You’ll eat well in the Twin Cities, whether you’re looking for old-school diner breakfasts or borscht, pha ram long song or tacos, French or Japanese. Here are our choices for local color, cheaper ethnic, and fancier ethnic restaurants.
- Al’s Breakfast
- 413 14th Avenue SE, Minneapolis
- Open Monday through Saturday 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
- Cash only
THE PLACE: What do you get when you put a roof over a tiny alley in the University of Minnesota’s Dinkytown neighborhood? You get the smallest full-scale restaurant in the Twin Cities metro area. You also get one of the best old-school diner breakfasts served in the entire Midwest. Take note: This is not a place for a large party. If you arrive with more than three people, be prepared for your group to be broken up for seating at the restaurant’s 14-stool bar (there are no tables).
THE PLATES: The blueberry pancakes ($3 for a short stack, $4 for three) are thin, chewy, and superbly executed—no buffoonish breadlike Denny’s monstrosities here. The bacon ($1.80) is thick and crunchy. And the griddle-cooked hash browns ($1.50) are delicately cut and beautifully crisped on the outside, tender on the inside. A variety of omelets and scrambled egg offerings ($2.75 to $5.50) inevitably arrive perfectly prepared. The Philip (broccoli, bacon, and cheddar cheese) is a particularly flavorful and harmonious choice.
- Russian Tea House
- 1758 University Avenue W., St. Paul
- Open Tuesday through Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., closed Saturday through Monday
THE PLACE: When the Tea House opened in 1978, it was the first Russian fast-food place in the country to offer the novel but instantly comforting pirozhki for public consumption. These Russian-style dumplings feature a mildly spiced mixture of ground beef and rice baked into a doughy shell. Almost invariably, right-wing talk radio plays in the kitchen, making this a more RNC-friendly stop than most. Upstairs, Russian cityscapes and rural landscapes decorate a wood-appointed dining room. The cafeteria-style serving ware is modest and casual, and the vibe laid-back.
THE PLATES: Besides pirozhki ($4.20), the Tea House’s tiny menu includes a lively, tangy borscht ($2.80) and a rich, gooey, warm chocolate poppy seed roll ($3.27).
- Nye’s Polonaise Room
- 112 E. Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis
- Open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., Sunday 4 p.m. to 1 a.m.
THE PLACE: This old-school Polish piano bar and restaurant is unlike anything else in the Cities, and is a (possibly the) cultural landmark of Northeast Minneapolis. It’s a swell place to take in a shot of Polish brandy and the World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band while sitting in a sparkly gold vinyl booth.
THE PLATES: Nye’s is more about the scene, the music, and the people than the food. Stick to the Polish options on the menu, which are made with a little more care. Prices are high, but the Polonaise platter ($24.99) is a terrific value and can easily be split three ways. It comes with a hearty cabbage roll and meat and veggie pierogis, plus sour cream, a fat Polish sausage, and a bunch of very tender ribs buried under sauerkraut. Suck down tall, cold glasses of Grain Belt Premium ($4.50), the local workingperson’s beer of choice.
- Ruam Mit Thai
- 475 St. Peter Street, St. Paul
- Open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 3 to 9 p.m.
THE PLACE: One of the three best Thai restaurants in the Twin Cities and easily the most obscure, offering the best value. The atmosphere is a little like a Denny’s, but the menu is simple, classic Thai, with a perfect balance of sweet, sour, earthy, acidic, and hot.
THE PLATES: The pad thai is surprisingly musky, spicy, and complicated ($9.25 to $13.45, depending on the protein); the pha ram long song ($8.95 to $13.45) looks like a simple red curry–peanut dish but tastes like something out of this world, with a savory depth that’s nothing like the Skippy peanut butter–style Americanized standard.
- Taqueria La Hacienda at Mercado Central
- 1515 E. Lake Street, Minneapolis
- Open daily 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
THE PLACE: Mercado Central is a full-on Spanish-speaking shopping mall where you’ll see families stocking up on fresh tortillas, kids toting piñatas, and teenagers perusing the latest CDs and DVDs from Mexico and Latin America. Among the food court’s numerous intriguing options (including a torta place called Manny’s that is worth the trip alone) is an outpost of Taqueria La Hacienda, one of the best taco joints in Minneapolis.
THE PLATES: Go with three or four tacos al pastor ($1.65 each), made Guadalajara style—that is, with two corn tortillas, fresh cilantro, onions, and savory bits of barbecued pork. Don’t skip the pico de gallo and wedges of lime.
