6670 150th St. W., Apple Valley
3554 Penn Ave. N., Minneapolis
One thing you can do, if you're standing within a hay bale of wig hair outside of a morning television studio waiting to talk about Hidden Treasures of the Twin Cities Food Scene, one thing you can really do quite easily, is eavesdrop when the guy from the traveling gator show starts hitting on the girl with the buns of steel. (And I don't mean just any lass with a golden fallback position, I mean the actual girl with the trademarked whoosis. And yes, I stared at it. I am only human. And I can honestly report that she's shorter than you might think.)
The gator guy was everything you might predict: Southern, brave, missing parts of some fingers. "Do you wanna touch it? Touch it!" he said, enthusiastically, extending a young alligator, a young alligator hissing like a boiling kettle and gnashing its tiny little razor teeth.
"Ooh," said the girl with the buns of steel, gingerly extending one French-manicured fingertip, petting a ridged scale on the gator's back.
The gator guy explained that he hopes to end up in Las Vegas, as the Siegfried & Roy of reptiles.
The girl with the comely retreat responded with a photo of her infant child and a reference to her happy home life.
The gator guy looked at the child's photo. "We call them gator bait. Put them on the end of a grappling hook, they thrash around, lure the big ones out of deep water."
The girl with the buns of steel grew quiet, and prepared herself to demonstrate exercises anyone sitting at home could do on their very own couch.
Which got me to thinking: How strange, how odd, how unexpected! Moreover, could I really present two fantastic, completely unrelated, oddball gems together in one column? Two restaurants that I can't really justify writing an entire column about, due to their likelihood of appealing to remote geographic constituencies, but that are both truly special and unforgettable in their own ways?
Yes, I thought, watching the gator guy wrangle his wee, thrashing beast into a dog kennel filled with towels, yes I can. Life sometimes is very odd. Very strange. Very unexpected if you observe it closely. So my column will be, too.
SATAY 2 GO
When Greg, Chicago transplant and Apple Valley resident, wrote to recommend Satay 2 Go, I thought, "Oh heavens, that is really far away." It's so far away, it's even farther away than the zoo. Because, as you all know, the world as seen from Minneapolis looks like this: There's Minneapolis, then the Mall of America, the zoo, Iowa, Texas, some water, South America, and finally Antarctica, with the penguins. Well, driving a third of the way to the penguins is a heck of a journey for satay. Even though Greg assured me that the restaurant was "2 good 2 miss," I determined it would have 2 w8. Yet when Alice, unrelated to Greg and also of Apple Valley, wrote to tell me how great Satay 2 Go was, I knew I had to motor on out: Two reader recommendations are, in my experience, the earthly equivalent of a bolt of lightning to the head.
I ended up outside of the Home Depot in Burnsville, peering with confusion at the low buildings that crouch in its orbit and the obscuring rings of SUVs around them.
I later ended up outside of the Home Depot in Apple Valley, peering with confusion at the low buildings that crouch in its orbit and the obscuring rings of SUVs around them. But this, this was completely different. This was the home of Satay 2 Go.
I entered the little storefront with its lemon walls, its bakery case full of fresh-made golden pork buns, chicken curry buns, yam crescents, and more. I saw half a dozen fellow Minnesotans waiting silently, staring with absolute unblinking absorption at the orange-curtained cooking window that let forth the clatter and hiss of wok cooking. They looked like nothing so much as six cats staring at the one radiator that they know conceals a mouse. At that moment I knew I had found something enormously important.
I consulted the various laminated color printouts that make up Satay 2 Go's menu. I ordered noodles, curry, satay--the works. By the time I got to my car, I was tearing into the chicken satay, sweetly marinated tender chicken skewers served with an ebullient sauce of ground peanuts and flowery rice vinegar served on a bed of fragrant, liltingly light coconut rice. By the time I reached Cedar Avenue, I was sneaking slithery chow fun noodles out of a box, with my hands, and determining that these were easily the best chow fun in the state. (Satay 2 Go is just east of Cedar, on 150th Street South. Not west. East. East. Rhymes with feast. Don't forget, or you will be sorry. And even if you are not sorry, you will be in Burnsville, which is disorienting at best.)
By the time I got all my boxes home and could look at them in the clear light, with a fork, I became completely convinced that Satay 2 Go has the best Singapore hawker-stand food in the state. You see, in Malaysia and in Singapore, which broke away from Malaysia nearly 40 years ago, a lot of the best food doesn't come from tablecloth restaurants, it comes from stalls called "hawker stands," informal spots that specialize in one or two treats derived from any (or all) of the Asian cultures that have fed the Malaysian population. In these hawker stands you'll find Chinese noodles, Malay grilled satay, Indonesian curries, Indian breads, Peranakan fusion (Malay plus Chinese), Japanese snack foods, and so forth. At Satay 2 Go, you'll find the same sort of informal, cheap, and delicious foods you'd find at Malaysian hawker stands: Chinese noodles, Malay grilled satay, and so on. Yes, I said there is a Singapore hawker stand restaurant in Apple Valley.
