You know how sometimes you fall in love so hard and so fast you don't trust it at all, so you call all your friends and ask, "Am I crazy, or is it really love?" Well, that's how it's been around here for the past several weeks, as I fall deeper and deeper under the spell of the new Midtown Global Market, the indoor, city-block-covering, 50-plus-vendor market that fills the ground floor of the old Sears headquarters on Lake Street. One of my friends assures me that it's really love, and, moreover, it's the special kind of love that arises only when great, longstanding fears are vanquished—in this case the fears borne of watching the Sears project in the news for years and years, with a rising sense of dread that the project might turn out to be more boondoggle than boon.
Another of my friends insists that it's true love because of the unique properties of my beloved. "It's a hippie wet dream and a Sub-Zero dink wet dream, and they rarely have common ground," he noted. (Dink meaning "double income no kids," of course.) He failed to note the MGM's attraction for stroller-pushers, people suffering from cabin fever, caretakers of children suffering from cabin fever, armchair world travelers, people bored with their regular grocery store, people in need of takeout, people in need of cheap dates, and people who would like to participate in global Minneapolis, but find they have no point of entry.
Yes, I said global Minneapolis, and I meant it. There are food vendors, grocers, restaurants, and shops representing just about everywhere except Australia and Antarctica. There's a Scandinavian joint, a Native American shop, a few Caribbean places, plenty of Mexican and Central American options, a few African spots, some Asian venues, a few Midwestern American joys (like the local farmers' butcher shop), and even more coming, including an Indian grocery store and vegetarian-leaning restaurant, a bakery, and Chang Bang, a little sister restaurant to Nicollet Avenue's Yummy, which will be a table-service restaurant with a full bar specializing in dim sum.
But that's not all! Each and every weekend there's a small center stage with family-friendly free entertainment scheduled from 10:30 in the morning till 7:30 at night. Entertainment such as the Balloon Man, a drum workshop for kids, a magician, and Heart of the Beast puppet theater on various weekend mornings and noontimes, while in the later afternoon and evening live music takes the stage—everything from a Caribbean steel band to African drumming to folksy-bluesy duos are scheduled to play. (Check the website for the full entertainment schedule.)
It's phenomenal. It's a tourist destination, it's full of jobs, it makes living in the city more fun. It's a win, win, win, and the best thing to happen to south Minneapolis since they put all those lakes in. I'm so impressed with the people that put it all together—the Neighborhood Development Center, a St. Paul based nonprofit—that I think we should just hand them the governance of the entirety of Minneapolis, while the rest of us just go eat. (Want to know more about how this all came to be? Check out Molly Priesmeyer's sidebar to this story on page 21.)
And where would we eat? I'm so happy you asked. I spent a few weeks gorging myself on all that the vast MGM has to offer, and so here is my quick guide to help you navigate the enormity, the ginormity, the trinormity that is the new Midtown Global Market. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways...
Right on the main food court near the entertainment, Los Ocampo specializes in homemade masa—fresh-ground corn made into all sorts of shapes and griddled till crisp. Try the long, flat huaraches; round, fat gorditas; and little pancake sopes. No, really, try them all. I did, and soon was so obsessed with the variations in creamy to crisp you could achieve it was all I could do not to plow like Cookie Monster through the model foods they put on the counter to help you order. I'm especially head over heels with the huarachazo ($5.50), masa spread with a creamy layer of beans and griddled till sizzling on one side and creamy on the other. The creamy side is then piled with your choice of meat—perhaps the prensado, made with smoked pork in a red chile sauce, or the chicharron verde, or the tinga de pollo, shredded chicken made here with caramelized onions and chipotle peppers. The whole thing is then topped with cheese, sour cream, chopped onions, tomatoes, and slices of fresh avocado. Whoa! If you can take it, pony up another buck and they'll throw pork or beef ribs on top, and call it Huarachazo de Costilla—that bad boy is not for the weak of imagination or spirit. Another gem, and, if you can believe it, a vegetarian one, is the taco acorazado, for which a plateful of taco shells is surmounted with a gargantuan deep- fried, cheese-stuffed poblano pepper. It looks like King Kong devastating a nice area rug, but tastes much better than that sounds.
