Our group of 11 gathered in the central hall of the Midtown Global Market. We shoved a few tables together and called that home base. Each of us was assigned a food vendor and given enough cash to order the specialty of the house along with something else that sounded interesting.
We returned with our offerings and set them down. Our table looked like a feast for a gluttonous king and his court. Soon the surface became strewn with the detritus of 11 people picking and poking at kolaches and pizza and lamb shanks and baba ghanouj. We used our grubby fingers and any available plastic utensil. We slurped and gnawed and grunted out our thoughts about the food. By the time we’d wiped away the drippings from our various tortas, tacos and dumplings, our thin, biodegradable napkins had pretty much biodegraded in our hands.
Then it was time for round two.
We loosened our belts, grabbed our cash, and did it all again. 17 different places, more than 40 menu items, all in a two-hour span.
If you’re unfamiliar with the setup of the Midtown Global Market, imagine a large indoor bazaar with merchants offering cuisines and other goods from around the globe. So yeah, it’s pretty much what it sounds like: a global market. It’s housed in a gorgeous Art Deco stone building that towers over Lake Street like a capitol. This place once housed a bustling Sears store and catalog center. But where there were once stacks of tools and blue jeans and children’s toys, there are now stacks of tamales and baked goods and, yes, still a few children’s toys.
Prior to its opening in 2006, the Midtown Global Market was nothing more than the noble idea of a few local business owners. Today, it stands as a testament to the power of doggedly pursuing a vision. It could have been just another anonymous development. Instead, the Midtown Global Market is one of those special places that helps define a city. We’re lucky to have it.
Pro tip: You can get an hour of free parking in the ramp on the east side of the market. Just try not to forget to get your ticket validated as you stuff your face with … good lord, take your pick. — M.C. Cronin
This week’s checklist crew: WACSO, M.C. Cronin, Becca Dilley, James Norton, Josiah Norton, Peter Sieve, Jon Campbell, Blake Iverson, Dave Friedman, Jane Rosemarin, Ted Held
OTHER EAST LAKE STREET CHECKLIST INSTALLMENTS: Lake Plaza, Gorditas el Gordo to Pineda Tacos, Taqueria Victor Hugo to Safari Restaurant, El Sabor Chuchi to The Rabbit Hole
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
The East Lake Checklist is the third Heavy Table illustrated travelogue to explore a major gastronomic thoroughfare in Minneapolis and/or St. Paul. The East Lake Checklist is the Heavy Table’s follow-up to our 55-restaurant survey of independent eateries on Central Avenue and our 72-restaurant series about restaurants on the Green Line. We’ll publish five-restaurant installments biweekly until we’ve documented every nonchain spot on East Lake Street between 35W and the Mississippi River. (We’re estimating 75 spots, but we’ll see how it shakes out.)
This series is made possible by underwriting from Visit Lake Street. Heavy Table retains editorial control of the series — as with Central Avenue and the Green Line, this tour will be warts-and-all.
“From the river to the lakes, visitors and residents can shop local and be social on Lake Street. More information at VisitLakeStreet.com.”
Andy’s Garage is boldly and proudly a burgers-and-fries kinda joint, so that’s the way we went. We tried the bacon- and barbecue-sauce-bedecked Rugged Burger ($9.50, with an order of fries) and found that it lived up to its name: a charred, appropriately salty umami bomb on a respectable bun. Whatever you order at Andy’s Garage, make sure fries are part of the equation. It’s a treat to watch an employee grab a whole potato from a crate, smash it through an old-school metal fry-cutter, and fry up the strips while you watch. Our fries were delicious — simple, robust, well-seasoned.
We weren’t as enthusiastic about our chocolate shake ($4), which suffered from anemic ice cream that was much more “ice” than “cream” and standard-issue pumps of Hershey’s Syrup (which always leans toward sugar as opposed to real chocolate flavor). The shake was, it should be said, nice and thick.
La Loma Tamales
We had to get the famous tamales from La Loma, of course. Our platter ($8) included chicken and pork tamales.
