Resisting the Global Cookie Cutter
979 Randolph Ave., St. Paul, 222-0969
Listening to the BBC the other night, I got to hear a story about how big American-style supermarkets are forcing small local markets to close in the British countryside. I was so surprised. Shocked, really. As if I'd just entered a valley of dinosaurs. I honestly didn't realize there were still places where this could be newsworthy. Shows what I know.
I feel bad for all these country Englishmen mourning the homogenization of their commercial landscape. It's sad to feel the world you know slip away, even if that world had higher prices and less convenient hours. But if you meet any of these sad Brits, console them for me, won't you? Tell them that they can count on some things holding out against the cookie-cutter forces of globalization. Tell them that there will always be a couple of creeping Charlies in their Chemlawn, if they keep an eye out for them.
I don't know what will be their symbol of stubborn, weedy uncorporate-ness, but for me it's often barbecue joints. Neighborhood storefronts that smell of smoke, that offer American vernacular chow at Joe Six-pack prices, places where people smile because they want to and not because they're being monitored by a supervisor. Places like Rooster's.
Set on a silent corner in the elbow of neighborhoods in St. Paul between I-35E, downtown, and West Seventh Street, Rooster's is a spot that quietly keeps on keepin' on in the face of the recent wave of big-buck theme barbecue. The decor and ambience are of the Formica-and-knickknack variety that characterizes most barbecue joints, but the food is the sort of stand-alone delectable that makes people veer off the path of efficiency and appreciate fire.
Especially the barbecue sandwiches, piles of pulled pork shoulder, tender as bread left out in the rain and smoky as ghosts. A small sandwich costs $3.75, $5.65 with fries and coleslaw. A large sandwich ($4.50/$6.40) is nearly a meal for two. Either is a peach of a sandwich, the sort of thing that it feels gooney to gush over since it just sits there, sloppy in a bun, modest in foil-paper wrap. But it tastes so good, so purely meaty and merely glanced, not doused, with sauce, that it's the essence of meat--barbecue heaven. This is the sort of sandwich you'd want to be stranded on a desert island with.
Rooster's smoker turns out on-the-bone barbecue too. On three visits I had three rather different experiences with the pork ribs ($10.85 with fries, coleslaw, and a roll, $9.85 solo.) Once, the texture was weird; a charred exterior lifted and fragmented by sauce made the ribs gritty and unapproachable, though the meat was tender. The next time, I tried them sauce-on-the-side and the meat was sweet, though (surprise!) dry. On my third visit, the ribs were just right, the exterior sweet, tangy, and gummy, the inside rosy-pink, yielding, tender, fantastic. Beef ribs ($9.95 with the works, $8.95 solo), were only available on one of my visits and turned out nicely roasty and slightly fatty in that slow-cooked way they're supposed to be. I guess I like my barbecued chicken ($7.45 for a half-chicken dinner, $6.45 alone) less saucy and more smoked than Rooster's, but I'll admit that by my third go-around, I was getting a little crabby at having to eat anything other than barbecue sandwiches. So let me reiterate: Barbecue sandwiches! Some other things at Rooster's aren't so hot--the mashed potatoes come from boxes, the french fries from bags. The haddock dinner ($5.45) has formed fish triangles as its centerpiece. Yet I liked the fresh, if bland, milky coleslaw, and the firm, waxy potato salad. Most of all, I liked the way in which Rooster's reminded me that in the fields of Twin Cities gastronomy--fields full of bramble thickets bursting with marketing plans and cynical strategies I've come to accept as normative--there are touchstones of ordinary human proportion like Rooster's, places where it's just you, two orange booths, and barbecue.
