People often ask me where I eat out when I don't, you know, have to. Judging from the bluff of dishes in my sink, I don't dine out much when I don't have to. It's kind of like asking the Vikings what their fantasy football picks are. When they're not playing football they're probably making salads at home.
But, here they are anyway— my fantasy football picks. They haven't done me wrong, they will not do me wrong, and if you ever want to hang out, you know, just pick up the tab at any of these joints. I do it all the time. Ten (OK 11) places I'll always eat out on my own dime:
10. Q Fanatic
Way, way out in Champlin, this little joint is everything a BBQ place should be and nothing it shouldn't: shabby and tucked away in a strip mall, where you order from a hole-in-the-wall from a server who's all business. Because after all, real BBQ is serious business. The place is all smoke; your clothes will be redolent with it as you leave, and the brisket is both meltingly tender as well as sliceable, and it boasts a smoke ring. Generally, one must cross state lines for meats this righteous, and while Champlin is kinda like doing just that, this is a quickie road trip that will not disappoint.
Notions of "authenticity" aside (the place is filled with Indian diners, if that makes you feel good), I've never had a bite of food here that wasn't lick-the-plate delectable. The tikka masala is ambrosial, all golden coconut fragrance bewitching enough to bathe in. The rice grains are individual as raindrops, there are so many naan breads you can order a "tour" of them, and they offer an entire section of Hyderbadi (Middle Eastern influenced) favorites. Service is bend-over-backward friendly and in addition to the standard lunch buffet they offer a Sunday dinner buffet, too, for $12.95.
If I ever had a "home" restaurant, and there have been a few — hey, a girl is allowed to stray from time to time — it would have been the long lost King & I in downtown. The reasons were many, but there's no need to dwell on those now —you can't go home again anyway. Or can you? The King & I is back, albeit in a strip mall in Mendota Heights, and the cooking is the same. You can't capture lightning in a bottle twice, but you can eat explosive Pad Thai and Tom Yum even if you must drive to the 'burbs to get it.
7. Ngon Bistro
Here's a strange animal: a Vietnamese restaurant as lovely as any fine bistro anywhere, with diaphanous window trimmings, candlelight, and bartenders who halt every 30 minutes or so to carefully place another record on the vinyl sound system. Oh, and cocktails. Really lovely craft cocktails and a great wine list. Big deal, if the food isn't first-rate, but it is, with a rice noodle salad that stands up to any in town and menu items that soar from all the Vietnamese faves you know and adore, to "Nouveau Indochine," where the chef puts his French culinary training to fine use.
With WSK in town I really can't see any reason to go to Chipotle again. Sure, a burrito bowl at the latter is fine, once you've gone all Shiva on it with hot sauce, salsa, lime, corn, and whatever else, but a YumYum bowl is you know, yum, from the giddy-up. And can you get house-made kimchee at Chipotle? No, you can't. Can you get secret sauce? No. Can you get soft cooked eggs, crunchies, or a plate of dips? Is the guac at that lesser place "blinged out"? No, no, no, and no! And, one of the country's best chefs presents it all to you, for little more than you'd pay at that other place. I could eat there eight days a week.
Minnesotans are sort of overly obsessed with finding that little out-of-the-way, hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese joint that only takes cash and is really hard to find and nobody else has ever heard of it! And that flummoxes me, because Quang is the opposite of all those things, very easy to find, has been there for many, many decades, and is at the very top of their game, and is pretty much everything you want in Vietnamese food for the kind of money that makes you feel like you're stealing, kinda.
4. Muddy Waters
It seems to me like Muddy Waters was the first (and still sort of the best) establishment that embraced the hybridization of how People Really Eat and Drink. So, they're not afraid to be both a coffee shop and a bar, but also a restaurant that doesn't seem like its a restaurant but is. It's a bar that serves really good food, but it's too good to be bar food. It's restaurant food. But you feel like you're sitting in a bar. Do you see what I mean? And their brunch is still probably my favorite in town — with menu items like a breakfast burger that isn't really a burger at all, but a sausage patty on an English muffin topped with an egg but also hollandaise. This thing is for when you don't know if you want an egg sandwich or a burger or an eggs Benedict, so why not have all three? No compromises at Muddy's! Have it all.
3. Black Sheep
There are all kinds of choices for really good, stand-up- to-East Coast-taste-test pizza around here, but I keep returning to Black Sheep. Thanks to their coal ovens, the texture of the crust is like none other — crisp and light but serious and substantial too. Be very certain to order a side of marinara, because part of how they achieve that superior crust is not over-saucing. This sauce is nothing more than high-quality canned tomatoes, salt, and perhaps a swish of great olive oil, simple but mighty. I'm especially loving the communal picnic tables on the sidewalk at the downtown location. There's something very New York about the whole scene.
In my house it's always a good idea to get Brasa. In all of my years of dining, I've never had a restaurant so consistently deliver, and consistency is a very big deal in the restaurant industry. Do you know why McDonald's has been so successful over the many decades that it has been? Not because of their delicious food. It's because you know what you are going to get, each and every time. And so add to that equation a place that not only delivers each and every time, but it is also delicious, also healthful but still decadent. And what you get is a really, truly perfect restaurant. They get a lot of my money, and they deserve it.
Here's another question I get: "It's your birthday, tonight, and you can go anywhere. Where are you gonna go?"
I'm gonna go to Parella. No! Il Foro! Il Foro, yes. No! Parella. I'm going to go to Il Foro or Parella. I can't decide because they are both so, so good. Since it's my birthday, I'll probably go to both! Both of these restaurants are doing Italian cuisine with the impeccable precision you probably won't find outside of Italy or at least New York City, with handmade pastas so divine, product sourced so carefully, talent so world-class, you won't believe you're in Minneapolis. So, for my birthday, I usually want to travel, but now I don't have to. Thanks, Il Foro/Parella.