Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Holidays: Home "Sweet" Home

Some thoughts from Minnesota and Oklahoma as I wrap up my travels for 2014...

Happy New Year!

I was a product of the taste test kitchens at Pillsbury in Minneapolis where I had my first job out of school. A food lover by no means back then, I grew up eating great food at the Nankin Cafe, the Lincoln Del, the North Shore Grill, and Charles Cafe Exceptionale thanks to my mom. She characterized a foodie; she was always planning her next meal even before she finished the one she was eating. That's me. 

Cuisine was evolving and was defined by the likes of The Kings Inn, Lord Fletcher's on the Lake, Chez Colette in the Sofitel, and T Wright's. 

Mixology was simple and bars like Duff's, Busters, Bunny's or The Leaning Post were serving up drinks as simple as an ice cold Gin Gimlet. A Heublein canned martini was the centerpiece of every weekend summer pool party where I lived. 

Life was uncomplicated.

You can travel the world now and never leave Minneapolis it is that diverse. Ethnicities include Scandinavians, Germans, British, Italians, and Slavs. Recent immigrants are Hmong Laotians and Somalis.

People use to think of Minnesota in terms of Lefse and Lutefisk or even infamous State Fair foods such as deep fried cheese curds and pickles but New Nordic, a culinary term that was solidified by the early dominance of the Bachelor Farmer, comfort food such as beer–infused mac ‘n’ cheese and food truck street like the Chicken Rice Bowls at World Street Kitchen has placed Minneapolis on the international culinary map.

One huge advantage that Minneapolis has always had...its farms. Minneapolis has been using locally sourced food long before it ever became the popular thing to do. 

Minnesota is the U.S.'s largest producer of sweet corn, sugar beets, green peas and farm-raised turkey's and corporate food giants like General Mills, Cargill, Hormel Foods and Land O Lakes call Minnesota home. 

612Brew, named after the Minneapolis area code, is part of a number of microbreweries popping up in northeast Minneapolis and are supported by home-grown barley and hops purchased from farmers even before they are out of the ground.

The best doughnut? The best Torta? Yes, they are here. In fact, it was amazing to me that I came all the way from Mexico to Minneapolis to get a hallowed Torta fix. 

Pheasant Pizza? Wild game embellishes everything here but it doesn't taste quite so good unless you've shot it yourself.

Minneapolis knows how to showcase their pork...Berkshire Pork at The Butcher and The Boar or at Spoon and Stable where the Grilled Red Wattle Heritage Pork is served up with savoy cabbage, papaya salad, and thai basil.

And how about the bakeries? You know the ones where local German and Scandinavian baking traditions make you wonder who is dreaming up all these unfathomably delicious sweet treats in the back of the kitchen. It was hard not to become instantly addicted to the Maple and Bacon Long John's from Hans' Bakery, 3465 Shoreline Dr in Navarre.

It's also difficult not to love a city where good restaurants are inexpensive, at least when you compare them to Chicago prices. My sister and I split lunch at Manny's Tortas in the World Market and it was about the same price I pay back in Mexico for one.

Some of these restaurants are local, some are chains, others are institutions or acclaimed in recent openings. One thing these restaurants all have in common? Good eats that always find a place at the top of Minnesota’s celebrated food culture. 

Buen Apetito!

Tucci Benucch
Mall of America
60 East Broadway, Bloomington, MN

The Happy Hour menu shines (2:30-6:30 PM) and so do the prices. The real standouts: Butternut Squash Ravioli w Brown Butter Sauce and profiteroles, a French dessert choux pastry ball filled with ice cream. I could eat at least a half dozen of them myself but hey, who's counting.

Lord Fletcher's on the Lake
3746 Sunset Drive, Spring Park, MN

Since Lord Fletcher’s was established in 1968, it has won national awards for its food, wine and service. I've been going here since they opened. Try a Minnesota Mosquito Bite; a spicy shrimp and crab bite off the bar menu for Happy Hour. Plenty of other delicious $5 appetizers. Bring your swimsuit because it's close enough to jump in the Lake from the summer patio. The best feast of all? ... People watching. 

