Minneapolis doesn’t often cross the river into St. Paul.
But maybe Minneapolis should. Missing out on great food out of some misguided sense of superiority? Or because “It’s just so far away…”
Good food transcends boundaries; all pretense, all fluff fades away in the face of hunger, and all that is important is the plate in front of you. The following restaurants do the capital city proud; these restaurants that are worth traveling to from anywhere, let alone just across the Mississippi.
The places you should go out of your way to try. Just once, maybe twice, and then again, and again, and again.
Tongue in Cheek ($$-$$$)
Eating can (and should) be both fun and delicious. Payne Avenue’s Tongue in Cheek rides that line deftly: “Teasers” that burst with flavor. Molecular gastronomy that blends form and function until we can’t decide, remember, or care which is more important. And their meats. The rich pork belly, the braised beef cheeks, the smoked salmon, the fried chicken steamed buns. And the not-meats, the daily “vegasm” makes plant-based food as exciting as anything with a face; dishes like pillow-soft potato dumplings with mushroom froth and bitter greens. It’s good food fun, yes, fine-dining in a way that excites without straying into kitsch. It’s international cuisine, or at least inspired by the world beyond our borders, but manages to stay wholly Minnesotan in a brand new way.
And, for whatever it’s worth, it’s the most-Instagrammed restaurant in the state: A very modern honor for St. Paul’s Tongue in Cheek.
Tongue in Cheek | 989 Payne Ave, St Paul, MN 55130 | 651-888-6148
The “Italian” tag can translate into many different things in Minnesota restaurants: It can be done classic pasta with mama’s red sauce and meatball, it can be done crudo and squid ink, it can be done crispy pizza. Or, it can be done with a little bit of each.
Bucatini with pancetta, arrabiata, pepperoncini, pecorino, melt-in-your-mouth Agnolotti with chevre, basil pesto, frisee, speck, and orange (just a hint). Perhaps the best lasagna in either city. And the pizzas, done Montanara-style that can satisfy both the kids and the adults in your party depending on who you’re bringing with you on your journey to St. Paul. A glass of red wine. A little tiramisu for dessert. It’s what we crave when it’s Italian food we crave.
PRO TIP: It’s a popular place; so popular there’s a wait for a table most times on most nights. The trick is to put your name and number on the list and head up the street to The Spot (since 1885, St. Paul’s oldest standing bar) and wait with a drink for your table to be ready.
PRO, PRO TIP: They serve incredible donuts on Saturday mornings, just be sure to get there early.
Mucci’s | 786 Randolph Ave, St Paul, MN 55102 | 651-330-2245
It’s a classic. A stalwart at this point, having opened ten years ago. A restaurant that many Minneapolitans probably have visited on that rare occasion (Xcel event, opera, Palace Theater etc) that brought them to St. Paul. Meritage sits in the middle of it all, maintaining a gold standard in a city slowly and deliberately raising it’s food and restaurant credibility.
And, perhaps the most important point, is that the quality has never wavered. It’s still the best place in either city for oysters. The Alsatian vegetable roulade, with roasted beets, pickled mushrooms, fresh horseradish, and mushroom consommé, reminds us how exciting vegetables can be. And, for that quick bite, the Meritage burger and fries (pardon… frites) is one of the best around. It’s the finest dining, done quiet, elegant, truly St. Paul.
Ten years old, and only improving with age. Just like the wine for which it is named.
Meritage | 410 St Peter St, St Paul, MN 55102 | 651-222-5670
It might, at first, seem an odd inclusion on a list full of fine dining and culinary heavy hitters. But to assume that this little ethnic joint across the river from downtown doesn’t belong only proves further your need to go. It’s a temple of flavor, a testament to the warm, deep spices found close, but just far enough away from the Mediterranean. With an unverified, but undisputed, claim as the country’s first Kurdish restaurant, Babani’s plates offer tastes not found at any other restaurant in the Twin Cities.
The dowjic, a basil and lemon-forward soup that is at once soothing and invigorating and makes a perfect winter meal. Our favorite (and everyone’s, it seems) is the Chicken Tawa. Chicken, also cooked in lemon, so very tender with some of the words most savory-delicious potatoes, green pepper, and onion. The secret star however, is the dried lime that catches you off guard with its sudden burst of flavor – like expecting to get punched but getting a soft kiss instead.
And so much perfectly-cooked basmati rice everywhere.
PRO TIP: Babani’s has wine and beer, but it’s also a BYOB restaurant so feel free to bring your own bottle to enjoy with dinner.
Babani’s | 32 E Fillmore Ave, St Paul, MN 55107 | 651-602-9964
Little Szechuan ($)
Hot pot. We could leave it at that. Well, maybe not. Unique? Yes. Delicious, even more important. Here’s how it goes: Order your broth (you get six to choose from, from vegetarian, to seafood, to pork), then order anything that looks good on the menu, served on plates ready for you to cook to your liking: Raw sirloin and chicken thigh, an array of Chinese roots and vegetables, rice dumplings, perfect yam noodles, and array of rarely-used pieces like gizzards, brains, and livers. You could go every day for a year and not exhaust the different flavor combinations possible. Plus, you can customize the broth to your liking: There’s a “spice bar” available to add all the garlic, cilantro, oyster sauce, peppercorn, chili oil, etc. you could ever hope for.
If you can’t find a flavor you want, a way to eat, something delicious here, you shouldn’t be going out to dine.
Further reading: The food lover’s guide to Little Mekong
Little Szechuan | 422 University Ave W, St Paul, MN 55103 | 651-222-1333