The 2019 Minneapolis/St. Paul Roadfood Crawl in in the books, so now it’s time to share thoughts and pictures with the rest of the internet. Personally, I took dozens of photos; not a single one involving food, so there. What I can’t share in images, I’ll do my best to put into words, and limit those to the least possible (Hah!).
As the organizer of this outing, my totally biased opinion says the weekend was generally a success with a few disappointments. We had a pretty good turnout with 21 people at our high point. Not too shabby considering this was our furthest outlying trip to date. It was especially nice to meet and spend time with Paul Smith (Sundancer7), and wife Roz. Our first chance to chat was dominated by Paul’s brother Phil, who lives in the Twin Cities. It was a thoroughly enjoyable conversation, and I wouldn’t mind breaking bread with him another time, but it was Paul I was there to see, and Phil is just one of those guys who grabs the room’s attention and won’t let go. Nothing I can relate to really.
Eventually, Paul and I had a proper visit at Wally’s Roast Beef. I’m glad we had the opportunity, and hope he and Roz will join us at future events.
Beyond that it was mostly the usual crowd. Sadly, we were missing the Canadian components (nagle & Wawa Mama) of our group. This led to a distinct lack of late night, extracurricular activities. It’s hard to misbehave when the Bad Boy & Girl-in-Chief are not there to encourage us. Hoping they’ll make up for lost opportunities when they visit Chicago and Milwaukee later this May.
I won’t bore you with individual detailed reviews of every place we went. The folks with the food porn (which is what you’re here to see, don’t lie) can give you a better blow by blow diary of the weekend. I’ll just try to give a broad overview, broken down into categories.
I "only" experienced four breakfast spots on this trip. We hit the full spectrum, from lowly diner to high end, nationally renowned restaurants. There were no clunkers, as far as I was concerned, but some were definitely better than others. Hell's Kitchen, which I'm guessing most of our group ranked at the top of the heap, actually came in second for me. They serve excellent food and offer outstanding service in a beautiful atmosphere, but my favorite was Key’s Café, specifically their original location in St. Paul.
It is a classic Diner in every sense, cut from the same cloth as Pamela’s in Pittsburgh and Jerry’s Café in Kansas City. Hefty portions of delicious comfort food are served by career waitresses who know every regular customer by name, and welcome newbies like us with great warmth.
A lot of different dishes were passed around. I was lucky enough to dig into a short stack of Pancakes and a side of the Roast Beef Hash. The Pancakes were the best I had on the trip; fluffy, crisp, and so flavorful, even fake maple syrup couldn’t spoil them. The hash was savory, rich, and meaty with no trace of greasiness.
But the find of the morning was the Caramel Roll, ordered on a whim by Ralph Melton. The gigantic pastry was drowned in a ridiculously generous portion of house made caramel sauce, accompanied by a large dollop of room temperature butter. It was so sinfully good, my arteries were lining up like Aztec virgins, ready to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
None of this should take away from any of the other Breakfast stops. Hell’s Kitchen was excellent, but they were supposed to be, or else there would have been trouble. Al’s Dinkytown Diner served a quality product, and we had a great private party there, but without the joint’s long history, the building’s physical "charms", and the sass from the staff, it might have been a more ordinary experience.
ChiTownDiner perfectly summed up the vibe at French Meadow, so I’ll leave it to him to express that. I thought their Corn Pancakes were okay, but had a weird texture, like there was some kind of mashed root vegetable mixed into the batter. OTOH, I was blown away by their Quiche, declaring it the best I’ve ever tasted. It was at least 50% deeper than any standard quiche, resulting in a creamier, richer tart. Some in the group theorized they must be using a spring-form pan to achieve the depth, which was confirmed when we returned Sunday for a second helping, and chatted with the owner. Also, according to her, a little extra cream doesn’t hurt.
