NOTHING MAKES ME sadder than downtown Minneapolis on a sunny weekday afternoon. Like many others there, I'm stuck inside a partitioned workspace like a rat in a maze, bored by a job that I'm no good at (and believe me, it's pretty hard to be bad at a job that requires you to do nothing but leave messages on answering machines), unloved by my bosses, and never dressed well enough for casual day--let alone normal business days. Around noon, regardless of the weather, the proles pour out of their offices and lurch through the skyway system wearing quietly desperate looks on their waxy, pallid faces. They are on a mission to find a quick lunch of overpriced junk food, which they will eat all by themselves before lurching back to their offices with a collective gut ache.
Well, this advice won't redeem your work experience, but I do know a few places downtown capable of providing some small solace. For starters, get thee out of the skyway and take a walk in the sun down to Hennepin Avenue, where fast food with a soul can be had at the Olympics Cafe (527 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; 332-1375), whose slogan, "quality food on a budget," is more than cheap talk. Indulge in a $1.65 milkshake or sloppy chocolate sundaes ($1.55) to go with that mondo chili dog (that's homemade chili, mind you, the kind that bites back with onion and pepper; $2.30).
Other foods that the doctor won't recommend--but that nonetheless beat the schlock you'd get in a fast food chain--include the fried catfish and fries ($4.25), fried chicken dinners ($3.75), and the Philly cheese steaks ($3.65). They're made up right in front of you, and if they aren't exactly heart-healthy they at least remind you that no one lives forever. On a less cholesterol-besotted note, Olympics also offers homemade spinach pie, flaky and seasoned with lots of lemon and garlic ($2.50), homemade hummus with pita ($3.25), and Greek and garden salads ($2.50 each). The gyros plate ($4.75) offers both an over-abundance of meat and a healthy portion of salad, cucumber sauce, pita bread, and rice pilaf. Incidentally, the gentlemen who operate the place couldn't be any nicer; once, on a snowy day, they revealed a secret route through the skyway system that saved me walking 10 blocks in the snow.
Much in the same vein is the Manhattan Deli (7 S. Seventh St., Mpls.; 305-0977), where you can stop for breakfast as well if you're so inclined (three eggs, hashbrowns, toast, and coffee go for $2.85). Everything here is made from scratch, from the lemon-riddled tabbouleh ($3.25/$4.50) to the creamy hummus ($4-$5.25) and the turtle cheesecake ($1.85). Everything, that is, except for the pita bread, which comes from Bill's Imported Foods. The place is spartan--just a counter, some stools, and a grill--but sometimes that's all you need to make a great restaurant.
The people behind the counter really want you to eat, and will even take the liberty of dressing your food up for you after it's sitting in front of you. ("Oh, you must put lemon juice on that, and much more pepper," the cook told me once, liberally tossing the ingredients onto my styrofoam plate.) It's a rare soul who can finish the gyros platter here, piled up as it is with salad, french fries, thick, grilled pita bread, and a little mountain of gyros meat ($5.99/$6.99 for chicken gyros). Other standards, like burgers and deli sandwiches, are also well-rendered, and most come in under $4. You might also want to heed the advice of their sign ("fresh, fresh, fresh donuts daily").
If your tastes are running to the more refined on a given day, try descending into the basement of Dayton's (700 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.; 375-2761), where they offer one of the western world's broader assortments of salads. Some poor souls, it is said, spend their entire lunch hours weighing the options and depart hungry each day. Others make a career of grazing the free samples available from the ladies demonstrating cookware, but they start recognizing you after a while. You can only feign interest in bread machines for so long before the jig is up. My recommendation is the "lite" deli counter. Most such food is horrid; here the selections are wonderful.
Try the lemon pasta with basil, or the radiatorre pasta tossed thickly with grated lemon, basil, tomato, and parmesan cheese ($2.59/1/2 lb.) or the lemon and Worcestershire-seasoned seafood salad, made lovely with scallions and snow peas. Other salads include a red chili pasta embellished with walnut oil and sunflower seeds ($1.99/1/2 lb.), a Southwest orzo taco salad ($2.59/1/2 lb.), a nice artichoke rice pilaf ($2.79/1/2 lb.), and a majestic oriental chicken pasta ($3.29/1/2 lb.). After one of these perhaps you'll feel justified in indulging in something from the bakery or chocolate counter, but that's none of my business.
The seemingly ubiquitous D'Amico and Sons also recently opened a branch in downtown Minneapolis (555 Nicollet Mall to be exact; 342-2700). Methinks it a bit pricey and not always worth it, but sometimes a girl needs a treat. That is to say, maybe you really do deserve a fresh fruit crostata ($3.95), a San Pellegrino Limonata ($1.50), or a roasted vegetable panini (read: sandwich with class) with arugula, tomato, and chèvre ($5.50). Then again, maybe what we all really need is to quit the jobs we hate. Until that's possible, here's to a happier lunch break.
SPEAKING OF WHICH: A new buffet restaurant, the Heartland Cafe, recently opened on the ground floor of the Medical Arts Building, 825 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis. Chef Pat Wysocki promises "a non-boring buffet with different entrées--including vegetarian dishes--every day," along with grilled items, soups, and sandwiches...
SEASON OF THE CRAB: The first rousing breezes of spring, ridiculously late as they are, bring with them the first softshell crabs of the season. The blue claw crabs have wriggled out of their tough winter shells only to be trapped and swept off to markets all over the world; for the next couple of weeks, give them a try at Café Un Deux Trois in Minneapolis. Try them sautéed in butter, fried tempura style, marinated with onions and peppers and served cold, or cloistered in a brioche toast sandwich with chipotle and lemon aïoli.
MARRY ME AGAIN AND I'LL BUY YOU SOME STEAK: If you are married 50 years or more in 1996, maybe you'd like to take part in Murray's 50th Wedding Anniversary Celebration, where you can renew your vows with Judge Patrick Fitzgerald presiding. Festivities begin at 4 p.m. with a wine and cheese reception. Then, speak your love piece at 5 p.m. and get down to dinner (your choice of prime rib, baked walleye, or broiled chicken breast) featuring champagne and anniversary cake. The experience will set you back $17.95, and set your children under 12 back $10.95. Call 339-0909 for reservations.
GRILL FILL: Planning on dragging the grill out of the garage this week? Here's an idea to spare your friends from having to eat your burned renditions of hot dogs and burgers, compliments of Jane Butel's latest, fittingly titled Jane Butel's Southwestern Grill, available in stores June 1.
Grilled Pork Steak with Apples and Onions
* 4 (1/2 to 3/4-inch thick) pork
shoulder steaks, trimmed of excess fat
* 4 sprigs fresh sage, minced,
or 1 tsp. ground dried sage
* 1 tsp. vegetable oil
* 1 large onion, cut crosswise
into 1/2-inch thick rounds
* 4 cooking apples, peeled,
cored and cut into 1/2-inch
* 1/2 cup sherry or applejack
* Freshly ground nutmeg
* Salt and freshly ground pepper
Preheat grill to medium or 350. Place rack 4 inches above heat. Season steaks with sage. Lightly brush onion and apples with oil.
Arrange steaks and onion on rack; grill 12 to 15 minutes or until onion and apples are tender and steaks are browned with centers light pink or 160.
As foods are done, place in large skillet that can be used on the grill. When everything is done, pour sherry over contents, cover, and steam 5-7 minutes over low heat of grill. Serve steaks smothered with onion and apple slices. Makes 4 servings. CP
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