The first time I saw the onion rings at Pop's, steam shot out of my ears in the manner of Wile E. Coyote, and small birds chirped as they flew in a close circle around my head. After that, the sky cracked open, a rainbow beamed down centrally on the plate, and little faeries wearing iridescent robes rode down playing small harps and dancing ecstatically, placing their little golden sandals in a special way that I intuitively knew meant: Don't drown with ketchup. I mean, these were some onion rings! Two inches thick, pillowy and plush with golden batter, light as peony blossoms, crisp as fireworks and a rocket's red glare. I bit into them, and the captured bubbles of batter tore away to reveal sweet, mild, gently caramelized strips of the noble vegetable in question. Holy cats—these weren't just onion rings, these were onion rings to base a road trip on.
So if you are one of those Minneapolis residents who consider St. Paul a foreign territory, and anything on the east side of downtown St. Paul to be part of Wisconsin, or possibly Maine, consider the gauntlet thrown down: You're going to have to get in the car if you want the best onion rings in the state. That car will proceed off I-94 and up the tricky left exit that leads up to Mounds Boulevard and Metropolitan State University, and, most importantly for our purposes, toward a truly new and noteworthy little gem of an everyday charmer: Pop's Family Café.
Pop's opened in April, the product of co-owners Lou Sudheimer and chef Larry Noble, and it is a real family restaurant, with Noble's wife, Mary, and sons DeAndrae, Chad, and Jarrett all pitching in. Chef Noble has been cooking in and around St. Paul for the last 14 years, wielding his knives at the St. Paul Grill, the Cherokee Sirloin Room, and the café at the Minnesota History Center, among other places. Before that he put in some 20 years in other kitchens around the country.
"I've been in the business for 34 years," he told me when I spoke to him briefly for this story, "cooking everywhere from little places in California to big hotel casinos. I was born in Nashville, grew up in California, met my wife in Fresno, and had our boys. But my wife used to live here a couple years back, and all she talked about was St. Paul: 'It's so nice in St. Paul. It's really nice in St. Paul.' So I said, 'Let's go!' She was right, it's a nice place to raise your kids."
Soon enough chef Noble was up to his happy ears in St. Paul family life, volunteering in the St. Paul schools, coaching baseball, and refereeing for the Catholic Association for basketball and softball. Through all the cooking and all the family life, though, he never had the opportunity to cook his favorite recipes his way: The onion rings were an idea he came up with while cooking in Mahtomedi, "But it was another guy's restaurant, and I couldn't do it. But now I can. I love to do those little things that make something go overboard with people, and they say, 'Man, that's so good!'"
In my experience, Pop's doles out plenty of things that make you say that. Fried chicken is made from scratch with plump, juicy chicken pieces in a coating so crisp and tasty you start planning your return visit before you've even finished the first piece. (Fried chicken is available in bazillions of price points and sizes, from a quarter dark meat chicken dinner, with fries or mashed potatoes and gravy, coleslaw or a dinner salad, and garlic toast, for $5.50, to a 16-piece all white meat bucket with pints of sides, for $32.) If fried chicken seems insanely decadent to you, make it vaguely healthier with a brimming plate of roast vegetables ($3.50), each half-moon of zucchini and summer squash rendered delicious thanks to a little time in a pan with well-caramelized onions.
Pop's has one of those ultimate American menus with all the good stuff, like burgers both plain and fancy, including a patty melt done right, on grilled rye with griddled onions and Swiss ($6.95, all burgers come with fries), and an open-faced chili burger ($7.25) with cheese and fresh onion. Or a hot vegetarian sandwich of portabello mushroom stuffed with sautéed spinach, roasted red peppers, and garlic, the whole thing itself roasted, covered with melted Swiss cheese, and presented with a choice of sides ($6.95). Lunch and dinner are served every day continuously from 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. and are a must-visit for anyone who spends much of their workday in a car or truck; of course St. Paul police are becoming regulars.
Is it the food, or are they simply alarmed because a 14-ounce walleye fillet priced at $11.95 is a steal? Ba dum sha! In any event, that walleye comes with a loose homemade tartar sauce livened up with chopped hard-boiled egg whites and capers, and is offered either grilled, with a lemony spice rub, or crisply fried. Got half-pints? Half a dozen kids' meals, priced from $3 to $3.75, prove that chef Noble is deeply in touch with what it takes to make the under-10 set happy. And I haven't even mentioned the breakfast!
Oh, the breakfast. Served weekdays from 6:00 to 11:00 a.m., and on the weekends from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., this breakfast proves that Noble is in touch with what it takes to make everyone happy. For civilized folks, eggs Florentine ($7.99) are presented with a light hollandaise made bright green with fresh spinach, and served beside a generous cup of fresh fruit. For those recovering from wicked deeds the night before, a bread-loaf-sized chili cheese omelet ($6.50) provides all the salt and savor needed to re-orient the mind, and the accompanying crisp hash browns and pile of toast make sure you don't have to eat again till the next day's recovering. Crisp, sweet waffles (from $6.99) offer the unmistakable traits of fresh beauties made to order: no mere reheated waffles here. No, here you have eggy, tender pockets of batter focused by the crisp grid, and topped, if you like, with fresh chopped pecans and slices of banana. The Cajun pork chops and eggs ($10.99) is two boneless spice-dusted pork chops paired with three eggs and a mess of sides; I guess I'll call this one the breakfast aimed at people who plan to spend the rest of the day raising barns or breaking railroad cars between their hands as if they were twigs.
My only plea is that you don't order the pork chop breakfast (or the steak and eggs one, which I didn't try, but after learning about the Cherokee Sirloin Room connection, wish I had) if that means you'll skip dessert. Sometimes dessert might be oh-so-American, oh-so-classic banana pudding, complete with 'Nilla wafers on top, made from the recipe Larry Noble's mom used when he was a tiny boy in Memphis, and sometimes it will be layer cake, and sometimes it will be Mary Noble's sweet potato pie, an almost savory version made with plenty of spice, but not too much sugar.
What? You say you don't know much about sweet potato pie? That's not too surprising. It's a Southern and African American specialty, and those are two types of restaurants Minnesota is particularly lacking in. In fact, while I may be mistaken, I think that Pop's is the only black-owned table-service restaurant in St. Paul. Pop's is singular on another front, too: When was the last time a family restaurant opened where an actual working family could afford to eat? It seems like most of the 'family' restaurants that open on the California side of the Mississippi these days are designed not so much for families with kids as they are for families of investors. Pop's, with its simple interior of 19th-century brick and ironwork, its G-rated beverage list of malts, soda pop, and milk, its pretty view of St. Paul, and its all-American, value-oriented menu puts the family back in family restaurant. And if that's not enough to bring the rainbows cracking and faeries dancing over your head, I can recommend a certain plate of onion rings that is sure to.