The pork tamale was richly flavored and firmly packed with nice, fine masa that was seasoned and colored a deep rust by smoked chiles, although we would’ve liked some bigger chunks of meat. The chicken tamale was all strong on the textural front, but close to meatless and therefore a little austere. (One of our guest tasters mentioned that, as a regular customer, he’s noticed some uneven meat distributions in the past.)
We got a Chimichanga ($9.25) in an effort to exorcise the ghost of a recent fried burrito mishap. This chimichanga, too, lacked the chewy/crispy texture that is typical of the real, deep-fried deal, and it was something of a one-note casserole of beans, tortilla, and rice. But the seasoning was good, and when mixed with the fine guacamole on the side (plus sour cream, and salsa, etc.) it worked as a dish.
Fresco’s Italian Pasta Bar
There are several adjectives you could use to describe the two dishes we tried from Fresco’s, but “fresh” would not be one of them. Both the half order of Habanero Angel Hair Shrimp Pasta ($6.49) and the Bolognese ($6.49) arrived at our table in a semi-solid state best summarized as “congealed.”
The Habanero Shrimp Pasta was, for nearly all of our tasters, close to inedible. It was searingly hot, salty as a winter highway, and caught in the acrid death grip of garlic oil. “Nearly all” is key here — one of our tasters loved the stuff for its intensity and brought home the leftovers.
The Bolognese (which seemed to be a 50/50 mix of a red meat sauce and white carbonara sauce) was more agreeable overall, but you must love oregano. Lots and lots of oregano. The red sauce was sweet, and the cheese tasted as though it had sprung from a can.
There are too few Scandinavian anythings in this state — bakeries, restaurants, cafes, you name it. For many folks, Scandinavian food is home food or memory food, and that’s a shame because it deserves a prominent place in the cultural marketplace. For that reason (and others) it’s always a pleasure to see the charming boutique and bakery called Finspang when we walk through the Midtown Global Market.
The baked goods of Finspang sum up some of the best stereotypical attributes of Scandinavians and Minnesotans alike — sweet, mellow, earnest, neat, and, well, nice. The Almond Horns ($3) were a bit aggressive on the almond extract, but the crunchy/crumbly texture was just right and would have been delightful with a cup of coffee.
The Lingonberry Bar ($1.50) could have used more tartness, but honestly it was a lovely, winning, homey baked good with a great oaty top to it.
And the Kolache ($1.75) was certainly underpowered for its genus, lacking enough pastry crispness, and so mildly flavored it risked going unnoticed.
Grand Italian Ice
The Pear and Mango Italian Ices (each $3) from Grand Italian Ice split our table. Half of us found them artificial tasting and therefore cloying and not good to eat; half of us found them artificial tasting, and therefore evocative of an old-fashioned orange Push Up pop, and therefore delicious and good to eat. If you come in with your expectations managed, you may well have a fun dessert.
The Espresso Custard ($3) was, to our Wisconsinite expert frozen custard tasters, not nearly rich or smooth enough to warrant the name.
The Brownie Sundae ($5) needed something more. It wasn’t bad, but it lacked any of the high-intensity decadence you want out of this kind of dessert.
Holy Land Deli
Holy Land is one of the stalwarts of Middle Eastern food in Minnesota, and for good reason. Even though they’ve scaled up to a fairly serious level of production, they’re still capable of making things in their restaurants that keep diners returning for more.
The only thing we’re not sure about vis-a-vis the Lamb Kebab ($18) at Holy Land is its value as a dinner for one. The lamb itself was nicely charred and tender, the hummus was really tasty, and the plate came with plenty of decent pita bread. Split between two for dinner, it’s actually a strong entree choice at Midtown Global Market.
Our Appetizer Plate ($9) was strong across the board, but the baba ghanouj had a lovely, distinctly smoky flavor that put it into another stratum of tasty.
