Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Caspers' Cherokee Sirloin Room

My love and I have a good friend in West Saint Paul who lives a half block from Caspers' on Smith Avenue South. We had heard good things about the steaks there, so it seemed like a no-brainer to give it a try. We had a fine time of course, because we were there with a friend, and there was never a shortage of laughter and conversation. Next time, though, we'll probably have Christy join us on our side of town.

It's not that we had a bad meal there. And it wasn't even a question of service. Our guy was new, and he told us so. He was very personable, and obviously trying, so we weren't bothered. And our food was a good value, as advertised. But we didn't have the time we wanted to have. Would it sound too new-agey to say the feel of the place was wrong?

First of all, Caspers' is basically atmosphere-free. You'd expect a place that's been there since just after the Earth cooled to have developed some serious personality, and that didn't seem to be the case here. I wanted a dim, cozy, comfortable chop house. What I got was formal night at the Legion Hall. The bar seemed reasonably inviting, but the dining room gave me the impression that a junior high dance might break out at any moment.

This would not, of course, have been that big a deal if the food had rocked my world. If no one bothered to decorate because they were all in the back exploring the nuances of the perfect steak, I would applaud that sort of devotion. And here we come to the heart of the matter for me, and this goes well beyond my experience with one local steak place. If the kitchen is getting it right, I will tell you how good the food is. And I love food, so if anything, I tend to err on the generous side. If a restaurant tries to tell me how good the food is, that's problematic. First of all, that invites criticism. Seriously. If I hand you a burger and wait patiently for your opinion, that's cool. If I hand you a burger and tell you it's the best burger EVER, you're almost obliged to start looking for problems.

I had a pretty average steak called (on the menu, mind you) "The Steak of the Millenium." How am I supposed to react to that? The fries were the same story. I was told beforehand that they would be the best I ever tasted. And they were just okay. Not very hot, and just okay. Miss J's steak and shrimp combo was a little more successful, and the au gratin potatoes were quite good.

The point is, if I ordered an unassuming, affordable steak and fries and got the same food I had here, I probably wouldn't complain. But steak and fries that tell me ahead of time that they're wonderful, and then aren't? I'm just a touch offended by that.

Maybe the problem is with the whole notion of the budget steakhouse. Good steaks are expensive, and there are good reasons for it. Go to Mancini's for the otherworldly ambience. Go to Lindy's for a steak that will feed you the next day. But if you really want a steak that will make your eyes roll back in your head, that's going to involve some scratch. No getting around it.

So take your $22, and go get Thai food, or Indian food. You'll eat like royalty. Plan ahead for the incredible steak dinner, and you'll have time to save the money you'll need. Better yet, find some wonderful meat, have the friends over, and do it at home. In that setting, everything will taste better anyhow.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Donatelli's Italian Resaurant

Let's be clear about something. My blog is not a big deal. I can count my followers on my fingers (thanks to all 8 of you). I've been able to steer a few of you to a good meal, and I'm delighted about that, but do I think my good opinion is essential to any restaurant's reputation in the wider world? Of course not. But pretend with me for a second. Imagine that TCDA has become the collective voice of Twin Cities foodies. Minnesotans cannot begin the day without tuning in to see where I'm eating now, and what I think about it. Restauranteurs cannot sleep at night until they know I approve of their establishments. I can, with the most casual flourish of my keyboard, reduce a perfectly respectable diner to a smoldering ruin. Are you with me? Good. Excuse me for a second while I have a giggle about that whole idea.


If all of that were true, Donatelli's would not need me. Wouldn't even notice. Because it seems that everyone who grew up north of 36 and east of 35E has been going to Donatelli's weekly for the last 30 years. And believe me when I say everyone. You cannot eat here without being part of the most diverse and interesting group of people you've ever seen in one restaurant at one time. The funny thing is, the rest of us in the Cities have likely never heard of the place. Again, not a big deal for them, because they're full virtually every night, but still, I felt a little cheated when some of my White Bear amigos finally tipped me off. I mean, have I not been one of the cool kids all this time? Can that be true? Well now I know, so rather than consider that possibility, I'll shut up and eat my pasta.