Surprise Hits and Unfortunate Misses
Hit: Mill Ruins Park
Originally, I put this place on the list just as a calorie burner with some decent scenery. As it turned out, some folks said they could've spent another two hours wandering the grounds of this exploded grain mill, preserved as a monument to the city’s industrial foundations. Lots of interesting photo ops for anyone who likes rusted, twisted metal sprouting up out of the wild flowers and other local flora. It really was fascinating.
Walking along the upper level, on the Stone Arch Bridge, provided a spectacular view of the power of the Mississippi River as it cascaded over St. Anthony Falls, creating clouds of mist you could feel and smell hundreds of yards away.
Miss: Karmel Square Mall
I swear I did my research on this place, and never once noticed they open at 1pm. So, when we showed up at 11am and found only one food stall operating and a lot of closed security gates and empty hallways, I knew I’d goofed. OTOH, even if they were open, the building is fairly run down and even seedier than the level I’m known to appreciate (the BuddyRoadhouse motto: The deliciousness of the food is directly related to the potential danger faced in procuring it; knowing it might be your last meal on Earth). On the plus side, most of the group got sidetracked and missed this dubious experience, so no harm, no foul.
Miss: Midtown Global Market
Once again, internet research and Tourism Board recommendations are sometimes not enough to tell you the true nature of a place. All the early information indicated this was our kind of place, promising a wide variety of international street food bites served in a cool urban space. What we got was more Epcot imitation than authentic. Kind of a "jack of all trades; master of none" operation. If any of these stall businesses prepared food any better, they’d have their own brick and mortar stores instead of trying to survive in this overrated mall.
I had some excellent pear and lemon Italian Ices, but that was the high point of this touristy spot.
You'll likely be hearing a lot of jokes about Camel Burgers as this thread develops. Yes, we’re talking real camel, not some euphemism, or reference to a method of preparation that approximates the flavor or appearance of camel meat. One of the stalls, featuring African cuisine, offers a burger made from actual humpbacked, shaggy maned, big-footed dromedary, imported from a farm in Australia. Having already consumed my share of venison and elk burgers in life, I thought camel was going to be one of the highlights of the trip for me.
Not everything works out as we would like.
The Beefcake1 Crew arrived a few minutes before us, so ChiBears15 took the Camel Burger initiative and ordered one for the team. What I tasted was a slightly gamy meat, comparable to goat, with some exotic seasoning. A couple of others in the group turned green. Now, I’m not going to tell these poor lads their nausea was imaginary, but I do know, based on personal experience in a high school chemistry class experiment, we are all genetically predisposed to tasting (smelling, seeing, etc.) things differently. So, my happy experience could have very well been thoroughly disgusting to them. I promise not to poke fun at their camel intolerance if they swear not to start calling me Hump Boy, or some other inappropriate camel related nickname.
Hit: Carol’s Restaurant
I admit I was reluctant to drive more than 20 miles for a Meatloaf Sandwich, or anything else at this lunch spot for middle aged ladies. But wanderingjew insisted, and I got tired of fighting, so I put them on the schedule.
I’m glad I did.
Turns out, the food was pretty damn good. We were especially taken with the pre-meal bread basket featuring, what they called Nova Scotia Rolls. These were brown bread type rolls, slightly sweet, very dense, and damn tasty with a shmear of butter. We asked one of the servers why they were called Nova Scotia Rolls, and she said, "I’m not sure. I guess the recipe came from this foreign country, Nova Scotia, or something…"
So there ya go America, keep de-funding the public-school system. Before you know it, all the good jobs will be taken by kids immigrating from far flung foreign lands like Nova Scotia, and Montana.
Miss: Matt’s Bar
Surprise! You can’t cook a Jucy Lucy medium-rare if you want the cheese inside to melt properly. A table full of well-done Burgers left us all disappointed.
Thanks to an independent side trip by the Bonks, some of us got to try a much better version they picked up from The Nook. Even after traveling a half hour, then waiting around in the parking lot at Lion’s Tap while others arrived, The Nook’s cold carry-out version was still better than Matt’s. If they weren’t such a small operation, they would have beaten out Matt’s for a spot on the itinerary.
