Desi (de·si): sanskrit for “of the land” or “of the country.” A loose, subjective term used to describe the people, culture, and production of the South Asian subcontinent and the diaspora.
I recognize that “Desi” and “South Asian” are umbrella terms to define a broad community with a global diaspora that may or may not self-describe as either. In fact, these evoke the legacy of colonialism and imperialism, implying a solidarity we may not (or do not) have. My family may even scoff at the insinuation that we are one community. Nonetheless, in a place like Minnesota, when people are searching for home in food, we may turn to a variety of cuisines and dishes because they’re familiar. The flat breads. The use of a tawa. Savory stews and fragrant rice. Ginger and turmeric.
You’re welcome to debate whether or not I was right to include these establishments on this particular list. All I know is whoever you are and whatever the flavors of your home may be, these restaurants will make you happy.
The most common reason I’m underwhelmed by many South Asian restaurants in this area is a propensity to mute our precious spices, herbs, and aromatics. Theoretically, this appeases more tender, less acclimated palates.
But Lake Street’s Himalayan has remained a favorite of the community for good reason. The Nepali establishment is evidence that the boldness and complexity of our food doesn’t need to be hidden in order for people of all backgrounds to appreciate and enjoy it. Whether you’re South Asian yourself or never even had a samosa, you’ll leave Himalayan satisfied. You can get breads, meats, and veggies straight out of the enormous tandoor oven or order fragrant rice and noodle dishes made from scratch. And of course, vegetarians and meat-eaters alike can sample a variety of dishes by ordering sampler platters or going to their lunch/brunch buffets.
Must try: Palak Paneer. Their version involves spinach and paneer cooked in a luscious spicy tomato cream sauce. Order the scratch-made naan to soak up the curry and really appreciate the depth of the sauce. You’ll thank me later. Himalayan Restaurant, 2910 E. Lake St., Minneapolis, 612-332-0880
Tracy’s Saloon & Eatery
We all have our beloved neighborhood bars, where the specials lure you in but the quality food keeps you coming; Tracy’s Saloon is just that. Sure, the bar in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood is serving up excellent traditional American bar fare like burgers and fries. But they also serve prawn noodles in a ginger-coconut sauce and tandoori salmon with coconut rice and papadum. While calling this “bar food” may be unusual in Minnesota, it’s beloved around the world. The balance of multiple textures and flavors is exactly what you’ll want from happy hour to dinner to late-night.
Must try: House Curry and Lemon-Rice. The layered coconut curry comes with your choice of protein served with crispy papadum, tangy lemon-rice, and their special apple-raisin chutney. Add a beer and you might just make it through this winter. Tracy’s Saloon & Eatery, 2207 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis, 612-332-1865
Namaste India Grill & Brew House
When I saw the reviews of this relatively new restaurant in Arden Hills, I was admittedly skeptical. The Twin Cities hasn’t yet developed a complex Indian regional cuisine scene, so the options are limited and drive Desi midwesterners to places like Chicago.
But Namaste vies to fill some of our voids. Street foods—including South Indian favorites—are quality and layered with the thoughtfulness this cuisine demands. The chutneys, achars, and flatbreads are house-made. Every curry and korma I’ve tried so far has not shied away from our precious herbs and spices. First I was stoked to see things like Chicken 65, vada pav, dosas, dahi puri, and chaat on the menu, then euphoric when they were all genuinely delicious and reminiscent of the quality offered in Chicago, Texas, Toronto, etc.
Must try: Tikka/Tandoori dishes with naan. A quality tandoori tikka (skewered meats/veggies/cheeses cooked in a tandoor oven) is hard to come by in Minnesota, as is quality naan. Call your aunties, because this place has both. Namaste India Grill & Brew House, 3673 Lexington Ave. N. Ste. L, Arden Hills, 651-330-6522
Harry Singh’s Original Caribbean Restaurant
If you think ketchup is spicy, this place is not for you. Everyone else, if you haven’t been to Harry Singhs—the Trinidadian treasure of Eat Street—read on.
Harry Singh’s is affordable. It’s spicy. It’s comforting. You may recognize Harry Singh’s from their State Fair stand in the food building (which I visit first thing on the first day, every year.) Or perhaps you’ve heard of them because they’re often mentioned in discussions about where to get something properly spicy in Minnesota. Namesake and owner Harry Singh rolls out fresh rotis, curries, jerk chicken, patties, and more, all while a house pepper sauce has you sweating and those endorphins flowing. And you can wash it all down with Caribbean punch or some ginger beer.
Must try: The Doubles. This popular Trinidadian dish traces back to the Chola Bhaturas of India, and is a set of little fried breads served with a spicy and layered chickpea curry. Harry Singhs’ doubles are so craveable because they’re salty, spicy, crispy, and airy pillows of joy. Harry Singh’s Original Caribbean Restaurant, 2653 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis, 612-729-6181
O.M.G. (Original Meditteranean Grill)
The Pakistani establishment has drawn my family and our loved ones from all across the greater Twin Cities area since it first opened. With zabiha halal meats incorporated into a mix of popular American, Mediterranean, and Pakistani favorites, it’s no wonder there’s always a caravan of brown people headed to New Brighton. While the name may point you toward the falafels and gyros, the love is in the Pakistani dhaba favorites like halwa puri and bun kabobs. You can taste the personal connection in every bite. Just plan a nap afterward.
Must try: Halwa puri. A savory chickpea curry and a sweet halwa are served with fried flatbread. A word to the wise: Do not eat this if you need to be productive afterward. If you eat meat, try the Nihari—a savory and floral beef stew that’s perfect on a freezing cold Minnesota winter night. O.M.G. (Original Meditteranean Grill), 788 Cleveland Ave. SW, New Brighton, 651-255-7827