Asian Bistro
4669 Shoreline Dr, Spring Park, MN

Kung Poa Chicken, a spicy Szechwan dish with peanuts, onions, scallions, celery, and dried chili peppers in spicy sauce and Beef with Asparagus were some of the best Asian dishes I've had in a long time. Everything is cooked fresh. In fact, the last time I was in there Theresa was cleaning fish. How's that for a hands-on owner? Warm up with a bowl of the Hot and Sour Soup. Don't take the fortune cookies too seriously.

Rancho Grande 
1004 Highway 55 East, Buffalo

There is only one thing on the menu after a long day of shopping at The Porch and Atelier in Buffalo- the California Chicken burrito with white cheese sauce. Trust me, this sauce makes the burrito. Going to try to recreate it in my kitchen using white American cheese, jalapeños and a little alchemy. Yes, I'll put it on everything it's that good.

Glam Doll Donuts
2605 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis, MN

I'm a real doughnut snob and this place takes the cake. One of USA Today's 10 Best Doughnut shops in America. I tried every doughnut shop in Chicago and none of them compare.

My favorite: the Beer and Bacon. Other sweet treats include the Chart Topper with peanut butter and sriracha; the Pucker up, a lemon cream cheese delight; the Dark Angel with vanilla bean cream and chocolate icing; Daddy Dearest, a cake doughnut with Surly beer, Surly Bender glaze and bacon crumb topping and the Calendar Girl made with a double dose of salted caramel and chocolate. 

"Best Doughnuts in Minneapolis 2013" by local weekly CityPages and it's been written up by other publications as well including the Wall Street Journal.

Located on the corner of Nicollet and 26th Street, in the heart of Eat Street, I would be in here every morning if I lived here. Load up because you'll never be satisfied with just one. 

Manny's Tortas
920 E. Lake St., Minneapolis, MN

Thin by Torta standards, this sandwich is a rule-breaker. 3 Little Pigs - Pork, ham and bacon- inside a loaf of crusty bread with beans, avocado, jalapeños, and spicy chipotle mayonnaise over a base of crunchy lettuce. One bite and the pleasure of eating this sandwich is magnified beyond measure. Manny Gonzalez's Tortas are on top for a good reason; they're the best tortas outside of Mexico.

Mayslack's Restaurant, Bar and Music Lounge
1428 4th St NE, Minneapolis, MN

Originally opened in 1955 by former pro-wrestler Stan Mayslack, Mayslack’s is the classic Northeast Minneapolis corner bar. The bar is legendary for its piled-high roast beef sandwich covered in garlic, banana peppers, onions, and au jus and served on a giant rye bun. Not a shy dish, stick with the original. 

Take in the view; the bar still has all of the original decor: pressed-tin ceiling, tile floor and high wooden booths. Attracts a diverse crowd before and after dark. Don't forget your dancing shoes.

Rosa Mexicano
609 Hennepin, Minneapolis,MN

This fine dining chain, with restaurants in many major cities including Dubai, does not have the best guacamole in the world but does serve beautifully prepared, traditional Mexican dishes including this plate of Carnitas, perfectly cooked and served with a side of tasty pineapple bits. Save room for dessert, in particular the Tres Leches de Zarzamoras. If you get to pick a chain, this is the one.

World Street Kitchen
2743 Lyndale Avenue S, Minneapolis,MN

Known for its Global street food, I had to go back just to see if the Yum-Yum Rice bowl was as good as I remembered. A mix of chicken and vegetables cooked in a Korean style served over steamed rice, Chinese broccoli, shitake mushrooms, soft cooked egg, aromatic herbs, peanuts, crispy onion, sesame and a secret sauce, this is some of the best street food I've eaten anywhere. Would be my go-to place for lunch if I lived here. Other addiction? The Korean BBQ Beef Short Ribs. Mama said don't fill up on the cookies before your eat your meal but then when did you ever listen to what your mama said? 