There is something inescapably charming about Donatelli's. It's not in the nuance, and it's not in the atmosphere. Most of the decor is built around a small army of stuffed Pink Panthers, most of whom seem to be engaged in some seasonally appropriate activity or other. You wouldn't find them at La Belle Vie, but they work here, like old friends you're happy to see again. Old, stuffed, pink friends. The staff is also unvaryingly friendly, and the mood is light, energetic, and sincere. Even the Boss, who's been doing this for 30 years now, still runs food out to tables, and will occasionally sit and chat with the customers. Ask him about the history of the restaurant, and you're guaranteed an enthusiastic account of the early days, when everything Donatelli's offered had to be stable enough to trundle through the pizza oven, because there wasn't any other equipment.

When a full house is a sure thing, service can go south in a hurry. Servers get complacent and condescending, and it doesn't take long to ruin what might once have been a wonderful place. Certainly many quality establishments have faded away over lesser sins. The staff here somehow dodges that bullet. It's as if they know they've got it good, and they appreciate you for it. They're having fun, and they take it personally if you're not. You might show up grumpy, but I bet you won't leave that way.

What to eat? Everything I've tried has been exactly what I needed. The Donatelli's Dunkers are a good place to start. They're slices of fresh Italian bread with mozzarella and a side of red sauce. Get them with the garlic butter. As if you need me to tell you that. For an entree, I can't seem to get past the baked mostaccioli. It's about what you'd expect. Pasta and red sauce, covered with cheeses and baked bubbly. Only the red sauce is way more interesting than you're prepared for, and the pasta is homemade and fresh. All of the pastas here, with the exception of the stuffed varieties, are made in-house, and you can tell the difference, even when the little guys have been smothered and baked. Your dinner will also be bigger than your head, so plan on taking something for lunch the next day, if you want to be able to walk to your car. This is comfort food of the highest order. Most of it is horrible for you, but it makes you happy, and when it ends up being two meals, that's not so bad, is it?

What surprises me are the details here. Everything is just a notch better than it really needs to be, and that's a rare thing. Homemade pasta. Fast, efficient service. Meals that arrive piping hot. Friendly people that really do care that you eat well. And of course an owner who is still there, still involved, and still having a good time making it all go.

If you somehow manage to save room, there's a full-service ice cream counter in the front of the house, and several Donatelli's favorites available to take home with you. Seriously, why would you ever leave?

Entrees go from $6.99 up to $17.99, the beer and wine is basic and a little more spendy than it ought to be. If you don't do a lot of drinking, you can feed yourself and a date very reasonably. So what are you waiting for? Go. Go early. You'll probably end up waiting anyway, but I bet they'll bring you pizza fries if you're nice. Yeah, those are perfect, too.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Maria's Café

So many things going on this week, it's dizzying. My wife, who, by the way, is a superhero, ran the Twin Cities 10-mile this morning. I am immensely proud of her. I would not, of course, be writing about restaurants at all if it weren't for the lovely Miss J on the other side of the table. The Rose Ensemble is releasing their new CD, "Il Poverello," this weekend, so there are concerts aplenty to celebrate that. And we have Italian guests in town, and of course we have to do our best to show them why we think this is a marvelous place. For breakfast, that meant taking them directly to Maria's.

When the band was in Spain a while back, we were in the wine region known as Rioja. That was just fine, of course. The place was beautiful, the food was good, and the wine was wonderful, but you really had to like Rioja, because that was what you were going to get. Even in the stores, there weren't many options beyond that. Here, my accomplice Carrie and I were able to pack two Italians off to a Colombian restaurant to have Venezuelan corn pancakes. How cool is that?

By the way, I'm sure you've heard all sorts of people espouse this or that as a universal language. They're all wrong. It's pancakes.

Maria's is located in a group of shops and offices known as The Ancient Traders Market, on Franklin just west of 11th Ave. You can have your breakfast, then run across the parking lot for great deals on baking supplies at the Aldi. Parking is off-street and plentiful, always a plus in my book. It also doesn't hurt that they're kitty-corner from the Franklin Street Bakery, a wonderful place to stop while you're in the neighborhood.