NUDGE NUDGE, WINK WINK: Just when I think you Gourmet readers have lost your sense of humor, you shoot out a knee-slapper to remind me of just how ice-dry a good Minnesota joke can be. And don't think you put one over on me; I'm wise to your readers' poll, in which random samplings of Gourmet subscribers respond to surveys, with the results published in the magazine's annual "America's Top Tables" story. Where's the joke? Look carefully, after the predictable top five--D'Amico Cucina, Goodfellow's, the 510, Manny's Steak House, and Kincaid's Steak and Chop House--and you Gourmet punsters set up a real zinger: The Twin Cities' sixth-best restaurant? Drum roll... The Lowell Inn! Man, that's good. The fact that no one's eaten there since their honeymoon matters not, what counts is that with any luck, we can divert unsuspecting travelers there, and then scream: Gotcha! Suckers. Man oh man, that's almost as good as last year's Gourmet Top Tables zinger: Gustino's. But you really had me going, the way at the end of this year's poll you went and said the best drinks in town are at Champps Americana. Champps! Man, you guys kill me. I almost spit milk out my nose on that one. You rule.
UMM-MM, TASTES LIKE BIODIVERSITY: Let's play word association. Sunrise... sunset. Very good. Eagles... hawks. Fine, fine. Wildlife... seasonings. Aha! You've obviously had a sneak peek at Ted Nugent's True North 1999 catalog. Oh, how I love the fall day when my Nugent catalog arrives, when I get to drool over "wildlife seasonings" ($2.95 per), learn how training bows will hone your sons' "pointing instincts," and glimpse a forest-photo mural that "looks so good you'll want to shoot it." My choice for 1999's best offering, not counting the $4,000 option to kill a buffalo with Ted has got to be the infant camouflage outfit ($19.95), described using a first-person narrative that richly, evocatively gives me the all-week creeps. Imagine a curly-haired baby in olive camo. "Hi, my name is Calin. I like to play hide & seek with my daddy. If I didn't fill my pants he'd never find me in my camo baby clothes. He sniffed me out. That's not fair! WAAHHHH!!! One time he spanked me for crying when he found me & poop flew all over the place. He got it all over his hands but saved it for a buck lure when he went hunting. He said it killed his scent! Mom didn't think so." If you want your own documentary proof of the aliens among us, call 1-800-343-HUNT to request the catalog, or visit it online at www.tnugent.com. And remember, campers, as the Nuge always says, "Kill, grill, thrill."
POP THE HOOD ON THAT SUCKER: On the block where I grew up, there lived a family of six brothers who very much admired whatever it is that lurks under the hoods of cars. They would spend a lot of time hunched over automobile guts with wrenches and rags, and regularly had visitors who came by specifically to pop hoods and ooh and aah. I watched them from the distance of my pack of younger kids, never exactly wondering what they were up to, but aware nonetheless. And I've never thought of them since. Until last week, when I got a copy of the Better Homes and Gardens New Baking Book (Better Homes and Gardens Books, $25.95). You know the kind--the ring-binder-style book every grandma has on a shelf somewhere, the kind with lots of pictures, measurement tables, and facts about pumpkins and flour varieties. Now mind you, I've had an old 1950's thrift-shop version of the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook on my shelf for years; I use it religiously to figure out what to do when I'm out of baking soda, or when I want to know how to make old-fashioned things like jam thumbprint cookies. The news is that this 1998 cookbook has all the old real-life recipes you can't live without--the pumpkin pies, the cheesecakes, the Christmas cookies, the Lady Baltimore Cake--as well as an extended section that covers all the baking anyone's ever likely to do in this lifetime. There's a yeast baking section. There are lots of Martha Stewarty recipes for hand-painted cookies and European chocolate-crowned morsels, yet BH&G substitutes ultra-clear directions and carefully numbered steps for that infuriating "everyone knows how to roll marzipan" attitude. On top of that, there are a bunch of show-stopping gourmet recipes--like Olive Oil Génoise in Strawberry Champagne Sauce. I got all revved up just looking at the book, dazzled with the thought of all I could do with such a compact package. My heart was actually sort of racing, and I began to cast around for someone, anyone, I could share my irrational exuberance with. Suddenly I realized: This must be the weird nutty-hobby passion felt by the boys across the street. Pardon me, fellas, I'm putting on my oven mitts and taking this baby out on the open road to see what she can do.
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