Island View Country Club
7795 Laketown Parkway, Waconia,MN

Every Tuesday, you can get a plate of chicken wings and a beer for under $10. Not your ordinary wings because these actually have some meat on them. I love the teriyaki. They also serve Jamaican Jerk, Spicy Thai or Buffalo. Also try a loaded burger or the overflowing basket of perfectly cooked onion rings. You'll come under budget unless you start a bar tab. Fries extra crispy thank you.

Elrodeo Mexican Restaurant
13572 80th Cir N, Maple Grove, MN

This family run business is so authentic even I closed my eyes and wondered if I was back in Mexico. Try the Taquitos served with a generous helping of beans and rice. Their most popular item is a $3 Margarita at lunch. You know it's good when half way through your first one you start speaking Spanish to the staff. Go ahead. Order another one. They are teeny-tiny. By the way, you're driving.

1935 Wayzata Boulevard, Long Lake,MN

Wednesday is a $5 Burger night (served with French fries) but I can't get beyond an $18 platter of Buckhorn Chicken, a cast iron, pan fried crisp chicken served with a cheese biscuit, coleslaw and French fries. Don't even think about trying to duplicate this one-of-a-kind. It's straight-up food porn. Put your name on a barstool because there's a special every night. Cheer's rerun anyone?

Spoon and Stable
211 North 1st St, Minneapolis, MN

Minnesotan Gavin Kaysen worked for Daniel Boulud as chef de cuisine at Café Boulud in New York City, where he earned the James Beard Rising Star Chef award and a coveted Michelin star. When he decided to open Spoon and Stable, Andrew Zimmern (Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern) became one of his investors.

Spoon and Stable’s name is from Kaysen’s now infamous spoon collection that he has swiped over the years. The restaurant's building use to be a stable.

At this Minneapolis hot spot, with reservations sold out through the end of January, we couldn't resist nabbing a corner booth in the bar and drinking in the beautiful surroundings not to mention the clientele. 

We ate off the bar menu and these photos were shot in the dark...

Tarte Flambé
spoon and stable ham, crème fraîche, rye, grape mustard

Hand-Cut Fries
béarnaise powder, herbs de provence

Black Truffle Arancini
fontina cheese

Gavin Kaysen's food is hardly ever less than perfect. Every dish was beautifully prepared and delicious as was the wine, a Reserve White Delaire Graff, Stellenbosch, South Africa 2011 but a bit on the pricy side at $18 a glass. 

Also tempting was a Belgian Endive Salad with pears, stilton cheese, pecans, and sherry vinaigrette that Chef Kaysen was preparing in the kitchen as I came by.

Don't forget to book the Chefs table and try something out of your comfort zone. Make a meal of the remarkable small plates, appetizers and sides like the Blistered Shisito Peppers with scallions and soy. 

Dessert? Try the Grape Frangipane with white wine sorbet, poached pear, and almond brittle or the Chocolate Chiboust with hazelnut praline, banana, and malted milk ice cream. 

Drinks? Try a French ’75 with gin, orange liqueur, thyme, lemon, and sparkling wine or a glass of Lambrusco di Sorbara, Chiarli, Vecchia Modena, Italy 2012. 

It's definitely the place worth exploring right now.

Some After thoughts:

Chili's! I had not eaten at one in years. The food was a delightful surprise...especially the desserts!

With Aquavit, a spicy Scandinavian-inspired liquor on the menu at many restaurants in Minneapolis, try an Aquavit Bloody Mary to celebrate your Nordic roots...and if you don't have any you'll think you do after just one glass. It typically contains 40% alcohol by volume. Put this one on the Bloody Mary tour.