The menu is not huge, but there's something for everyone here. If you want your basic eggs and toast, that's not a problem. If, on the other hand, you're after a plantain pancake, then you can do that, too. The coffee is good, and the array of exotic fruit juices will keep you entertained for weeks. I've never had anything here that wasn't wonderful. The salsa is to die for, the refried are excellent (vegetarians, don't say you weren't warned), the build-it-yourself plates are yummy AND fun, it's all just great, and almost beside the point. Because the reason you go to Maria's is the same reason everyone else goes to Maria's– the pancakes. Specifically the corn pancakes, or Cachapas Venezolanas. I really don't have words to describe these beauties. They're plate-sized, full of corn, sweet, salty, tangy, buttery, crisp on the edges, soft on the inside, and incapacitatingly wonderful. You can have them plain with butter, with syrup (not sure why, but it's an option), or (the way to go) with crumbly cotija cheese. The cheese is enough to share, so only one of you needs to order it. It sounds strange, I know, but be brave. You'll enjoy it. The only thing to be careful of is their deceptive size. They don't look dangerous, but trust me, you'll want to start with one. Once or twice a year, I'll convince myself that I'm hungry enough for two of them. I have never once been right about this. One, with a side of eggs or breakfast meat, is a perfect meal. Maybe not energy food, but certainly happiness food, and isn't that just as important?

The downside of Maria's is that everyone loves it, and once you go, you keep on going. Which means that, on the weekends, the place is packed, and I do mean packed. If you must go Saturday or Sunday, go early, or be prepared to wait. The mass of humanity is only one side of the problem. The building is not enormous, and neither is the kitchen. Being staffed with regular old humans, they sometimes have trouble keeping up. If you want to experience Maria's at its best, go for breakfast during the week. It's still busy, but it's much more relaxed, and the food will likely be that much closer to heaven.

Prices are reasonable. If you don't go crazy, two of you can do breakfast for under $20, and still leave stuffed. Isacco and Stefano did. Stuffed, and very very happy.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Old Chicago HarMar

I make the HarMar distinction for a couple of reasons. Mostly, I don't know if I've ever been to another Old Chicago. Also, I don't normally pay much attention to chains. Doesn't seem like that should be the focus of my little blog here. But I also work for a very large company, and I'm fond of saying things like, "You know, to the customer that comes in here, we're not a faceless national company. We're just their store, full of people they know. Their relationship with us determines their satisfaction with our store, not our corporate identity, and blah blah blah blah....." I admit the possible cheesiness of that attitude, but I really do believe it, and that is the way I've always approached my work. So I think I need to put my money where my mouth is and talk about the OC. Not the corporate OC, which is meaningless to me, but good ol' HarMar, and the people who took care of me and mine.

A quick primer on Old Chicago, just in case you need it. It's a good, reliable pizza place. The menu is weighted toward domesticated Italian. It's a little more expensive than it probably should be. The food is unlikely to change your life, but it's also unlikely to disappoint. They're known for carrying an impressive selection of beer, which is absolutely true. If you're after a pizza-and-beer sort of evening, they're a home run. The post-work happy hour is also recommended, particularly if you have the sort of friends you can vent with. Isn't that what happy hour is for?

The artistic side of my life these days involves spending time with a fabulously talented group of musicians. Last weekend we had a friend come from Italy to work and play and record with us. On his last night here, we wanted to get together and have dinner. Trouble was, we had no idea how large our party would be. Anything from six to fourteen would have been perfectly plausible. I didn't know exactly how to go about making that sort of reservation. So I walked over to Old Chicago on a break and explained the situation to them. They did look at me a little strangely, but they didn't seem to think it would be a problem.

When I showed up later that evening, in the middle of their dinner rush, they had a table set for eight, with another empty in case I needed it. We did need it, as it turned out. We had one server who did an exemplary job, and a very kind manager who stopped from time to time to make sure everything was okay. Separate checks were offered and perfectly executed. We had a great time, and never had to worry about anything. That, of course, was the plan.

Maybe all of this is no more than a customer should expect. Maybe I'm impressed for no particular reason. But what the OC did for me was impressive because they took me and my pain-in-the-behind reservation, and did what needed doing. They kept it simple, and handled everything like pros, all the while being very nice to me and my friends. I have had much less satisfying evenings in much fancier places.

So I don't know about Old Chicago as a company. Which is all well and good, because the company will never have to feed me. But the gang at HarMar did, and do, and I appreciate them for it. If you need a good pie, or just a place to eat where they're nice to you and you can hear yourself think, don't pass them by because they're a "chain restaurant." Give them a chance to do their thing. And have a pint for me.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Carmelo's Ristorante

Carmelo's has been a staple for me ever since I came to the Twin Cities. For the record, I'm not the least bit Italian. I have no grandmother to whose work I can compare Carmelo's creations. I go because I love the food, and I'm as amazed now as I was when I was a mere pup at the value offered at this Saint Paul hole-in-the-wall.

