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Meet the Chefs Busting the Myth of Midwestern Blandness

Tammy Wong of Rainbow Chinese dressing up a dish

Tammy Wong of Rainbow Chinese dressing up a dish

Americans. We revere our tinkerers, our innovators, our technicians. The drive to do something bigger, better, different, is hardwired into our DNA. It's our birthright to sail into the universe empty-handed, grab life by the balls, and beam proudly: "Look, Mom! Look what I can do!"

But hey, kid, you can't do jack. At least, you can't do anything properly — not without the nose-to-the-grindstone expertise of those who have come before you and might just continue long after you're gone. Sure, we love our technical innovators, but the legions of diners who turn to the following stewards of traditional cuisine for their daily sustenance cannot be wrong. Among them there are hundreds of years' worth of experience, and the cooks, chefs, and restaurants they've sprouted are countless. The meals they've produced with their own hands are even more impossible to enumerate.

They're sometimes the first, oftentimes the best, and many times the most interesting, but they are always guided by history, custom, wisdom, tradition, and the conviction that the way it has always been done is the way it should be.

These are sentinels of traditional ethnic cuisine.

Italian: Molly Broder

Broders' Pasta Bar

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Imagine a supermarket with no olive oil, no balsamic vinegar, no hunks of Parmesan. Such was the grocery landscape in the early '80s when Tom and Molly Broder fell in love with Italian cuisine. How did they do that, when there was no olive oil to be had? No Parm, except that stuff in a green can? They went to Italy, of course, and took classes led by Marcella Hazan, who Molly Broder describes as "the Julia Child of Italian cooking."

Hazan herself traveled to New York City way back in the '50s, and do you know what she found? There was no proper Italian. In New York City, home of the country's best pizza, home of Mario Batali (well, now it is, then it wasn't), home of Little Italy. So she taught New York, and she taught the Broders, and this is how 33 years of Broders' comes to you — by way of the Julia Child of Italian cooking.

"Once you've had authentic Italian food the way it's supposed to be, there's just no going back. You don't want it any other way," says Molly Broder, founder and mastermind of Broders' Pasta Bar and Italian Deli. The throngs of fans certainly don't seem to want to: The Broders have had to turn their coat check into a wine window, to placate the crush of diners who stand in wait for their spectacular array of nightly pastas.

There are over 20 of them a night to be exact: orecchiette (little ears) with ribbons of porky prosciutto, confetti of chile, and peppery leaves of arugula; fettuccine with knee-buckling rabbit braise, fatty pancetta dice, and the fragrance of cooked wine; squid ink linguine black as the deepest ocean, with tender rings of calamari, the black licorice of fennel, the herbaceous botanicals of Vermouth. The list goes on, and on some more.

Toss this together with their Terzo wine bar, a porchetta sandwich window, a full outdoor kitchen on their patio in summertime, and the best Italian imports market in the city. How do they do it? She thinks back to the way they started — the few specialty items they brought home to the Twin Cities all those years ago, and the handmade pastas they made themselves to sell to home cooks. "We had this lightbulb moment. We wanted to share that with everyone." Have they ever.

New and noteworthy: That outdoor kitchen opens May 21. Be there. It's an event.

5000 Penn Ave. S., Minneapolis
612-925-9202
broders.com

Caribbean: Marla Singh Jadoonanan

Marla's Caribbean Cuisine

Food people are benefactors. At least the successful ones are. There's a reason they call it the hospitality industry, and those in it for the right reasons never lose sight of that. But Marla (everyone knows her as just "Marla"), of Marla's Caribbean in south Minneapolis, may be the first nurse-turned-chef we've ever met. She spent the first 20 years of her adult life in the medical industry, but held fast to her passion for food. Marla's mother died when she was only eight. "Cooking is how I dealt with my mother's death. My father sent me out to cook with all of the women in the village," she says. They cooked roti and curry dal and rice every single day in mud stoves, just like her mother did.

Toward the end of her medical career, she worked in hospice, an experience that propelled her to open her first restaurant at age 40. "After you watch people die at all different ages for all different reasons, you think, well, let me just at least try at my dreams." She did, and now in her second location, she's been cooking for the Twin Cities for a decade.

