The Daily Diner feeds body and soul
Last month, a brightly lit, cheerfully decorated diner opened in Frogtown Square at the corner of University and Dale in St. Paul. The intersection has become sort of an unofficial landmark, the epicenter of change in a transitioning neighborhood. The physical changes are obvious, like the construction of the light rail line and new housing units going up, but there's some equally important building going on behind these diner doors. It's the kind of work that has nothing to do with concrete and everything to do with courage. Daily Diner does a great job of masquerading as any other family-friendly eatery, but the restaurant is actually an extension of Our Daily Bread, a rehabilitation and job training program operated by Union Gospel Mission Twin Cities, an organization dedicated to building self-sufficiency in men and women who've struggled with addiction, homelessness, and poverty.
Executive chef Jason Koehn developed Daily Diner's menu with both trainees and diners in mind, creating dishes that help teach foundational culinary techniques and still appeal to a broad range of tastes. "It's a 95 percent scratch kitchen," says Nick Gisi, director of men's programs at UGM and one of the key people who helped get Daily Diner off the ground. "Our intention is not to teach people to open cans, but to teach them how to do things properly like fry, bake, and grill. That way they're comfortable and capable in that next restaurant they go to." Though they won't get too far away from the concept of American diner food, Gisi says the menu will change over time, and they plan to introduce different desserts and more daily specials. "We are still figuring out what works."
For now, the dinner menu is full of familiar favorites such as beef fajitas, sweet-and-sour chicken, and what's sure to become their signature entree: pressure-cooker fried chicken. Get a quarter- or half-chicken portion with fries or mashed potatoes and coleslaw (just a tad underseasoned, but nicely creamy and crunchy overall). It's made to order, excellent the next day, and well worth the 20-minute wait time. The meat is deeply infused with flavor, the exterior lightly battered, and the messy experience of eating it is a testament to how juicy they manage to keep even the breast meat. Nothing is overworked or overly imaginative; it's just good made-from-scratch food.
Daily Diner is open seven days a week and gets particularly hopping during Sunday brunch (big after-church groups and a lot of older couples), and in addition to their own bread pudding and chocolate cake, they serve pies whole or by the slice from the fabulous Betty's Pies (when the season is in full swing, nothing beats Betty's strawberry-rhubarb crunch). Breakfast has everything from fluffy build-your-own omelets to corned beef hash to carnitas Benedict — a Mexican take on the classic egg dish with black beans, pulled pork, and pico de gallo all piled on a split biscuit. Lunch features a tasty club sandwich on sweet cranberry wild rice bread with golden, deep-fried turkey breast and thick planks of seasoned, skin-on potatoes; big entree-sized salads with feta and fruit; and third- or quarter-pound burgers topped with a whole host of accoutrement such as guacamole, caramelized onions, and chili. Appetite not so big? All sandwiches are available in half-size portions too.
Daily Diner and the on-the-job culinary and restaurant management training it provides are partly the brainchild of Gisi, who spent 25 years in the restaurant industry before coming to UGM and wanted to start a culinary arts program there. "We presented plans, hit a few bumps in the road, like you always do, and over the course of three years it evolved into what it is now."
The end result of Gisi and his team's planning and pushing is a 12-week course of vocational training, including paid time spent working at Daily Diner, followed by an apprenticeship at a partnering local restaurant (Gisi says the exact list is still in the works, but the aim is restaurants in a two- or three-mile radius of Uni-Dale), and an end goal of getting hired to a full-time position. All of the program participants are required to spend time in front-of-house and back-of-house positions. "We want to give them the full spectrum of experience so they learn everything from how to cook eggs on the line to how to take an order at the table," Gisi says. Trainees then choose where their interests lie and go back to hone their skills. Some will spend more time learning food preparation, and some will go the route of hosting or serving.
There is also a permanent staff that works at Daily Diner. "When we look to hire permanent staff, it's really important to us to find people committed to this idea — training others and really understanding the larger mission here," Gisi says. "We do try to operate as a regular restaurant; that's the whole idea. But the right training by the right people is such a major component, so it's important to have that understanding."
The food may be more blue-plate special than haute cuisine, but Gisi knows the diner's interests lie in the good work they're doing and not just the food they're making. "I do feel Daily Diner is on the cutting edge of an exciting time for this area," Gisi says. "It's our mission to change people's lives by inspiring hope and giving real-world experience so they become self-reliant. It's a perfect fit, because I think that's what is happening to this whole area. When people leave the program and go out to live and work in this community, that's where we hope to see even more change."
In short, Daily Diner is serving comfort food with layered meaning and dual purpose. Mashed potatoes that are satisfying to your stomach and your soul. Meatloaf that brings you back to your childhood and helps you give back to your community. Chili that ... well, you get the picture. Now just try to get up early so you can get there for pancakes.
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