Hot Indian Foods
In a scene where most Indian restaurants lack much marketing punch, the splash and sassy attitude of Hot Indian Foods has made a distinct impression. With slick branding and some clever fusion twists, it has quickly become one of the area’s most visible culinary projections of the subcontinent.
The Spinach Paneer Bowl ($9) at Hot Indian Foods is everything we’d hoped it might be, and then some. It was boldly flavored, the paneer was tender and beautifully coated with seasoning, the rice was tender, and the whole dish was vibrant and compelling. It boasted lovely textural contrasts between the soft paneer and spinach on one hand and the crunchy slaw and the papadum bits on the other. Brown rice usually falls flat with Indian food — the fragrance and delicacy of a good white Basmati enhances the flavors — but Hot Indian cooks the brown rice with coconut milk and garlic, and this tempers the overall nuttiness of the whole grain and allows it to be a good partner to the curry.
Our Chicken Tikka Indirito ($9) could have used some of that edge. It was agreeable enough, with a mellow, warm, natural spice flavor and a tender roti wrapper, but it lacked the fire and conviction of the paneer bowl.
Our Samosas (2 for $5) were the only disappointing part of the meal. They were flat and triangular rather than having the traditional stuffed-pyramid shape, and the fried crust tended to overwhelm the pastries because of its oiliness and the small amount of meek vegetables or meat within.
We’ve always enjoyed our trips to Jakeeno’s in South Minneapolis. It’s a purveyor of old-school Minnesota pizza made with good ingredients, a lot of cheese, and very few frills. And it was a nice bonus to try the Italian Hoagie ($8.25) at Jakeeno’s and fall in love at first bite.
There’s a certain magic to a well-composed sandwich, and this thing had it — something about the right bread (the baguette was first-rate), the right meat-to-veg ratio, and the right vinegar-based dressing to tie everything together. This is what we’re getting next time we go to the market.
A slice of Pepperoni Pizza ($4.25) was comparatively tame, but it was good, nonetheless — sweet sauce, a lot of cheese, a simple, chewy crust. Unremarkable, maybe, but enjoyable, for sure.
Our Mac and Cheese ($5) was comforting. This isn’t mac and cheese to redefine the meaning of the dish, but if you’re craving rich, cheesy sauce on tender noodles, consider yourself covered.
You can’t get much more Lake Street than Manny’s Tortas, which in one location or another has been slinging classic Mexico-City-inspired sandwiches for nearly 20 years. The tortas take a while to make. Their fillings sizzle on the flattop as the bread toasts, making a mix of melty, crispy, chewy, and tender textures.
Our Hawaiiana ($10), a classic of the shop, includes ham, pineapple, and melted Swiss cheese. The grilled pineapple brings some sweetness and contrast to the salty, thinly sliced ham, and the cheese ties it all together.
Our Bistek ($9) could have used a little more acid or heat, as it was bready and earthy without much contrast, but it was a pleasant, cold-weather sandwich we’d eat again.
Mapps Coffee & Tea
Mapps has become known for its Chai ($4) and it’s easy to taste why. While most cafes do chai with a heavy emphasis on sweet dairy, Mapps presents a more austere drink with a surprisingly assertive spiced (and spicy, as in hot) finish. If you like a sweet chai, steer clear. If you’re ready to be pleasantly challenged, here’s your drink.
The Chai Espresso ($4.25) took the edge off the chai and added a little more of a roasty coffee note, and was a nice middle ground between straight coffee and milky chai.
We weren’t a big fan of the Big Bang ($2.65), a mix of coffee and espresso. It was both bitter and weak-tasting, without much depth of flavor.
Heavy Table has been a proponent of Moroccan Flavors since its opening; this is a shop that does a few things and does them consistently, and well. We were not surprised in the least to find out that their Lamb Tagine ($13) was a marvel of tenderness and flavor, with everything from the couscous to the roasted carrots contributing sweet, mellow depth to the dish.
And the Salad Sampler ($9) was just delightful: a mostly-pickled tour through simple, clean, refreshing tastes that perfectly played off the richer, more earthy notes of the tagine.