People wait upward of two hours for a table sometimes, as Marla cooks every meal from scratch, one at a time from start to finish. "On weekends when we are so devastatingly busy we will warn people it could be two hours for takeout, and they say, 'We don't mind.'" Regulars come for the extreme freshness of her jerk, her curries, her brown down stew, her one-pot meal of Pelau, a popular beach lunch of rice and peas and protein in a piquant coconut broth. It's the ocean's answer to jambalaya.

Marla grew up in Trinidad and Tobago with her six siblings, two of whom came to the Twin Cities on scholarship in business and law and then sent for her, as she was the baby. Now her son is studying law too, but he wants to quit. He prefers working with her, and he wants his own place.

"We never get tired of this," she says. "We just can't wait to wake up every day and get cooking. The only thing we don't do is administer medicine here (aside from the powerful medicine of curry). Otherwise, we will take care of you. Come right to the kitchen when you come in."

New and noteworthy: After 10 years of not having one, Marla's is flirting with the idea of a beer and wine license.

3761 Bloomington Ave. S., Minneapolis
612-724-3088
marlascuisine.com

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Thai: Supenn Harrison

Sawatdee

"Hell!" Get tiny spitfire Supenn Harrison going on Thai food in the Twin Cities and you're likely to hear some choice words. "I'm the first, and I will be the last one on the planet! Hell!" She does get fired up, and she ought to. For a very long time there was one name in Thai in the five-state area and it was spelled like this: Sawatdee. Actually, it was first spelled like this: Siam Cafe. And prior to that it was spelled like this: State Fair Food Building.

She was a student, then a teacher, then a surgical equipment technician, but the flavor of her egg rolls trumped all of that. "I took them to work and my friends said, 'Oh! These are so, so, good!'" They talked her into a booth at the State Fair. It was 1979, she was eight months pregnant, and she sold egg rolls for 85 cents apiece. Now, at a very stately 69, she still oversees six Sawatdee restaurants.

"I'm supposed to retire, but I am a professional chef! My husband always says, 'Bullshit. You'll never retire.' But I don't know if they'll want me to cook anymore when I'm 70." We think they will. She makes a point of mentioning this: "I don't know how many Thai restaurants there are in the Twin Cities now? 100? They all graduated from Sawatdee! They all say they are the best. I just say whatever. I'm the original!"

New and noteworthy: The Maple Grove Location hosts live music every Thursday through Saturday.

Six locations
sawatdee.com

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Vietnamese: Lung Tran

Quang Restaurant

Do you know why you don't have a successful little restaurant of your own? Because you're not willing to work for it. Do you know who is? Lung Tran, 68-year-old founder and still-going-strong chef of Quang, who raised the money to open her doors by making Vietnamese pastries and assembling shower and first aid kits for hotels, with the help of the nimble fingers of her seven children. She was a widow, and "had to figure something out."

"It was struggle after struggle after my dad died," says Sen Reed, one of Tran's daughters, who speaks for her mom. (Tran doesn't speak much English.) So they stacked their chips for six years, until they had enough to open up a four-table takeout joint. Now those nimble fingers serve, at minimum, 500 diners on a Sunday afternoon, and if you multiply that by the days of the week, that's a hell of a lot of pho, of broken rice, of spring rolls.

And in the beginning there were a lot of shower kits, and a lot of pastries, too — the latter they only make on a limited basis these days. "They're a lot of work!" Reed exclaims, somewhat defensively. Reed works full time at the restaurant along with three of her six siblings. She says yes, her mom does want to retire. "But not until she's at least 80."

New and noteworthy: Quang serves wine and beer, and has a sidewalk patio.

2719 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis
612-870-4739
quang-restaurant.com

Indian: Ruhel Islam, Jamil Ahmed, and Rahman Rashad

Gandhi Mahal

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"All I see all over the world are problems, problems, problems. How to solve these problems?" By opening a restaurant, naturally. And naturally, not just any restaurant, but one with peace at the center of its mission. "People come together over food no matter what," says Ruhel Islam, who owns Gandhi Mahal in Longfellow with his brother and brother-in-law. Gandhi Mahal's tagline — "Dedicated to bringing peace by pleasing the palate" — is a tiny glimpse into a mission much larger than providing food, which they have done to great fanfare since 2008, and prior to that at Passage to India, formerly in Calhoun Square.

