The news is filled with stories of our prosperity. With self-congratulatory, back-patting tales of young Twin Cities professionals climbing ladders, of our world-class dining scene, of our all-around exceptional quality of life. But take the West Broadway exit off I-94 and, in no time at all, you're in another city altogether.
Boarded-up storefronts are adjacent to mercenary check cashing businesses that share a block with dilapidated nail and hair salons. Once vital but long-shuttered storefronts round out the experience, along with BJ's Strip Club.
But the avenue is perhaps best defined by the eyesore that plagues much of America: fast food. Dozens of big-chain dining options dot the street, interspersed with convenience stores advertising candy, pop, and cigarettes. Empty chip bags and candy bar wrappers blow down the sidewalk. This facade of caloric plenty masks a sinister truth: The neighborhood is a food desert. Almost none of what is available is fresh or nutritious. North Side's kids are being raised largely on corn syrup, trans fats, and sodium.
About halfway between I-94 and Robbinsdale, the pattern breaks for a bit. Until you walk inside Breaking Bread, this is just another unassuming storefront, and easy to miss. One foot in the door, and you're met with an astonishingly different scene.
Sunny, peach-colored paint thrums under dazzling bright lights. City officials take meetings over catfish and cornbread, big extended families get bacon and jerk shrimp and eggs their way, or even vegan sausage and tofu breakfast tacos. Kids run around and make noise as kids will run around and do. An image of the Obamas painted in superhero costumes watches over the room. When the weather cooperates, a big enclosed patio makes for the only al fresco dining experience in the neighborhood.
This stealthy but mighty little restaurant is a project led by Appetite for Change, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing access to good food, jobs, and positive activities for teens on the North Side. Since Lucille's Kitchen closed more than a decade ago, north Minneapolis has been without a soul food institution, a place for literal nourishment, but also a community hub, gathering space, cafe, and sanctuary for a smile and a kind word. Breaking Bread is poised to be that place, if it hasn't already taken hold as such.
LaChelle Cunningham is the chef. She's a culinary school grad and former catering chef who, like most people in her field, dreamed of a place of her own. She's got a soft spot for scratch soul food tinged with the Caribbean, lightened up with clever technique. And it's good.
If you've been searching for a best-ever dry rub chicken wing, search no more. These are fall-off-the-bone juicy with a rub that doesn't meander — just spot-on balance between spicy, savory, sweet, and salty. Collard greens are also deliciously efficient — not bitter, not overly seasoned, but pure and satisfying. It's a neat trick, too, because they're vegan and don't rely on heavy doses of pork or smoked meats to make this noble veg more tempting. The macaroni and cheese is similarly void of anything treacly — just high quality cheese that holds together in a proper béchamel, finished with the dignified crunch of buttery bread crumb. Uncluttered precision, all of it. And all of it can be had in a value-minded a la carte platter for $12.
In fact, you'll notice that prices are notably lower than market rate, sometimes on par with prices listed at nearby fast food joints. The "value menu" section winks at just such competitors. Here, get a towering grilled cheese on Texas toast for $3, or a tuna melt for 50 cents more. Simple things yes, but also keep-you-on-the-go things, get-you-through-the-day things, and not-likely-to-make-you-crash-within-an-hour things. We like the image of a kid just out of school clambering into a window seat and grabbing one of these classic comfort offerings, just like mom would make if she weren't working hard to put more food on the table. A scratch-made cookie goes for $1. [slideshow-1]
Beyond the value menu, an egg and cheese breakfast sandwich on a scratch biscuit is just $3.25, add meat for $2 more. Lunchtime a la carte items (those aforementioned chicken wings, jerk shrimp, brisket, oven fries, and lots more) all fall in the under $6 range. The most you can spend on a single item is 10 bucks, and that's for the equivalent of a Grand Slam, though here it's the Big, Bad, Northsider: four eggs your way, choice of breakfast meat, two toasts, plus grits or potatoes. There can't be a better deal in town, regardless of what histrionics McDonald's is performing around "real eggs."
Cunningham has a respectable touch with buttermilk biscuits, and smothered in turkey chorizo gravy, they're a lively take on the classic without going off the rails. Breakfast salads are a healthful and genius addition. Sometimes cucumber, avocado, and tomato finished with vinaigrette and a little handful of sunflower seeds is all you need.
The menu seems designed for the "as you like it" crowd in mind — mostly a la carte selections with a few composed plates — but it can be a bit confusing to read and feels a little disjointed. Some trimming and tightening probably couldn't hurt, and might make for a more cohesive concept. Still, what they're doing is admirable. Any menu that offers beans and rice, coconut cornbread, sweet potato pie, and jerk shrimp with grits is a menu we can get behind. Keep an eye on the pastry case for banana pudding, cake, and peach cobbler.
Breaking Bread is David to the Goliath of the big, icky business of fast food conglomerates and their monopoly over the most underserved and oppressed geography in the city. The fact that they're doing things as elegantly as they are is the Nilla Wafer on the pudding — which is where you'll find proof that something good is cooking in north Minneapolis.
Pro tip: Previously counter-service only, Breaking Bread has began offering table service. Weekday breakfast and lunch only, weekend hours coming soon.
1210 W. Broadway Ave., Minneapolis
Menu items: $1 to $12