There's a biker coffee shop around the corner from my house, and in the 50 million times I've grabbed an iced coffee at the place, I've never heard anyone talking restaurants—until this week. The crowd was the typical crowd, tattooed beauties in custom Ducati jackets, grizzled vets with vintage Sturgis patches, and pale dudes in thick leathers who have that certain something about the eyes that hints that if you knew them better, they would probably fix your computer and then tell you a little more about Farscape than you'd rather know. The topic, however, was not just restaurants, but the very restaurant I had been to the night before: Brasa, which just opened in Northeast.
It's Southern, argued one group of bikers—the menu is a typical meat-and-three combo, but we don't know why it's got all those Mexican accents. It's not Mexican, said the other group, it's traditional South American, like that place in Uptown, with the Peruvian rotisserie chicken, but we don't know why it's got all those Southern vegetables, like collard greens. I thought of busting in on their conversation to clarify, like the film director in that scene in Annie Hall, but I figured I'd let it play out, and so spent an ungodly amount of time fussing over sugar packets, digging through my purse, and generally trying to make it look like I was not merely eavesdropping.
The only problem with the place, one customer went on, was that it was very expensive. No it wasn't, countered another—if you tried to cook the same things using ingredients from the Wedge it would cost you far more in food alone, never mind the work of cooking. But, said another, you could get the same thing from Boston Market at half the price! At this point, I stopped being self-satisfied with my eavesdropping, and began to wonder what would happen if this conversation went any further: If they mentioned that Brasa has beer and wine, functions brilliantly as a takeout, and is the brainchild of James Beard-nominated Restaurant Alma chef Alex Roberts, would my entire reason for existing on this planet be nullified, and would I just vanish in a puff of smoke? I silently reminded the good Lord that I had much work left undone (much of it laundry, but still), and thus the bikers were guided to other topics, allowing me to continue my earthly progress. Phew!
Happily, that progress soon returned me to Brasa, the greatest thing to happen to Minnesota takeout since the invention of those little handy-wipe packets—several of which are tucked into a cup on every table at Brasa. For those of you reading this hoping to learn that Brasa is just Restaurant Alma—one of the city's preeminent white-tablecloth, farm-driven restaurants—on a budget, take those handy-wipe packets as your warning shot: Brasa is something else entirely. And I think it's actually something newer and more revolutionary than it appears at first glance.
At first it seems, like those bikers noticed, a little Southern, a little Latin American, a little Boston Market. Brasa serves two meats and twelve sides. The meats? Rotisserie chicken and slow-roasted pork. The chicken is amply spiced, cooked on a traditional rotisserie until it's well browned, and served with a handful of lemon slices just when the skin is crisp and russety. It tastes like good, plain, roasty, delicious, homemade chicken. Nothing more and, importantly in a world of sodium-and-vegetable-oil-injected chickens, nothing less. (The chicken is available alone, priced at $5 for a quarter-chicken, $7.50 for a half, or $14 for a whole; and in various combination plates, like the half-chicken with two sides and coleslaw for $13.50.) The pork is even better: Berkshire pork shoulder is well seasoned and then slow roasted until parts are crispy, crackling, and salty, while other bits are soft as cheese—it's so scrumptious, savory, and comforting that you could eat it by the pound. If you do, it costs $14 a pound, though it's also available, like the chicken, in various combination plates, including a small roast pork with coleslaw and two sides for $11, and a large roast-pork plate for $13.50. A combo plate of both pork and chicken runs $14, with coleslaw and two sides.
Now, please know that these dozen sides are not to be underestimated. Brasa's cabbage salad, for instance, is, if not the best coleslaw in the state, a front-runner: White cabbage is sliced paper-thin, coated with a light, lemony vinaigrette, and tossed with fresh flat-leaf parsley and mint, creating the purest, most buoyant, cleanest-tasting coleslaw ever—it's the sashimi of coleslaws. The marinated chickpea and barley salad is another gem: For this, chick peas and barley are combined with micro-diced carrots and fresh thyme in a peppery vinaigrette that makes the healthy beans taste as robust and devourable as Cheetos.
The grits are, again, easily some of the best (or the best) in the state. Brasa uses heirloom grits—those in which the dried corn kernels are ground with old-fashioned stone wheels, not modern steel. This stone grinding happens at a lower temperature than steel milling, which allows corn's essential oils and more of its flavor to be preserved, and it also results in a more irregular texture. To see why this matters, all you have to do is try a spoonful of Brasa's sharp-cheddar-cheese grits: They're sweet, nutty, creamy, rich, spoon-coating, mouth-coating, good as dessert and good as anything Italy has to offer—if you ever wondered why grits aren't the American polenta, report to Brasa to see that they are.
