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Best Of 2003

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Best Of :: Food & Drink

BEST RESTAURANT (ST. PAUL)

There are little Zs all over the Zander Café wine list, annotations that indicate selections from chef Alexander "Zander" Dixon's personal collection. One would do well to look to the little Zs, for with each one comes an unusual, wonderful little treat. In fact, sometimes it seems like everything at Zander is stamped with some kind of Z, visible or invisible, indicating some personal bit of Zander's good taste--which is given generously to his dining public. Little Zs might as well mark most of the selections on the wine list, from the grad-student-friendly bottles that start at $16 to the choices that cause a collector's heart to flutter. Little Zs might as well hover over the new jazz stage, because Zander, no matter what anyone else thinks, is dedicated to the easy conviviality that always seems to arrive as live musicians heat up a room. Little Zs might as well sit next to every menu price, because even in these trying times Zander's soups cost merely $4--even the famous three-soup-mosaic, where three brightly colored soups, (black bean, roasted sweet corn, and yam and red pepper) sit like wedges of pie, next to one another, but not mixing too much. All the appetizers and salads are just $7.50, except the two that are just $5; all the entrées cost $17, except the vegetarian nightly special, which costs $12.50. Those entrées are dazzling to behold, each embodying the pillars of Zander's cooking we have come most to admire: the bold spicing, the good ingredients, the conviction that no dish should ever be muddy or unattended. For example, a tamarind-glazed duck breast with wilted spinach and glazed turnips combined the sweetness of duck with the puckery spice of tamarind in a forthright and delicious way. Meanwhile, little Zs might as well sit on the shoulders of the engaging and intelligent servers, in the rustic but pleasant desserts, and really, not merely on everything within this artsy, cozy joint, but on all of St. Paul--which we think of as having a little invisible Z in its skies, indicating a very intelligent and delightful dinner.

BEST APPLE ORCHARD

If you're longing for the apples of your youth--juicy, crisp, slightly floral, tart and sweet, the taste of fall--then pick your own from 20 old-fashioned varieties at Fischer's Croix Farm Orchard in Hastings, just 20 minutes from downtown St. Paul. These apples taste even better while you're walking the rows of burgeoning trees, lugging bushel bags, as the promise of pies you'll make and cold cider you'll guzzle gently nudges you along. Stay the day and pick fall raspberries and pumpkins, stock up on honey, maple syrup, and fresh cider, then stroll the perennial gardens before heading home. Open September to November, 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. daily.

BEST ASIAN GROCERY
Shuang Hur Oriental Market

Need tripe or pork ears, bitter melon or long beans? Sometimes we come here just to watch the lobsters and crabs and fish in their tanks and listen to snatches of Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and Spanish. This place is as enormous as it is exotic. It's packed to the ceiling with everything from 50-pound bags of rice and lentils and dried shrimp to rows of gnarled black radishes, odd mushrooms, and twisted squash. If you need help deciphering a recipe or identifying an ingredient, go see the guys stocking produce or tending the meat counter--they're eager, able to help, and conversant in a plethora of languages. The takeout deli features Peking duck that's lacquered mahogany and so fragrant you'll pick at the crisp skin on the way home. There are also big slabs of barbecue pork, as well as fried chicken (and chicken feet), fried potatoes, and fried pork rind. We may never get to see some of these faraway worlds, but at least we get to taste them.

2710 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis, 55408
MAP
612-872-8606
BEST BAGELS
Bruegger's Bagels

Kettle-boiled and stone-hearth-baked, Bruegger's bagels--crusty, dense, and chewy--were the first true New York nosh to hit town. Twenty years ago they set the standard by which all others are measured. The stores in Dinkytown and on Lake Street were the first arrivals, but the metro area now has more than 30 outlets of this 250-franchise national chain. As the corporate logo might suggest, most Bruegger's are pretty much the same, but each varies a little by location. It's safe to say that city shops have a shaggy-dog charm compared to the newer, brighter suburban cousins (or maybe it's just the light in the mall). Bruegger's newest offering, a square bagel, is the consistency of a tender dinner roll and dumbs down the original classic. Likewise, salsa cream cheese and pumpkin bagels are just a little too weird to be good. But if you stick with tradition, you can't go wrong here. Pick up a simple salt bagel or pumpernickel with butter. Or a poppy seed with smoked salmon, plain cream cheese, and red onion--now there's a genuine bagel.

121 S. 8th St., Minneapolis, 55402
MAP
612-238-3500
BEST BAKERY
Patrick's Bakery & Cafe

Starting in May, Patrick's French Bakery will have expanded hours, staying open till 8:30 p.m. or later. This is good news, because there's nowhere in the Twin Cities we'd rather be than standing with our noses pressed to Patrick's pastry cases, watching those chocolate-and-butter fantasies glow like geometric butterflies. Butterflies! Buttery butterflies, come down to settle on Earth from their birthplace on some faraway planet of after-dinner dreams. Patrick's, in case you missed the big news from last fall, is the beyond-unbelievable new Richfield bakery that showcases the talents of one Patrick Bernet, a former Cordon Bleu pastry instructor who can do things with mousse and sponge cake that make grown persons fall on the floor gasping. Things like a chocolate-mousse-based creation called a Feuillantine Pralinée Chocolate Cake. Or things like a Gateau St. Honoree cake (a ring of cream puffs so flaky they make Anne Heche seem like a pillar of the community). Which is to say nothing of the custard-rich quiche, the perfectly crusty bread, or the new features of croque monsieur and croque madame. This spring, in addition to the later hours, Patrick's will debut china cups and plates, instead of paper ones, the better to display the pastries. And outdoor seating is also coming. No word yet on how the City of Minneapolis plans to deal with the ensuing desertion and emptiness that will surely result from these longer hours and greater amenities at Patrick's, but we feel confident that looting will be minimal. After all, all the pastry is down in Richfield.

2928 66th St. W., Richfield, 55423
MAP
612-861-7570
BEST BARBECUE
Scott Ja-Mamas Restaurant

As in "You got your mama's barbecue?" If not, find the real McCoy at this tiny joint on the corner of Nicollet Avenue and Diamond Lake Road. (Head west on Diamond Lake, but don't go too fast, it's easy to miss.) The baby back ribs are tender and meaty, not at all greasy, and the sauce is melted in, instead of just slathered on top. All dinner combos--pork and steak sandwiches, barbecue chicken and ribs--come with creamy coleslaw that packs a lively kick, as well as bacon-studded twice-baked potatoes. And all for under $7! You can eat in if there's room around one of the two tables. But they're really for resting your elbows while you jawbone with Scott as he packages orders and offers advice and opinions through the kitchen window. Breathing in that sweet smoky smell of long-cooking meat will send you home right. Call ahead.

3 W. Diamond Lake Road, Minneapolis, 55419
MAP
612-823-4450
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BEST RESTAURANT (ST. PAUL): Zander Cafe

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