Better yet, almost everything I've tried from the place is just great. Chief among the joys was the nasi lemak, a sweet but pointedly spicy coconut curry made with potato and chicken, and served with a creamy coconut rice ($6.50). This concoction was just lovely, so big, spicy, feisty, and balanced by the sweet cream of all that coconut that it reminded me almost of an ice cream of sun-heat, so big and unto itself. The Singapore chow fun ($6.99) was another treat. Here, pale, wide rice noodles were worked in a wok with scallions, bean sprouts, bits of marinated chicken, shrimp, and soy-darkened scrambled egg until the whole thing became united in one glossy, satiny web of salt and savor. The mee goreng ($6.50) was a similar treatment of thin, curly, hearty egg noodles transformed into the most munchable of comforts.
Laksa ($7.99) is perfect takeout. Order it and you get one large container of sweet coconut curry broth, and another of noodles, shredded chicken, and bean sprouts. Combine it all in a bowl in your own home and you'll get many of the benefits that accrue to those lucky folks with Singapore vacation packages, without the trouble of finding someone to mind the cat and shovel the walk.
I didn't love absolutely everything at Satay 2 Go. I could live without the Cantonese chow fun, smoky chow fun noodles submerged in a gummy egg-and-shrimp soup, and I've always thought okonomiyaki (from $5.99) is an acquired taste (however, if you are a Japan-o-phile who has acquired a taste for that prized Japanese junk food, which is something like a noodle quiche topped with mayonnaise and Worcestershire-like okonomiyaki sauce, well, if you have that taste, please know you finally have somewhere in the state to satisfy it).
This marvelous little restaurant is the work of Corinne Tan, a woman with intense wok skills, an ability to turn rice noodles into silk, and a schedule that would bring tears to the eyes of a hardhearted man. Satay 2 Go is open from 8:00 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. six days a week, but closed Sundays. Have you ever asked yourself, "Why can't a visit to the Home Depot be more like a night among the tropical hawker stands of Singapore?" Well, actually, it is. Gentlemen, start your engines.
Which brings us to the North Side. Oh, the North Side. To spend a week ricocheting between the gleaming eight-lane nowhere of bottomless infrastructure investment that is the corner of Cedar Avenue and 150th Street in Apple Valley and the two-lane state of utter neglect that is the corner of Penn and Dowling avenues north leads to a very peculiar sort of heartache--especially if you know that nowhere is it more difficult to keep a restaurant going than in north Minneapolis. Is it because there are so few restaurants that people have gotten out of the habit of going to them? Is it because of exaggerated perceptions of crime? Whatever it is, every single restaurant I have ever reviewed in north Minneapolis has closed within a year of my reviewing it--except for West Indies Soul, which tucked its skirts around itself and relocated to St. Paul.
When I talked to owner and chef Gary Fraser one afternoon as I sat, at the only table of customers, in his new, eager-to-please, hopeful little Caribbean restaurant in north Minneapolis, he explained to me that his neighbors have been critical of his menu, because his chicken costs more than the birds at KFC. Well, that may be true in some sense, but I doubt you get any more real food anywhere, at any price. Fraser started cooking for his family when he was a teenager, and his food tastes of that bone-deep experience.
Stewed chicken is cooked in brown sugar and salted butter specially imported from Trinidad until the meat begins to shrink from the bone, folding in on itself in a spiraling concentration of sweet flavor. That stewed brown chicken is paired with pineapple-accented plantains and a mound of white rice drenched with a ladleful of mahogany sauce from the chicken. The weighty combination tastes like care and sustenance, blown in straight from the islands.
Mango-tinged chicken wings are so crisp and so elegantly sweet, you almost want to compare them to the crust on a crème brûlee--except they go much better with a beer. A plate of shrimp and potato curry is as big and meaty as a mound of sausages, but lighter, duskier, and more sprightly. Everything Fraser cooks is a mountain of country-style Caribbean home cooking, made with intuition and skill.
However, please note that no matter how skilled Fraser is with a stewpot and tawa, that flat iron pan used to cook fresh roti, the secrets of Coconut Grove are more inspiring than that. "My whole concept of doing a restaurant on the North Side was, I wanted to bring back some class to the neighborhood," says Fraser. "My first thought was to put my restaurant in a suburb, but then I thought, 'Why? You know, there are a lot of nice neighbors on this side of town, who else lives in all these nice homes around here?' If you live in the North Side you have to leave and go to another city for a glass of wine, it makes you feel left out, so I thought I'd open my restaurant. Any negative thing that happens on the North Side gets on the news, but no one ever shows the good things."
Furthermore, during happy hour, from 5:30 to 7:30 Tuesday through Saturday, select bottles of wine from his tiny but solid little list are half price, running a mere $10 or $12, and there are dollar beers. Furthermore, in the summer, there will be a huge, happy patio outside. It will be so popular during summer happy hours, it will restore a sense of community to the community. Furthermore, if you call ahead, Fraser will make you a black cake, so that you might have your own version of that traditional Caribbean molasses spice cake. If you come on a Tuesday he'll make you fresh Jamaican patties. Right now, Fraser estimates, he's got about 20 regulars. If he got some more...well, if he got some more, rib-sticking, hearty, Caribbean country cooking and a friendly beer would be the new way of life in north Minneapolis.
Which got me to thinking how strange, how odd, how unexpected this all was: Singapore hawker-stand snacks in Apple Valley, hopeful plans for a Caribbean comfort-food hub and community renaissance in north Minneapolis. Life sure is strange. And, if you look carefully, sometimes it's pleasing and shocking in equal proportion.
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