Hit: Wally’s Roast Beef
I had no doubt Wally’s would serve up a good Roast Beef Sandwich, I just had no idea how good it would be. But they delivered, without a doubt. Their beautiful rare beef, incredibly tender, is served on a slightly sweet bun. I wish I’d tried the tangy horseradish sauce before diving into the excellent house made au jus, but still found it all delicious. Give it up Arby’s, you’ll never achieve the magnificence of this sandwich.
Hit: Hmongtown Marketplace
After all the whining and gnashing of teeth over my plan to take the 2019 Crawl in a slightly ethnic direction (2 stops out of 22, and, as noted above, one of them didn’t work out), it turns out Roadfooders LOVE Hmong cuisine! Who knew? I did.
Hmong Sausage, Stuffed Chicken Wings, and giant Smoked Beef Ribs (Thanks to the Bonks for making an impulse buy on that item) were just part of the spread that was eagerly sampled by our group. Also, thanks to ChiBears15 for doing a little advance research to figure out what we’d encounter and how to order. Great job Danny!
Hit: Mac’s Fish & Chips
I was pretty certain Mac’s would be a crowd pleaser, I just had no idea how truly outstanding it would be. Their deep-fried Walleye may have been the best version on the entire Crawl. The perfectly crunchy exterior gave way to steaming hot, moist and flaky flesh with great flavor. And the crowd went wild!
Fries are fresh, hand cut; and they also make a damn fine Salt Water Taffy, sold by the pound.
Things That Worked Out About as Well as I Expected
I had full confidence in all of the planned Ice Cream stops (thanks for your help, ChiTownDiner and bufettbuster), although I disagree with CTD over which one was best. IIRC, he’s a fan of Pumphouse Creamery, while I favored Milkjam Creamery. I thought the flavors at Milkjam were more intense. My Thai Tea flavored Ice Cream was rich, creamy, and recreated the flavors of the drink perfectly, even down to the smoky quality and slight bitterness of the tea.
While the scoop of Pear Ginger Sorbet I had at Pumphouse was excellent, the actual Ice Cream flavors I tried were a bit too subtle for my tastes, bordering on bland. I don’t necessarily blame the ice cream makers for this. There was a recent article explaining that premium ice creams containing high quantities of butter fat may actually dampen the flavors. The butter fat coats the taste buds, making it harder to fully appreciate the flavor of the ice cream. It becomes a trade off between richness and intensity of taste. Personally, I’ll give up some creaminess for more flavor.
Like the Ice Cream category, I left the final Pastry/Bakery choices up to CTD and buffetbuster to decide, and there were no clunkers. In fact, the few items I picked up at Bread & Chocolate were outstanding, even eaten the next morning in our hotel room.
I was hoping for unanimous raves at Restaurant Baku, but it didn’t quite work out that way. I think everyone found something to enjoy, even though there were some quibbles with some individual dishes. The appetizers were roundly praised, especially the Eggplant Ratatouille and Pell Meni Dumplings. Weak points among the entrees, IMO, were the Chicken Tabak (pressed Cornish hen), while others objected to the substitution of French Fries for noodles in the Beef Stroganoff. Still, I will recommend Baku to anyone visiting the Twin Cities, looking for a unique dining experience.
Kramarczuk’s was a big hit with everyone who tried it. Unfortunately, some of our members got sidetracked and never made it over. The generous portions of excellent Polish food provided the perfect kickoff for the folks who went to the Twins game afterward, and also the group who played a round of mini-golf at Can-Can Wonderland.
Some of you may remember I had strong reservations about going to Tavern on Grand. Past experiences there have provided some well-prepared Walleye, but the rest of the menu left me disappointed. I guess I’m in the minority. The rest of the group loved ToG, but I’m sticking to my guns.
Ralph Melton and I split an order of Walleye Bites and a cup of Chicken Wild Rice Soup. The soup was fine, but not the best version I had on the trip. The Walleye was dry and slightly overdone. I think this was mainly due to the fact that the fish was cut up into smaller pieces, causing it to lose more moisture than if it had been cooked as a whole filet, then cut up before serving.
