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Best Of 2005

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Food & Drink

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Best Of :: Food & Drink

BEST MEXICAN RESTAURANT
Salsa A La Salsa Mexican Grill

What a welcome sight is the Meyer lemon-yellow facade of this family-run Nicollet Avenue storefront. Yes, yes, it's a slice of warmer climes on Minnesota winter nights. And it's a pretty jolt of style in the middle of a culinarily distinguished but aesthetically challenged block. But to those of us who've become frequent visitors to Salsa a la Salsa, the vibrant wrapper also telegraphs the bright, fresh tastes offered up within. You can get a chimichanga here, but you can get a chimichanga anywhere, including TGI Friday's, and Lorenzo and Elvia Azria are capable of so much more: There's the nuanced mixiotes de pollo, a banana leaf bundled around tender chicken and fragrant herbs and avocado leaves. There's a sauce of fiery, fire-roasted chiltepin chiles (just try finding those at Penzey's), best slathered over chicken or shrimp. There are two different salmon dishes, including one in which a perfectly fresh filet is marinated in an orange-garlic vinaigrette. There are salads! There's Mexican beer, very slurpable margaritas, and a small selection of inexpensive wines (including the bargain-basement, cherry-scented, food-friendly Manyana Tempranillo) that stand up to the rich and varied tastes here. Manifest Destiny, baby.

1420 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis, 55403
MAP
612-813-1970
BEST ASIAN GROCERY
Shuang Hur Oriental Market

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.

2710 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis, 55408
MAP
612-872-8606
BEST BAKERY
Franklin Street Bakery

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.

1020 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis, 55404
MAP
612-871-5730
BEST BARBECUE
Lee & Dee's Bar-b-que
Photo by Ed Neaton

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.

161 N. Victoria St., St. Paul, 55104
MAP
651-225-9454
BEST BARISTA
Nichole at 2nd Moon Coffee Cafe
Photo by Tony Nelson

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.

2225 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis, 55404
MAP
612-343-4255
BEST BREAD
Turtle Bread Company

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.

1 Financial Plaza, Minneapolis, 55401
MAP
612-455-2552
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BEST MEXICAN RESTAURANT: Salsa A La Salsa Mexican Grill

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