Fast, Cheap, Great
Bombay 2 Deli
1840 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis
Shish Mediterranean Grill & Café
1668 Grand Ave., St. Paul
2726 W. 43rd St., Minneapolis
Taqueria La Hacienda #2
La Hacienda Plaza, 334 E. Lake St., Minneapolis
Punch Neapolitan Pizza
210 E. Hennepin Ave.
1221 W. Lake St., Minneapolis
Recently I received a sad and plaintive email from a doctor's wife. She wanted to use my bank account to free a Nigerian fortune worth, if you can believe it, hundreds of millions of dollars. And she chose me! As I crowbarred my neighbors' windows in search of additional Social Security numbers, I wondered why she picked me, and then I realized: All the big restaurants I've reviewed lately have been expensive, and more expensive. Of course she would think that the Twin Cities was a land of nothing but millionaires: The price of an average glass of wine seems to have zoomed from $6 to $9, and as far as the dinner entrees, $23 seems to be the new $12.
Hey, aren't we supposed to be the land of family values, not family rip-offs? Then I remembered that there are a number of bargain hotspots that have opened or significantly expanded lately, places that I couldn't quite justify reviewing in full, but can offer in a bakers' half-dozen of penny-pinching delights. Enjoy! (PS: If you want in on the Nigerian fortune, I just need a few thousand more dollars to bribe officials. Even though I sold my house, I'm still not quite there, meaning it's a great time to get in on the ground floor! Call me.)
Bombay 2 Deli
I hadn't realized it, but one thing the Twin Cities has been sadly deficient in is vegetarian Gujarati offerings—but no more! Perennial City Pages Best Indian Market award winner Asia Imports has opened a small restaurant and takeout counter, which serves homemade vegetarian curries, breads, samosas, and other treats. Everything I've had from the bright, spic-and-span counter has been nothing short of fabulous.
The Cholle, a chickpea curry, was a thunder of deep cinnamon woodsmoke; the crisp okra curry was fresh, springy, and redolent with the fire of chili peppers and the perk of black mustard seeds. Paneer makhani—Indian cheese in a thick, gingery sauce—hit that satisfying sweet spot where rich, creamy, and spicy balance one another in ideal harmony. Kadhi, a sweet, light yogurt curry, was swimming with curry leaves and lots of whole spices, and smelled so good I wished it were a candle, a bath, or just any kind of thing I could breathe all day.
Samosas, when available, are heavenly: They're filled with slightly sweet, slightly fiery mashed potatoes blended with green peas; the fried crust is as crisp and rich as the remembered cake doughnuts of your youth. Prices? Hold on to your hats: $1.50 for a samosa, $5.49 for a plate mounded with a few curries, fresh and simple cumin rice, and maybe even a freshly made wheat roti. The place is nothing short of a gem: The food couldn't be any better, the women behind the counter couldn't be any sweeter, the prices couldn't be any lower. They're closed Mondays and Tuesdays, but the rest of the week: Count your lucky stars, and your saved pennies.
Shish Mediterranean Grill & Café
Why are hummus and tabouli like politicians? Because you can't tell a damn thing about them by their looks. Not enough? Okay, they all benefit from a little sprinkle of good olive oil. No? Well, I give up. You try saying something new about hummus, a thing that really does have the unfortunate characteristic of looking exactly like all the other hummuses, regardless of quality. The stuff at Shish, however, really is estimable.
Shish is a little counter-service Mediterranean restaurant that has opened in the heart of Macalester's part of Grand Avenue, and it's another bargain-hunter's delight. While the kabobs, salads, and such are all ordered at the counter, they're delivered to your gold-topped table on real plates, and you can consume them while seated on real furniture-quality chairs, and finish your meal with Turkish coffee served from a pretty hammered-copper pot and poured into gold-rimmed demitasse cups and saucers.
My favorite offering is the giant mixed platter of all of Shish's appetizers, the Shish Maza plate ($7.95). Here you get the restaurant's beautiful hummus, a weighty, toasty, thickly creamy rendition served glossed with olive oil and sprinkled with good paprika; a scoop of brightly minty and lively tabouli; freshly shredded baba ghanoush; and a trio of roasty falafel balls, made a little nutty by a falafel batter made with a good number of sesame seeds which crisp beautifully on the outside. The plate is further loaded up with squares of feta cheese, good olives, tomatoes, and lettuce, and served with a big basket of pita bread. It makes a hearty appetizer for two, or dinner for one.