"Everything that happens in the world directly affects right here at the restaurant," says Islam. "Drought, climate change, everything. So we have to make the change we want to see in the world." They've got an aquaponics farm on the premises (the only in-restaurant one in Minnesota), beehives on the roof, farm plots in their neighborhood, and they recycle their cooking oil to produce biodiesel. They serve halal, kosher, vegetarian, and non-vegetarian dishes, as well as beer and wine, to be as inclusive as possible. And how does it taste? "My mom is cooking, my grandma, we all cook. It's the way we used to eat in Bangladesh." Fiery curries, strongly spiced tandoori, a full catalog of freshly baked naan and roti, and an exhaustive vegetarian menu are just a few things diners point to when considering it some of the best — if not the best — Indian cuisine in the Twin Cities.

New and noteworthy: Guided tours of the aquaponics system are available; just call them up to arrange it.

3009 27th Ave. S., Minneapolis
612-729-5222
gandhimahal.com

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Middle eastern: Leo Judeh

Shish

Leo Judeh has a bit of a PR problem. His last name isn't Wadi — the Wadis of course being the royal family of Middle Eastern food around here. They're the first (Holy Land) and the best (Saffron), meaning Judeh will forever occupy the purgatory of foodie list-dom. And it isn't fair, because his Macalester College-area Jerusalem deli Shish is beloved by many, and rightly so.

He met the love of his life, a Minnesota girl named Beth (we have adopted so many talented chefs thanks to our fine Midwestern marrying stock), after traveling to the States with the 1986 Olympics as a boxer — and he looks like a boxer, too, all barrel of chest and rugged of face. He serves what are arguably the best gyros in the cities, especially when bound with delicate Lebanese flatbread and interspersed with Jerusalem-style pickles that crunch and pop with surprise. You haven't had a gyro quite like this one. The lamb kebabs are tender as a dream, and the traditional coffee service will have you zooming around campus like a college kid.

"Back home, we were talking about lunch before we were finished with dinner," says Judeh. "And then we were thinking about what to have for dinner before we were done cleaning up lunch. I have ten brothers and two sisters and this is where we talk about politics and religion. The table is where we experience happiness, and it's where we experience sadness." This is the part where we tell you eating at Shish is all about happiness. And this is the part we probably don't have to tell you: The recipes are his mom's.

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New and noteworthy: He's recently opened a second restaurant, Grand Central, where deli meets bar meets entrees from around the world. Check out their rotating global menus, beginning on June 1. Sneak peek: North Africa and Jamaica.

1668 Grand Ave., St. Paul
612-690-2212
shishongrand.com

Mexican: Victor Martinez and Isela Perez

Maya Cuisine

Yes, we are embarrassed for being so rich. We have longstanding Mexican enclave West St. Paul with Boca Chica and El Burrito Mercado. And then East Lake with Pineda and their burritos the size of your thigh and the K Mart parking lot that's like a quinceanera of festivity every day. But right now we're crushing hard on Maya. We've fallen for their utterly tireless dedication to making by hand every tortilla, every sope, every huarache, right to order in front of your eyes if you so request; this, and their sheer deference to tradition.

"There is no chef here. Only family recipes and trying very hard," Martinez says. He and Perez learned from all the village ladies who cook all day, every day in their native Mexico. "We are not expected to go to the restaurant very often," he says. He held just one other professional cooking job before opening Maya. Possibly, it's this very wholesomeness we taste. Like a Minnesota boy barely off the farm, this cuisine is fine, honorable, capable, home-cooked. This is the crush you want to marry, the one that will be around for good.

New and noteworthy: Maya serves a Sunday buffet brunch service and they also plan to begin table service soon.

1840 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis
612-789-0775
mayacuisineusa.com

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Korean: Kimberly Firnstahl

Sole Korean Cafe

There ought to be a special award given to Korean women of a certain age who suffer no fools. Our award goes to Kimberly Firnstahl. Why does she singlehandedly own and operate Sole? "Because I know how to cook! I'm 62 years old! Like I told you!" Indeed she does. She actually bought the place off of her brother Pongun Kim, who now owns Kimchee Tofu House in Dinkytown, just in time for the economy to crash. So she flipped the place into a karaoke bar for a while, thinking there might be more money in beer crying and blues singing. Nope. The food won out, and she's been at the stoves again for the past five years.