Carmelo's offers, not high-brow Italian exactly, but certainly elegant Italian. What do I mean by this? Well, there's no flash, no hype, nothing to distract you from the simple pleasure of well-made food. Heather and Mark know that good cooking speaks for itself, and they're content to let their menu do its job. Everything here is home-cooked. Wisely, their website hits you with this trivia right out of the gate. Pastas, sauces, even the bread on the table, nothing here is trucked in or farmed out. It's made on site, according to "generational" recipes. All of this might sound a bit stuffy if everything weren't so darned good. Try anything here. The staff, equal parts quirky and cool, will help you if you have trouble, and you really can't go wrong. Two things you simply must have. First are the arancini. I've had these for years, in all sorts of places, and for my money these are the best you'll find anywhere. They are piping hot, rich, breaded globes of arborio rice, with sausage and peas, baked in a pool of bolognese sauce and cheese. I can't say enough about these. They are literally giggle-inducing good. Try these first, and if you keep ordering them, and skip the entree, I will understand completely.

The second is the signature entree, chicken Carmelo, which consists of a breaded and baked chicken breast covered with crab meat, parmigiano, and lemon cream sauce, all atop a bed of angel hair and roasted seasonal vegetables. This isn't just good. It's completely unfair.

These two dishes alone are reason enough to come back to Carmelo's, but the best part happens when you get the bill. For some reason, nothing on this menu costs anywhere near as much as it should. The chicken Carmelo, the most expensive entree on the menu, is $16.50. That's silly. You can spend more than that on a pizza almost anywhere. With a bottle of vino, my love and I can have a wonderful dinner here and get out for under $75 with tip. It's not fast-food cheap, of course, but neither is it fine-dining expensive, and it should be. For the quality of the food, the calm and quiet atmosphere, and the nice people making sure your needs are met, Carmelo's is a steal. Always has been.

The best thing I can say about Carmelo's? My wife just picked me up at MSP after a two-week trip to Italy, where I ate nothing but pasta and pastry and wine and cheese. We drove from the airport to Carmelo's.

They are located, by the way, near the corner of St. Clair and Snelling, kitty-corner from the Broiler. If the drugstore on the corner is open when you leave, stop in for an ice cream soda. Seriously.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

La Cocinita Restaurante

As a rule, we don't ask a lot of Mexican restaurants. When we think Mexican, we're basically thinking of three things: cheap booze, cheap food (and more of it than we can or should eat), and no sense of adventure. When you order a bean burrito, you know exactly how you want that burrito to taste. You don't much care whose grandmother made it which way, or what the cook's regional proclivities might be. You just want a burrito, and other than maybe size, there will be no way to distinguish it from the one you'd get anywhere else in town.

La Cocinita doesn't play by these rules. They're not terribly fast, and they're not trying to be. They're not Ol' Mexico (meaning they seat about 35 people inside, not 1000). And the enchilada plate is $15. This fact alone implies that La Cocinita means to set the bar a little higher. It's also brave, because in my mind, a price tag like that invites criticism. Charge me $10 for a burger, and I'm going to start looking for reasons to judge you and your restaurant harshly.

Well I did, and I do, judge harshly, and La Cocinita is still fantastic. On our second trip, I had the red sauce enchiladas, because I wanted to go back to basics and compare apples with the sorts of apples I've eaten elsewhere. My beloved had the cornbread bake, a wonderful idea, with cheese and black bean chili piled on top of warm, fresh, homemade cornbread. The arrival of my plate made me smile, because all of the elements were in place: tortillas, sauce, cheese, rice, beans, that little salad I never eat, and of course a plate hot enough to remove skin if you accidentally grab it. Talk about apples to apples.