- Pho Tau Bay
- 2837 Nicollet Avenue S., Minneapolis
- Open Tuesday through Sunday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., closed Monday
THE PLACE: When world traveler and culinary badass Anthony Bourdain visits Minneapolis, one of his top agenda items is: Eat Vietnamese food. Do the same, and head for Pho Tau Bay. Scuffed linoleum floors, taped-up table numbers, and mirrored columns dominate a sprawling room that is usually full of Vietnamese families.
THE PLATES: The grilled pork is carbon-kissed, a bit salty, and slightly springy in texture—and whether it’s in the banh mi sandwich ($3.50, or $4.50 with meatballs) or the grilled pork broken rice plate ($6), it’s not to be missed. Pho (noodle soup) is reliably good as well, and it comes with a side of bean sprouts, fresh mint, lime wedges, and jalapeño slices, all for the enrichment of your soup in proportions of your choosing. Do not, under any circumstances, pass up the chance to try the coconut bubble tea ($2.50). Cold and sweet but not syrupy, and supercharged with the slightly grainy taste of natural coconut, this should be the official drink of the convention.
- 1600 W. Lake Street, Minneapolis
- Open Sunday through Thursday 8 a.m. to 1 a.m., Friday and Saturday 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.
THE PLACE: A veritable Swiss Army knife of restaurants, the French-inflected Barbette serves up a mean brunch daily; high-class, low-cost soup-and-sandwich lunches; apps and drinks; and dinners abundant with seasonal produce. Dark and decorated with vintage posters and modern art, it feels like a French-style bistro you might find in Brooklyn’s Park Slope or Cobble Hill neighborhoods.
THE PLATES: It’s hard to go wrong with any of Barbette’s offerings, but there are a few that shouldn’t be missed. The classic Belgian-style pommes frites ($4 for a lot, $6 for a big-ass basket) come out hot, crispy, and ravishingly well seasoned. The daily tartare ($12) is usually beef with capers and is always inhalably tender and fresh. And the rice in the seasonal risottos ($18 to $21) is rich and creamy without swamping the more delicate flavors of the vegetables or seafood.
- Café Maude
- 5411 Penn Avenue S., Minneapolis
- Open Monday 5 to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to midnight, Saturday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to midnight, Sunday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m.
THE PLACE: There comes a time when every Twin Citizen needs something clever in the food department—something unexpectedly and incontrovertibly cool—to win over Mr. New York or Ms. San Francisco. A quick answer: the recently opened Café Maude, a neighborhood bistro serving small plates, great cheeses, and killer drinks. It sports dim lighting, little tables, and a bustling bar. On weekends and some weeknights, live music and talented local DJs fill the room with pop, modern jazz, dub, and ambient electronica.
THE PLATES: The roasted corn chowder ($6) contains tomato, bacon, and avocado. Grilled flatbreads ($12) come with toppings like duck and frisée or eggplant and anchovy. And you really shouldn’t leave the city without trying a Black Bunny ($9), a sophisticated and maturely restrained blackberry Mojito that you will suck down dangerously fast. Speaking of dangerous drinking: Café Maude has a startlingly nice selection of low- and no-alcohol drinks. Being a designated driver has never been so much fun.
- 1510 Como Avenue SE, Minneapolis
- Open Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m., closed Sunday
THE PLACE: For the record, if you come to this casual, chic Japanese eatery, you’ll find the sushi comparable to a humble (but respectable) place on the West Coast. But Obento-Ya truly shines with its robata: charcoal-grilled skewers of pretty much anything. There’s even a garden out back for alfresco dining.
THE PLATES: Three to five skewers make a nice meal, depending upon your appetite. Worth trying are the tender and flavorful negima (chicken breast and scallion; $2.25), asparagus and bacon ($3), and fried quail egg ($2.75, or $3.75 with bacon). Bento boxes ($7.95 to $27.95) offer cunningly crafted assortments of grilled, fried, or sautéed meat, potato salad, spicy burdock root sauté, miso soup, sushi, greens, rice, and more.
- The Barbary Fig
- 720 Grand Avenue, St. Paul
- Open Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m., Friday through Sunday 5 to 9 p.m., closed Tuesday
THE PLACE: Conventioneers looking for something light, sophisticated, and reasonably priced should duck over to Grand Avenue and try the Barbary Fig, an Algerian/Mediterranean place known for its couscous and tagines. Chef-owner Brahim Hadj-Moussa keeps the cooking elegant and the ingredients high quality, and it’s a great quiet spot to unwind.
THE PLATES: Start with the lamb-chicken-tomato soup ($2.95 cup, $3.95 bowl), which is herbal and vibrant. The tagines are worth sampling, and the couscous is truly wonderful—the merguez couscous ($11.95) features garlic- and ginger-seasoned lamb, caramelized onions, and currants. For dessert, try the dates with walnuts and powdered sugar ($3.95).