Best Of :: Food & Drink
It's true that here in Minnesota we have a fairly short season for local produce. And judging by the seasonal operations of most of our farmers' markets, that short growing period is all they focus on. But farms don't shut down entirely over the winter—the animals are still laying eggs, producing milk, and growing to a size that makes them suitable for slaughter. The St. Paul Farmers' Market recognizes this by staying open weekly almost all year round. Hardy local farmers drive their trucks into the city and stand outside for four hours every Saturday, even in the coldest weather, to provide us city folk with high-quality bacon, bison steaks, legs of lamb, eggs, and more. Other vendors are indoors, across the street at Golden's Deli, where you can also buy milk that comes from the grass-fed cows at Cedar Summit Farm. Winter access isn't the only reason to make this your farmers' market of choice, though. Its location in Lowertown (open Saturdays and Sundays from late April through most of November) offers ample charm, and amenities like coffee shops and a park are just steps away. The market has plenty of free parking, both on the street and in several lots (though this summer will present some traveling challenges owing to light rail construction). The market operates satellite locations on other days of the week all over St. Paul and a few suburbs. In the more abundant seasons the market is truly beautiful, filled with bright flowers, colorful vegetables, and smiling faces. And you can be sure that everything you buy from the St. Paul Farmers' Market was grown locally.
The parking lot tells the story at Mandarin Kitchen. On one recent Sunday morning, the asphalt surrounding this hidden Bloomington strip-mall gem was so stuffed with minivans that, much to the dismay of Buck's Unpainted Furniture, the cars spilled like burst pot-sticker innards into the spaces reserved for surrounding businesses. But Buck's pain is your gain, because this is how you spot good dim sum in this town. Southern China's beloved brunch tradition, dim sum is a family affair, and to find the best you go where the Chinese families go; in other words, a parking lot full of minivans is as good as three Michelin stars. Once you've lucked into a parking spot and shouldered your way inside, Mandarin Kitchen makes good on the promise of its lot. Dim sum is a circus of small plates meant to be shared by big, happy groups—its name translates to something like "heart's delight." Here that means delectable steamed dumplings (gao), stuffed crab balls, pork buns, seaweed salad, and various other delights ferried directly to your table. Our tip: Try a little bit of everything, even the "Phoenix talons," which, yeah, are really just fried chicken feet, but they're also dang tasty. And bring the kids: They're an important part of this weekend-only tradition, and they'll love the eel tank in the waiting area.
First, she'll be impressed that "social" is in the name—it gives you instant in-the-know cred. But more than that, the new Northeast dining spot lives up to its name: The small size and closely spaced tables make for warm, buzzing chatter that cloaks the evening meal in a sense of intimacy. The menu is fantastic, and at $18 to $20 per entrée, it won't break the bank. On a cozy late-winter visit, the salmon with spaghetti squash and snow peas was superb, as was the beautifully arranged chicken with spinach, root vegetables, and maple syrup. The servers are knowledgeable and friendly, so they'll do all the talking and make you look smart to your date. Quite a few couples will have the same idea, though, so reservations are recommended on weekends.
"Dry or wet?" the server at Fasika asked us as we ordered a plate of the marinated beef ribs. We wanted 'em juicy, of course, so the spicy sauce on those fatty meat nubs would soak right in to the spongy injera bread. The ambiance at this longtime Ethiopian eatery is as eclectic as it is low-key: Its chartreuse walls are covered with religious iconography (Fasika is the word for Easter in Amharic), and fake flowers are displayed on tabletops covered with plastic, the way Queens's prosperous immigrant families put slipcovers on their sofas. Service is relaxed and kind. Once, when a regular expressed interest in the music being played, the waitress offered to lend him the CD. The vegetarian plate is one of Fasika's best dishes. It comes on a platter nearly two feet wide and could easily feed two people. Several types of lentils—from the sweet, mushy golden ones to the firm, light-green pebbles served cold, with salad fixings—paint the legume in a flattering light. You might also find scoops of tender, braised greens, boiled beets, chickpea balls, curried potatoes, cabbage, carrots, or lettuce strips with Italian dressing. And of course, enough extra injera to swaddle a baby.
The first Kurdish restaurant to open in the United States, Babani's is named for the Babani tribe, whose men were known for their fighting skills and sexual prowess (seriously, it says that on the menu!) and whose women were considered kind, forgiving, and exceptionally good at cooking. The menu consists of authentic Kurdish dishes, including chicken tawa (chicken sautéed in lemon and spices and baked in layers of potatoes, green peppers, onions, and dried limes) and Sheik Babani (cored eggplant filled with spicy meat and vegetables). The tangy Dowjic soup made from chicken, yogurt, and lemon juice is a patron favorite that works miracles on a head cold and is credited for "keeping many a Kurdish traveler from wandering too far from home."
We like the greenery of W.A. Frost's garden patio and the bustle of the sidewalk seats at the Local, but when it comes to outdoor dining, our favorite perch is a roof deck. With its posh lounge seating—cushy couches surrounded by pretty planters and roaring fire pits—nestled between tall glass skyscrapers, Seven's Skybar is tops. The 6,000-square-foot deck offers striking views overlooking Block E's bright signage and the rest of the Hennepin Avenue hustle, as well as plenty of great people-watching due to Seven's diverse and sharply dressed crowd. The rooftop's bar offers beer, wine, cocktails, and a list of fancy martinis that are too chic for their plastic glassware, but you can also order food from the restaurant's steakhouse or sushi menus. Another unique—and cool—feature: Seven's Skybar stays open during the winter months. No food or drinks are served during that period, but guests may carry up a drink—or a selection from the cigar menu—and camp out under one of the heated tents.