The first things I noticed were the sides. Of course we've all had them a thousand times, but how often have we ever thought about them? How often have they been worth thinking about? The rice was fresh, made from scratch, and lovely, with real bits of real onions and chilis. Clearly it had never seen the inside of a microwave. The beans were simply the best pintos I have ever eaten. No chance these are vegetarian, but oh my, are they good. A bowl of those beans would have done me just fine. By the time I got to the enchiladas, I was already impressed. One bite of these, and I knew that the beans were no accident. I ordered the ground beef, and was pleased to encounter, well, actual beef- finely ground, perfectly cooked and seasoned, intoxicatingly warm and comforting. The cheese was actually used to add flavor, not make up for the lack of it. The enchilada sauce, loaded with red chilis, was smoky and complicated and almost too beautiful to be called sauce. Let me cover that again. I'm raving about enchilada sauce. I didn't know that was a possibility. I kind of thought that only came from Old El Paso, in a can. In a nutshell, La Cocinita finds details where you and I have been trained to forget there were any. Then they execute them all with a smile and perfectly. That $15 isn't sounding so far-fetched any more, is it?

The secret, in my host humble and well-fed opinion, is that this is an intimate, welcoming, fine dining restaurant that just happens to be serving Mexican-inspired food. In this context, or really in any context save that of the "typical" Mexican restaurant, this is not an expensive place. It is a place to go with a loved one, if you want a beautiful meal at an honest price.

Service was friendly, efficient but unhurried, just the right note for the relaxed ambience of the dining room. If you have one drink apiece and tip like decent people ought to, expect to get out for $25 to $35 a head. La Cocinita is off the beaten path, on the corner of 5th Ave. and highway 95 in Bayport, just a couple of miles south of Stillwater. Take a drive, enjoy the river. Spend a day antiquing. Just don't eat too much. You're going to be happy you've got room.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Punch and Pizza Nea

I used to think there were two distinct types of pizza, and that, before discussing the relative merits of any particular one, the first step was determining which sort you were dealing with. The two types, in my mind, were Neapolitan and Plain Old Wonderful Pizza. Then Black Sheep opened, and kind of screwed that up for me. Apparently there are three: Neapolitan, Plain Old Wonderful, and Gourmet American. Black Sheep, by the way, is the third one, and it rocks. Go there. More about that another day.

Punch and Pizza Nea are both purveyors of the Neapolitan Pizza. There are several things that make a pizza a Neapolitan pizza. They don't have sauce. They have olive oil and crushed San Marzano tomatoes. They're little, like 9"-10". This is actually the perfect size, because you can still get an appetizer and split one, but if you feel like downing the whole thing, no one will look askance at you or your gluttony. They don't exactly have crust, at least not in the doughy american sense. They're served on what would be focaccia if it didn't have a pizza on it. And they're baked fresh in an insanely hot, wood-fired, brick or tiled oven. They also make your eyes roll back in your head because they're so darned amazing, but that probably doesn't pass muster as any sort of scientifically valid assessment.

I thought I'd write about Punch and Pizza Nea at the same time for a couple of reasons. First off, when locals talk about Neapolitan Pizza, these are the places that come up. Pizza Nea is Punch's competition. If that wasn't obvious to begin with, it became quite clear when Punch had the cheek (one could also say poor taste) to open up a shop about a hundred feet from Pizza Nea on Hennepin. I'm all for expansion, but zheesh. No reason we can't all get along. The other reason is that if you park your car anywhere near Hennepin and University, it's no trouble at all to walk to one, eat, and walk to the other and eat again. The whole blog thing might lend that plan an air of respectability, but I suspect I'd have done it anyway.

Once I decided on a plan, I needed backup, since splitting pizzas would be involved, and I thought it would be a little tacky to take leftover pizza into someone else's pizza joint. My friend Meg gamely stepped in, and we set off for Punch, no easy feat if you start out in Saint Paul, since large stretches of Larpenteur and 280 are essentially missing right now. At Punch, we ordered a Bruni, half-onion, at the bar. This was a little off-putting, since I'm used to the flagship Cleveland Avenue location where you sit and ponder before some kind person or other takes your order. Our pizza, or rather the timing of its arrival, was something of a mystery. We paid up, went to get drinks and napkins and a seat, took the extra red pepper back up to the counter, and by the time I turned around again, someone was handing me a pizza. Now I know these cook quickly, but we're talking 60 seconds here, tops. And it was not right-out-of-the-oven hot (according to Meg, hot is half the battle). I was forced to conclude that (gasp) most of this pie was made ahead of time, then topped and given a quick warm-up. I am not even going to go into the list of reasons why this is not okay. I've heard from a number of friends who are devoted Punch fans that the pizzas are somehow never as good at the satellites as they are at the Cleveland shop, and I wonder if this might not be a contributing factor.

