Best Of :: Food & Drink
A lot of people around here seem to think that a pizza crust is to pizza cheese as a loafer is to Rush Limbaugh. Not true! A pizza is a complex, multimodal, biodynamic system wherein components of crust, cheese, sauce, and topping interact toward the creation of a sum greater than the parts. Moreover, wherein each element both stands on its own and embellishes and complements the other ingredients. There is no "I" in pizza! Okay, well, there's one. But there certainly aren't two. And the point is that at Punch they really make the best pizza in town, and they do it by having a wood-fire-baked, super-delicious crust that just lies down there and supports a round, robust San Marzano crushed-tomato sauce, sweet, fresh mozzarella, and your pick of ultra-plain (basil) or ultra-fancy (Saracene olives, prosciutto) toppings. Mostly for under $10 a throw, and accompanied by very nice salads and a good, inexpensive wine list. Which isn't news, because you can hardly get into the place on weekends, and Punch has to be the most universally well-regarded spot in the state. But you asked us what the best pizza was, so we ran around and ate way, way too much cheese and gained three pounds, and returned with the not-shocking truth. Maybe late 2002 will see some upheaval in this category, as Punch spawns a new branch in the western suburbs and other worthy imitators, like St. Paul Bagelry and Pizza Napoletana (planning a major remodel), get up to speed. Well, we'll see. Has Punch's constant excellence doomed the future of Rush Limbaugh loafer pizza? Please, let's hope so.
Sweet and friendly servers, a lush yellow room that glows like a candle flame, an attention-getting wine list, and sometimes a singer crooning pretty pop standards in the corner--this is an African restaurant? It sure is, and thank heavens for House of Lalibela, the first local African restaurant that pays as much attention to the pleasure of the dining experience as it does to the food: flattering lighting, sturdy chairs, servers wandering through offering sniffs from a roasting pot of coffee beans for the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. That's entertainment! Even with all the add-ons, prices are low--from $10 for a vegetarian sampler plate (less if several diners order the same sampler) to $17 for the most elaborate meat plate.
A visit to this bustling St. Paul market can't help but lead one to reflect on what dilettante carnivores we've become. It isn't just that Dragon Star's formidable butcher shop features entire phyla that you might not normally think of eating, either. It's also the market's startling range of critter bits, from brains to hooves and everything (literally) in between. Looking for frogs, tripe, or fresh catfish heads for soup? You'll likely find it here. You might even be able to get acquainted with your dinner while it's still swimming in one of the store's big green aquariums. Indeed, on the seafood tip, Dragon Star is an embarrassment of riches: big, beautiful dungeness crabs; succulent blood oysters; and head-on shrimp that don't taste like they've been packed in ice for months. For omnivores Dragon Star offers an expansive selection of pan-Asian staples, from noodles, frozen foods, and snacks to a really stellar produce section featuring hard-to-find items such as gai choy, banana leaves, and foul-smelling, yummy-tasting durians. But Dragon Star really excels in the flesh trade: For those who appreciate their menu slightly red in tooth and claw, this place should be habitual.
You don't have to be an East Coast purist to know the difference between a bagel and a bun. Whether you prefer a plain bagel with lox or a schmeer or you're loading up some blasphemous, fruity deal with peanut butter, what really matters is texture and contrast: a crisp, slightly shiny surface sliced open to reveal dense, chewy innards that are neither doughy nor dry. The best (well, the only) way to create such a delightful crunch-and-chew contrast is by making the bagel the old-fashioned way, with kettle-boiled water instead of steam. Bagelman's know this. They also know about high-gluten flour (for a more substantial chew). We like to swing into the downtown Minneapolis location during the morning rush and bark out our order for a fresh egg or whole-wheat bagel with a mere schmeer. Because sometimes the East Coast purists know what they're flapping their gums about--and around.
Ambition, accomplishment, and too many wicker baskets don't often walk hand in hand in this life, but they do at Turtle Bread. Wandering the aisles recently, we were struck by the sheer accomplishment in so very many fields. Cardamom bread is sweet and light and smells like the lace-doily version of heaven. Normandy cheese bread is rich and herbal; the smell snakes out from the basket headily, just crying for indulgence and wine. Baguettes are creamy and lush in the middle and crisp outside in a way that's utterly distinctive. And the croissants! Ooh, the croissants--as flaky as could be, each bite touched with the piquant tang of real cultured butter. Anyone who's been to Paris lately can tell you that these croissants are better than most of what you'd find over there. To say nothing of the house-made flatbreads, sandwich breads, chocolate cakes, and dozens of other triumphs. It's hard to even know how to praise Turtle Bread at this point; they are so far beyond the leagues of any other competitor. It's like trying to say nice things about the sun.
We've had troubles with this old-time favorite before: bones that were too dry; a general lack of inspiration or attention. And yet these days Market is serving the best barbecue in town. Pork ribs are smoky, meaty, and still moistly fatty, just as they should be. Ribs are available in lots of different sizes and prices, but four bones cost $9.50, and a full slab goes for $19.50 nowadays. Both sizes are paired with Market's standard sides of buttered toast, fries, and cole slaw, and the whole package is served on a piece of wax paper on a cafeteria tray. Chicken is dense and smoky (half a chicken runs $10.95, with sides). Beef ribs, best ordered "saucy"--or covered with sauce before heating so they're not too dry--are meaty and falling off the bone. Add a couple of beers, and the place feels downright convivial--especially if you're a man, or looking for one. What's the gender split here these days, 80/20? Men love ribs, and right now they, and we, are loving 'em most at Market.