Best Of :: Food & Drink
There is a risk, when you note how cheap Broders' Pasta Bar is, that some people will think that cheap is this south Minneapolis restaurant's predominant virtue. Not even close. Excellence, often of the jaw-dropping variety, is the place's virtue; the cheapness is just the thing you can't get over. (Kind of like beholding the love of your life, right as your sweetie says, "Darling, I have inherited a bundle.") See, it's not just the pastas that make Broders' amazing, although it is largely the pastas, those $8 to $12, homemade, handmade, eggy silken beauties that resist the teeth with all the power and allure of rose petals resisting the advance of spring bees. Oh, no. It's not just the deceptively simple salads, glistening with the best Italian oils and scattered with harmonious, yet interesting, accents, like Meyer lemon zest. No. It's not just the rosemary-flecked flat breads; not just the crispy, creamy pistachio-bedecked cannoli; not just the Italian wines beyond reproach; nor is it even just the cheerful, buzzy room with its happy patrons that make Broders' so special. No, the thing you can't get over at Broders' is how much this restaurant likes its neighbors--so much that it offers them cut-rate treats, to help budgets and soul. Get this: In the winter months, Broders' offers an "After Eight" deal, whereby two folks can come in any night except Friday and Saturday and, after 8:00, for merely $20, get two salads, two bowls of pasta (recently some of the pasta options included handmade stringozzi spoletina, or rich Fettuccine Alfredo), and a half-bottle of wine. In the summer, in June, July, and August, this generosity switches to the same deal, but "Before Six." Really! Truly! We are not pulling your leg. All of the patented Broders' sublime, and money left in the budget for ice cream after you walk around nearby Lake Harriet. See? You're not even thinking about how you fell in love with Broders' in the first place, are you? You just can't get over your luck.
It always happens: We stop in to Shuang Hur for a jar of curry paste or a bottle of fish sauce, and we leave $30 lighter but toting the makings for any number of quasi-made-up meals. Because, you see, there is not one kind of curry paste, or even one discrete display, but an aisle of tins and tubs to be inspected. An aisle that dead-ends at a wall of fish tanks playing hospice to all manner of live seafood, adjoining an aisle crammed with sticky-rice steamers and green tea flavored with roasted rice, more or less near aisles of produce cases bearing Chinese chives, purple basil, long beans, greens, greens, and more greens, and big packets of minnow-shaped Thai bird chiles. If all that's too ambitious, there's a freezer aisle full of ready-to-heat dim sum items and a butcher counter boasting lacquered duck, red-roasted pork, and sundry other less labor-intensive meal building blocks.
Pastry that looks too good to eat? Well, it probably is. But at Franklin Street Bakery, the trays of scones, tarts, and muffins are irresistible precisely because they are not egg-washed and jellied to perfection. Instead each is a crusty, browned, homey individual. And Franklin Street offers something that practically nobody else in town does: savory pastries. Chewy individual brioches topped with mushrooms and Gruyère. Hearty focaccia rounds with caramelized onions. Pint-sized croissants overstuffed with ham and Swiss. Not everyone wants a muffin for breakfast. Individual pastry prices are a little out of keeping with the neighborhood (keep in mind, you're paying for real butter here) but the bread is priced for the masses: baguettes, seedy whole grains, and simple white loaves are just two and three bucks. (Take that, Aldi.) The woman behind it all, bakery chef Michelle Gayer-Nichelson, was lured to the Twin Cities early last year, after tenures at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago and La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles. In 2003 Bon Appetit named her Pastry Chef of the Year.
It's largely a myth that you can't get good barbecue in the Twin Cities--scores of places do up barbecue in some sort of "authentic" style. The trouble with that, of course, is that paying homage to some variation of barbecue feels anything but authentic. Great barbecue here is rare. Some exceptions to this faux home-cookin' aesthetic this year were the old standby Market Bar-B-Que on 14th and Nicollet and the upstart Big E's down the road on 18th and Nicollet. But Market suffers from being a little too familiar and Big E's was closed for a spell and is now under new ownership. That leaves St. Paul's Lee's and Dee's as tops for most authentic barbecue. Opened by Lee Smith and his wife Dee 12 years ago in St. Paul's Summit-University neighborhood, near Selby-Dale, this fewer-than-10-booth storefront feels more like something out of Smith's home state of Mississippi than Minnesota. Lee's and Dee's serves real soul food appropriate for what was once Rondo, St. Paul's long-gone African American neighborhood. Some say the crisp, grease-free catfish here is the best in town, and the place gets major points for its smoky, chewy rib tips. The true test of any real barbecue joint, though, is the pulled-pork sandwich, and the one here does not disappoint: Delicate shreds drowning in a sauce that leans more toward honey than vinegar, but not too much of either, on a simple white bun. (One quibble: The hot sauce isn't nearly hot enough. But then again, this is Minnesota.) Smith gets his meat from a company in South St. Paul, and his prices reflect the aesthetic of a local small-business man. (The catfish and pork sandwiches are both under $6 with fries; a rib dinner runs less than $10, and a full rack of ribs less than $20.) The only notable decorative touches are some personal photos of folks like Don King and Ice-T dining in with Lee and Dee, old-school style. And that, folks, is authentic.
As evidenced by the myriad scowling youths slouched behind coffee counters across these fair cities, the service industry is a cold, hard racket. Which is a bummer, because it usually takes a gem of a person to decipher, let alone fulfill, our pre-caffeinated demands. One such gem can be found at the 2nd Moon. If you're new to 2nd Moon, you'll know her by her contagious smile (punctuated by the best-placed lip piercing this side of the Mississippi) and gracious demeanor. Regulars know her as Nicole, and if you're a regular, chances are she knows your name too. She's got it filed away in her happy head with your regular order, the order of your friend who's waiting in the car, and probably the names and orders of about 50 other regulars. On top of all that she makes a damn fine latte, which in this world of scorched milk and weak cappuccinos is cause for celebration.
Turtle Bread knows crust: the splinteringly crisp but tender crust of a baguette, the soft shell of a potato loaf, crackling and toothsome ciabatta. Turtle also knows crumb: airy baguettes, soft and open hearth loaves, dense brioche. What's amazing is that, like a batter in a cage hitting ball after ball out of the park, Turtle Bread makes nearly three dozen unique breads, consistently producing excellent loaves. Most of them are set apart not by futzy seeds or olives, but by masterful manipulation of the same four basic ingredients: flour, yeast, water, and salt. But, while the ficelle, levain, campagne and other classics are remarkable, the chocolate bread alone, an Italian-inspired yeasty loaf with the emphasis on the cocoa, not the sugar, deserves its own special award.