Much poetry has been written as an ode to the city; the place where we were born and/or raised, that has shaped us. Poetry, pictures, paintings and films. We look for these things and as the arts they help us to define ourselves as they define the world around us.

However, as celebrated author and “roving gourmand” Jim Harrison wrote plainly, “How feebly the arts compete with the idea of what we are going to eat next.”

Is it true that a good meal trumps all else? That the Mona Lisa cannot be appreciated on an empty stomach? That we will walk out of an Oscar-winning film to satiate a begging appetite? That we cannot read, or write, or dream, or laugh when hunger pangs beg the largest question of them all: Who am I, if not someone who needs to eat?

So then we define the city by its food. It’s step one, maybe, the base (cornerstone) of how to describe the landscape. We start here.

But then: we ask what kind of food culture can be created when a city’s identity is changing; when people are moving in, and out, of its borders at an increasingly-rapid pace?

Regardless of what St. Paul will look like in 5, 10, 20 years or more, these dishes remain truly representative of the capital city’s soul. It’s core. And they will keep us fed today so that we may go on and enjoy everything else she has to offer.

17 dishes that define St. Paul, Minnesota

Pelmeni at Moscow on the Hill

These dumplings are simple. And they are delicious. As a happy hour snack, as an entree, as a chaser for the house-made (now cult-favorite) horseradish vodka that reminds why why Moscow on the Hill is such an important piece of the St. Paul landscape. You can have get the Peasant Pelmeni that come with cheese on top (to please any Midwesterner) or Vareneki (vegetarian) version, but the very best always have been, and always will be, the classic Siberian: pillow-soft, filled with spiced pork, topped with vinegar and sour cream.

Moscow on the Hill | 371 Selby Ave, St Paul, MN 55102 | (651) 291-1236

Juicy Nookie at The Nook

There are, of course, plenty of places to get a good Jucy Lucy in St. Paul. Blue Door Pub, for example, does it with unmatched creative flare. But nowhere truly captures the St. Paul aesthetic of big flavors in quaint settings like the Nook. Their Jucy Lucy hits the spot, cooked perfect every time. And the bowling alley downstairs, where you can also order from the full menu while knocking down a few pins and knocking back a few beers, is an added yesteryear bonus.

The Nook | 492 Hamline Ave S, St Paul, MN 55116 | (651) 698-4347

Pot pie at The Lexington

It may not be the same pot pie as was served 50 years ago, but it feels pretty close (according to those who grew up with it, at least). That was before our time, but this, the “newest” restaurant on our list (it’s only been open again since 2017), while also being one of the oldest (it opened originally in 1935), more than deserves its place. A phoenix from the ashes. Run by Jack Reibel and the minds behind Smack Shack. Old and new blending into something beautiful; a supper club that understands how the past can be pushed, with respect, into the future.

The Lexington | 1096 Grand Ave, St Paul, MN 55105 | (651) 289-4990

Read more: Why the Lexington once mattered, still matters, will matter for years to come

Art Song’s recipe chicken wings at Hickory Hut

Soul food in St. Paul is something to be celebrated. Even for someone who prefers his wings saucy as opposed to dry-rubbed, these wings are special. But outside of being delicious, they also represent a St. Paul man, myth, and legend: Tiger Jack, who sold them at his small shack up the street for years. Jack, Art Song’s wings, and Hickory Hut also represent the history of the razed Rondo neighborhood. The decades-old recipe stands strong against the changing of the times, and is finger-licking good to boot.

Hickory Hut | 647 University Ave W, St Paul, MN 55104 | (651) 224-9464

Read more: The Twin Cities’ best places to wing it

Papaya salad at Thai Cafe

There is something undeniably unique about papaya salad: It’s at once sweet and savory, with an unmistakable funk (from the fish sauce), and a spicy bite that hurts-so-good but doesn’t linger. It’s a myriad of flavors in one dish unlike any other on this list. When St. Paul opened its doors to Hmong refugees after Vietnam and The Secret War in the 1970’s, the food landscape  in the city changed forever. And certainly for the better. Diner-culture was infused with bright flavors previously unimagined. St. Paul still benefits from the dense array of East Asian dishes found across the city. Thai Cafe’s papaya salad is perhaps the crown jewel.

Thai Cafe | 371 University Ave W, St Paul, MN 55103 | (651) 225-8231

Denver omelette at Mickey’s Diner

We can’t ignore our Midwest sensibilities. Our agricultural heritage. Some of our very best food still comes from the land, from the products of farm animals turned into breakfast that would be more than one person’s choice for their last meal. The enormous, cheesy Denver omelette, complimented by savory ham and diced green pepper, is the cultural representative of old-school St. Paul eating. We usually end up there at 3am – with the rest of the St. Paul citizens unable to sleep – for a plate that begs you dive in with gusto, tackle this beast the way only Minnesotans can.

Mickey’s Diner | 36 7th St W, St Paul, MN 55102 | (651) 698-0259

Pho at Trieu Chau

This was hard (nearly impossible) for us to rank: Pho certainly deserves (probably more than one) entry into this list as a St. Paul staple, but how could we honestly say which bowl is the most-St. Paul of them all? After months of sampling pho across the city, we found ourselves coming back to one place more-than-the-rest: Trieu Chau. It’s a hole in the wall, yes, passionately run by a family that knows tradition and flavor beat all else when making a good meal. They don’t have a website, so you’ll just have to trust us and check it out for yourself.

