2095 Como Ave. St. Paul
291 W. University Ave., St. Paul
2532 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis
West Indies Soul
625 University Ave., St. Paul
Look at yourself, Toots, you're a mess. Your face is as long as the drive to Brainerd, and twice as gray. Your wallet's thinner than the premise you'd need to get a dating-show starlet into a waiting hot tub. If you were a Hollywood producer, that is. Which you're not. So you don't even get the hot tub. You're just a Minnesotan, so all you get is the yawning, groaning, unfillable maw of Holiday Party Season, which howls to you across the frosty plains, in language as chilling as it is plain, and says, Hey there, what do you think you're going to bring to the potluck, eh?
You're not stopping at Byerly's. That much is clear--clear as the echoing sound your fridge makes when you peer into its emptiness and whistle. But you're not going to Cub, or Lunds, or Rainbow, or even the Wedge, oh no. Because all of your friends shop the same places you do, and they know what these places have, and all you are going to admit if you go to the local grocery store on the way to the potluck is defeat.
Because of your curse. That's right, your curse. Too much taste, too much intelligence, too little time. Face it, Toots, if you didn't have your curse, you'd just show up at the party with that old box of toaster strudel that froze itself to the side of the icebox a few years ago, and you'd say, "Toaster strudel! Better than starving." But you can't do that. Too much taste.
Good thing you've got me on staff, that's all I can say. Because I'm gonna tell you a few things, a few secrets, a few off-the-record tricks that'll speak louder than a .45 when there are five aces on the table, and be twice as tasty. That's right, pay attention and watch me turn all your potlucks into cakewalks.
For instance, have you ever had the baba ghanoush from Abu Nader? Fresh, silky, edged with a roasty hint of fire, and made spirited with a shot of garlic, this is an eggplant dip for the ages. Abu Nader is a little Middle Eastern deli attached to a tiny convenience store on the corner of Como and Raymond, and if you venture in behind the extremely unprepossessing door you will find Bishara Ailabouni and his wife Izabelle cooking the family recipes they brought over from Israel 40 years ago, when this family of Christian Palestinian Arabs emigrated.
The level of from-scratch that the Ailabounis achieve is exhausting to contemplate: Parsley for their fantastic, light, and lemony tabbouli is cut by hand, because the Ailabounis believe it makes for a better texture and flavor than food-processor cutting. They are right. Spinach pies ($2.29) are made with hand-cut fresh vegetables too, cooked till they get a glossy green sheen, but not until the young leaves turn dark and fall apart. The spinach is combined with onions and a bit of spicy pepper seasoning so that the filling makes an earthy but vegetal contrast to the nutty homemade bread dough it's tucked into--yum. Other pie fillings include a terrific spicy pepper and feta, or a very mellow beef and pine nut.
Grape leaves (3 for $1.49) are among the best in town, homemade, tomato-touched and just as rich and intense as lovingly handmade grape leaves should be. If you've only had cheap restaurant grape leaves, filled with nothing but rice and old oregano, you simply have to try these. They will change everything. The Ailabounis make their own pita too, big, soft, handmade breads, and since they keep restaurant hours (open six days a week from 11:00 a.m. till 9:00 p.m., closed on Sundays) they're an ace in the hole when you need something on the way to your party.
Tabbouli and baba ghanoush are always fresh, and available in the little deli case beneath the cash register in half-pound take-out containers for $2.99; as are the regular, palm-sized spinach, feta, or meat pies, which can be cut in half for finger food. However, please note that if you call in advance the Ailabounis will make a two-pound dip container for you, bake special bite-size pies, or even, if you have a big order, come in special on a Sunday to bake fresh pita just for you. Because the food at Abu Nader is not merely delicious and not merely convenient, it's the product of folks whose passionate hobby is cooking, and who just like to share.
"My wife is a pharmacist, not a cook," Bishara Ailabouni explained in a phone interview, "but she loves to cook. The idea we started out with was to make people happy, to share what we do, to socialize and have a good time. Everything we eat comes out of [the restaurant kitchen.] I go down to Chicago every six weeks because I don't trust them to send the good ingredients to me. I want the best quality, and don't want to wait for it to come up here. The menu still has our prices from when we opened three years ago. We're not here to make much profit; we don't look at things from a business point of view, but from a health and quality point of view. Whatever we do, however much it costs, however long it takes, it's worth it to eat the best and serve the best."
And let me tell you, as someone who's made some pretty lackluster baba ghanoush in her day and been served gallons of it, there is no way you could make food this good at these prices. Did I mention the baba ghanoush has nice chunks of eggplant in it, and that the tabbouli has the best-quality cracked wheat in it, with small grains that are both chewy and finely textured? True. All true.
Finally, please note that when you serve these in your own bowls and your friends ask you how you did it, you can just say, "Oh, it's an old family recipe." This will be true. Just be sure you walk away before they ask whose family.
Another good idea is to make your friends think you're a fantastically wealthy globe-trotter, which is the only conclusion they will be able to draw if you show up with a couple of quarts of super-authentic papaya salad and a half-pan of shrimp-studded spring rolls. Only the secret is that a quart of papaya salad from the Capital Deli runs a mere $5, and a half pan, or about 20 or 25 whole spring rolls, runs a paltry $25. The spring rolls are plump little fellows bursting with fresh herbs, rice noodles, and a stripe of ground roast pork (which the deli will leave off, at your request), and they have at their crest cute, pink shrimp that show through their pale rice-paper wrappers. Adorable! At first, you won't know whether to eat them or hang them on the tree. But you'll figure it out.
