-spinach bread, moist Irish soda bread sweet with buttermilk and oats, sour and crunchy focaccias. Finally, gloriously, they began bringing out pastries. Turtle Bread's pumpkin pie is the ideal before which all other pumpkin pies are as shadows. Its buttery, layered crust is the same magic stuff that wraps the flaky fruit turnovers, chocolate croissants, and startlingly pleasurable cream-cheese claws. The chocolate cherry cheesecake actually made us laugh out loud, mouths full of a heretofore unimagined taut richness. Notice to owner Harvey McLain and head baker Greg Wayd: A name change is way overdue.
On a good day, and those days are frequent, the salty pork and beef all but slide off the bone. On those rare off days when the meat is a tad overdone, that subtle, smoky flavor and thin, tangy jus make up the difference. While fad restaurants all over town hang banners heralding awards won at this or that competition, the cooks at Ted's quietly carry on a 30-year tradition--keeping watch over a room-sized pit of slow-cooked ribs, then generously slathering the finished product with a simple, vinegar-based sauce, peppered hot to your taste. Both the half rack ($8.75) and the feast-sized full rack ($15.95) come with finger-lickin' JoJo potatoes, sweet, celery-salted coleslaw, and two pieces of bread (for dipping, of course). Those looking to add a little soul can order up a mess of greens and black-eyed peas, then undo the belt for some spicy peach cobbler.