St. Paul's Cheeky Monkey deli puts the sandwich front and center
Cheeky Monkey's sunny, two-sided dining room has crimson walls, blond hardwood floors, and a view of Selby Avenue's comings and goings. It's furnished with several small tables, a large, farm-style eight-seater, and a few leather couches and reading chairs clustered around a fireplace. The space can—and does—accommodate families, business meetings, and girlfriends gabbing over glasses of wine. In many ways, Cheeky Monkey reminds me of D'Amico & Sons, except that most diners eat with their hands—because here, the sandwich is king.
Practically every culture eats sandwiches in one form or another, whether it's the Mexican torta, the Vietnamese báhn mì, the French croque monsieur, or the oh-so-American Fluffernutter. While sandwich-making doesn't necessarily require advanced culinary skills, most home refrigerator inventories, with their stocks of wilted lettuce and bread loaf heels, can't compete with the vast array of freshly sliced and diced fixings behind a sandwich shop's Plexiglas shield. There's a reason Subway has quickly become the world's second-largest fast-food company.
Yet the sandwich still struggles to shake its stigma. Although it gained notoriety by gracing the manicured hands of aristocracy (it's thought to have been popularized by the 18th-century Englishman John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, who supposedly liked the one-handed meal's ability to sustain him through lengthy stints at the gaming table), the sandwich has long been perceived as a second-class meal. Will this ghettoized foodstuff ever break free of its lunch-bucket confines and claim a place at the dinner table?
With practicality and frugality back in vogue, the sandwich may be poised for just such a transition, especially with the emergence of chef-driven delis like Be'Wiched in Minneapolis and the new Cheeky Monkey in St. Paul. This winter, the former home of Zander Cafe reopened as a bright, casual eatery run by a onetime Zander cook. The name Cheeky Monkey, says chef/co-owner Matt McArthur, is a British term for a smart aleck or troublemaker that you might remember from Mike Myers's Saturday Night Live sketches about Simon, the kid in the bathtub who liked to do "drawerings" ("Don't look at my bum, you cheeky monkey!"). The name adds a hint of irreverence to the value-driven neighborhood hangout.
Cheeky Monkey keeps costs down by employing a service setup that involves placing your order at a counter and toting a number to your table—and the requisite awkwardness of flagging down your food, DIY dish-bussing, and occasionally dealing with the mess left by previous diners. This system is never an elegant one, but it doesn't oblige a full-service tip, so I doubt most customers mind the effort. Colorful chalkboard menus display the kitchen's offerings with bold, cartoon-like graphics (the Cheeky Monkey mascot features a winking primate reclined on what looks like the London Underground logo). A dozen-plus sandwiches, all priced at $7 or less, make up the core of the menu and are sometimes featured as specials, such as the thick-stacked corned-beef-and-sauerkraut served on St. Patrick's Day. The best sandwiches are those that seem to contain everything but the kitchen sink. The Cuban, for one, is filled with smoked ham, shredded pork, and sweet pickles, all glued together with mustard and gooey Swiss cheese. The bread is perfectly toasted, and its thin crust replicates the delightful crunch of tucking a few potato chips into a sandwich. The New Orleans-style muffuletta is another grand mash-up: two kinds of ham, salami, and provolone spread with a zesty olive giardiniera and stuffed into a ciabatta roll. Compared to the notorious deli tuna sandwich that caused a New York City Whole Foods employee to be fired (he had saved the sandwich from post-shift disposal, planning to eat it), these might be worth risking your job.
A few of the entrées—the pot roast, the meatloaf, and the cumin pork shoulder—are also served in sandwich form, which is generally the superior version. The pot roast sandwich comes with pickled onions, fresh greens, horseradish, and a crusty ciabatta, whereas the entrée version contains just slow-cooked beef and carrots. The meatloaf was a little meek, even as a sandwich, where it was stacked with burger-esque toppings of cheddar, bacon, spicy mustard, and pickled chiles. That still didn't give it enough zip—it could have used a tomato slice or a slather of gravy, and a replacement for its dried-out toast. The cumin pork shoulder, sprinkled with a few cilantro leaves, was perfectly tender, but it begged for more seasoning—or salt, at least. These generous portions of meat aren't really a balanced meal, so they're perhaps better shared with another person and supplemented by a couple of starch or vegetable sides.
Among the à la carte items, the seasonal greens are a must-order. Curly kale was cooked to a vibrant shade of emerald and was tender enough that its crinkled edges were almost fluffy. (They blanch the kale first, then sauté it in olive oil with a bit of garlic and lemon, to keep it soft without getting mushy.) I know what you're thinking—kale to die for, really? But this kale will win you over. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for the grits—though the first time I dug into a creamy, mascarpone-laced, bacon-topped bowl, I found myself scraping up every last bite. The second time I ordered the grits, hoping for the same savory dessert, they seemed woefully under-salted and had lost their previous magic.
Cheeky Monkey's meat-heavy menu doesn't provide many vegetarian options, just a couple of vegetable sandwiches and one that pairs bananas with Nutella or peanut butter. The salads—shrimp on mixed greens, and bacon, egg, and cheese on arugula—seemed like afterthoughts compared to, say, the turkey pot pie, with its chunks of moist meat, buttery mushrooms and peas, and inventive biscuit-like crust made from savory scone dough. McArthur says the kitchen uses some naturally raised meats and he hopes to add more, along with local and organic produce, in the coming months. With everything on Cheeky Monkey's menu costing $10 or less, I don't think most customers would mind a slight increase in exchange for more sustainable ingredients.
As an overall concept, Cheeky Monkey seems as cloneable as Jimmy John's. To turn first-time customers into regulars, my main recommendation would be for the kitchen to ramp up the flavors in a few of its dishes, especially in the little crock of pickles—dill spears, and thin bread-and-butter discs—that tasted like so many salty cucumbers. (At least they only cost 75 cents.) While several sandwiches could compel repeat visits, many of the other offerings fell into the category of decent-but-not-memorable. Desserts, for example, are affordably priced, between $2 and $4, but while I liked the chocolate pudding and both the carrot and key lime cupcakes, the mascarpone rice pudding with sour cherries was the only one that really stuck with me. (I gave up on the flourless chocolate cake after just a few bites, which really isn't like me.) I think with a little refinement, the sweets could become as not-to-be-skipped as those at, say, Gigi's, where it feels practically tragic to pass up a slice of hummingbird cake or a chocolate-chip cookie.
Still, it's nice to see deli fare capable of drawing nearby construction workers yet being served with a graceful touch. Between the cute cast-iron crocks full of slow-cooked meats and the pretty glass urns dispensing lemon and cucumber waters, Cheeky Monkey exudes a Martha Stewart-like everyday grace. In this context, at least, the humble sandwich deserves to be considered prime-time eats.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.