Shortest Days of the Year
February, the cruelest month. Yeah, I know it's supposed to be April, but this is Minnesota, and our winter is so, so long that I've contacted the legislature about some updates. Let's call February the Cruelest Month, if only so we can call April "I'll Kill You, I Swear to God, If You Don't Give Me the Remote, I Am Not Even Kidding, You Are Just Like Your Mother, Just Give Me It, Quit, I Said, Quit It."
Was there anyone surprised last year when the coldest winter in human memory culminated in a flurry of domestic dismemberments? The woman sawing off her teen daughter's legs down in Madison Lake? The Russian guy with his wife's head in the trunk? The homecoming queen throwing garbage bags of body parts around her daddy's acreage? Watching all of last winter's mutilations turn into this winter's guilty pleas and convictions is certainly chilling, but who doesn't get a little whiff of "there but for the grace of God go I?"
About this time last year I was in a thrift shop outside of New Prague and it was like a child beat-a-thon. Houses get small. Personally, I think relationships should be tabulated on different scales of pain and suffering here, just like insurers' actuarial tables give out different amounts of cash for losing a toe versus losing a son. For example, a two-year marriage in International Falls equals a four-year marriage in Crocus Hill equals an eight-year marriage in Barbados. A two-year marriage in a one-bedroom apartment without cable equals an eight-year stint in a mansion with a fleet of SUVs. Of course, you could go outside. So, without further ado, a couple of food-related cabin-fever busters:
Flowers, Seals, and Saigon: Here's a shocker: The Como Park Conservatory just continues to exist, in all its white-iron-and-glass Victorian glory, through the winds of winter. Who knew? Pay your $1 admission, check your coat at the door, and you're immediately transported to the warmest, most fragrant, most pleasantly lush space ever to be pelted by cruel snows. There's something truly magical about sitting on a bench beneath soaring palms in winter, and if the orchids throughout the Palm Dome don't touch your heart, this week sees the debut of the Winter Flower Show, with lots of bright azaleas and cyclamen in the Sunken Garden.
Oh, the Sunken Garden. What could be prettier? Claim a bench and watch the carp in the fishpond follow every passerby. They are ever hopeful, those carp. I sat and watched them one day, and they nearly leapt out of the water, so happy were they to see every single toddler toddling by. No one fed them, but they never got discouraged. There's a lesson for us all in those carp about the gorgeous possibility of hope and faith. Or maybe it's about the persistent power of delusion. One of those.
Whatever you do, don't go to the Como Park Zoo, where I stood and watched a giraffe compulsively lick a pole for 20 minutes. That was so depressing I went and watched a polar bear. She was pacing and had turned in the same spot so many times she had worn a six-inch paw hole in the ice. Which was so sad I went and watched the sea lion--who's being trained to be the new Sparky--swim with extreme boredom in circles in the isolation tank that is her reward for being so bright, such a super-achiever. So I lay down next to the tank and sobbed inconsolably.
Whereupon I noticed the live trout, which look like dinner, so I hightailed it to St. Paul's best cheap restaurant, Saigon Café. This Vietnamese treasure is merely a few minutes from all things Como Park, on University just east of Dale. I think I've been going to this place for three years, and the outside just keeps getting dingier even as the food inside keeps getting better. Recently I had a bowl of meatball soup ($3) made with a beefy, delicately complex broth and filled with pretty balls of ground meat and crunchy onions, a make-your-own spring roll platter ($7.95, from the appetizer list) where you "cook" rice-paper wrappers in hot water at your table and fill them with cilantro, cucumbers, mint, shredded carrot, daikon, cold rice noodles, and sweet grilled pork-loaf strips. If you care a lot about spring rolls, come here immediately. I also tried salty hot-pot shrimp ($9.95), a sizzling combination of garlic, fish sauce, and chiles that I kept eating long after the pains of gluttony set in.
Saigon is a miracle, I think. It just keeps getting better and cheaper. Mark my words, some day this place is going to pull a Quang and expand into some kind of super-shiny spic-and-span acreage, and enormous bragging rights are going to accrue to anyone smart enough to get on in when it was a dive. I can't wait.
Como Park Conservatory & Zoo, North Lexington Parkway, St. Paul, 651.487.8200
Saigon Café, 601 University Ave. E., St. Paul, 651.225.8751
FantaSuite and Sabroso: I'm going to admit right off that this is a flimsy premise, but stick with me. I went to Sabroso, all the way the heck down in Shakopee, on the recommendation of a reader, and boy, the place is just great. It's the sister restaurant to Taco Morelos on 26th Street in Minneapolis, but it's in a space roughly six times the size of beloved Taco M. The walls are decorated with festive murals, there's a full bar with really good margaritas ($4.95), all the Mexican beers I know of, and lots more perks. I had a very nice whole red snapper in garlic sauce, the best fajitas in memory--just drenched with lime juice and onions--really thick, flavorful tamales, even some fantastic little carnitas tacos and delicious rice pudding.
