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the cheap fancypants food challenge (MSP)

I'm a big fan of the Birchwood, but am struggling to find other places that serve excellent, interesting, real food at reasonable prices. We need some new places to eat. So, I issue to you the Cheap Fancypants Food Challenge. Where else should we try??

Here are some criteria:
- dinner entrees that are $14 or less.
- as the Birchwood says, good, real, food.
- service that is attentive, friendly and responsive (table service not necessary)
- creative, interesting, delicious food.
- ethnic is fine (we love the Midtown Global Market and Jasmine Deli)

What we don't want:
- pretentiousness
- fancy atmosphere - plain is fine if the food is good
- loudness - I want to be able to have a conversation
- snooty, uninformed, unhelpful or absent waitstaff

I'm looking forward to reading your brilliant suggestions!!

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  1. Here are my first thoughts from an Uptown perspective. I'm looking forward to other suggestions.

    1) duplex restaurant (between 25th and 26th Sts. on Hennepin). We had a great meal there last week. The prices were a titch higher than $14 (I think they were $16 each). Many other courses were less than that. The one downside I see from your criteria is service. It was attentive, but a little slow for us. See duplexmpls.com

    2) Emma's Restaurant and Lounge (Lyndale south of 28th Street). We've had great meals there. The atmosphere is very quiet. You should check on prices.

    3) Tum Rup Thai (Lake Street and Emerson). I think they have the best Thai in Uptown and it's a nice atmosphere. Most of the time it's not too loud although we had one time when it was very crowded and a little noisy.


      1. I'm submitting Sunsets Restaurant ( http://www.sunsetsrestaurant.com )in Wayzta and Woodbury. *Most* of their menu fits the criteria and it's just a great place to dine. It varies quite dramatically and will please just about everyone in a big group of people. My wife and I devoured our first experience there just recently and will make many trips back to enjoy the dishes "we just couldn't decide on".

        1. I had a wonderful meal with my sister in law when we dined at French Meadow for dinner. After 5:00 they have table service and the place takes on a whole different vibe: calm and quiet. Our server was knowledgeable and helpful. The food was delicious - especially the tasting flight which, though an odd concept of flights, (a butter, an olive oil, a cheese and olives served with a lovely assortment of breads) was fun. Wine is available and reasonable in price. Oh, and their soups are fantastic.

          This is a very old menu but it gives you an idea: http://www.frenchmeadow.com/cafe_dinn...

          1 Reply
          1. re: MplsM ary

            We ate there for breakfast and were not impressed. I was a lot happier with Sunnyside Up cafe down the block. I did go there for dinner once and had some really good tomato basil soup.

          2. I too am a big Birchwood fan, and always on the lookout for cheap tasty eats - I'm looking forward to learning from future replies to your post! Here's what I came up with:

            The place that came to mind first was Cafe Latte (on Grand Ave at Victoria in St. Paul). You'll find a menu similar to the Birchwood in that it's very soup, salad, and sandwich focused. It is a tad on the noisy side, but I'd say the same about the Birchwood. My one caution regards the service - staff are often very busy and seem sometimes to actually resent customers' presence (!). The food is reliably good though, and fairly interesting. Their website isn't very informative, but here is is anyway:

            Another place I'd recommend is Everest on Grand (again in St. Paul - on Grand Ave. a block east of Hamline Ave, just across the street from Kowalskis). Everest is a Nepali restaurant - similar to but not the same as Indian food. Often there's quite a wait for a table at peak hours, but the food is very tasty and reasonably priced. Service might be a little slow at times, but otherwise I've had good experiences. I highly recommend the chhoyla dishes (grilled spiced meats, peppers and onions), yak momos, and saag. They also have really good sweet lassi (it's very nicely spiced with cardamom). Website:

            I'm sure other ideas will come to me later, but that's what came to mind just now. Good luck!

            1 Reply
            1. re: diesel

              I've been to Everest on Grand and have never had a good experience. The first time I went I had curry, which I thought was almost unedible. The momos were good, but we had a noodle dish called chouchou which was not very good either. I really want to like it, because it's right by my house, but I just don't.

