As the holiday season kicks off, your once-empty weekends seem to fill up much too quickly with endless parties and events. It's all great fun, but it also means lots of menu planning, requests to bring a dish to pass, cookie swaps, and forever scrambling for hostess gift ideas. Instead of just heading to Lunds or Cub to pick up the goods, think about taking advantage of our many local specialty food stores. Here's a guide to a few of our favorites.
United Noodles 2015 E. 24th St., Minneapolis 612.721.6677; unitednoodles.com
A first-time trip to United Noodles in Seward can be overwhelming. Not only is it the largest Asian supermarket in the Twin Cities, it's the largest in the entire Midwest, and the sheer volume of products is astounding. United Noodles sells beans, grains, dressings, sauces, spices, and of course noodles, from all corners of the Asian continent and even parts of the Pacific Rim. Pick up pantry staples that will allow you to whip up a tasty dinner in no time: Thai curry pastes, kimchi, hoisin, soba and udon noodles, miso paste, mirin, fish sauce, and rice vinegars are all well stocked. Experienced cooks rely on United for harder-to-find items like dried seaweed (if you're making sushi, Coastal Seafoods is right around the corner), chicken feet, burdock, and Asian eggplants, but epicureans of every kind will appreciate the huge selection of frozen dumplings and dim sum buns.
Duly noted: If shopping tends to make you hungry, plop down at UniDeli, the counter-service restaurant inside the market, and enjoy a steamy bowl of ramen, agedashi tofu, tea eggs, pork belly, and sticky-rice dumplings.
Best for: Noodles (duh), medicinal and regular teas and herbs, jarred sauces and pastes.
Pooja Grocers 855 45th Ave. NE, Columbia Heights 763.571.1899
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Our local Indian markets are the best untapped resource for buying cheap spices, and Pooja Grocers is no exception. Get whole cinnamon sticks, fennel seeds, cumin, peppercorns, coriander, chiles, dry mustard, and ground ginger all for about a quarter of the price you pay at a big-box grocer. Find fresh and frozen naan, samosas, and roti; jarred English and Indian chutneys; several varieties of cucumbers, limes, and pickling vegetables. Discover paneer (a mild fresh cheese) and ghee (butter that's been clarified by removing the milk solid so you can use it to cook at high temperatures without burning), plus fabrics, incense, and scented oils for gift giving.
Duly noted: Pooja is very busy on weekends, so if you're planning to browse, you might want to stop by during the week.
Best for: Bulk spices, jarred chutneys, frozen bread and appetizers, hard-to-find produce.
Ingebretsen's 1601 E. Lake St., Minneapolis 612.729.9333; ingebretsens.com
Long a Minneapolis institution, Ingebretsen's remains a hub of Scandinavian art, craft, culture, and especially food. The business started as a family-run butcher shop in the 1920s, and you can see from the tons of Swedish sausage, meatball mix, and herring for sale on the deli side that tradition is still alive and well. In addition to stocking mulling spices for glogg (a spiced hot wine), mixes for rømmegrøt (a thick rice pudding), and gjetost (a distinctive goat's milk cheese), Ingebretsen's has a number of unique Scandi cooking tools. Sandbakkel tins, almond cake pans, krumkake irons, and lefse griddles all make great gifts for the baker who has everything. Want to dig deeper into this cultural heritage? Ingebretsen's offers crafting classes in knitting and needlework, plus an ever-popular lefse-making course.
Duly noted: The store is particularly busy right before the holidays, so be prepared to wait in some lines, but you can always avoid the crowds by ordering from its catalog online.
Best for: Holiday shopping, gifts for bakers, sausage, Scandinavian knickknacks
La Alborada 1855 E. Lake St., Minneapolis 888.311.1671; laalboradamarket.com
In Spanish, la alborada means "the dawn," and the name couldn't be more appropriate for this venerable Corcoran neighborhood market. Why? Well, for one thing, dawn refers to the time of day you should arrive here for the best and freshest selection of baked goods from the panaderia. You'll find an array of pan dulces, crusty buns, and a can't-miss house specialty creation called chocoflan, a delicious hybrid of layered chocolate cake and traditional flan. While Minneapolis is not lacking in Mexican groceries, La Alborada stands out from the crowd for offering so much under one roof. In addition to the great produce market (with every imaginable type of pepper, nopales, and unique seasonal fruits), the deli case (which offers queso fresco, guacamole, and spicy sausages), and the aforementioned bakery, La Alborada also has a wonderful little lunch counter that serves tacos al pastor and a handful of tortas.