One of the problems in being a restaurant critic in a smallish biggish city is: I don't know where you have eaten. Yes, you. Specifically you. Have you been to La Loma, in Mercado Central? I've certainly raved about the place before. They've reliably got the best tamales in the region, bar none. But maybe you were busy that week? So it's news to you? Or maybe you think you don't even like tamales? But chances are you would, if you had good ones. I dragged one of my pals who thought he hated tamales to La Loma, and now he thinks he loves them.
We had a tamale buffet of one of each: plump, moist corn-husk-wrapped classics including red chili pork, the corn meal dyed a pleasant brick red with the spice; lightly perky chicken; sweet, whole-kernel sweet corn; and modest herb-touched vegetarian. And then there was a single rich, plush, jungle-scented, spicy, and memorable banana-leaf-wrapped Oaxacan tamale, made with smoked chilies. Plain tamales at La Loma cost $1.85 each, or $5.99 for a frozen pack of six; Oaxacan ones cost $2.95, and they are, in a word, the best. Well, two words. The La Loma in the MGM also sells liquados, those Mexican fresh fruit-based blender shakes. A mango liquado ($2.95) and tamale is a great walking-around snack while you explore the many corners of the market.
Manny's is another place that I just don't know if you've been to. If you haven't, you need to know that tortas are the overstuffed submarine sandwiches of Mexico City, and that Manny Gonzalez is the king of tortas around here. His fame comes from his signature combination of fresh bread, sweet and hot chipotle mayonnaise, and sandwiches so overstuffed they put a Thanksgiving turkey to shame. Try the spicy eggs and chorizo ($5.60), the thin-pounded pork loin ($6.25), which would not be out of place in mainland Spain, or the veggie one ($5.60), an object of cult fascination in several Powderhorn households. 612.870.3930
But I know you've been to Holy Land, because this seems to be the one restaurant that everyone in this city, rocker or banker, peacenik or hunter, bike greenie or SUV meanie, agrees on. Or, every man does anyway. The main location in Nordeast has so many packs of men in it some lunch times it looks like the deer opener. Which is neither here nor there, but the Holy Land satellite is a delight to behold. There's a grocery arm with all the fresh baked pitas, the whole line of Holy Land hummus, a big deli case full of olives, feta cheese, and miscellaneous Mediterranean pickles (try the sour and spicy stuffed marinated eggplant), a rotisserie chicken case... and then things really get rolling. There's all the kebobs, shawirma, stuffed grape leaves, sovlaki, falafel, tabbouleh, gyros both chicken and traditional. I'm going to have to wrap this up, or it will take up the rest of the paper. You know the drill.
If, for some reason, you don't (you're a newborn baby? Yo u were in an underground crypt playing the organ for a few decades?), try most everything at the lunch buffet: $7.99 on weekdays from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.; $8.99 on weekends from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Takeout hounds should also note that the restaurant offers a few spectacular takeout platters, called "Sheik's Dinners." The vegetarian one has falafel, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, tabbouli, spinach pie, rice, sautéed vegetables, dessert, and tea, and costs $19.99 for two, or $29.95 for four. The meaty one has all that, plus gyro, chicken gyro, kabobs, and Greek chicken, and runs $29.95 for two, or $44.95 for four.
And something for the vegetarians! As soon as you see the giant bubbling chiller-dispenser of mango lassi, you know that you have found the vegetarian gem of the market. You might know Everest from its big sister restaurant in St. Paul, Everest on Grand, and if you do, you know that the restaurant prides itself on its soft, fresh, pretty momo dumplings. And that's what they mainly offer at the satellite too. Be sure to order a giant cup of sweetish, sourish mango and yogurt drink ($3.50) to sip while you wait for your pile of translucent momo. When those Nepali dumplings arrive, in a vegetarian version with sautéed spinach and onion, or with meat, you'll know what Nepali comfort food is all about. (Five momo cost $4.65.) Everest also offers fist-sized potato- and vegetable-stuffed samosa ($2) served with a bit of spicy chili sauce, and I had a delicious lemony soup one time that was made with bamboo shoots and black-eyed peas.