Trieu Chau | 500 University Ave W, St Paul, MN 55103 | (651) 222-6148

Spaghetti (or Mostaccioli) with tomato sauce at Degidio’s

We don’t order much else here. Or anything else, really, except for the occasional side Caesar salad and the pizza fries appetizer. But there isn’t really a need to. Nothing else on the menu quite compares to the decades-old (8+ decades) red sauce recipe and the pasta done just right, with or without a meatball on top. Dishes like these keep St. Paul’s past alive, and remind why it shouldn’t be forgotten. And yes, we know Cossetta is only a few blocks away – and we won’t say they don’t deserve to be a part of the discussion. But for us, this is the true St. Paul red sauce; unchanged, untouched, unbeatable.

Degidio’s | 425 7th St W, St Paul, MN 55102 | (651) 291-7105

Oysters (or any fresh seafood) at Meritage

Meritage remains the crème de la crème of St. Paul restaurants, offering a magical experience across from Rice Park and the whimsical Landmark Center in downtown. And nothing is more magical than their selection of oysters, shucked fresh for you on-the-spot, with house-made mignonette on the side. Proving that you don’t have to live on the coast to get world class oysters, the fresh seafood case is something special in the state of walleye. In fact, Minnesota’s midland location means we get to enjoy the freshest from both coasts on a regular basis. Which is fantastique for brunch, lunch, dinner, or late-night with a glass of absinthe.

Meritage | 410 St Peter St, St Paul, MN 55102 | (651) 222-5670

Margherita Extra at Punch Pizza

The original Punch opened on Cleveland Avenue in Highland Park long before it became a popular Twin Cities pizza chain (still only in the Twin Cities), and long before receiving national praise (and an invitation to the White House for co-owner John Sorrano) from President Obama. The original location offers table-side service, different than the offshoots, but the classic, no-frills Margherita Extra, with fresh basil, their famous mozzarella di bufala, and Mt. Vesuvio tomatoes, remains simple, and simply the best, no matter where you are.

Punch Pizza | 704 Cleveland Ave S, St Paul, MN 55116 | (651) 696-1066

Reuben at Cecil’s Deli

This New York deli classic found its way to the North Star State all the way back in 1949, and the result is the perfect blend of East Coast-Midwest sensibilities, i.e. it’s certainly a deli sandwich, but a little heartier, a little cheesier, the way the people of Minnesota like it. Cecil’s market is what you’ll encounter first, with pickles, cheeses, meats, salads, fresh bread and more, but find your way to the restaurant in-back for the reuben at some point during your visit.

Cecil’s Deli | 651 Cleveland Ave S, St Paul, MN 55116 | (651) 698-0334

Döner at Black Sea

Minnesota’s first Turkish restaurant operates quietly across the street from Hamline University on Snelling Avenue. But it’s not just hungry college students that have taken advantage of the Turkish-style gyro known as the döner that has made Black Sea famous. A pita pocket full lamb shaved right off the spit and topped with a house tzazkiki, it is quick and absolutely delicious, as well as being thrifty (which is also great – whether you’re a college student or not).

Black Sea | 737 Snelling Ave, St Paul, MN 55104 | (651) 917-8832

Ultimate Combination at Fasika

It feels a bit like cheating, as there is a little of everything that makes up this one “dish.” But the truth is that everything is on point, and everything should be tried. Vegetarians will enjoy the lentils, stewed greens, beets, eggplant. Omnivores will enjoy the lamb, beef, chicken all brought to life by the warm spices of East Africa.  You can of course get it with rice instead of the typical injera, but, short of a gluten allergy, there’s no reason to: The injera is thick-delicious, and eating with your hands is half the fun.

Fasika | 510 Snelling Ave N, St Paul, MN 55104 | (651) 646-4747

Tamales at El Burrito Mercado

El Burrito Mercado is in-and-of-itself an institution. It’s a hub of activity, sitting in the midst of District del Sol like the sun sits in the middle of the sky. It brings people together the way few places can; all of St. Paul comes together to enjoy something from El Burrito Mercado. There are excellent grab-and-go options and great baked goods as well, an entire grocery store, a gift shop, art, music… But Tamales, the classic Mexican street food made so soft and never dry, get the royal treatment here, all day every day. The very best introduction, or classic time-and-again.

El Burrito Mercado | 175 Cesar Chavez St, St Paul, MN 55107 | (651) 227-2192

Steak at Mancini’s

Some things don’t need much explanation: It’s steak. St. Paul-style. Nothing more, nothing less. Mancini’s doesn’t even serve much else besides. Lobster, chicken, a shrimp cocktail if you know who to talk to. But you come, get a seat in the classic dining room, and let yourself be transported straight to the heart of the city (even if it feels a bit more like Reno than a river city) with a Strip, Sirloin, Filet, Kebab… that’s really all there is to it.

Mancini’s | 531 7th St W, St Paul, MN 55102 | (651) 224-7345

Chicken Salsa Chili at Cafe Latte

The Grand Avenue mainstay does a lot of things right. This is one of the few things you can get there every day, as their cafeteria-style selections are constantly on rotation for optimal freshness and quality. But that isn’t the reason it earned a spot on our list. It’s fairly simple, really; some of the best dishes are the ones that don’t try too hard: A little spice, a lot of tomato, chicken, beans, and a rich, savory flavor that stays with you long after you’ve hit the bottom of the bowl. Add cheese, sour cream, and purple onion on top for the full experience.

Cafe Latte | 850 Grand Ave, St Paul, MN 55105 | (651) 224-5687

Read next: St. Paul’s 50 Best Restaurants (the ultimate list)