Another must-order item is the spinach pies ($2.95), which are three delicate, phyllo-wrapped triangles stuffed with good, fresh spinach and light amounts of feta; they're so very light they almost seem to float from their little bed of torn lettuce. Needless to say, the place works brilliantly for takeout, so if you live in the neighborhood, please know that you now have greater options than the salad bar at Whole Foods—and if you take a double order of Shish's tabbouli or hummus as your next pot-luck contribution, folks will be chattering at how much better yours is than any other they've had. Take the credit or spread it around, depending on your political stomach.
Taqueria La Hacienda #2
My love for Taqueria La Hacienda and their al pastor is well known: I'd say the number-one thing that strangers say to me in bars is, "Dude, that thing, that is like getting hit by a wonderful bulldozer! I love that thing!" If you're not familiar with that thing, sit on down, because it's nuts. Okay, Lebanese immigrants settled in Mexico back in the mists of time, and as cultures fused, a new sort of gyros cone was born, this one made with pork and chilies, and topped with a roasting pineapple, which bastes the turning meat as it spins. Taqueria La Hacienda opened a beguilingly scented cone of said al pastor in the Mercado Central, and quickly started capturing Best Tacos in the Twin Cities awards.
Soon it expanded to a little shop right off the highway and debuted a series of "alambres," which are your choice of meat, griddled hard and hot with bacon, onions, and bell peppers and then finished with cheese and spread out on a raft made of half a dozen or so corn tortillas. When you get one of Taqueria La Hacienda's alambres made with their rich and spicy al pastor, it's just insanity: You know how physicists are always running atoms into one another in supercolliders and generating new elements with names like Einsteinium? Well, that's kind of what Taqueria La Hacienda has done. This thing just defies all previous known laws of pork because it's just that rich, that crispy, meaty, bacony, porky, cheesy—porkium. Can we just have a new element called "porkium" and say that's what this thing is made of?
In any event, good things come to people who do good things, and last summer Taqueria La Hacienda vacated its teensy spot by the highway and set up shop in a giant, prettily painted space that's kind of just a little farther down Lake Street. I say "kind of" because entry to the building is counterintuitive; the only way in at night is through a parking lot on Clinton Avenue, but you'll find it. Because it's worth it. Everything I've ever had at Taqueria La Hacienda has been great: great tacos (the double-tortilla, wee, authentic Mexican kind, from $1.60); big combo plates in which fresh meats are served with rice, beans, salsa, warm tortillas, and the works (from $6.45); nice perks like plates of roasty grilled onions (cebollitas, $1.50). I always order an alambre (and yes, I do know that "alambre" means "wire," and refers to a kabob, and not always to this thing, but what am I supposed to do about it?).
I took a friend there who is Mexican-food phobic because all he's ever had is the Midwestern gringo kind with the cold beans and plops of sour cream, and he was rendered speechless, except for one phrase. "You've got to be kidding me," he said. And then he said it again. "You've got to be kidding me." He ate more of the porkium. Then he said, "You've got to be kidding me" about eight more times until his plate was empty. It was like being in an avant-garde theatrical production, except with no angst. "I love Mexican food!" he exclaimed as we left.
The first time I reviewed Rice Paper, I felt ridiculous—the Vietnamese restaurant was so tiny that even two or three new customers would terrify the fire marshals. Since then, however, the restaurant has expanded to a good four or five times its former size, and I failed to notice. But then I had dinner there a few weeks ago, and remembered it's one of the most charming affordable restaurants in the entire state.
Appetizers like tofu puffs ($5.50) are the model of adorable—the puffs as crisp as winter breezes, the garnishes of just-roasted crushed peanuts and fried shallots making the crispy also savory and delicious. Another Rice Paper classic, the Grapefruit Festivity ($6.95), displays more cooking ingenuity, with a few grapefruit segments, a fresh cilantro and pac peo (a sharp kind of Vietnamese mint) salad, and steamed shrimp, than some chefs show in their whole careers. Rice Paper has added a small but useful wine and beer list to go with their expanded seating area, as well as a few meatier options to complement their strong vegetarian menu. I tried the song huong beef, which is a titch more expensive than most Rice Paper offerings at $15.95, but found the grilled, marinated beef kabob to be tender, sweet, and roasty, and just a delight when paired with the wide array of fresh Vietnamese herbs and such that accompany it. If you gave up on Rice Paper because you could never find a seat, please know it's time to try again.
Punch Neapolitan Pizza
The first time I went to the new Punch Pizza, which took over the old Starlight Lounge nightclub spot in Nordeast across from Kramarczuk, I thought: By god, they've finally done it. They've finally made a Punch quick-serve that I can get behind. The room is prettily, dimly lit, the wooden tables are sturdy and rustic, the walls are dominated by giant modern paintings—it felt like a restaurant. I walked in, we got a cozy booth in the back, my food came up instantly, and, as I munched on my pizza and sipped from a real glass filled with Summit Winter ale, I thought: This is just fantastic! Restaurant-quality food, bargain prices! After all, Punch's pizza is a Twin Cities legend, fired in real wood-burning ovens at 800 degrees; they are all blister, woodsmoke, and tension between buoyant dough and the instant crisp of an inferno of an oven. The ingredients are top-quality. What's not to like?