If you live in the vast, vast area of Minneapolis between Uptown and the Mississippi, you probably often find yourself gnashing your teeth while yelling, "Who do I have to bribe to get some sweet mountain Gorgonzola within easy driving distance of this house!" Well, gnash no more, because Jakeeno's, that longtime, distinctly non-trattoria-like institution at Chicago Avenue and 36th Street, has opened a fascinating outpost in the Midtown Global Market, one that has a lot more going on than the hot slices that immediately catch the eye. Like what? Like high-end Italian cheeses, fine salamis, hams, and other charcuterie, Cerignola olives, and par-baked bread from La Brea and the New French Bakery. Seriously, don't be distracted by the pizza slices, this place has easily the best cheese counter betwixt Uptown and St. Paul. They pull their own mozzarella and have fresh local Minnesota chevre, too.
Okay, you insist on being distracted by the pizza slices? It's understandable, as they have both plain old eye-catchers like pepperoni ($3.50), and snazzy gourmet ones like fresh roasted mushroom finished with truffle oil ($4). Other hot foods include pastas, including a penne with mushrooms, pine nuts, and raisins in a gorgonzola cream sauce ($4.50 small, $8.50 large), and hot hoagies made with things like Molinari salami, on crisp New French bread (giant hot hoagies are $6.75). Still, you're with the slices of pizza? Okay, I give up. Just know the trattoria also sells whole take-and-bake pizzas, starting at $7.50, and you can have them customized any way you want, using all the glories that its deli case has to order. And yes, you can have a slice for the car ride home.
Farm in the Market
I wrote about this two weeks ago, but, to recap: fresh, straight-from-the-farm meat, eggs, and dairy, owned by two couples, one that farms mainly chickens, the other that raises bison. They take turns running the place, and there's no fresher, better meat in town. Cooking the products sold here is just like being a chef in a fancy restaurant, with everything you make accompanied by a little parentheses telling you just where it came from. Knowing where your food comes from, you may know, is the ultimate luxury in today's terrifying world, and with this I'll end, lest I write another million words on the place.
The Produce Exchange
Have you ever stood in the grocery aisle, dumbfounded over the difference between Champagne mangoes and regular ones? Are they Champagne mangoes because they're better? Because they grow in bottles in caves? Because you have them on New Year's Eve? Anyone? So you ask the guy stocking the cilantro, and he shrugs uncomfortably, and retreats to the back, and emerges 15 minutes later to tell you that his boss says the difference is that they are different varieties? And then you want to smoosh a mango on that person's head, Three Stooges-style, while demanding back those 15 minutes of your life? Of course you have! You live in Minnesota, where the disconnect between grocery-store floor and mango producer is enormous.
But you know who does know about produce? Produce wholesalers. Those are the people whose job it is to work the phones all day getting the best price on mangoes, cherries, lemons, lettuce, and papaya and, having gotten it, move it hither and yon. The Produce Exchange at the MGM is what happens when a wholesaler, in this case St. Paul-based J&J Distributing (www.jjdst.com), opens its own store, cutting out the middleman. The Produce Exchange occupies a large area of prime real estate in the center of the MGM, and if you care about fruits and vegetables, you need to give the place careful scrutiny.
The prices are often fantastic—I've frequently paid $2 a pound for organic strawberries—and the selection vast. Sometimes there are as many as eight varieties of tomatoes or four sorts of peaches hidden in little pockets throughout the area. They also get local farmers' vegetables: I've gotten beautiful spring onions and radishes when the season was high. While everything at the Produce Exchange isn't necessarily as flashy and prime as one of the jewel-box produce departments at the co-ops, the price, variety, and staff knowledge about the produce make it my current favorite in town.