That said, I think my absolute favorite side at Brasa has to be the rice and pigeon peas with local smoked ham. This bright orange, chili-specked, deeply, profoundly flavorful rice tastes eerily similar to one of my all-time favorites—from Rick Bayless's classic Mexican Kitchen cookbook, the one that involves specialty markets, fire-roasting chili peppers, a mortar and pestle, and more time than I ever seem to have. Any of these sides can be had in a combo plate of four for $11, or on its own in a takeout portion sized to serve four for $7. So can the rest of the dozen sides, like the chive-flecked potato salad; the sweet, caramel-edged plantains; the good collard greens; crisp fried yucca sticks; sweet pickled garden vegetables; mild yellow rice with stewed rosada beans; garnet yams with andouille sausage; and exceptionally plain black-eyed peas with Berkshire bacon.
All of these dishes have been designed to work for both takeout and sit-down meals. As a takeout, Brasa responds to the quandary of how the heck to live your life once you've read The Omnivore's Dilemma and have committed to eating local, knowable food, but still have the same modern, overwhelmed, overworked American life that everyone else answers with scary, corporate-factory food. When that busy life makes cooking impossible, I'd guesstimate you'd spend $35 or so here on dinner for a family of four, and maybe $20 for two people.
As a sit-down restaurant Brasa is essentially a fast-casual charmer: The former garage the restaurant inhabits has been transformed with bright ochre walls, post-industrial design elements, and corrugated aluminum. It essentially feels contemporary, airy, hip. When you sit, you find a metal cup in the middle of your polished wooden table, a metal cup that holds napkins, paper menus, heavy steak knives, flatware, and those handy-wipe packs. You order a drink and your meat and three, or your four (there are no appetizers), and your server brings them on a real plate. When you're through with dinner, you can get real desserts, like a gooey individual chocolate Bundt cake dripping with chocolaty icing ($5) or, my favorite, a delicate tapioca and coconut pudding topped with a bit of mango puree, a scattering of fresh pineapple, and a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds, all of which work together to produce a dessert as straightforward and easygoing as a picnic.
Wine and beer are served in real glasses, as are the good house lemonade ($2) and the cane-sugar Dr. Pepper, a glass-bottle treat that I knew nothing about: It has a perfume like real cherries—who knew? Wines are good but no-fuss. All are $7 a glass and identified only by varietal or style; the rosé I tried was floral, crisp, dry, and, really, everything you want in paying someone else to pick the wine for you. The beer list lets you choose which type of cuisine Brasa is for you on any given evening: Pick a Negra Modelo or a Corona if you think that Brasa is Latin American, a Red Stripe if you've decided it's Caribbean, a Stella if you feel it's a Euro bistro, or, heck, a Sam Smith Oatmeal Stout if it's a gastropub (all beers are $4, save the $5 Sam Smith). However, I think a profound case could be made for picking a Grain Belt or a Schell's Dark, because the place is Minnesotan in a way that really only comes into focus when you do some big-picture thinking of where we are, as a food culture, and where we want to go.
Brasa chef and owner Alex Roberts has done this big-picture thinking. His father runs a farm in Wisconsin, and Roberts has been a leader, by example, of the theory that local, sustainable, fresh, farm-driven ingredients produce the best possible foods ever since his white-tablecloth spot, Restaurant Alma, opened in 1999. He has also been reading the same sorts of books that I have, like Michael Pollan's aforementioned The Omnivore's Dilemma and Nina Planck's Real Food—books that lay out the case that: one, local food has environmental, economic, and ethical effects that make it unavoidably important; and two, that grass-pastured meat, eggs, and dairy are far healthier, both to eat and for the environment, than their industrial equivalents.
Brasa is connecting farm and table in a way that works for both farmer and city dweller. I'd argue that the place isn't Southern, Latin American, or anything so much as highest-choice Minnesotan, doing the nifty sleight of hand of turning Minnesota farm products into the food that Minnesotans want to eat. All of the chicken Brasa serves comes from local farms, specifically from Kadejan in Glenwood, though Roberts is working on finding a grass-pastured chicken farmer to add to the mix. All of the pork comes from a Berkshire pork cooperative in southwestern Minnesota. Berkshire hogs are an heirloom pork breed, a hearty old British hog that can live outside during a Minnesota winter, unlike the corporate "other white meat" pigs that have been bred to have no insulating fat. Hogs and chickens are also natural fits for small-scale Minnesota family farms.
So, how to fit our best food hopes of local and sustainable in with our actual food life of fast-casual and takeout? Brasa is one answer. More, Brasa is an answer at top volume—the place is built to move units. It's also the everyday answer for people looking to eat healthy: Eat your chicken with collards and chickpeas, and your cardiologist will applaud. It's also the answer for families: The food is the same stuff any well-meaning dad would assemble for his brood. Of course, anyone looking at Brasa will quickly notice that the place is built for replication. St. Paul, south Minneapolis, Edina: Begin to fight among yourselves for the next Brasa outlet. I hope Roberts opens a million of them. Anything that is such good news for outstate farmers and for in-town eaters deserves to be argued about in every coffee shop and visited on every motorcycle, and to serve as the centerpoint of any group of Minnesota neighbors, eating together.