She's got fierce and loyal devotees for her traditional cuisine. "I don't know what young kids are doing these days, but I learned from my mother, and she just had her 100th birthday, as a matter of fact." She does know what one young kid is doing — Eddie Wu of Cook St. Paul. "I taught him how to cook and I taught him to speak Korean." You can taste her influence all over his trendy diner menu, but better yet, go straight to the source. "My customers all have to leave stomach full and mouth happy." Wu recommends the yugaejang (beef noodle soup) extra spicy.

New and noteworthy: You can still use the karaoke machine, but by appointment only.

684 Snelling Ave. N., St. Paul
651-644-2068
solecafe.weebly.com

German: Erich Christ

The Black Forest Inn

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Don't think of German as ethnic? Way back 50 years ago you may have, when the Black Forest Inn, drugstore counters, Charlie's Cafe Exceptionale, and a couple of Chinese joints were the only ways to do Twin Cities dining, period. In the '60s, nobody was taking the time to work on one regional cuisine and present it in a dining room.

Erich Christ is a compact man with a jumbo personality, a thick German accent, and a colossal work ethic that means one thing: business. He and his bride and business partner Joanne have been the backbone of "The Black" for all these five decades, only wavering long enough to produce three children and to go on the occasional mental-health vacation.

He bought the place five decades back, just a German beer hall at the time, and wrote the menu in the style "of what I understood a traditional German restaurant to be." Not city food, not trendy, not cool. Groaning platters of meats, liver, wine-pickled herring with robust rye that's like a tonic for life itself. Spaetzle, sauerkraut, goulash, kidneys. Serious food for maintenance of constitution. Food that means business.

New and noteworthy: The Black Forest will be celebrating their traditional Spargelfest on May 23-31 with everything asparagus.

1 E. 26th St., Minneapolis
612-872-0812
blackforestinnmpls.com

Japanese: Koshiki Yonemura

Tanpopo

Imagine if you moved to Japan and you were no longer able to find a bowl of plain old chicken noodle soup. Or a beef stew in winter, or a plate of scrambled eggs with bacon. Or a ripe summer tomato with nothing but salt? You would miss these things. You would miss them an awful lot. And so Yoshiki Yonamura, who hails from Koshiki, a small island off of the coast of Japan, missed the flavors of home when she arrived in Minnesota to go to school.

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She went to work in local Japanese restaurants, where she found sushi galore. What she could not find were the lush bowls of soba and udon soups piled high with vegetables, or "set meals," little compartmentalized situations with grilled protein, miso, pickles, rice, and salad. She missed the simple, home-cooked sustenance.

So what else was there to do but to make them herself? "If I had not come to the United States I may not have opened a restaurant. But I really missed the food of my grandma and my aunt and my mom." And now you do not have to miss the food of her grandma, because it's right here for the taking, right now, in little old St. Paul.

New and noteworthy: Mondays are ramen nights!

308 Prince St., St. Paul
612-209-6727
tanpoporestaurant.com

Chinese: Tammy Wong

Rainbow Chinese

Ask Tammy Wong why she wanted to open up a restaurant and she'll tell you this: "I didn't!"

After she was born into a refugee camp in Vietnam, after immigrating to New York City and working in a sweatshop during her teenage years, Tammy found herself at the center of family politics. Her dad decided to buy a Chinese restaurant in Minnesota, and call it Rainbow. And he appointed his daughter to run it.

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"I don't know why he wanted to move to Minnesota, and I don't know why he wanted to open a Chinese restaurant, and I don't know why he wanted to call it Rainbow." What she does know is that he handed her the keys, the paperwork, and the responsibility. And run it she did, turning it into the best-known Chinese restaurant in the cities, all the while running and cooking at several other restaurants.

Today she can't really imagine doing anything else because this is her fate. She's the first-born daughter of a Chinese family, otherwise known as a warrior. You just do what you do. "It's complicated," she likes to say. She's still the chef, she general-contracted her own remodel, and in her spare time she rebuilt the pond and the landscaping at her house (which she built herself in the first place). Why? Her family didn't like it the way it was.

It's complicated.

Luckily, the fruits of her labor are less so — easy-to-understand favorites like cream cheese wontons, walnut shrimp, and the monumental yields of her fierce wok skills.

New and noteworthy: She's got a new line of gluten-free snacks like taro and yam chips. Get them at the restaurant, or add them to your Bitesquad delivery.

2939 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis
612-870-7084
rainbowrestaurant.com