Minneapolis and St. Paul's midnight snacks
The other night, well past midnight, I watched with some sadness as a grown man carried a frozen pizza home from the corner gas station. While I sympathize with the occasional craving for shrink-wrapped, cardboard-backed foods, and will even make allowances for those sweaty, roller-grilled, gas station wieners, something about the way the guy palmed the pizza made me think that his fridge probably contained nothing but beer and condiments, and that this was his nightly habit. Did he not realize that in the time it would take to preheat the oven he could have zipped downtown for a fresh-baked slice from Pizza Lucé?
If you're a convention visitor looking to live up your last few nights in town, or a local in search of a midnight meal, the Cities have several great places to snack: Barbette, for example, has its beloved frites, mussels, and pâté; Azia, its spicy tuna rolls and cream cheese-cranberry wontons. But when you want something more substantial, here are a few favorite places to find a full meal well past the dinner hour.
Cheap Chic at Chino Latino
It's been eight years since Chino opened on the corner of Hennepin and Lake, and its golden, glittering facade shows no signs of fading. How has someplace super-trendy managed to become so timeless? The tropical drinks and sharable Latin-Asian food are consistently inspiring. And despite all the obnoxious posturing and preening, the guys whose watches cost more than an Uptown rent check and girls whose outfits could double as handkerchiefs make for great people-watching. And after 10:30 p.m., food on Chino's happy-hour menu is priced as it might be in its country of origin. You can share four tacos, a plate of enchiladas, and an order of the caramel-soaked French Toast of the Dead for all of 11 dollars—entertainment included. Full menu served until 1 a.m. (2916 Hennepin Ave. S. Minneapolis; 612.824.7878, www.chinolatino.com) $-$$
Breakfast All Day at Mickey's Diner
This tiny, 1930s Art Deco dining car has a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, a role in several Minnesota-made movies (Mighty Ducks, Jingle All the Way, and A Prairie Home Companion), and a fond place in many Midwestern hearts. The greasy spoon scrambles eggs, griddles burgers, and mixes up malts 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Waitresses sling food like they've been doing it for decades—and many of them probably have. Some call Mickey's fare hangover prevention. To others, the weak coffee, mountainous chocolate sundaes, and hamburgers topped with bacon and plasticky cheese are the foodstuffs of teenage taste buds and appetites. In any case, the pancakes—sour with buttermilk, salty with meat grease on the grill, and good enough to eat sans syrup—are the genius of the place, and make for a perfect solitary supper. Full menu served 24 hours a day. (36 W. Seventh St., St. Paul; 651.222.5633, www.mickeysdiningcar.com) $
The Gourmet Goods at 112 Eatery
The 112 Eatery is the only chef-driven (a James Beard Award-nominated chef, at that) restaurant in town that stays open late-night and serves its full menu until closing. The clubby booths are among the most-booked tables in town, so if you don't have a reservation, eating late is the best time to get in. (At 10 p.m. on a recent Monday, I snagged the absolute last table in the place.) The kitchen still serves its much-lauded bacon, egg, and harissa sandwich, and thin-sliced lamb chops seared in lard, but they've added several newer items in recent months. The duck pâté bahn mi is a refined version of the beloved Vietnamese sandwich. Thin soba noodles, sticky with a spicy peanut sauce and studded with black sesame seeds and cilantro, are topped with a daring slice of veal tongue (breaded lightly to resemble a croquette, it has the texture of tenderloin but twice the flavor). My new favorite 112 dessert is the butterscotch budino, Italian pudding topped with caramel and sea salt, sprinkled on top like a chef's fairy dust. Full meals served until midnight Monday through Thursday, and 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. (112 N. Third St., Minneapolis; 612.343.7696, www.112eatery.com) $$
Hippie Heaven at Hard Times Cafe
This grungy, worker-owned collective near the University campus attracts counterculture types hungry for vegetarian and vegan food. (RNC protesters: This is where you'll find that 2 a.m. soy latte.) Between the colorful walls and the guys playing chess, the place feels like a neighborhood community center, except that it has a statue of the Hamm's beer bear passing out free condoms. There's also a box of donated clothes, and many patrons who look like they dress out of it. Despite the grit, the Hard Times fixes up honest grub, from meatless omelets to a tempeh Reuben that tastes just as good as the real thing. Full meals served 6 a.m. to 4 a.m. daily. (1821 Cedar Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.341.9261) $
A Finer Diner at Town Talk
Take a seat at one of Town Talk's swiveling barstools for diner food at its finest. The kitchen refashions classic American fare, so the cheese curds come from Wisconsin's famed Carr Valley and are deep fried in a tempura-light, scallion-flecked batter and served with sweet bacon ketchup. The bar menu includes such delights as pulled pork and fried egg sandwiches, a kitchen-sink burger, and its miniature cousin, duck bombs—sliders made from house-ground poultry and served with bourbon ketchup. The Fearless Frank is first in its class: It's a hot dog wrapped in bacon, topped with shredded cheese, chili, and crunchy grilled onions. In addition to offering a user-friendly wine and beer list, the bar serves alcoholic malts and handcrafted cocktails like the Dark Storm, a sweet, citrus-rum concoction with ginger ale and house-made bitters, alongside the standard old-fashioneds and gin fizzes.
The counter at Town Talk tends to host all sorts of philosophical conversation. The other night, a guy posed a dating question: "What's the bigger deal-breaker?" he asked. "If a guy has 'truck nuts' hanging from his trailer hitch, or a tattoo of Richard Nixon on his butt?" The query traveled down the bar and then across it, telephone-style, racking up responses. Truck nuts won, 3 to 2, and one patron suggested that owning Gilmore Girls on DVD was its equally repellant female equivalent. Some of the women disagreed—perhaps another round of drinks would settle it. Bar menu served until 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday. (2707 1/2 E. Lake St., Minneapolis; 612.722.1312, www.towntalkdiner.com) $-$$
Retrorama at Nye's Polonaise Room
Admittedly, the food at Nye's isn't all that amazing, but what the place lacks in its culinary contributions it makes up in ambience. Gray-haired waitresses weave between the glittery gold booths in the windowless lounge, doting on their customers by bringing extra napkins to line a lap. Nye's serves old-school supper club fare and a few Polish specialties, which, except for the sauerkraut, tend to be rather bland. But perhaps utterly unseasoned potato pierogi are just what you need to sop up several pitch-perfect sidecars?
But the big draw of Nye's is less the ho-hum cabbage rolls than the culture, as the place draws a mix of old-timers who patronized the place decades ago and hipsters with a sense of humor. (My favorite Nye's ad reads: "If you're going home alone tonight, you just got lucky.") They commune at the restaurant's piano bar, clustering around the microphone singing "Jeremiah was a bullfrog..." accompanied by the resident key-tickler. Behind the piano hangs a portrait of Chopin, a flag, and an article from Esquire magazine that dubbed Nye's the "Best Bar in America." And when the infamous polka band strikes up a raucous rendition of "Roll Out the Barrel," you'll probably agree. Dinner served until 11 p.m. on weeknights; bar menu Friday and Saturday until 1 a.m. (112 Hennepin Ave. E., Minneapolis; 612.379.2021, www.nyespolonaise.com) $$
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