Republic of Fish
Nothing's as healthy as produce except fish, right? I watched this space eagerly for months, but, sadly, as of this writing it wasn't yet open. I hope it will be by the time this hits the stands. In any event, this looks to be the Twin Cities' first premium fish market that takes issues of sustainable fisheries, PCBs, and other seafood issues seriously. All the fishes will be labeled to let you know about the health and sustainability of the population they hail from, and such. (The information is based on the work of a Santa Cruz, California-based nonprofit called Sustainable Fishery Advocates, which has a program called "FishWise"; www.fishwise.org). I write about food for a living and I can't even keep the various sound-alike fish straight (striped bass, sometimes called rockfish, good; actual rockfish bad) so I really look forward to this place opening.
No global eating tour would be complete without those all-American classics—burgers, fries, and malts. Happily, the Midtown Global Market has some stand-up versions, as they have a satellite location of St. Paul gem Andy's Garage. Never been there? Then you obviously don't have rugrats, as the real hand-cut fries, real ice cream malts, and real wholesome fun of the place make it a prime stop on the dining-with-little-ones circuit. At the Andy's Garage at the MGM you can watch them cut big old russet potatoes into big old fries right before your eyes, and when the hot brown beauties arrive, you're transported to old-fashioned America with every bite ($2.75 as a gargantuan basket, $1.85 as a half-basket, or for an extra $2.40 alongside any sandwich, with coleslaw or pasta salad). Burgers are forthright, tender, and good (from $5.25, on beautifully light and tender grilled buns). Malts are giant and made before your eyes with real ice cream ($3.25 small, $4.25 large). Eight kids' meals, priced from $1.95 for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to $4.65 for a junior California cheeseburger with fries, mean you can partake of all the kids' activities on the main stage without breaking the bank.
West Indies Soul
If I ever thought about the West Indies Soul name in connection with the St. Paul location of the restaurant and caterer, I would have assumed it referred to the soul of the West Indies, as the University Avenue restaurant excels in pan-Caribbean home cooking and comforts, like jerk chicken, red snapper stew, and such. Now I see that they were in fact craftily laying the groundwork for westward expansion: At their MGM location they mainly serve traditional African American soul food, with the Caribbean bits just the icing on the cake. I tried much of what the restaurant offers, in the classic form of a meat and two vegetables ($9.50), and found the catfish fillet to be as crisp and light as the sound of handclapping, the rib tips as sweet and rich as dessert, the jerk chicken as potent and meaty as it ever was, the sides of candied yams as deep as a sunset. I could go on.
Other highlights included light, crisp fried-okra bits; a savory, long-cooked succotash of corn, okra, and lima beans, united with a bit of stewed tomatoes; and homemade beverages such as ginger beer, sorrel drink, and peanut punch ($5). The restaurant also offers an after-church Sunday soul food spread for $11 a person, with mac and cheese, peach cobbler, greens, the works; as far as I know it's the only big soul-food spread available in the Twin Cities. Unless you get your sorry self to church, that is, and get adopted by a forgiving family. And then still there's no guaranteeing the yams will be this good. 612.870.2920
La Sirena Gorda
I could write a whole review of La Sirena Gorda. If you like Mexican seafood, be absolutely sure to try this place. In short, though, please know that the cheerful, blue-tile-bedecked stand is owned by one of the founders of downtown Minneapolis fine-dining and dance hotspot Babalu, and at La Sirena Gorda they cook fine-dining, restaurant-quality food. I particularly recommend the shrimp cocktail ($6.95 small, $9.95 large, served in takeout containers), which is the best rendition of the Mexican style of this dish that I've had in the Twin Cities: firm, bright shrimp swim in a sweet, intense tomato sauce enlivened with fresh chopped cilantro, onions, and such. Each bite tastes as if you're having it under a sun umbrella on the beach. (If you picked up a six-pack of Corona or Tecate across the street at Chicago Lake Liquors, you could have a spontaneous backyard barbecue to knock your sweetie's socks off.)
