Friday, May 16, 2014 at 8:15 a.m.
Succulent bird at Pollo Campero
Whether you live in the suburbs, or find yourself outside your regular stomping grounds in search of restaurant options, there's value in knowing more about all the great eats beyond Minneapolis and St. Paul's most covered neighborhoods. In our Suburban Bites series, we'll explore the best places to eat and drink in the greater metro area.
For many people, a trip to the suburbs means surrender to a predictable meal. But a Target/Office Max run should be seen as an opportunity to explore a new neighborhood, not as a chance to try the featured footlong at Subway. The first- and second-ring Twin Cities suburbs are filled with unique dining options, and today, we tackle West St. Paul.
West St. Paul is technically located south of St. Paul, but it didn't earn its title from the compass reading; the suburb is named such because it sits primarily on the west side of the Mississippi River banks. Shoppers know it for its 2.5-mile stretch of retail stores including an Office Max, Target, AutoZone, and many other suburban staples. But what they might not know is that on this strip you can enjoy some quick Latin and Mexican dishes, try authentic Lebanese cuisine, or dine at the student-run restaurant of Le Cordon Bleu. Suffice it to say, there's no excuse to grab lunch at a Subway or Chipotle just because you're leaving downtown St. Paul. Here are a couple of recommended alternatives.
Stuffed sandwiches at Pineda Tacos
If you are looking for a pork-filled dining experience, hightail it over to the Pineda Taco on Robert Street, the easternmost location of the Twin Cities-based Pineda franchise. Located in a former 1970s diner, the dining room is filled with windows and housed under that classic low, slanted roof. The space is expansive, with plenty of places to sit down and dig into some of the finest pork-based Mexican dishes in the area. For our money, we say skip the tacos and get right into the enchiladas with any of the four pork variations available. Steer clear of the nachos; the cheese sauce and limp vegetables are nothing to write home about. But don't worry, that's the only low spot we can find on the menu.
The Great Moon Buffet has gotten some grief the last couple of years because its big competitor across the street, the Hibachi Grill & Supreme Buffet, has stolen some formerly loyal customers. But you can't beat the Great Moon's small Mongolian grill. Whatever this spot lacks in size, it more than makes up for in the quality of ingredients and the attentive staff. The Great Moon's buffet selection isn't very different from the majority of Chinese buffets in town, but thanks to the volume of customers the food stays hot and fresh. This is a great spot to bring the family for an early dinner after a long day of shopping.
Veal scallopini at I Nonni
Courtesy I Nonni Facebook
Tacos and Chinese buffet are all well and good, but if you're looking for more of a fine-dining experience on the outskirts of West St. Paul/near Lilydale, make a reservation at I Nonni, a sprawling, high-end Italian eatery specializing in classical Roman cuisine. From incredibly tender grilled pork shanks with chive crema to soft, egg tagliatelle with house-made lamb-hazelnut sausage, I Nonni always amazes with its robustness and thoughtful service. Though its graceful touches and impressive interior feel distinctly modern, fans of old-school "red sauce" Italian places will appreciate seeing standards like veal scallopini and beef carpaccio on the menu too.
Beirut Restaurant claims to be the only all-Lebanese restaurant in the Twin Cities and has been serving an irresistible garlic sauce since 1985. Aside from the addiction-forming garlic sauce, the menu highlights include kibbe, a Levantine dish made of cracked wheat and finely ground beef. Stick around on Friday or Saturday nights for belly dancing entertainment and order something off of the liquor menu, one of the few on Robert Street.
West St. Paul is home to the only Twin Cities location of the fast rising casual Latin chicken spot, Pollo Campero, a kind of cross between Popeye's Chicken and Baja Tortilla Grill. Chicken is at the heart of the menu and diners can choose between traditional fried campero chicken or a nicely spiced grilled variety. For under nine dollars, Hot Dish grabbed half a grilled bird with corn tortillas, campero beans, and a drink. After marinating for 12 hours in citrus and herbs, the chicken is served with fresh lemon wedges and, a refreshing touch for a fast casual joint, sturdy metal cutlery. Their signature side, campero beans, are smoky perfection, and though they were soaked in the delicious red sauce, they maintain a bit of crispness that keeps the texture interesting. This place is definitely a step above the competition in this price range, so skip the Chipotle down the street and dig in.
This casual Greek and Mediterranean spot touts itself as "King of the Gyros," and though everyone has their favorite lamb and pita sandwich in town, this one is a new contender for that place in our hearts. Their mashed fava beans with olive oil and lemon juice are a wonderful study in simplicity, and the generous slice of flaky spinach and feta pie is a filling steal at only $4. Be sure to drop by the deli side before leaving lunch to stock up on creamy hummus, stuffed grape leaves, and a shining array of olives.
Technique, the student-run restaurant at Le Cordon Bleu in Mendota Heights (sorry, technicality), is an amazing hidden gem. You can get pretty incredible, onetime-only dinner experiences prepared for you by up-and-coming culinary talents, for a fraction of the cost of a meal at a traditional restaurant. Sample steak tartare with crispy rice and sour watermelon rind; seafood hot dogs on squid ink-dyed buns, topped with pancake batter-fried onion rings; and lamb porterhouse with English peas. Just like getting your hair cut at an Aveda school, eating at Technique can be a bit of an adventure in consistency and in media res training, but that's all part of the fun. Call ahead to make sure service is on and to see what's on the menu.
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