St. Paul's Payne Avenue is shaping up to be a restaurant strip worth a second, third, and even fourth look.
Something of a latecomer to the gentrification game, the city's East Side has long been blighted by vacant and boarded homes, symbols of declining industry. But thanks to some forward-thinking entrepreneurs, along with an infusion of city money, Payne Avenue is looking like the new "eat street" to keep an eye on. Here are four places to add to your restaurant rotation.
Tongue in Cheek, 989 Payne Ave. One part neighborhood bistro, one part classic St. Paul bar, and one part homage to ethical animal husbandry, Tongue in Cheek is the most ambitious place in the lineup, with former Marcus Samuelson (of Aquavit) apprentice Leonard Anderson at the stove. Fine, composed plates like wild salmon over goat cheese risotto with tomato consomme meet chefed-up fried egg sandwiches and Micheladas to make a sort of place for all occasions. Co-owner and spouse to Anderson, Ashleigh Newman is a longtime animal rights activist, and the couple has promised a bold mission statement of commitment to ethical and humanely procured animal product. Don't miss the teasers: $2 two-bite wonders, these delicately composed plates are shrunk down to diminutive proportions but still boast immense flavor.
Cook St. Paul, 1124 Payne Ave. It's something of a magic trick to make over a beloved institution, retaining devoted fans, yet breathing new energy into an established concept. It appears Eddie Wu may have pulled it off, by wisely keeping a diner vibe and menu but infusing the Cook St. Paul space with more light, air, and bibimpap. Gone are the hulking old wooden booths (the hard part was pulling them out in one piece to give away to people who said they wanted one) but regulars still vie for a seat in the postage-stamp sized space. "We joke that if we had opened a hardware store here, the old regulars would still come in, sit down in the paint aisle, and demand their short stack." So short stacks they will get, as well as eggs their way, but a bit of innovation shines through when Wu indulges his affinity for Korean food with things like yellow bean pancakes and bibimbap. Try the spicy Korean burger, topped with the secret hot sauce Wu learned to make as an apprentice at Sole Cafe, arguably the most authentic Korean restaurant in town.
Ward 6, 858 Payne Ave. With its sturdy oak bar and parquet floor, Ward 6 feels like it's been there forever, and in a way it has -- the building operated as a saloon in the late 1880s and was then acquired by the nearby Hamm's Brewery at the turn of the century. It then changed multiple boozy hands until it was acquired two years ago by partners Bob Parker and Eric Foster. Both are East Siders with a common vision of a comfortable neighborhood bar with great food -- or, as they like to call it "food for drinking." Try the Lahmucan, a dish Parker took a fancy to on his travels. It's Turkish flatbread filled with ground lamb and goat cheese. Add in 30 beers on tap, all locally brewed, except Hamm's, and you have the perfect bar to make your regular haunt.
Plaza del Sol, 990 Payne Ave. Plaza del Sol is the sort of traditional one-stop Mexican marketplace and where all of your quinceanera dress, tamal, birthday cake, mango smoothie, and haircut needs can all be gathered up in one fell swoop. Senor Sol's $8 all-you-can-eat taco bar (lunch only) and Tazmal Pupuseria pupusas are good and cheap. Sidhe Brewery is slated to move into the space soon, with an all-female owned and operated 40-seat taproom. Xtravagant Events & Sweet Treats specializes in custom cakes but also makes for a decent dessert stop for cupcakes and chocolates.