4 ounces tomato juice
1 teaspoon horseradish
5 splashes Tabasco sauce
2 splashes Worcestershire sauce
2 pinches celery salt
2 pinches freshly ground pepper
Splash of olive juice
Splash of fresh lemon juice
1½ ounces Aquavit 

For garnish, use any of the following and remember, more is better if you can get it in the glass.

Bacon Wrapped Lobster
Baby Corn
Brussels sprout
Cherry Tomatoes
Chili Peppers
Cilantro Sprig
Cocktail Onions
Cucumber Spear
Edible Flowers
Green Beans
Green Pepper Ring
Jalapeno Popper
Lemon, Lime, Orange or Grapefruit wedges, wheels, twists or zest
Mini Bacon Cheeseburger
Mini Grilled Cheese Sandwich
Olives – olives stuffed with blue cheese or peppers always impress
Onion Rings 
Pepperoni Stick
Peppers – pickled or fresh
Pickle Spears
Roasted Garlic
Scallion (green onion)
Skewered Steak Bites
Smoked Oysters 
Sugar Snap Wasabi Peas

Combine all ingredients except liquor and garnish in a Collins glass. Stir well. Add Aquavit, ice and shake vigorously.

Home Cooking...

I come from a family of great cooks. The dishes I ate "in house" were just as good as what we found out in the restaurants. 

The Lasagna, made by my sister-in-laws cousin was the most delicious I've had anywhere and I'm not a fan of lasagna; ground beef, pork, pepperoni, and shredded chicken. The ricotta had chopped spinach, eggs, spices, and Parmesan in it.

Another revelation? My little sister is a good cook.

Tulsa… Christmas Traditions:

I still believe that eating together builds closer relationships in the family. One of the many reasons I love making wontons with Tommy during the holiday season. This year? Tommy takes 30. 

Another meal saturated in family tradition is the Prime Rib dinner that Thomas cooks every Christmas Eve.

We didn't travel beyond Tulsa this year because we were all coming off the wedding but we did enjoy these spots for standout dinners when we were eating out:

3376 East 51st Street, Tulsa, OK

This high-end seafood restaurant is not much to look at from the outside but once you step inside its magic. From the selection- they fly it in fresh every day, to the service and the decor; it's all reasons enough to come back. 

The crab cakes beat anything I’ve had on either coast. 

The fish - I had yellow fin tuna- was delicious but the dish that took the night was the duck with a few scallops on the side...because my son wanted to try both. How is that for accommodating a guest?

They also have a seafood market so you can take it home and enjoy the same ocean-fresh taste you get in the restaurant.

Hop Bunz
3330 South Peoria, Tulsa,OK

This burger joint is expensive but they bake fresh hot bunz daily and hand-cut French fries from select Maine Kennebec potatoes adding a Parmesan-truffle flavoring. 

This was my overindulgence; an Angus burger topped with Tillamook cheddar, BBQ sauce, onion strings, bacon and an egg. 

Now why would you order a burger any other place else? 

543 W. Main Street, Jenks, OK

A 3 star Southern breakfast that is so big and cheap you have to get there early just to get a seat. The hash-browns – and there is a plate of them- had a special seasoning and they weren’t telling any of the family secrets that day. $5 for a plate that’s bigger than you can ever imagine eating…but you do anyway. 

201 North Main Street, Tulsa, OK

This place is all dark wood and sunlight and I felt at home the minute I walked in.

What's with the burgers in Tulsa? I swore I wouldn't order another one but this particular variety got my attention ...and I'm glad it did. The Tavern Burger is a grind of short rib and brisket that is grilled to medium-rare and topped with Stilton blue cheese, mushroom Cognac cream sauce and served on a fresh-made-daily challah bun ($13) with a huge pile of shoestring fries. 

Their famous Angry Mac and Cheese is made with a double dose of sambal oelek, a spicy red chili paste. Its fiery after-notes made this version one of my all time favorites.