One of the risks of not providing table service, it seems to me, is that the patrons' entire experience in your restaurant is going to hinge on the quality of the food. That's a big deal, don't you think? "Here. I am going to hand you this pizza and have nothing further to do with you. You will be amazed, and return again and again because it is over-the-moon good, and you're lucky to get it." How many places have the guts to risk that? In my experience, most places don't even understand why that's a risk, and many who do risk it shouldn't.

So I'd like to write all about our time at Punch, but I can't. All I can talk about is that 9" pie, that came out instantly and not hot. I've got no other data. Okay, the iced tea was real, and very nice, and, um, my silverware was clean. The end.

Here's the thing, though. That pie? It was still a Punch pie, and even under suspicious circumstances, it was deliriously good. Sausage, spiced salami, onion (half, 'cause I can't stand them), oregano, and mozzarella, all perfectly balanced, and perfectly wonderful. There is an alchemy that Punch achieves with its pizza. I don't understand it, but outside of Italia, you're unlikely to ever have anything like it.

As nice as that was, we were in and out in twenty minutes, and off we went to our second stop. Everyone we talked to at Pizza Nea was nice as could be. Our waiter was very mannered, and a little odd, but oddly charming, and good at his job. We put him somewhere between Edward Norton and the little smarmy guy from Dirty Dancing. As an appetizer, we ordered the Polpette Napoletana, little meatballs in tomato sauce served with focaccia. These were evil, and I could easily have eaten seventy-five of them, but that would have seriously messed with the pizza course. The focaccia was also good. A little puffier than Punch's, but that helped it stand up to the meatballs.

For a pizza, we settled on the Salsicce- sausage, roasted red pepper, cracked red pepper, and basil. The pizza was hot and very well-timed. I credit the server for that. The roasted red peppers were a bit dry, but everything else seemed just fine. And that, I guess, was the trouble. It was fine, but it wasn't alchemy. The sausage was good, the cheese was good, the spice was good, the crust was good, and it all looked just perfect. But I wanted to be transported, and I got a good little pizza instead. In case it sounds like I'm complaining, I should also say that we had a great time, because the space is beautiful, the staff was friendly and professional, and the food was very good.

In the end, I suppose it's an apples-and-oranges problem. If I was in that part of town, and I was alone, or I wanted a pie to take home, I'd go to Punch. No question. If I wanted to impress a friend, or just have a quiet evening with my beloved, Pizza Nea would take the day. Then we'd go to Surdyk's and be irresponsible.

One of the best things about both of these establishments is that they offer an excellent value. Our bill for both outings combined was about $45 with tip. For the quality of the food involved, you'd be hard pressed to beat that anywhere.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Maverick's Real Roast Beef

When I was a kid, an outing to Grandma and Grandpa's house was one of the biggest possible deals. And if there was the chance of a sleep-over involved... that would mean more happiness than I thought my little eight-year-old heart could contain. No matter how much fun I could have in my own neighborhood, it always seemed like there was more to do at Gran and Gramp's. You could go to the market. You could feed the squirrels (now that I'm grown up, I am certain they're just rats with better agents). You could grab the unicycle that you were once small enough to ride and take a tour of the block. Or, if you were really lucky, and begged long enough to be persuasive and not long enough to be locked in your room, Gran and Gramp just might take you to the mall. Now, I was never much for shopping, even then, but a trip to the mall almost certainly meant a trip to Arby's, and for me, that was as close to heaven as I ever imagined I'd get.

Now before you begin your next sentence with, "What the hell...," let me remind you that, before Arby's fell victim to the cost-cutting corporate yahoos who think that chopped, formed, and simulated beef is a good thing, there was a time when they served the real deal. Not surprisingly, it was wonderful, or at least I remember it being wonderful. It's been years.

If you, too, remember that time, and remember enjoying it, get yourself to Maverick's, stat. This is truly a Saint Paul jewel, and it's a cryin' shame that more folks don't know about it. Tucked into the same strip that houses 'Ol Mexico and Red Wing Shoes, Maverick's is a pretty unassuming little storefront. You could drive right by without noticing. But if you did, you'd be missing some of the best meat in town. Take a chance next time you're heading up Lexington, and stop by. They're open till eight, and they'll take care of you.