But here's the problem: As much as I want to recommend Sabroso, it's in Shakopee. Even in light of the fact that the Shakopee.org Web site explains that "Shakopee" translates as "the definition of fun," I can't quite see reviewing restaurants in Shakopee. I mean, urban sprawl is my least favorite thing about the Twin Cities. First Shakopee, next Norwood-Young America, and then what--San Diego?
However, it was good enough that I thought you should know about it, in case you're driving to Mystic Lake or Canterbury Park or something, on good old Highway 13. Come to think of it, isn't that where the FantaSuite Hotel is? A quick visit to the Web site (www.fantasuite.com), reveals that yes, this amateur comic's favorite fish-in-a-barrel continues to exist--and even offers tours every Saturday at 3:00 p.m. See rooms with beds in the mouth of Moby Dick, in the belly of a Sixties-style space probe, in Cinderella's carriage, in...I could do this all day.
Sabroso, 1120 First Ave. E., Shakopee, 952.445.0900
Takeout and P.F. Chang's: If you got takeout from Rainbow Chinese, My Le Hoa, Phoenix, Dragon Court, or Big Bowl and went and ate it while waiting in the three-hour weekend lines at the new chain outpost P.F. Chang's in Edina, I would think that was pretty funny. I really would.
I did go to P.F. Chang's. It's mall-clean, mall-stylish, and sorta, kinda blah--though I do read their takeout menu as a level threat: "You are surrounded!" No kidding. Also, less intuitively, "Look to the mural!" Um, okay, nice mural. With Chinese guys and all. Guess you've got a point. "Intimidation gives way to meditation!" Okay, pipe down there, menu. Actually, I guess you've got to give the people something for the half-day they spend waiting for a table. I could meditate on the long, neither-good-nor-awful meal I had there, but I will only report that I was surrounded by very salty upscale Chinese food made from ingredients whose primary attraction seemed to be low cost and low offense-potential. Fancy appetizers like "vegetables in soothing lettuce wraps" ($6.25) tasted like a jar of five-spice powder and a pound of salt. Cantonese chow fun ($9.95) were mostly sticky, overcooked, and soy-sauce-saturated. And yet I'm sure the throngs thronging were all basically thinking the same thing I was thinking: "Heck, this is a darn sight better than a lot of our homegrown crappy Chinese food!" Remember Nankin? Blech. Anyway, nobody who eats at P.F. Chang's cares what I say, so I'm not going to waste one more single letter on
P.F. Chang's China Bistro, 2700 Southdale Center, Edina, 952.926.1713
Shhhh... Did you ever notice that some places that sell really high-end chocolates also sell cute little 187-milliliter bottles of chilled bubbly, and simultaneously are very close to movie theaters? Like Surdyk's, the attached cheese shop, and St. Anthony Main. Or France 44, its attached cheese shop, and the Edina 4 theater. I've noticed that. I really have.
Rinks and Drinks! The Depot skating rink downtown is open till 1:00 a.m.! I always forget all about that place, hiding the way it is in the middle of downtown in a brightly lighted building and all. But that doesn't mean you should. And hey--did you know there's an affiliated public water park in the middle of downtown, too? I think they're trying to hide it from us, because no one I asked here at the paper knew about it either. Are they trying to get under the radar of our important, tattooed, abundantly pierced demographic? Foiled! But kids, remember, friends don't let friends slide with their navel rings in: Those slides are never as smooth as they look.
Anyway, the rink is hailing distance from fancy restaurants like Sapor and Café Brenda as well as cheap, great burger joints like Bullwinkle's and Cuzzy's (not to mention dirty-book stores like Sex World and Lickety Split). Still, I think I've got to name not-all-that-convenient Pracna on Main the natural place to go after skating, if only because (inexplicably) it always reminds me of a ski lodge, and it's next to the St. Anthony Main movie theater. Though I think if you do all three of those things--skating, drinks, and a movie--you'll immediately move into the uneasy realm of Dates That Can Never Be Replicated (which subsequently haunt failing relationships).
So if that happens, don't come crying to me. I was just trying to get you through the winter, not ruin your life. No, I don't always say that. Oh! And you know who you sound like? Your mother. Yeah, I said your mother...
Cuzzy's Grill & Bar ,507 Washington Ave. N., Minneapolis, 612.339.6211
The Depot, Fifth and Washington avenues, Minneapolis, 612.339.2253
Bullwinkle's Saloon, 1429 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.338.8520
Café Brenda, 30 First Ave. N., Minneapolis, 612.342.9230
Sapor Café & Bar, 428 Washington Ave. N., Minneapolis, 612.375.1971
Pracna on Main, 117 Main St. SE, Minneapolis, 612.379.3200
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