The Capital Deli is a new Lao and Thai storefront in Frogtown with great pricing: $25 a half-pan, $50 a pan for most everything the kitchen makes, including their marvelous light larb chicken salad. Larb salads are basically the taco salads of Southeast Asia, ground meat combined with roast-rice powder, cooked with lime juice and lots of seasonings, then served over lettuce with plenty of cilantro and other fresh herbs. The Capital sells a beef one with tripe, a pork one, and a chicken one. If you want to taste before you buy, please note that the place is also a take-out lunch bargain; for $3.50 you can get a combo plate with the larb, one of their hot dishes like a beef-potato curry, and rice.
The papaya salad, though, it's a true winner, and authentic as all get out. Order it and they take out a mortar and pestle slightly larger than the QE2 and mash some limes, chiles, and fish sauce together with dark sugar and some other secret ingredients, and then toss this potent mixture with tomatoes and lots of fresh, shredded green papaya. Spicy, funky, potent--wow. This is not a dish for the hot-dish crowd, because with all that fish sauce it's extremely, extremely fragrant--if you catch my meaning. But hey, there are some parties where they understand that kind of cooking, and others where they don't, and you might want to bring it along anyway.
In any event, the spring rolls should go right into every thrifty hostess's Rolodex--especially since Capital Deli's open till 6:30 seven days a week, and requires only a little advance notice for trays of spring rolls.
On the other side of the river, I just learned that Minneapolis's own Jasmine Deli, the most loved and lovable of teensy Vietnamese restaurants, has a thrilling baker's dozen-type of policy. Get this: Any time you order 10 of anything, they throw in an extra two, so if you order 10 sets of spring rolls to go--be they shrimp, pork, or even mock duck--you get two extra free! I talked to Le Truong, one of the little family restaurant's co-owners, and she told me they only need about 45 minutes or an hour's advance notice for that take-out spring roll order that will dazzle everyone you know. An order of two spring rolls costs $2.95, so it's $29.50 for 24 of the little darlings.
Give the Truongs a day's advance notice and they can even make up a tray of their famous banh mi sandwiches for your party. If anyone in Minnesota hasn't yet tried an airy French/Vietnamese banh mi sandwich don't tell me about it, because I will just weep all over your good tweed coat. Banh mi are some of the best foodstuffs available in Minnesota, and Jasmine makes some great ones. Crisp, airy loaves of French bread spread with homemade pâté and special sweet house mayonnaise, then filled with sweet pickled carrots, sliced cucumber, jalapeño disks, cilantro, other fresh herbs, and finally crowned with your choice of traditional Vietnamese cold cuts ($2), sautéed, saucy mock duck ($2.50), or grilled, sweet marinated chicken, pork, or beef. Order a platter of 10 and you'll get a dozen sandwiches, all cut in half and ready to go.
Le Truong says you can also get their famous bun salads--those layered salads of herbs, lettuce, and noodles topped with grilled shrimp, tofu, or meat--in dinner-party sizes. She gives the ingredients to you in separate containers so that you can microwave the topping and assemble everything right before serving. A dinner party with award-winning food, and all you have to do is clear the guns, rubies, and stolen art from the dining room, microwave, and serve! And, of course, mix the drinks.
If the drinks on deck are of the frosty, fruity, umbrella'd variety, you'll be happy to know that West Indies Soul, long one of the best Caribbean restaurants in Minnesota, has all kinds of island treats that you can rustle up to knock the parrot-embroidered socks off your fellow party-goers. Like jerk chicken; the long-cooked, concentrated version that they serve here is sold by the piece, and when I talked to Sharon Richards-Noel, one of the little spot's co-owners, she told me you could get a half-pan of jerk chicken cut into finger-size pieces for about $33.
I've written about West Indies Soul before, especially back when it was on Minneapolis's north side. I revisited it recently for this story, and was struck by how all of those Caribbean stews and sides sitting in the steam tray could be put in a bowl and brought to holiday parties. Just drop by, place a double order and go, without the hassle of parking at a big-box grocery. (Look in the trays for an ever-changing variety of dishes, including curried oxtail, Caribbean cabbage, or spicy chickpeas.)
When I phoned to talk to Richards-Noel though, I learned about all kinds of special orders you can make after Thanksgiving from this little deli, such as "sweet bread," a $10 loaf of coconut and raisin bread that is a holiday-only treat, or the incredibly sexy sounding "black cake" ($15), a Caribbean fruit cake in which the rum-soaked fruits are finely ground before they go in the cake, making it, reportedly, black.
Richards-Noel comes from Trinidad and runs the business with her son, her husband, who hails from Grenada, and her uncle, who calls the island of St. Croix his home. With all these Island influences, here's another spot where they're serving treasured family recipes by the dozen. (The restaurant has been burned by no-shows for catering orders, so have a credit card ready if you want to make an advance order.)
So there you go! See, it all worked out. And you don't even look so gray anymore. In fact, you look positively perky and ready to get out there and face things square on. Oh no, you've got more troubles? There's a fat man under the stairs with a gun, demanding the stolen rubies? You're on your own now, kid. I've done everything I can do. Try the food critic down the hall.
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