Maverick's is all about the meat. Vegetarians, don't bother. You'll only go away frustrated, and I like many of you. I'd hate to see that. For the rest of you, you can choose from roast beef, barbecue, pulled pork, turkey, and brisket, with no end of trimmings. Last time I looked, you could add horseradish, onions, two different pickles, and four different peppers, then top it all off with three or four sauces from basic barbecue to sassy chipotle. All of this, of course, is utterly beside the point. If it's your first time, you need plain roast beef, and you won't need to put a thing on it.

Maverick's roasts are a thing of beauty. They're rare and beautiful and sliced paper-thin right there in front of you. They'll build you an open-faced dinner, with gravy and mashed, but you'll be just as happy having them throw it on a bun. This is a sandwich for the ages, and a perfect example, like the whole place, of substance over style. The decor is a perfect match for the food: warm, welcoming, and wholly without pretense.

It's good to be in a restaurant that trusts you. Here, there's no pomp, there's no floor show. No jukebox, no uniforms, no flat-screen TVs in the corner, and no long-winded descriptions telling you exactly why you should appreciate the food. There's just good, honest grub, and Maverick's trusts that you will get that, and come back for more. Judging by the lunch rush every day, lots of folks are doing just that.

Maverick's isn't dirt cheap, but there's nothing at all unreasonable about the price to quality ratio here. $4.49 gets you a regular roast beef. A few bucks more, and you can make it a combo with a drink and fries that are made to order. Slightly higher than fast food, but infinitely better. When was the last time anyone offered to make you fresh fries?

Try Maverick's once, and it will become a staple. The people are friendly, the food is beyond good, and you'll feel like you're in on a very tasty secret. If you liked Arby's as a kid, it will take you back. If you've never had anything like it before, then I envy you. That first bite is going to change everything.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Thoughts on service

The sad truth of our over-saturated retail environment is this: you can buy just about anything just about anywhere. This is true whether we're talking clothing, electronics, toys, or food. Blindfolded, I don't think most of us could tell the difference between the offerings of half a dozen casual chain restaurants. A waffle fry is a waffle fry is a waffle fry....

So how does a restaurant set itself apart? I'm excluding the very high end here. Certainly there are places where the whole point is the luxury of the ingredients and the inspired preparation of each dish. But for most of the places where most of us can afford to eat, what makes the difference? When we go out for a meal, we're not paying for boneless buffalo wings or a bacon cheeseburger with fries. We're paying for an experience, and you can't separate that from good, old-fashioned human interaction. In a word, service.

Oddly, what most establishments overlook, especially the fancy ones, is that, for many of their patrons, a night out is a special occasion. We've got jobs, and kids, and all sorts of commitments. Often it takes a great deal of creative scheduling even to find time for a nice meal. For starters, what we need is a server who understands the importance of the event. That server may have had a horrible day, and nine terrible, cheap tables before ours. But that is all trumped by the possibility that we may be in their restaurant for the very first time. If you sell anything to anyone for a living, this is an extremely important thing to remember.

Here, in broad strokes, are what I consider the immutable laws of the server/patron relationship.

For Servers1. Be human

I'm not sure why this is confusing or difficult, but it's amazing how few places get it right. What do I mean by this? For starters, scripts don't work. We can all see them coming a mile away, and they're rubbish. You're a real, live person, and that's one of the things I like best about you. Talk to me. And you can relax. I don't need you to entertain me. I'm just hungry, and I already appreciate the fact that you're willing to work with me to fix that.

2. Be honest

No, I don't want to hear about it if you don't like my jacket. I do want to know if you have your doubts about the quiche. If I know I can get a straight answer, I will value your opinion. If you tell me everything is just wonderful (see #1 about scripts), I will probably not consult you again, and my experience will be less enjoyable for not really being able to talk to you.

3. Be kind

Some of us are dense. It happens. It might be our first time in your place. We might be unfamiliar with the cuisine. We need you. Condescension on your part will do nothing to improve this situation. Be patient with us, and help where you can. This is the very best way to win a return customer.

Miss J and I went to Pei Wei a while back on the recommendation of a friend. We had a perfectly nice meal, but what made the experience worthwhile was watching the interaction between the hostess and an elderly couple who came in while we were eating. They had obviously never been in before, and they were adrift, staring at the menu board like it was written in another language. Another 30 seconds, and they would have walked out and never come back. Instead, they were greeted with a smile by the hostess, who came to them in order to say hello and welcome them. She asked them what sorts of vegetables they liked, how much spice they were interested in, whether they enjoyed rice. She walked them through the menu, and made sure they were happy with what they ordered. In short, she took a situation that would have been awkward and embarrassing, and turned it into an adventure. None of these things was very hard to do. She saw what was needed, and jumped in, that's all. But she made two people very happy, and I'm sure that wasn't the last she saw of them. We were so impressed, we dropped them a note to say how much we appreciated it, and we weren't even involved.