I found out the next time I visited: There was a line out the door; we ended up squeezed in the middle of a big shared table, our every plate an incursion on our neighbors' space; our big order came out haphazardly, first pizzas, then drinks, then appetizers last; and finally, a forgotten salad was presented as we were putting on our coats. It was so loud we couldn't hear ourselves talk, and we were pushed and jostled the whole meal through as other diners tried to come and go, get their own pizzas, silverware, water, forgotten salads, and so on. I'm sure if I had been in a train station in Milan it would have been charming, but when I'm on my own turf? Not so much.
That said, if you can hire a psychic and get to Punch when it's empty, you'll find one of the best cheap meals in town: The plain Margherita is $5.95, though of course I can never resist fancier pizzas like the Vesuvio ($8.85), made with good saracene olives and slices of spiced salami. Of course, when I was at the big shared table, I got to overhear two separate couples discussing what they thought of this whole unpleasant situation of Punch opening their newest spot a scant block from similar Neapolitan pizza joint Pizza Nea. The internet is similarly aflame with Punch partisans and Nea loyalists arguing which is better. Which side do I fall on? I like them both, but I don't like dining hurriedly in chaos. I prefer paying a bit more, in terms of leaving a tip (which one is encouraged to do at Punch anyway, but in a jar at the counter), in order to have my own little official place and someone responsible for seeing that the appetizers come out first. However, this is obviously as personal a choice as liking long coats for warmth or short ones for ease of getting out of the car, and so you'll have to pick your own coat, and your own pizza. But if you get your own pizza on your own coat, don't come crying to me, I wear a poncho fashioned from vinyl tablecloths for just that reason.
Speaking of Pizza Nea, you Uptowners better use it or lose it. I know you're swimming in pizza places, but I have it on good authority that Pizza Nea's Lake Street location is hanging on by a thread, which is terrifically bad news for everyone who loves good food but isn't a millionaire. Pizza Nea makes beautiful pizzas in the Neapolitan tradition, which is to say in a very hot oven from the most elementally satisfying dough, adorned with the highest quality, simplest ingredients, like San Marzano tomatoes and various olives, cheeses, and salamis fit to make the snobbiest Italophile sigh. Prices start at $6.50, though you can get a slightly smaller "pizzette" during the daily happy hour from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m., for $4.50, as well as some incredibly cheap drinks and half-price appetizers. Nea also has gorgeous wines, including the pretty, smooth, and strawberry-evoking Bodegas Las Lanos Tempranillo Reserva, for $6 a glass or $26 a bottle.
On weekends, they offer what has to be the most urbane experience to be had right now in all of Uptown: A Pizza Bianca con Uovo and a Bloody Mary for $12.95. A Pizza Bianca con Uovo is a white, tomato-free pizza topped with raw eggs and cooked in the oven, but before you run screaming squeamishly, please know that what arrives at your table is much like "eggs in a hat," that classic of a piece of bread with a hole cut in it, eggs inserted, and the whole thing fried—it's plain, hangover killing, and good. Actually, everything I've ever had from Pizza Nea has been good, but when I heard of their dire circumstances, I went back to see if I was missing some fatal flaw, some dragon breathing fire in the middle of the dining room. Nope, not that I could see, everything was right as rain.
The artichoke dip ($7.95) remains the best in the metro, with roasty leaves of good, not canned tasting, artichokes blended with a frothy cream and baked hard so that the Parmesan crisps and crackles deliciously. The pizzas, like the good looking Rucola ($9.95), in which fresh arugula and thinly sliced prosciutto are placed on the pizza after cooking so that they maintain their delicacy, was as good as ever, the fresh, hot dough and crisp char making the peppery greens and salty sweet ham stand up and sing. The Margherita ($7.50) was as plain and lovable as a teddy bear.
The only problem? There wasn't another table occupied in the whole restaurant. A tragedy. If I had a dollar from every Uptown resident who's written to me decrying the way the neighborhood is turning into nothing but a suburban-friendly drinking destination, with nothing targeted at the locals, why, I'd have enough money to go back to Nea a dozen more times. And I would, and I'd save you all from yourselves, and your appalling lack of self-interest when it comes to neighborhood bargains. Or wait—maybe you don't need bargains, because you're coming into Nigerian millions, too?
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