No matter. The goal was to make 20 other people happy, not just me. If that was accomplished, then I’m satisfied, even if the rest of you are horribly, horribly wrong.
My other concern was Kaffe Stuga. Not so much for the food, but the distance we needed to travel to get there. It was a hundred-mile round trip for a plateful of Minnesota Heritage foods. As it turns out, the food was okay, plus Ralph Melton handled the driving, so I got a nap on the way up. Once again, more than half the group was happy with the meal, so I guess, mission accomplished. The minority of us thought the Swedish Sampler Platter was okay, but not very exciting. Even the Hot Dish Advocate-in-Chief admitted Kaffe Stuga’s version was not up to snuff.
OTOH, I really enjoyed the Raspberry Pie. My one quibble with raspberries in general is the seeds. Somehow, the Kaffe Stuga folks managed to de-seed fresh raspberries, making for a delightful flavor and texture experience.
My biggest frustration and regret are how few people showed up for the visit to Magnolias in St. Paul. Admittedly, it was stuffed into an already jam-packed day, following heavy duty stops at Hell’s Kitchen and Al’s Diner, and leading up to a serious Polish chow-down at Kramarczuk’s. Nonetheless, this may have been one of the best stops on the Crawl, and only six of us had the opportunity to enjoy it. The Roadhouse Clan, joined by the Bonk household, started with a cup of outstanding Chicken Wild Rice Soup. It was thicker than pudding and chock full of wild rice, bits of carrot, and of course, plenty of chicken. Excellent flavor, great texture; the best version we had on the entire trip.
We were getting too full to attack one of Magnolias highly regarded Fried Chicken Dinners, so we passed around a plate of their equally renowned Chicken Wings. The gigantic wings are served whole, beautifully fried to perfect crispness, yet still moist and tender.
But for me, the star of the meal, and reason for our visit, was the Walleye Dinner. The Bonks arrived early and did an admirable job of ordering while we were stuck in a horrible traffic jam. They chose the Pan-Fried version (Deep Fried also available), and it was brilliant. It was an unbelievably moist and flaky piece of fish, full of the sweet flavor Walleye is known for. Bonk thought it was a little fishy tasting, but I found it quite acceptable and possibly the second-best version on the Crawl, outdone only by Mac’s Fish & Chips. The fish was accompanied by a large serving of Hash Browns; exceedingly crisp on the outside, moist and creamy inside. Any Wisconsin Supper Club would’ve been proud to serve these.
The real tragedy here is that Magnolias might have been one of the most memorable stops on the Crawl. It is a small, unassuming neighborhood restaurant, with friendly waitresses serving great food to its local devotees. Practically the definition of Roadfood. I wish more people had the chance to enjoy it. I highly, highly, highly recommend a visit for anyone traveling in the future to the Twin Cities.
On the one hand, I felt like I’d missed the boat, choosing Lion’s Tap as our final official meal. On past Crawls we’ve tried to do something special for a farewell meal. Josza’s Corner in Pittsburgh, Burt’s Place in Chicago, and Stroud’s in Kansas City were all a big success. Occasionally there’s a flop, like Coco’s Italian Market in Nashville.
On the other hand, the Burgers at Lion’s Tap have been a declared winner by myself, buffetbuster, and MSP resident and longtime Roadfooder, Davydd. I’m not sure if everyone really thought the Burgers were that great, or if they were just happy because we could finally get them cooked to medium rare. So what if Burgers aren’t as unique as home cooked Hungarian food or great Pan Pizza, both cooked by masters in their field, or even legendary Fried Chicken. As joerogo and I agreed, it’s still better to say goodbye over a simple but well-prepared Burger as opposed to lousy Italian.
Thanks to all who participated in this year’s Twin Cities Crawl. I hope it was as enjoyable for you as it was nerve-wracking for me. See you all somewhere in 2020!