A scene: Last Thursday. Walking into Tori Ramen on West 7th Street in St. Paul. John Keenan, the bartender/manager, behind the bar experimenting with ranch/vodka mix in whipped cream canisters to accompany raw vegetables for dipping – people love carrots and ranch, he says. Why not make it boozy?
(The experiment started off as a more dubious ranch-tini cocktail – called But Is It Spicy? – an homage to the Minnesota palate and our nationally-known love of ranch dressing).
This sort of scene is not unusual; this sort of energy and creativity can be found most nights at Tori. But – while the staff might not take themselves too seriously, the quality of food and service strives always to be the opposite: Chef/owner Jason Dorweiler (above, behind bar) has been the recipient of numerous accolades, and Tori is consistently voted one of the best ramen shops around by Twin Cities diners.
The menu is continually growing and evolving. Seasonality is important as well: Produce and handmade goods from vendors like Wild Acres, Hafa, Kadejan Market, Larry Schultz, and Dragsmith Farms make Minnesota one of the most exciting places in the world for local food (when the weather permits, of course).
It is sophisticated food and drink paired with a fuck it, have fun attitude that allows for a certain freedom and fosters creativity in both the front and back of the house. As Maddie Saldin, host/server/bartender/whatever else is needed, says, “I have never had this much freedom anywhere else I’ve worked. There is a respect for the staff – we were hired for a reason. We know what we’re doing. There is no need for… micromanagement.”
This duality is best exemplified by the late-night menu: Tori After Dark starts at 10pm on Friday and Saturday nights, where, consistent with the statement above, it is as much about what you are getting as when you are getting it; it is as much about quality of product as it is the fact you can get something to eat after midnight. Dorweiler understands, as every service industry veteran does, the need to feed the employees of local restaurants, or those who are coming off a shift at a nearby hospital.
“That was a large part of why we wanted to do this,” he says. “There is no reason you shouldn’t be able to find good food late at night –”
“Who decided we have to all have dinner at 7:30? That doesn’t work for everyone.”
It all began when he, John Keenan and chef Simon Meyer were talking after dinner shift a few months ago. Tori After Dark began only as a hypothetical – What if? What if we did late night food? What if we offered these menu items?
AND WHAT IF THEY HAD THESE NAMES…?
Take the Give Me Some Goddamn Wontons (Please) ($8) – classic, cream cheese-filled fried wontons, one of the most popular menu items (Minnesotans love their wontons almost as much as ranch). They are so popular Tori runs out many nights. Angry customers demand them always with a dash of Minnesota Nice™… please.
The Strip Club Fried Rice ($11) was inspired by Meyer’s time in Los Angeles: There was an old chef with a cart stationed outside the strip club where he worked as a cook. Everyone (drunk or not) would line up for what would come to be known as the Strip Club Fried Rice. The Tori version has a heaping mound of rice thrown in the oven to limit grease, covered in herbs and scallions, salsa verde and a poached egg.
You will also find tartare (bison or tuna, depending), cheekily named You Should Call Her, done bulgogi style with thin-sliced black radish ($15), chicken thigh or mushroom tacos ($11), tempura-fried Korean dogs ($8) that land someplace between a corn dog and a mozzarella stick, spicy, fried “dirty choy” bok choy ($6), and plenty of kimchi and fresh herbs to add to anything/everything.
The full ramen menu is also available. And a full menu of vegetarian/vegan ramen, also not an afterthought – not made just to cater to the meatless, but with as much love and care as the opposite.
The bar is stocked with only a dozen or so spirits – no wasted bottles gathering dust waiting for someone to order a rum and coke – which leaves room for John’s constant experimentation and ideas, and makes for a well-curated mix of drinks both familiar and completely new. Different from the dinner menu – where craft cocktails like the spicy margarita Little Bird (a nod to Pajarito next door), and a version of a Gibson that comes with fermented mushrooms reign – Tori After Dark offers things like the Party at Fukushima ($11), a tropical, neon concoction of Keenan’s invention full of floating Swedish fish – and the PBR and Lime ($4), which tastes, pointedly, like Froot Loops and comes in a plastic cereal bowl with attached milk straw Millennials might remember from the ‘90s.
Last call – around 1am when the bartender rings the (deafening) brass gong to the right of the rail – is the right time for a Mouth Full of George, simply a $7 shot of Casamigos tequila (founded by George Clooney, hence the name) to end the night. The idea too is that if you’re up late at night, you should also be having a good time.
What was recently known mostly as a sleepy town, St. Paul is coming to life and coming into its own, building a culture and nightlife district with energy that hasn’t been seen in the capital city in decades. This stretch of West 7th Street deserves much of the credit. Tori joins Pajarito next door, the White Squirrel, Emerald Lounge, Waldmann and Bad Weather breweries, Keg and Case Market – along with OG mainstays like Mancini’s, Degidio’s, Keenan’s, Joe & Stan’s finding new life as they represent the West 7th of (very) old. And the closer you get to the Xcel – home to 7th Street Truck Park, Patrick McGovern’s, Tom Reid’s, and the newly-opened Wild Bill’s, and the coming-soon Apostle Supper Club and False Eye Doll Voodoo Lounge – the wilder it gets.
But Tori sits in a class of its own: A welcoming place and safe space for creatures of the night to relax and get something to eat; dispelling stereotypes of late-night crowds, it is not a sloppy place where drunken patrons would just as soon throw up or throw down as flash a smile. It is larger inside than one might expect looking at it from the front, and there is a certain elegance to the space that only grows after one or two or three glasses of sake. There is a calm to be found beneath the neon lights and pulsing music. Through the comforting smell of kimchi and savory broth. A warmth, and immediate familiarity that feels increasingly rare to find regardless of the hour; what feels like family waiting for you in a former train car on West 7th Street.
Tori Ramen & Tori After Dark
603 7th Street W, St. Paul, MN 55102
This article was originally published in The Heavy Table. Sign up for the Heavy Table newsletter on Patreon here.
Read this next: The Twin Cities’ Top 10 Karaoke Bars