You say your 'hood has no baristas, no chefs, no BBQ slingers? It might be time to move to a new one. Three to consider:
See also: Four New Brunches at Four Hot Spots
Pilgrimage Cafe, Standish Neighborhood
Chef/owner Craig Ball has taken many pilgrimages: to Mexico, to Thailand, and he even walked the world-famous Camino de Santiago, a Spanish path for spiritual growth. It was his great love of travel and world cuisines that inspired the name and menu of his adorable little place in this adorable little neighborhood.
So now this 'hood that has an antiques shop, an institution of a tavern in the Cardinal Bar, and dusty but delicious BBQ in Ted Cook's 19th Hole, now has a little scratch bistro that serves a few beers and wines and lots of sandwiches and soups and salads and a few mid-priced entrees. Most of it demonstrates a little ethnic twist like a winsome chimichurri Philly with steak cooked to temp preference and a chimichurri that stands up and sings the way it ought to. It's garlicky, bright, herbaceous, the kind of topping that makes a sandwich a sandwich.
Sometimes you look down at a menu and it travels all over the globe and you start to get a little worried. What if they can't convincingly pull off Japanese, German, and Mexican all in the same day? But it seems like Pilgrimage is doing it: A fried banh mi managed an inventive take on a sandwich that's been so tinkered with the only thing left was to tie it in a knot. Here, two savory donut-like pillows provided a landing pad for sweet-tangy hoisin-braised pork and a big pile of refreshing pickled veggies. It was devourable. When we heard word from the chef that he would soon be rotating it out for something new, hearts broke around the newsroom. Bring it back!
Toss in a couple bevies, staff who know the meaning of the word "service" (they couldn't be any more accommodating), and this place is not only the sort that completes a neighborhood, it's the kind worthy of your own pilgrimage.
PILGRIMAGE CAFE 2403 E. 38th St., Minneapolis 612-729-0034 menu items: $5-$27
Firebox BBQ, Camden Neighborhood
If you were a young dude, and your parents had a tax-preparing business, would you be thinking, "I hope I don't get sucked into the tax-preparing business!"? Well, it was too late for Wang Vang, who was already working with his folks, Laotian immigrants who trucked along in Camden, quietly filing taxes for people like you and me for 12 years. And Vang was reasonably happy too, but sometimes he looked around, and thought: "This neighborhood really, really needs some food." And he was right, unless you had a hankering for a DQ cone or a bowl of bar chili from nearby Camden Tavern. He went home hungry every night, fired up the grill, cooked up some meats for his dinner, and that was that.
But then he got to thinking: "What if?"
So even though taxes were a surer bet, Vang and his parents built a restaurant out from scratch, including the plumbing, electrical, the works. The result is a modest little family BBQ shack with all of the qualities a BBQ shack is supposed to have: flickering fluorescent lights, a TV set to World's Dumbest, and aunts, cousins, and siblings at the cash registers.
Sometimes it's a little frenetic, and you'll wait awhile, but they're doing a brisk business. An almost revolving door brings in little kids who gnaw on chicken wings and big hungry guys just off work who stand in line for pulled pork sandwiches and nurses still in scrubs who swing by from the nearby hospital to bring home big grease-imprinted sacks to their families.
The best we sampled were the rib tips, tender but not falling off the bone, exactly as they should be. Pulled pork was a little dry but remedied by some triumphant sauce that's not sweet or sour or tangy or vinegary but instead miraculously all of them at the same time. Sides are all-scratch and simple and hearty, like a mac-and-cheese with a silky sauce, a sturdy slaw, and plain but good potato salad. And you can even get sticky rice and egg rolls if you want, or smoked duck on occasional Sundays. Vang says he's planning on letting his mom have a crack at the stoves sometimes.
So look out: When smoked Hmong lemongrass sausages become available in Camden, the property taxes are gonna go up. Don't worry, the Vangs can help with that, too.
FIREBOX BBQ 4707 Lyndale Ave. N., Minneapolis 612-521-8206 menu items $7-$15
Cold Front, Highland Neighborhood
Some entrepreneurs go into business because they have a dream: "What if I could just knit dog booties all day? It would be so relaxing and then I would be happy!" Others see a niche: "Hey — there are a lot of dogs running around without booties. We should fix that!"
The people of Cold Front have feet in both camps. They had a dream, as a lady and a man who met online and fell for one another over their mutual love of ice cream. But they also saw a need — because a neighborhood isn't worth the ink it takes to stamp it on a map without ice cream and coffee. They snatched up the old Lynden's Soda Fountain in St. Paul and rebranded what they were already doing well (old-fashioned ice cream sodas) for a younger, hipper generation. Then they added all-you-can-drink coffee because there is a school across the street, and if there is anything teachers and parents need it is lots and lots of caffeine.
So for $40 a month, just show up, and they'll give you all the coffee you can drink, all the time, without so much as swiping a card through an iPad. Handmade soda flavors by Tilia's Rashad Butler up the ante on your grandpa's ice cream float with the likes of pomegranate-ginger and balsamic strawberry. But bring Gramps too. None other than old-timey Fox's U-Bet Chocolate Syrup goes into the egg creams.
Oh, and candied bacon is a sundae topping option. Tradition stands no chance against pork fat.
COLD FRONT 490 Hamline Ave. S., St. Paul 651-330-7632 menu items: $2-$7.50
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