            2. Great idea, Cassandra! Much as I love the Birchwood, it's good to branch out (especially since the B isn't changing their menu as often these days...)

              Here's my vote for a strong contender in the Fancypants Food Challenge:

              Mairin's Table

              I've only been once, but I was EXTREMELY pleased with my dinner and put the place on my favorites list at once. (I had salmon with lentils, and Mr. Tastebud had the tagine of the day with spicy couscous. Seriously yummy.


              The menu ranges from burgers & sandwiches, meatloaf & caesar salad, and beef tagine and other Moroccan-influenced specials. And they have wine, which is required, in my book, in order to be considered "fancy pants".

              You can eat well for a small sum, or you can splurge on the fancy-pants special and lots of wine, and spend a little more. And the place is just dripping with charm - it's a small, quiet neighborhood bistro (with a fireplace!) in an urban area, near Surdyk's and Oscar Wilde Coffeehouse. Plus, they have off-street parking.

              I say check this place out! But not on Sunday - they're closed on Sundays (which is why I've only been once; I keep forgetting that.)


              3 Replies
              1. re: AnneInMpls

                gentle correction: the "Oscar Wilde Coffeehouse" is actually called "Wilde Roast"; on East Hennepin Ave. Haven't gottern to Mairin's Table yet :( would like to second the Tanpopo rec. below and also say that although the regular prices at Corner Table (42nd & Nicollet) put them out of the "cheap" part of the challenge, they have lower prices & specials on small plates on Sunday nights-- so you can try out the awesome food for less

                1. re: soupkitten

                  I've only been to Corner Table for brunch but we thought the service was absolutely terrible. Friends recenlty went for dinner and without me mentioning our experience, they started ranting about the service.

                  Did we have isolated experiences or have others found this to be true also?

                2. re: AnneInMpls

                  It's very cute, but don't go for the roast chicken, it's really dry.

                3. How about Tanpopo Noodle Shop in St. Paul? Terrific Japanese food (the soba and udon are especially comforting now that winter is looming) prepared with (whenever possible) organic ingredients from the St. Paul farmers market. Quiet, elegant space, knowledgeable staff.



                  1. I have two favorites for low cost, high quality meals. Athens Cafe in Robbinsdale (in a strip mall about 41st and County Road 81 - between the Walgreens and Bill's Gun Shop) and e-Noodle Cafe in Roseville (in a strip mall on Rice, just north of Larpenteur - between the pharmacy and the pawn shop.)

                    Athens Cafe is simple greek food. Gyros (go for the chicken), Spinach Pie, Chicken Kebobs, Lamb Kebobs, Kofta (my favorite), and a bunch of other stuff (the athenian Chicken - marinated bits of chicken cooked with sauteed onions and hot peppers, then topped with melted feta is another favorite). Forget the Sandwiches, and go for the Entrees. You'll get a small greek salad, your meat/veggies/whatever entree you ordered, rice, hummus and Pita. And I don't think there's anything on the menu that is over $8.00.... and you'll have leftovers.

                    What strikes me is that if Athens added full waiter service (right now, you order at the counter, and they'll bring the food to you), real plates and silverware (right now, it's styrofoam and plastic), and tableclothes, they could charge twice the price. But, they don't, and that's fine with me.

                    e-Noodle has absolutely amazing soups, and will be a staple this winter. I wrote a review here: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/335983

                    1. The Black Sea in St. Paul has wonderful Turkish food. It's really tiny, but the husband and wife owners that own the place are so friendly. The prices are cheap and the food is well flavored. I always get an appetizer and the Black Sea Combiination to share with a friend.

                      Saigon on University Ave. in St. Paul is another favorite of mine. The spring rolls, banh mi, and pho are always good, and the service is incredibly fast.

                      Barbary Fig on Grand Ave in St. Paul used to be another one of my favorites. Moroccan comfort food. I haven't been there in a couple years though. The portions did tend to be on the smaller end.

