Sometimes I like to think of St. Paul as the Twin Cities sibling that only talks when she feels the need. The one that won’t let up on a secret unless you’ve seen some shit together. Which is why, if you haven’t seen some shit with the quiet twin to the east, you probably don’t know about Railroad Island.
And you should.
Full of bewildering bluffs and industrial history, Railroad Island is the authentic truth St. Paul keeps behind a gaping railroad ravine and 35E. It’s a disorienting place, 180 acres of neighborhood wrapping around the east side and smooching Swede Hollow Park. It’s lush with trees; you can’t see the St. Paul skyline from here, though it’s close. Streets are tossed around and mended together where they don’t make sense, split by the railroad gorge, thus the clutter of the place. Cross streets are a little darker, so it’s easy to feel inquisitive, even meddlesome, while you meander through. Through its history, Railroad Island has been the settling place for many Italian, Swedish, and Mexican immigrants. The neighborhood is full of buildings and tales from the past.
Jerry’s Roses splits Payne and Minnehaha Avenue, the minuscule white building a prominent eye-catcher in a listless place with “ROSES” posted on its top in bold, siren red. Sometimes, when I drive by, I dream up a story for the building. I imagine it to be a black hole on earth, a time-traveling machine. People from the future come and go to try to change history. It’s silly. But that’s the allure of Railroad Island. The place is imaginative.
Drive farther on Payne Avenue, about a mile past Jerry’s Roses’ ingenious shop, and you’ll land on the soft and random business district of the East Side. Railroad Island shifts slightly here. Suddenly, you’ve driven into small-town Minnesota, a landing strip of window awnings and Food Marts and dive bars in the center of the city.
...Which brings us to the eating and drinking portion of this segment. Here are some of the gems you can enjoy among the wandering ghosts of Swede Hollow’s past.
Tongue in Cheek
Who doesn’t love a spot where you can get two adult beverages, four small plates, two teasers, and one dessert for $69? Their cocktails aren’t much to quibble about either, especially Mother of Dragons, which packs a roar with jalapeno-infused Jim Beam, mathilde peche, and passion fruit. Cheers, you wild freaks. 989 Payne Ave., St. Paul; 651-888-6148, tongueincheek.biz
Saint Paul Brewing
As a Hamm’s Brewing resting place, this historical brewery holds a piece of the past. The patio feels like a nostalgic eyesore, a delightful wreckage of gray bricks, old elevator shafts, and graffiti. When they tap their Sunburst Apricot Belgian Pale Ale or Pina Colada Juicy IPA, you’re going to want to get your top lip on some of that foam. 688 Minnehaha Ave. E., St. Paul; 651-698-1945, stpaulbrewing.com
As the neighborhood’s gathering place, Brunson’s Pub boasts a cozy fairy patio surrounded by greenery, rotating local beers on tap, and Summit-battered cheese curds bathed in balsamic aioli and sambal honey. When dreaming up the pub, owners made sure to keep Payne Avenue history alive: Benjamin Brunson, the original land surveyor of St. Paul, built the oldest known brick house of the city a block away from the pub. I find that reverence romantic. 956 Payne Ave., St. Paul; 651-447-2483, brunsonspub.com
Cook St. Paul has a pop-up dinner every Thursday through Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m., fondly named Golden Horseshoe. The pop-up rotates in chefs to shift menus week by week. Recently, you could munch on cilantro fish rolls and crispy pork belly at a reasonable price. 1124 Payne Ave., St. Paul; 651-756-1787, cookstp.com
Yarusso Bros Italian Restaurant
Since 1933, the dark wooden booths in Yarusso Bros have invited diners to enjoy meatballs the size of youthful fists and a welcoming essence so robust you might think the bartender knows your name. The home-cooked food has remained the same, with recipes Francisco Yarusso brought from a small village south of Rome in 1899. And deep within the heart of the food list sits the royal “Dago.” This sandwich, an italian sausage patty smashed between two slices of bread, will drown your soul parts in cheese and marinara. (They also have the best wine pour you will ever witness, and the St. Paul Brewing beer, served in a frosted glass, is fresh as it gets.) Saluti! 635 Payne Ave., St. Paul; 651-776-4848, yarussos.com