Brasa, Barrio, Bulldog set up shop in St. Paul

Loading meat into the smoker at St. Paul's Brasa

Loading meat into the smoker at St. Paul's Brasa

Something odd has happened to downtown St. Paul. In a city center that has often been desolate enough to film a zombie movie in, groups of people are gathering to eat and drink at night—every night. Even when there isn't a Wild game or a concert going on.

When the Bulldog opened last October in Lowertown, it was an immediate hit. With this summer's addition of Barrio right next door, St. Paul suddenly had a lively corner of downtown. Foot traffic began streaming through the lovely urban oasis of adjacent Mears Park. A constant flow of taxis, pedestrians, and occasional dogs crowded the nearby streets. It feels like a bona fide city even late into the evening, thanks to the two Minneapolis imports.

And those aren't the only restaurants to cross the border lately. Northeast Minneapolis's Pop! opened a second location on Sixth and Wabasha last August, adding another exclamation point to its name in the process. And a second Brasa, following the one on East Hennepin, opened on Grand Avenue the same week as the new Barrio. Though Pop!! started the trend, and has tasty Latin-inspired food, a fun drink menu, and colorful, inviting decor, it never generated quite the buzz that the more recent three have achieved. Maybe busy lunches don't get people talking as much, maybe it's the location, maybe the room is too big to ever feel really full—or perhaps this round of success is limited to restaurants whose names start with "B."

THE ST. PAUL BARRIO looks and sounds very similar to its Minneapolis counterpart, all dark woods, blacks, and reds; flickering candles; a big-screen TV showing old Westerns. But the room is larger and more spacious than the long, narrow original, and boasts some additional features, such as a collection of Mexican wrestling masks on one wall and a cozy, nearly creepy vault room that contains a small bar. The boisterous crowds are here, too, with perhaps a few more mature faces among the hot young things.

Both Barrios offer the same fare for now. The theme of the extensive drink menu is, as you know by now, tequila, and bartenders will be happy to make a recommendation if you're not sure what to try. For non-agave enthusiasts, the Old Cuban is a great option; it's a mojito made more complex by the addition of bitters and cava. I have yet to order one of the five larger entrées; the small plates are too much fun. Quality has been consistent at both locations, and tacos, served one per order, are uniformly excellent: The carnitas is rich, smoky, and sweet; the fried mahi mahi is bright, crispy, and citrusy; the potato-chorizo is earthy and peppery and comes in a crunchy shell. Favorite small plates include the potato sopes, airy masa cakes filled with salty goat cheese and served with a red chile-tomatillo salsa; and the jicama and citrus salad—thin slices of the light, refreshing vegetable drizzled with tequila-orange vinaigrette and sprinkled with pumpkin seeds.

LIKE BARRIO, the new Brasa on Grand Avenue uses the same design as its Minneapolis predecessor, which in this case was once a service station. The glass garage doors have been replicated on the new model, but again there's much more space inside (is real estate that much cheaper in St. Paul?). More huge windows on the building's side allow for the entire restaurant to feel almost open-air. The noise level is high when the tables are full, but the room's warm yellow tones are comforting.

Everything from the original menu is available, plus a few new items. Besides the delectable slow-cooked pork and roasted chicken, there's beef from Thousand Hills, plus a special every day, like fish, lamb, or sausage. A recent fried catfish plate came with crunchy, cornmeal batter-coated, fresh-tasting fillets; the nightly special side of old-fashioned potato salad was simple, eggy, and good, but the even better-sounding black-eyed peas with bacon and rosemary was sadly sold out. This Brasa will take reservations for parties of eight or more and will even prepare special menus for big groups. Owner Alex Roberts says they'll tweak the offerings as they go along, after observing what's popular with St. Paul customers. For him, the move to St. Paul was a natural one. From the very beginning, he says, he intended to open more than one Brasa. He's worked for months to ensure quality sourcing of his ingredients, getting suppliers to increase their production in some cases. His restaurants serve 100 percent local, naturally raised meats, along with dairy, and as much local produce as possible. More Brasas could be in the works in the future, but Roberts doesn't want to rush into anything—he won't lower his standards.

THE BULLDOG HAS BEEN a hit ever since the first one opened in south Minneapolis six years ago, taking over a former vegetarian restaurant to offer a menu based on hot dogs. The Northeast location also does well, but still, what made the owners think they could make it in downtown St. Paul? Co-owner Jeff Kaster credits his partner and the founder of the Bulldog, Matt Lokowich, saying he has a knack for scouting successful locations that others might not consider. As soon as Lokowich spotted the vacancy in the new Bulldog's building, he was calling up the owner to start negotiations. More Bulldogs are likely, possibly in Stillwater or the western suburbs.

And while the second Barrio and Brasa are still too new to gauge their staying power, the Bulldog has been open about 10 months and is still packing 'em in every night. It's standing-room-only at closing time on a lot of weeknights, says Kaster. The St. Paul Bulldog was the first of the three to offer beer flights (they recently debuted at the original location), and it has some menu items that aren't available at the others, though Kaster says they're planning to pare back a bit and focus on what they do (and sell) best: burgers and dogs. And this Bulldog is becoming part of the community. Mears Park hosts free concerts every Thursday night during the summer, along with events including the Jazz Festival and upcoming Concrete + Grass Festival. Barrio, the Bulldog, and other restaurants in the Lowertown area take turns selling refreshments in the park on event nights (tacos and sangria, hot dogs and beer, etc.). They've also teamed up in a neighborhood business association.

SO THE MINNEAPOLIS duplication has been good for St. Paul, but what does it say about the Saintly City that it had to copy concepts from its neighbor in order to transform a part of downtown into something vibrant? Actually, not much.

Looking back a little further, it appears that this trend is part of a longtime cycle of local-chain-building, in which each city shares its strengths with the other. Plenty of St. Paul restaurants have crossed the river in the other direction. Red's Savoy, purveyor of some the down-homiest, least trendy pizza around, just opened an Uptown location. Punch Pizza, maker of some of the Cities' best Neopolitan pizza, started in St. Paul and recently opened a second location there (right next to the new Brasa) in addition to its popular Minneapolis and suburban outlets. Along with pizza, St. Paulites know their breakfast fare (the first Key's opened there) and are adept at preparing ethnic foods that are authentic yet appealing even to diners unfamiliar with them. Some of the West Side's best Mexican restaurants now have outposts in Minneapolis at Mercado Central and Midtown Global Market.

The highly successful local Thai chain Sawatdee also started in downtown St. Paul. That was in 1983, when most Minnesotans had yet to experience Thai food. Owner Supenn Harrison's first restaurant was in Lowertown, and more opened in Minneapolis, Bloomington, Maple Grove, and St. Cloud. The original eventually closed, but Sawatdee made a return to downtown St. Paul in late 2007, taking over the former Margaux at Ninth and Robert Streets.

SO IF ST. PAUL needs to bring in a bit of Minneapolis to get some nightlife downtown, it doesn't mean the city is losing its identity. The Minneapple might be better at hip, and at attracting top-notch chefs, but the exchange goes both ways.

As for the Lowertown resurgence, it might not have peaked yet. The building that houses both the Bulldog and Barrio looks to have some more prime space available. Dare we press our luck? Maybe the magic letter will work again, and Barbette, Be'wiched, or the new Butcher Block could keep the streak going.