                      True Thai on Franklin in Minneapolis, Pad Thai Grand Cafe on Grand in St. Paul, are my typical places to go for Thai Food.
                      I just recently tried Chai's Thai Restaurant on the West Bank of the U of M campus and loved it. The price is right, food is tasty, and they plate it beautifully, but the service is a bit slow on busy nights.

                      1. Thanks so much for all of your suggestions! I knew I could count on my fellow Chowfolk to give me some good suggestions. I've been to some of these places, but am looking forward to trying those I haven't.

                        We had a bad experience at Corner Table a couple years ago. Too bad, because I adore the chef from his days at the Modern, back when that was our favorite place to eat in the whole world. The server rushed us through the meal and communicated pretty clearly that we weren't spending enough money (as I recall, we split an appetizer, an entree, a dessert, and both got wine). Also had a poor service experience at Duplex, but that was right when they opened, so we should probably try again.

                        Of course, I like Cafe Latte, especially that chocolate chocolate cake ;-) I very much like True Thai and Tanpopo. I thought Emma's was overpriced; I much prefer the Grand Cafe for the price range and type of food.

                        Again, thanks for all of your ideas! Keep them coming!

                        1. Barbary Fig on Grand Ave. in St. Paul meets each of those criteria.

                          1. cheaper and slightly less chowish - but good so far - shish on Grand in St Paul - near Patagonia & Coffee News Cafe (also very reasonable with good food)

                            1. Next door to Duplex on 25th & Hennepin ave is Namaste - great nepali/tibetan food at awesome prices, in a cool ambience.

                              1. I don't know about creative but Cheng Heng (Cambodian cuisine) on University Ave. in St. Paul is my favorite cheap eats in the Cities. The staff are friendly, the food is delicious and healthy. Entrees are no more than $10, I believe.

                                1. City Pages' Dara M reminded me of another strong contender in the Fancypants Food Challenge: Rice Paper.


                                  If you haven't been, you *must* go! Their spicy citrus salad is the stuff that dreams are made of...



                                  1. I don't know as "creative" is the first adjective I think of for my choice, but it meets the rest of your criteria: the restaurant at Foodsmart in the Unidale shopping center off (yup) University & Dale in St. Paul.

                                    Foodsmart is an Asian supermarket; the cafeteria-style restaurant concentrates on Cambodian/Laotian food (lots of pictures of Hmong generals in the seating area). The menu isn't huge, but it changes often and there's a good mix of hot/spicy and "cooler" dishes, sometimes including salads. The women behind the counter are helpful in telling you what's in each tray. And it's _cheap_.

                                    I haven't been there in a couple of months. Hmm. Maybe tomorrow night...

                                    And after dinner you can wander the aisles and look at the interesting food products and the video kiosk. :-)

                                    1. check out chai's! probably the best little spot of thai in the cities.
                                      next door to the Cedar Cultural Center on Minneapolis' West Bank
                                      atmosphere is delicious and food is eye-catching...or is it the other way around?

                                      1. I'd like to submit Cafe BonXai in St. Paul as a strong contender. Delicious Asian-fusion cuisine in a small, unexpectedly elegant setting on a very non-elegant stretch of University Ave (half a block from Snelling Ave.).

                                        Here's my rave review from my first visit:


                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: AnneInMpls

                                          Cafe BonXai is a terrific addition to the list, as is Ngon Bistro (Vietnamese), also in St. Paul on University Avenue (at Avon):



                                        2. I'll suggest:

                                          Evergreen Chinese at 2424 Nicollet. Search for recent comments from me on the place. I'd say it fits all of your criteria perfectly.

                                          Little Szechuan on University easily meets price, especially at lunch:


                                          Hot Plate prices are right, and the food is good, and pretty well executed:


                                          I should think Bryant Lake Bowl would fit your criteria well enough:


                                          They even have a $25 date night. I am not too sure about sound levels here, though - I am not a good judge for that aspect of your criteria. It takes city buses, screaming babies or motor cycles before I notice sound.

                                          Barbette still has affordable stuff, really, depending on what you order:


                                          Last I'd suggest Bulldog NE, for what it is. It's just bar food, but good lord is it glorious bar food.