Another joy are the "mariscocillas," corn tortillas folded around a crab cake-like filling of seafood chopped and blended with corn, the slightly lemony herb epazote, and chipotle-touched mayonnaise. Once the tortillas are stuffed, they are fried briefly, then served with bright green guacamole on top of a bed of fresh lettuce. The pescadillas can be ordered filled with a white fish, octopus, or shrimp. I particularly like the fish one, it's both tender and richly flavored, and, at $4.95, rivals any appetizer at any Mexican restaurant in town. So impressed was I that I pushed my luck and tried the shrimp ceviche ($8.95), which was too long marinated, and kind of sour and sad. Oh well.
On to octopus tacos ($4.95), then, which were a joy. You get tortillas mounded high with tender marinated octopus cooked up with sautéed onions and a tiny hint of savory spice—delicious. One night I ordered a special of a whole giant, fried tilapia, its crosshatched flesh adorned with smoked, dried chili peppers and served with tortillas, rice, beans, guacamole—the works. As I walked across the room 10 people stopped to ask me where I had got the thing; for $13.95 it was dinner for two, as well as a brief dance with celebrity. 612.870.0037; lasirenagorda.com
If you don't know, United Noodles has long been the best pan-Asian market in the Twin Cities, the one with the most Japanese selections, the one with the hardest-to-find rarities, the most arcane regional soy sauces, the oddest flavored sodas, and so on. United Noodles has won countless "Best Asian Market" awards, and it's the one that the fiercest culinary purists make pilgrimages too. The mother ship is also, literally, down a hidden alley off a dead-end street in a quasi-industrial section of Seward, so if you don't make it there often, or ever, that's completely to be expected. While the MGM satellite doesn't carry as much as the main one, (no kidding, it's 1/20th the size), it does have much of the main stuff: the good soy sauces, the right noodles, the adorably packaged candies, and the dinner-party appropriate mochi, those Japanese ice cream bonbons wrapped in rice-flour dough. 612.721.6677; www.unitednoodles.com
Fiesta in America
Piñatas, chips, and crazy Mexican candy that all your friends want you to bring to the bar for their birthday, like the mad lollipop that looks just like an itty bitty dollhouse roast chicken. Seriously. A roast chicken. Candy. Lollipop. I'll let that sink in. While we consider how great it is to experience the wonder of other cultures and—roast chicken lollipop! I can't wait for Christmas; stockings are going to be stuffed memorably. 612.728.5429
In truth, the roast chicken lollipops (I can't stop typing that) have nothing on the Norwegian gummy ladies with lady-humps that I bought from Scandinavian import shop Café Finspang. I picked up the Laban seig Damer simply because I'm always up for something new, candy-wise, but when I got them home I set to blushing...whoa! Other cultures! On less 12-year-old-boy topics, Finspang also sometimes offers Danish bakery products, such as that black, dumbbell-heavy, almost steak-like dark rye bread, rügbröd, as well as almond horns, macaroons, and other lush, sweet treats.
Café Finspang has hard goods too—jewelry, more—but, food-wise, they also make Scandinavian open-face sandwiches topped with sliced hard-cooked egg, herring, and such, and sell takeout containers of potato salad and cucumber salad, as well as a few homemade desserts. It looks to be a great resource for last-minute healthy dinners. Still, to me it will always be the place where gummy females have lovely lady lumps.
So, kids, that's it! I mean, that's all I'm getting to here: There are at least a dozen more shops, including coffee shops, Mexican markets, florists, jewelers, and more, more, more—and on top of that, more opening every week. Should keep you busy for a year; I know it will keep me occupied. The last things you need to know are that there's parking in a ramp directly behind the complex, between 12th and 11th avenues, as well as on surface lots in front of the building. There's a US Bank cash machine and good family-friendly restrooms, and if you're reading this from a ward at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, you can get most of these foods delivered right to your hospital bed (612.870.1820; www.mgmroomservice.com). I foresee a lot of kitchen-table conversations along the lines of, "Honey, I know you had your last child and/or bypass at Fairview Southdale, but the kids and I would really rather eat better this time." What, you don't see it? That's not how Minnesotans think? Not before, they didn't. There are different food cultures around the world, and it looks like we're about to have a whole new one here.