Duly noted: Save yourself the time, hassle, and endless flavor adjusting involved in making your own mole and pick up one of Alborada's homemade mole pastes. Keep it in a bag in the fridge and add a little water before warming up and pouring over chicken or enchiladas.
Best for: Inexpensive exotic juices, lunch, Mexican sweets and candies, uncommon cuts of meat.
Golden Fig 790 Grand Ave., St. Paul 651.602.0144; goldenfig.com
This gorgeous Grand Avenue shop is like St. Paul's answer to East Hampton's Barefoot Contessa, which makes sense given that Golden Fig owner Laurie McCann Crowell used to work with Ina Garten. Even if you've never been in the Fig before, you probably recognize some of the products the store is best known for: custom dried-spice blends like black pepper and pure maple granules, so delicious on buttered corn on the cob; specialty salt varieties, including smoked and rose; flavored sugars infused with hibiscus, cardamom, or lavender; and various vinegars, like the surprising chocolate balsamic — completely amazing on fresh strawberries. Stop by when the store is slow, as the helpful staff members are quick to give out samples of just about anything you're interested in trying. Plenty of other vendors also sell their wares at the Fig. On any given day you might find desserts from Salty Tart, chicken from Callister Farms, milk from Castle Rock Dairy, and bread from Rustica.
Duly noted: Golden Fig offers participation in cheese shares. It's like a CSA, but instead of veggies you get 1.5 pounds (total) of various cheeses. Genius.
Best for: Gifts for foodie friends, locally made products, recipe inspiration, samples.
2513 Central Ave., Minneapolis
If you've only ever considered Holy Land as a place to get a quick gyro, do yourself a favor and venture a little further to the back of the Northeast store. It's a treasure trove of glistening bulk olives — oil-cured, stuffed, spiced, green, black, and many others; various feta cheeses; the creamiest hummus (as blurbed about in Rachael Ray's magazine); and parsley-flecked tabouleh salad. And that's just the deli counter. Falafel mixes, crispy bagged chickpeas, and huge packages of usually expensive nuts populate the dry-goods section. If there's a better place to buy dates, figs, and excessive amounts of olive oil in town, I don't know what it is. The in-house butcher shop allows you to have halal goat, lamb, and other meats cut to your specifications, and it's one of just a handful of places where you can order a whole animal for roasting.
Duly noted: On top of everything else, Holy Land offers really affordable catering and generally only needs a few hours' notice to cook for a group of 20 or less. Consider your holiday party menu solved.
Best for: Goat and lamb, last-minute party shopping, buffet lunch.
Local D'Lish 208 N. First St., Minneapolis 612.886.3047; www.localdlish.com
This North Loop store focuses on selling organic produce, cheese, meat, and prepackaged artisan crackers, spreads, and other treats that all come from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and occasionally Illinois and Iowa. The spacious store is constantly rotating and bringing in new vendors, so it's always worth checking in to see what's new, even in the winter, when D'Lish hosts an indoor farmers' market. You might find Bliss butterscotch granola (reportedly a favorite of Mayor Rybak), Hope Creamery butter, Lindalicious biscotti, veggies from Bossy Acres, and dried apple snacks from Eden Apples. There's an emphasis on gluten-free products too, including Poorboy Candy's gluten-free gingerbread caramels, Thuro Bread pizza crust and bread, and Coco-Amour GF macaroons. Owner Ann Yin always keeps the small takeaway case stocked with salads and spinach pie from Sito's Lebanese, Joia sodas, and a few premade focaccia sandwiches.
Duly noted: D'Lish's cooking classes and demos teach how to make use of seasonal vegetables, go dairy-free, or incorporate more antioxidants into your diet.
Best for: Cooking classes, gluten-free products, locally made products.
Don't want to limit yourself to just one cuisine type? Then by all means make your way to Midtown Global Market. Park once, roam around a while, and leave with enough imported candy, curry ketchup, and frozen tamales to last you a year.