                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: pgokey

                                            Just an FYI - I'm pretty sure Emma's is closed. You can't view their website anymore and I drove past it 2 weeks ago -closed.

                                            1. re: snoboardbabe77

                                              Yes, Emma's closed a few months ago. There was a mention in last week's Taste section of the Strib that "Emily Streeter, a familiar name to fans of the former Emma's Restaurant & Lounge in south Minneapolis, is currently cooking at the Green Room (140 W. Main St., Waconia) until later this year, when she plans to open a restaurant in St. Peter."

                                          2. How about Gigi's in south Minneapolis (36th and Bryant)? I wouldn't put it up against the Birchwood, probably, but definitely in that league.

                                            Also, La Perla del Pacifico on 60th (?) and Nicollet. Kind of dive-y but good Mexican.

                                            And you mentioned the Grand at 38th and Grand already, but that's a lovely place. Prices might be a little higher than your criteria, but that is really nice food and we've had amazing service there.

                                            Signature Cafe on Warwick in SE Minneapolis has beautiful lunch (and dinner, but I've never been for dinner) and fits all your criteria, I believe.

                                            1. ngon vietnamese bistro st paul!

                                              1. How about Jay's Cafe, a small, neighborhoody place in the Midway (on Raymond off University, a few doors down from Key's Cafe.) They've been doing breakfast and lunch for awhile, but have added dinner service in the last couple of months. I've been there a couple of times for dinner now--my apologies for not having taken better notes. One time, I had these fantastic liver toasts that came with a generous portion of some glorious greens--I think they were $6! You can't beat that price, and they were marvelous. I also had some nice chicken with (bowtie?) pasta, that was simple, but delicious--the chicken had a pedigree of some sort, which impressed me at the time as being local and organic. My dining companion had a sausage pizza, very rustic looking, half of which he took home as leftovers. On another occasion, I had some kind of vegetarian strata that was very good, but even better the next day as a leftovers. They have a wine list, though I confess, I haven't explored it.

                                                I think Jay's Cafe is focusing on using local and organic ingredients, when possible, down to the window box of herbs outside the cafe. Neat little place.

                                                Oh, they're closed Mondays and don't do dinner on Tuesdays.


                                                Jay's Cafe
                                                791 Raymond Ave, Saint Paul, MN 55114

                                                  1. Al Vento in Mpls tends to have some unique specials and prices are reasonable. Service has always been quick and definitely not pretentious!

                                                    1. What about any of the following:
                                                      -Abu Nader on Raymond and Como. Looks unassuming from the street (and inside), there are a couple tables in the store, and they make excellent middle eastern food.
                                                      -Bryn Mawr Pizza and Deli on Cedar Lake Road and Penn. Once again, not really sitting room, but in the summer they have outdoor tables and there's a park not too far.
                                                      -Lucia's To Go might be on par with the Birchwood.
                                                      -And then there's Swede Hollow Cafe. Might be a little too far away but it always makes me feel happy when I make the trek.

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. re: megafreak

                                                        Abu Nader is great for take-out. Everything homemade.

                                                        And I love Swede Hollow for lunch. I think it is also very good for breakfast. But it's not open for dinner.

                                                      2. Does Jasmine Deli vary their playlist? The one time I stepped in the place, I stepped promptly out. Music so loud I couldn't hear myself think much less carry on a conversation. And I use the term music lightly, because it was all booming bass, lack of melody, and unintelligible lyrics. The ambiance was dirty floors, underheated, and low-end cafeteria furnishings. Maybe someday for call-ahead take-out, but with Quang so close, why bother?

                                                        6 Replies
                                                        1. re: Enso

                                                          I've only occasionally noticed the music at Jasmine Deli so it must be quieter some times. In my mind, the advantages of Jasmine Deli over other Eat St. locations are that their banh mi are the best (although Saigon in St. Paul is much better because of the pate), and the service is unbelievably friendly. At Quang I always feel rushed and like I'm just 1 of 30 tables. The people at Jasmine Deli know me, and in the nicest gesture to a pregnant woman ever, last week gave me a box of girl scout cookies when I told them I'd been craving them.