For Patrons (Just in case you thought you were off the hook)

1. Be kind

This gets top billing for customers, and for good reason. Basically, you owe it to your server (and to the rest of us who have to share a planet with you) not to be an ass. Serving is hard work. The good ones make it look effortless, but nothing could be further from the truth. That person taking such good care of you is running their tail off, making sure that everyone in their section is having the experience they expect. I believe Dave Barry said, "A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter is not a nice person." I couldn't agree more.

2. Be clear

If your server was telepathic, they would be in vegas, not taking care of you. Be reasonable, and if you have special needs, make sure everyone has the information they need up front. A good staff will do anything they can to help you, if they know how.

3. Be fair

Servers don't make a huge hourly wage. They rely on your generosity. If you appreciate the service, pony up. There are worse things than being known as a good tipper. And remember, if you have some sort of coupon or gift card that lowers your bill, you need to be tipping on what you would have paid, not your revised total.

So locally, where do you go for good service? Two places come immediately to mind. Carmelo's in Saint Paul is a gem. It's one of our favorite date spots. The staff is quirky, but friendly, helpful, and fun. You also can't beat the food for the price. More on that later. For a more formal occasion, W.A. Frost & Company, on Selby down by the cathedral, always seems to get it exactly right. They're a wonder.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tanpopo Noodle Shop

All of us have places we return to again and again. Sometimes it depends on what you're craving. If you want a burger and a beer, go to The Nook (I'm serious. Right now. Go.). Sometimes it depends on the mood you're in. If I'm already depressed, I'll find something vegetarian. Trust me, that's a story for another time. If you've had a stressful or just not-really-great day, and you need a meal to make you feel warm and easy again, it would be hard to beat Tanpopo. This lovely noodle shop is tucked away in downtown Saint Paul, down by the farmers' market, on that little tail of 4th street where it stops really being anything. My friend Keith, who grew up as the child of missionaries in Japan, tells me that if you pop into a noodle shop there, this is what you get. I grew up in Ohio. Other than some really weird regional chili, I don't know from authentic. But I know yummy, and this is it.

Tanpopo is not a sushi joint, but there are two nightly sushi specials (get there early, they typically run out), and occasional sashimi. Don't think for a minute that these are an afterthought. They are expertly prepared. The restaurant even offers sushi classes for those of you brave enough to try this at home. There is also a special teishoku. Teishoku are complete meals, home-style (if your home is in Japan): entrée, rice, miso soup, salad, and vegetables. The presentation is beautiful, typically in an enameled, segmented tray. If TV dinners dreamed, this is what they would dream.

Starters are varied and wonderful. Get the Edamame, 'cause it's good, and more fun than you ever really get to have with beans. The Spinach with Sesame is also wonderful, fresh and nutty and good for you. Can you stand it?

The reason you go to a noodle shop, however, is the noodles, and this is where you should start, at least your first time here. There are several preparations, and most come with either udon (wheat flour) or soba (buckwheat flour) noodles. Choose your noodles, choose your broth, and then choose what you'd like on top. Miss J's favorite is the Nabeyaki Udon, which includes shrimp tempura, chicken, shiitake mushrooms, fish cake, Japanese omelet and wakame. All of the toppings are excellent, although unless soggy fried shrimp is your thing, ask for this on the side. Tonight I went for the Shrimp Tempura Soba. This of course involves shrimp, but also wakame and shiitake. Wakame, by the way, is seaweed. I don't really like seaweed, but I eat it because I figure it's good for me, and I don't get much in the way of vegetables. Miss J seems to like it just fine.

For dessert, I'd recommend the Green Tea Tempura Ice Cream. I mean really, where else are you going to get to try such a thing? The ice cream, by the way, is from Sonny's, and the tea is from the Tea Source. Full marks for supporting local treasures.

The building is open and airy, the service friendly and calm, and the whole experience will make you feel better about your day. Money-wise, plan on $20-$25 a person with appetizers, unless you're drinking, and then, well, you know...