Best Of :: Food & Drink
A clean, well-lighted place, the Birchwood Café was fashioned from an old neighborhood creamery in the heart of Seward. Drawing in area residents--artists, students, entrepreneurs, moms, teachers--it serves up delicious and humble mostly vegetarian food at modest prices. The menu is so thoughtful and creative it appeals to carnivores and vegans alike. Those unbelievably buttery, crumbly scones and tender muffins are made for drawn-out morning coffee and the newspaper. You can also order eggs of all sorts (do try the rancheros with lots of beans). Come lunchtime the tables are rife with the daily pizzas, seasonal soups (spicy black bean, real tomato), and sandwiches on whole grain bread with plenty of vegetables. Dinner features include pasta specials, plus time-tested standards like spicy potato empanadas and hearty vegetable curries. Nothing costs more than $15, and most prices fall between $5 and $7. Hang out with a beer or glass of wine over an endless game of chess in this hip and homey neighborhood delight.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.