Anywhere, that is, but a quaint corner of Minneapolis where Creative Kidstuff and an ice cream shop were once upon a time the biggest draws. Suddenly, restaurants and bakeries rivaling the world's best are in our midst. Here we all are, nibbling and sipping like it's not a big deal.
If you're of any age at all, you know it wasn't always like this around here.
But let's shut our tooting horns away in their cases for a moment. Because even though we've come a long way baby, we've still got a way to go. Here are six holes in our local restaurant scene, and how we might (or might not) see those gaps get filled.
It's not all that hard to understand why we don't have a robust BBQ tradition way, way up here in the cold north. The culture of cooking meat slow and low over indirect heat was born in the Caribbean and brought to southern states by enslaved Africans and colonizers. Tending a pit in below-zero temps just isn't that practical.
But once upon a time, we didn't have truly excellent pizza around here, either. Now we're flush with Neapolitan-style, coal-fired, and New York City slices — even "Minneapolitan" pies.
We have the technology to make good BBQ, and some have been blazing the trail (see Q Fanatic, and efforts by Thomas Boemer at Revival and Corner Table for some of our favorites). Now we just need to work on tradition. Do we need to import BBQ masters from down south?
Maybe. Boemer is from North Carolina, after all. But with his new BBQ project (he's putting pits in his upcoming Revival expansions) Boemer is not looking to impose North Carolina standards on Minnesota. Instead, he plans to innovate a real Minnesota BBQ tradition, something that makes sense for us, and us only.
Stay tuned to hear more about it.
More diversity in Chinese cuisine
Cantonese food (the kind you probably grew up on, the kind from which most Chinese American cuisine derives) was a no-brainer for the mid-century American palate. Ingredients cooked lightly and simply were an easy, yet reasonably exotic, way for Americans to get their meat-veg-starch.
But travel to any city with a genuine Chinatown, and you might suddenly get a creeping feeling that we're missing out on something (or a lot of somethings). Even around here, some diners have long suspected that native Chinese diners are eating off of some "other" menu. Something secret and special that Americans don't get access to. The whole fish, the glossy lacquer of a Peking duck, bubbling cauldrons of hot pots, all the various dumplings, the scallion pancakes! How do we get those?
We have some serious and longstanding Chinese restaurants including Shuang Cheng, Village Wok, Rainbow, and Evergreen, and they're all experts at what they do. But very often here and especially in the greater Midwest, Chinese restaurants (especially longstanding ones) have been appealing to middle- American palates for two decades or more. The result is that more "authentic" dishes get mashed up with the likes of chop suey, cream cheese wontons, and General Tso's. (Not that those things aren't delicious in their own right.)
While at this point Minnesota may not be ground zero for Chinese immigration, it would be so exciting to dine on the likes of hand-pulled noodles, heavily spiced lamb, and the other Islamic influences of Xian City; or the mouth-tingling spice and pungent heavy garlic of Szechuan cooking.
Many gastronomists the world over consider Chinese to be the world's finest, most sophisticated cuisine. We don't get enough insight into that around here. I wish we could.
In the meantime, turn to our robust Vietnamese and Hmong immigrant communities and their attendant delicious culinary traditions. St. Paul's Hmong Village is a good place to start.
Dim sum (especially in the city)
More on the Chinese front. There's something so universally appealing about dim sum. Little nuggets of the familiar and unfamiliar roll by on carts, things that appeal to both the apprehensive of heart (barbecue pork buns) and the adventurous of spirit (chicken feet!), but wee enough (and inexpensive enough) that you haven't committed to too much, too soon.
Dim sum also injects a bit more excitement into brunch, a meal that's become wonderfully gourmand, but sometimes overly homogenous (chicken and waffles anyone?)
Sadly, most of our dim sum options are in far-flung suburbs, and thanks to its scarcity, can involve a lot of waiting. The Heavy Table reports that the dim sum at Eden Prairie's Beijing is authentically good, but you'll probably wait a long time for the pleasure.
There are some rumors swirling about a dim sum joint opening sometime soon in Uptown. If it happens, we predict nothing short of the crowds that piled into the recently opened Hoban Korean. We'll keep you posted.
True culinary specialization
Now that we're all grown up, it's time for us to start trusting culinary experts to do one thing, and do it well. We can't be terrified or intimidated by menus that don't offer dozens of dozens of items. We're only going to choose one (okay, maybe two) of them in the end anyway.
It's almost culinarily impossible to do everything well — sushi, pizza, fried chicken, and tacos just shouldn't coexist on the same menu. Everything will be middling, and why should we settle for middling?
A handful of kitchens have taken the leap into specializing. Ramen Kazama is a good example, as is Taco Cat, as are the people of Food Building, where proprietor Kieran Folliard has plucked specialists in their chosen field (a charcuterie master, a cheese maker, a baker, and an Irish chef, to date) to do just one thing. Amen and amen and amen.
Still, there are too few establishments we can point to where a small slip of a place can do their one and only special deal and do it very, very well — maybe even better than anyone.
Respect for the vegetable (and the vegetarian/vegan)
In many cities the world over, the almighty vegetable is king and it fuels the working people of those fine cities. In New York City, vegan fast-casual fare is the new Big Deal. Check out By Chloe or Superiority Burger. On the West Coast you can turn to chains like Real Foods Daily, Veggie Grill, and Cafe Gratitude for an on-the-go and delicious veggie-fueled fast lunch.
It will probably take the more flexitarian millennial appetite to demand this kind of eating, as the meat-centric sandwich and entree still lingers as the dominant diet of older generations.
Support for the true micro-business
Last week Stephanie March reported on a popular local underground dinner club that got busted by the city for operating as an unlicensed bar and restaurant. While one could argue about whether or not the shutdown was "fair," there is no arguing that the city of Minneapolis is hard on the true micro business.
We were extremely late to the street food game for a large city, primarily because of the city's delay in approving and licensing it. Even though we have it now, the regulations and expense of operating a food truck are arduous and burdensome for the little guy.
Some gains have been made — see the "Pickle Bill," which allows an individual who prepares "non-potentially hazardous foods" in an unlicensed kitchen to sell up to $18,000 per year of product from home, at farmers markets, community events, or on the internet. But it is still difficult for micro-businesses to get up and running. The costs of commercial kitchen rental, insurance, safe food handling classes, licenses and permits, and NSF equipment are prohibitive.
The true micro-vendor is essentially priced out and red tape-exhausted.
Ultimately, this leads to the flattening of our entire food landscape, where deep-pocketed chains can operate smoothly and easily, and innovators either throw up their hands or move elsewhere. It's time to stop fear-mongering (food isn't that dangerous when handled with care and common sense!) and allow our food scene to really thrive.
We're halfway there. Now, let's take some bigger, bolder leaps.