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Celebrate Hanukkah with the Twin Cities' best Jewish food

St. Paul's very own world-class pastrami stop: Cecil’s Deli.

St. Paul's very own world-class pastrami stop: Cecil’s Deli. Jerard Fagerberg

“They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” 

These are uncharacteristic words to come from my mother-in-law, a tranquil Israeli who insists on hosting a sentimental reading before every holiday, but they are, in classic Jewish humor, the truth. The history of the Jewish people is rife with two things: adversity and food. And holidays bring them inexorably together.

Hanukkah, which begins December 22 this year, may never win a popularity battle against Christmas, but one unassailable edge the Festival of Lights has over Noel is the cuisine. Glazed ham can’t hold a shammash to the array of foods that can be enjoyed over the eight-day celebration. 

You survived, so here’s where to get the good nosh in the Twin Cities this Hanukkah.

The Cities' crispiest latkes are found at Cecil's.

The Cities' crispiest latkes are found at Cecil's. Jerard Fagerberg

Cecil’s Deli
651 S. Cleveland Ave., St. Paul

Most people’s reference for Jewish deli is New York’s Carnegie Deli, made famous by Woody Allen in his film Broadway Danny Rose, but St. Paul has its own world-class pastrami stop in Cecil’s. Their menu is a lengthy love letter to the Jewish-American cooking tradition, including sloppy reubens, raspberry-slathered blintzes, and the densest, most crispy latkes in the Twin Cities—served with both apple sauce and sour cream, because real latke heads know the secret is to mix both toppings together.

Outside of the diner, there’s a kosher bakery and deli that specializes in Hamantaschen. Though these folded-over jelly-filled cookies are more of a Purim treat, no one is going to be upset if you pull out a variety of these oversized biscuits for dessert.

Presenting Common Roots' shakshuka, aka "the Jewish hangover salve."

Presenting Common Roots' shakshuka, aka "the Jewish hangover salve." Jerard Fagerberg

Common Roots Cafe
2558 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis

The quest for a “real” bagel in the Twin Cities is a difficult one, which is why Common Roots owner Danny Schwatrzman dedicated his restaurant to making traditional bagels. But there’s more than just bread at this updated take on the classic Jewish deli. They have house-made lox, grandma-style matzo ball soup, and, on occasion, latkes. 

The pride of their breakfast menu is their shakshuka, a warming dish with eggs cooked in tomato sauce and topped with big chunks of feta. Matzo ball soup might be Jewish penicillin, but shakshuka is the Jewish hangover salve. After a night of too much wine and conversation, nothing sets you back into place better than a simmering plate of spicy poached eggs and cauliflower.

Bogart's Doughnut Co. in IDS Center. Photo by Rick Nelson

Bogart's Doughnut Co. in IDS Center. Photo by Rick Nelson Rick Nelson

Bogart’s Doughnut Co. 
904 W. 36th St. and 80 S. 8th St., Minneapolis; 928 7th St. W., St. Paul

Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of oil, and so does Bogart’s. Bogart’s celebrates every day of the year, but for the Hanukkah season, they release some of the most sought-after doughnuts in the Cities. “Sufganiyot” is derived from the Hebrew word for “sponge,” which makes it a fitting name for these fluffy custard- or jelly-filled doughnuts. 

Bogart’s does theirs with a farmhouse-style berry jelly made in-house, and every December, all three locations are overrun with people looking to score some. Don’t expect to walk in and buy a dozen, though. This year, they’ll release on December 21, and Bogart’s encourages online pre-orders to help ensure they produce enough. If you miss out, Glam Doll usually does a version as well, but they’re not quite as good.

Bialys are an increasingly hard to come by treasure that Asa's does very well.

Bialys are an increasingly hard to come by treasure that Asa's does very well. Jerard Fagerberg

Asa’s Bakery
3507 23rd Ave. S., Minneapolis

Ever since opening in early December, Asa’s Bakery has been selling out of their New York-style bagels nearly every day. However, as the stocks of their everything and egg bagels deplete, the basket of onion bialys sit, just waiting to be gobbled up by late-coming patrons. Little do they realize they are luckiest of all, because getting a good bialy is harder and harder in America these days.

Minnesotans would be forgiven for not knowing what a bialy is (or how to pronounce it). These chewy Polish baked goods are cousins to bagels, but bialys aren’t boiled, and they’re made with gluten flour, not wheat flour. The crust is a little more delicate, and the inside is denser and more loaf-like. Serve with a schemere or toasted and buttered for a taste of one of Jewish cooking’s scarcest spoils.

It'll do.

It'll do. Jerard Fagerberg

Meritage
410 St. Peter St., St. Paul

No one makes a better bowl of matzo ball soup than my wife, but she’ll probably never make it for you, so Meritage is your second-best bet. Though the French bistro is opulently trimmed with Christmas decorations this time of year, their Chicken and Matzo Ball Soup is a delightful Jewish classic. Chef-owner Russell Klein bases his recipe on an entry in Tina Wasserman’s book Entrée to Judaism: A Culinary Exploration of the Jewish Diaspora, only he enlivens his rendition with chicken feet. This makes the soup fatty and flavorful. 

The dish is served with two plump spheres of matzo sitting on a bed of dill and carrot. The server pours in the simmering stock over the top, providing a stylish upturn for the down-home treat. As the broth sinks into the sponge of matzo, the balls become richer and richer, warming you all the way through.

These folks elevate halva to an art form.

These folks elevate halva to an art form. Jerard Fagerberg

House of Halva
928 W. 7th St., St. Paul

In all my years attending Jewish holiday dinners, I’ve never developed a taste for halva. Israeli halva is typically made from sesame, and the unbalanced mix of savory and sweet, combined with the granular texture, makes for an off-putting dessert. But House of Halva in the Keg and Case Market makes halva fun again by blending in adventurous dessert flavors. 

For anyone bored of the brick of seed butter going untouched on the dinner table, this gourmet stall offers a much needed reprieve. This is halva elevated to an art form. Here, you can have a chunk that tastes like pecan pie followed by Snickers or Black Forest cake. The whiskey chocolate halva is so exquisitely marbled that you’ll cringe to see it cut into slices. 

If you’re a fan of the classic, well, you can’t go wrong with Holy Land’s by-the-book interpretation.

For real though.

For real though. Jerard Fagerberg

Lunds & Byerly’s
3777 Park Center Blvd., St. Louis Park

Chances are, you’ll end up either hosting a Hanukkah dinner or attending one, and as such, you’ll have to prepare something instead of dining out. The Kosher Spot in Minneapolis has long been the go-to for all things pareve, but the Lunds & Byerly’s in St. Louis Park manages a nice balance between your kosher needs and day-to-day shopping.

The supermarket has a huge array of kosher options, including the full line of Manischewitz offerings. Frozen babka, gefilte fish, Dr. Brown’s soda, rugelach, whitefish salad, even “facon”—all are stocked in the store’s extensive rabbi-approved aisles. The bakery is especially impressive, and any host would be delighted by your offering of dreidel-shaped cookies and raisin challah. Pick up a pack of Hanukkah candles while you’re there, because you always run out before the last night.