Panaderia y Pasteleria Samantha
We tried a variety of about six things from this panaderia (Mexican-style bakery) for about $7.50, and they lined up with most of the things we’ve had at other panaderias around town, which is to say: eh.
As per usual, everything tasted oil-based (rather than butter or other dairy-based) and lacked much in terms of flakiness or depth, and instead fell back on sugar alone to provide flavor.
Pham’s Rice Bowl
The sweet, fairly one-note, thin-noodled Pad Thai ($9) at Pham’s is still probably your best bet; both our steamed Chicken Dumplings ($4) and Banh Mi ($5) had funky notes that were off-putting for our tasters.
Salty Tart Bakery
Salty Tart has long been one of the anchors of the Midtown Global Market experience, and here’s hoping that the debut of their more-ambitious restaurant in St. Paul doesn’t derail the fun. As we expected, we had a good run at Salty Tart.
The place is rightfully famous for its Coconut Macaroons ($1.75 each), which are delightfully chewy, naturally sweet, and coconut inflected without being stringy.
Our Pastry Cream Filled Brioche ($3.25) is rightfully a classic around here — pillowy soft, crusted with sugar, yet so rich and creamy in the interior.
Our Squash Focaccia ($5) was more heavily salted than we’d expected a bread to be (name of the shop notwithstanding), but whether that moved it into pleasant, snack-chip territory or off the menu varied from taster to taster.
The Brown Sugar Orange Scone ($3.50) was richly flavored but dry to a fault; If it had been toasted and buttered it would have come to life.
You really can’t go wrong with a Salty Tart Chocolate Chip Cookie. At $2, it’s one of the less-expensive options, and it’s a chewy, balanced, beautiful specimen of its type.
Our Red Curry with Tofu ($9.20) from Sabbai Thai had good, strong, balanced heat, the likes of which we’re always happy to encounter, and a mellow depth of flavor that made for delicious eating.
Similarly good was our Taro Bubble Tea ($4), which was sweet (but not overly so) and really refreshing, a lovely complement to the heat of our food.
We were less excited about our Drunken Noodles ($10.20), which had a bit of an unpleasant sour note and chicken that seemed less than thrilled to be there. So maybe: curries yes, noodles no, bubble tea always?
Taco Cat tacos range in price from $2.50 to $3.50 and range in overall flavor impact from “good” to “amazing.”
We ate up and down the menu (everything from steak to pork to Outlaw to McFly to Larry) and found the meat uniformly tender and well-seasoned, nicely accented by the seasonings and accoutrements sharing space on the tortillas, and in balance with everything else on the plate. This seems to be a place where you can’t go wrong.
One more case in point: Even the Chocolate Cookie ($1.50) was lovely, with some real, deep cocoa flavor and a gentle, non-insistent sweetness.
Eastlake Craft Brewery
We walked into Eastlake Brewery on a mission, and we took down two four-beer samplers plus a pint of the current Kirby Pucker Sour (#13).
These notes are a little free-form, reflecting the culinary gantlet that we ran to arrive at this point, but you’ll be able to extract some highlights and insights along the way.
We knew the Kirby Pucker was aged on grapes, but it had a flat, winey character that was downright surprising. Had we consumed it blindfolded with no context, we might have guessed crisp white wine before guessing beer, as it packed a real tart bite.
Standing out from the samplers: the big, 9 percent ABV Dank Aaron double IPA, which actually packs enough malty, boozy punch to mostly submerge its own hoppy qualities (it clocks in at at 100 IBU, but we didn’t feel the astringent crush of hops that we expected). We liked it — it stood out from the pack as a bold, distinctive brew with a legitimately funky depth.
Good Ol’ Gnarly Brown was also a group favorite, with a bready, honeyed, fully malted thing going on that gave it welcome depth, warmth, and complexity.
And Sun Dogs’ IPA was just a big, happy, juicy smile of a beer — really full-flavored and refreshing, bringing moisture and brightness rather than astringency or acid.
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