                                                          They also have a smaller, more manageable menu which is why I think they appeal more to the non-Asians that hang out there in larger quantities than I see at the other spots. Finally, I like that you can count on Jasmine Deli for takeout spring rolls and sandwiches. I feel like the other Eat St. spots inconsistently have food ready for takeout so you might end up waiting.

                                                          1. re: katebauer

                                                            I can't stand Jasmine Deli because of the service. I hate the owners telling me what to order. I hate that they will substitute things without warning you ahead of time. I hate that they criticize how you eat the things they serve you. I know they are trying to be helpful, but it is annoying.

                                                            That, and accept for the Banh Mi, the food at Quang and Pho Tau Bay is much better. And I find the service at both of these places to be very good.

                                                            1. re: churchka

                                                              word for word. exact.same.comments.

                                                              quang will be be crazy busy, but still get you extra veggies and prompt service.. everything i have ever ordered is phenomenal and huge. if you don't get enough veggies one day (like if you're sharing at the table.. if it's just you you should have more than enough), ask. they will happily bring you more in < 1 minute.

                                                              'can i take your order'
                                                              me=> 'sure, i'd like pho w.fish balls etc'
                                                              they=> 'oh, you won't like xxx, you'd like curry mock duck much better'
                                                              me=>' uh, i don't like curry'
                                                              they=> 'you'll like ours'
                                                              me=>'uh, i really don't like curry'
                                                              my husband => 'okay, i'll try it'
                                                              me=> orders the soup

                                                              i am brought=> pho w.chicken.
                                                              me=>'excuse me, where are the fish balls?' ..
                                                              they=>'oh, this is chicken, isn't that what you ordered?'
                                                              they=>'oh, well do you want this instead?'
                                                              and to my husbands sandwich
                                                              they=>'did you like it?'
                                                              me=>'no, not really'
                                                              they=>'why not?'
                                                              me=>'i don't really like curry!'

                                                              since then, haven't been back.. and i actually know the owner, she used to work w.me. sad, sad experience.

                                                            2. re: katebauer

                                                              what a great anecdote about the girl scout cookies! i haven't given my congrats yet-- Congrats Kate!

                                                              i think the whole jasmine vs. quang faction debate has to do with wherever you are a regular. dh and i have been going into quang for *omg--what* > 10 years now, and our regular server, wing, always makes sure we are well taken care of no matter how busy the place is. yes, to a newcomer or non-regular, i'd imagine the pace quang typically runs at could be overwhelming-- but i always see solo people with a book or a large party chatting & hanging out over bubble tea at quang. sure they may clear tables at breakneck speed, but quang is big enough to linger if you want, and the staff lets you be. although i prefer quang's food, i would bring most visitors to jasmine first for the reasons you describe, Kate. i haven't tried jasmine's banh mi yet--next time! they have amazing pho at quang-- all their soups are stellar, in fact, and i think that the food and service there just keeps getting better. to me the bigger menu with more atypical specialties is a huge bonus-- though i often just get basic pho. it does seem that people tend to get the best of jasmine and the best of quang when they are regulars. is anyone a regular at both jasmine and quang who can compare?

                                                              1. re: soupkitten

                                                                Thanks! The girl scout cookie incident was one of the most generous experiences of my life. They gave me 1/2 a pack when I was eying them, and the other 1/2 when I told them they made a pregnant lady's day (I was wearing a coat and am just barely showing).

                                                                You could be very right about the regular issue. I've been to Quangs maybe 8 times in 4 years, no definitely not a regular. We go to Pho Tau Bay much more regularly (maybe 1/every 2 months), and while they're friendly they certainly don't remember us. The staff at Jasmine Deli remembers me (I go to the East Bank location probably 1/month and Eat St. maybe 1/month) and are very friendly. I've never had them criticize my food choices or make changes, although they will giggle along with me when my husband eats 3 banh mi in a sitting.

                                                            3. re: Enso

                                                              What did they say when you asked them to turn down the music?