Best Of :: Food & Drink
It takes a tough guy to make tender fried chicken. Just ask Leonard Lowe of Nardie's Café. He is very serious about wings—plump, meaty, significant, wholly satisfying fried chicken wings. Dark golden with a crackly coating, moist and tender, sizzled within moments of your order, they'll transport you into the celestial; let the devil deal with the rest of the bird. This is not finger food, but the stuff you're meant to eat with your whole hands, sometimes in the car on the way home. (Tell the carwash guy it was an act of God.) Order them by the dozen or for dinner with selections of soulful sides: red beans and rice, macaroni and cheese, candied yams, collard greens, coleslaw, potato salad, and, of course, fries. Don't skip the New Orleans hot sauce, or the tiny squares of tender corn bread. You can eat in at one of the tiny, tippy tables near the TV on its tilted stand, but better to hang at the counter and watch the buses on Nicollet go by. At $10 per dozen (great for a party) these wings are fried chicken the way it was meant to be: real, and really memorable.
All you have to do is bite into a Fischer's Sweet Sixteen apple to understand the Garden of Eden and Adam's dilemma. Nothing should taste so good nor evoke such childhood memory and desire—of climbing trees, blazing fires, warm pie, hot cider laced with rum, of temptation and both kinds of fall. Pick from more than 25 heirloom varieties at Fischer's Croix Farm Orchard in Hastings, just 20 minutes from downtown St. Paul. You'll find yourself munching on one of those crisp, slightly floral, tart, sweet apples while lugging a burgeoning burlap bag down those rows of trees, unable to stop picking—visions of tarts and fritters and baked apples with cinnamon drawing you on. Bring the kids (your own, or borrow the neighbors') and stay the whole day plucking fall raspberries and pumpkins, or just strolling around the perennial gardens. Before you leave, be sure to stock up on honey, maple syrup, and fresh cider; you're sure to dream of the good kind of fall all winter long.
Sometimes we come here just to listen to the confluence of languages—Vietnamese, Hmong, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese. Sometimes it's for the smells—overripe bananas, musty dried shrimp, fresh meat, Lysol. The variety of smells and sounds reminds us that there's a whole world worth exploring beyond the conventional bright and efficient grocery chains. Enter Shuang Hur, where you'll find produce such as pale mounds of bitter melon, dark bundles of long beans, and ungainly, sweet-smelling stalks of bundled lemongrass. Move on to the meat counter and you'll see fresh pork ears, all kinds of finely cut beef for soup, and tripe; beside that is the barbecued meat area, with crisp laquered ducks, dark soy-sauce chickens, and rich red pork hanging on hooks. In the back of the store, tanks hold live crabs and lobsters which scuttle lazily on their hard feet; in the dry goods aisles, piles of pungent black mushrooms and gnarled dried radishes cry out to be made into winter soups. In the front of the store, you'll find bags of Jasmine and other long-grain rice, but not just any bags, bags the size of people. What else? Somehow we forgot to mention the Japanese pepper blends for livening up soups, the fresh noodles in the refrigerator case, the occasional tray of almost-hatching quail eggs, and the soup bowls, spoons, cups, and assorted cookware in the hard-goods aisle. The place is a treasure trove of the interesting, exotic, and hard to find. Best of all, in our experience, the entire staff speaks several different languages, translating the rest of the world in all its vibrant colors and flavors.
When last in Paris we got a chance to go to that mad temple of takeout luxury, La Grande Epicerie at the big department store Le Bon Marche. As we stood there, we were stunned by the salamis, floored by the smoked and fresh fishes, gobsmacked by the cheeses, and nearly brought to tears by the frais du bois, the sushi, and the savory skewers, the appetizers, the, the everything.... Well, the everything except the pastries, which we walked past with a breezy "We can get those at home." Later we realized: How lucky are we? We really can get them at home! At any of the three locations of Patrick and Azita Bernet's unspeakably marvelous Patrick's Bakeries, where Patrick, the former Cordon Bleu Paris pastry instructor, whips together sugar, eggs, butter, cream, chocolate, berries, and nuts into such glorious, artful configurations that they look like sculpture, and taste like heaven: The Feuillantine Pralinée is a chocolate-enrobed mousse concoction that absolutely thunders with chocolate intensity, and vibrates with pastry delicacy. The strawberry tarts are golden boats ferrying the finest strawberries across bouyant cream seas. The Opera cake chicly organizes rich coffee buttercream with stripes of ganache and tender layers of cake. (Most of the deluxe concoctions cost $4.95 for an individual-sized cake that serves one or two; $32 for a cake to serve 6 to 8 people; and $38 for one portioned for 10 to 12 lucky souls.) Which is to say nothing of Patrick's sturdy breads, tender quiches (available in small sizes for immediate munching, and in giant sizes for home entertaining), melting Danish, crisp and proper croissants, and special only-in-America glories, like a pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving that just happens to be made with pumpkin mousse and adorned with adorable chocolate pyramids. It's true what they say: Travel really does make you appreciate home!
The flavors of a good barbecue march over your taste buds in stages of subtle intensity. Ted Cook's superb barbecue sauce leads with a bang of tang that's sweet, sour, and salty simultaneously. Now your buds are tingling but not scorched, ready for that succulent sauce-meat meld, where the pork ribs or the beef ribs (you can't lose, so choose what you like) are juicy from the long, slow marinade, not from a surfeit of squiggly fat. Then, if you can resist a headlong chow-down, feel the aftertaste linger after you've swallowed your first big bite and the seasonings are changing emphasis, like the colors of a sunset, as they slowly fade away. Cleanse your palate with some of co-owner Priscilla Davis's sweet coleslaw, a crispy jo-jo potato slice, or, if you aren't set in your Minnesota ways, some greens or black-eyed peas. Ted Cook's is takeout only, a 30-plus-year-old hole-in-the-wall in south Minneapolis where nothing is fancy except the food, including the prices ($20 for a full-rack dinner with jo-jos, slaw, and two pieces of bread for sopping; $13 for the half-rack version), which either certify gluttony or guarantee leftovers.
Sean's command of ground beans, water, froth, and heat is thorough enough to satisfy even the most fastidious 1/3-decaf latte fiend. He's fleet of foot and finger, too, thank goodness. Otherwise, the MCTC students who sometimes storm Espresso Royale's Hennepin store would have torn the soft-spoken, curly-haired barista limb from lanky limb long ago. Is he friendly? He introduces himself the first time you're engaged in anything even vaguely resembling a conversation—and always remembers your name. Plus, he's always up for a chat should your paths cross off-site. But all that's boilerplate tip bait. Where Sean really excels is music programming. Sure, he'll play Bob Marley at a customer's behest. But, left to his own devices, he's far more likely to drop the adventurous likes of Animal Collective, Akron/Family, and sundry other artists that send you running to him with questions. Best of all, he knows exactly where to put the volume: never conversation-impeding, always frisky enough to make you feel as though you're actually out, rather than just consuming a stimulant in public. For less than the price of a Miller Lite, it's royal treatment indeed.