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tvdxer's dining (mis)adventures: MSP and La Crosse

Friday:

I left Duluth at 2:30 a.m. to drop my aunt and uncle off at the airport in Minneapolis, and then continued to drive southward to southeastern MN, to which I had never been. I had a bowl of cereal at home for breakfast, so by 2:00 p.m., when I got to La Crosse, WI, I was rather hungry. Looking for a place to eat in their surprisingly awesome (architecturally and design-wise, not gastronomically) downtown, I ate at an unimpressive pizza joint, where I ended up throwing away about half of the pizza in a garbage can at a Winona park.

In Rochester (which interested me because it is about the same size of Duluth and also in MN), I was surprised to find a small Somali district. I bought a can of hummus, no longer available for some reason at our local Cub Foods, for $0.89. Cheap.

I wanted to make the most restaurant-wise of my trip, so I decided to eat at Sambol, a "Sri Lankan" restaurant in Eagan before going to bed. I was expecting to find egg hoppers and string hoppers and the like on the menu, but no, not at all - almost all the menu items were standard Indian fare you can find at most any Indian restaurant. I ordered chaat papri, a salad-ish mix of yogurt, chickpeas, onions, and some vegetables, which was OK (I'm not a salad guy) and chana masala, which was the worst I've ever had. I don't blame Sambol for this - it's just that I don't like raw onions, which were in abundance in my chana masala. I politely asked for a take-out box, most of which went into my motel room's garbage. I very rarely ever throw away food (the pizza above another rare exception), but considering I was full and had no place to store it, I think you can understand.

NOTE: I just looked at their website. Apparently they also have a Sri Lankan menu. However, nobody told me about it.

==

Saturday

After checking out of the local Motel 6, I headed for Akwaaba on Eat Street (Nicollet Avenue), whose menu was found in the Minneapolis yellow pages. Upon arriving at the address, I was surprised to find a small grocery store in its place. Thinking it may be hidden behind the market, I asked the woman running the store about it, only to get a smiling reply of "No more Akwaaba." That sent me to the next nearest West African option, Three Crowns Restaurant and Catering, situated on 2817 Lyndale in Minneapolis. Rather out of place in a hipster neighborhood, Triple Crowns is the epitome of a chowish ethnic restaurant. The room it is situated in is tiny, with only about five or six tables, and the kitchen right in front of you. I have never seen so little division between dining room and kitchen in my life, outside of some private homes. This ain't no Applebee's. I found the scent (which I believe was goat) a bit offensive at first, but after a few minutes I got used to it. What looked like a mother and daughter team was working when I was there, with perhaps a friend with them, having an animated conversation in an African language, English phrases occasionally popping out, while the girl prepared my meal of jollof rice and goat pepper soup. My own mother, 0% Nigerian, has been making "Nigerian pepper soup" for some time, from a recipe I found, ( http://www.chicago.us.mensa.org/featu... ), but this was totally different. She's always made it with beef rather than goat, but I wanted goat, first because it seemed for more authentic, and second because I've never tried it. And I'm glad I did that time, cause I'm never having it again. I just couldn't stomach the taste, and far worse, the texture of it. The broth of the soup had a less offensive (though not what I would call "pleasing") taste to it, and the jollof rice was unique but good. The meal ended up being a little bit expensive for lunch at this type of joint, about $15 if I remember. Unfortunately, it wasn't a weekday when they have their lunch special, which was either $6.50 or $7.50. The older waitress (mother? owner?) came to talk to me, and appeared very thankful I tried out her restaurant. I've noticed this with quite a few ethnic restaurants that don't see many "natives".

For dinner, I chose to eat at Babani's in downtown St. Paul, one of the U.S.'s few Kurdish restaurants. I had heard of it a long time ago and been wanting to try it. Entering I found a well-appointed room, small though not too Chowish this time, nicely decorated with traditional Kurdish costumes, photos of Kurdish life, and newspaper accolades of the restaurant. The clientele was smartly dressed, making me feel a bit out of place in my old "President's Slide" (an alpine slide near Mount Rushmore) T-Shirt and ragged khakis. From previous research, I already knew what I wanted to order, and did exactly that: naan wa paneer, dowjic soup, and kubay sawar (entree). Since the entree came with a choice of soup or salad, the dowjic came at no extra charge. The naan wa paneer, then, was my appetizer. I did not know what to expect, but imagined something like Indian flatbread with a paneer-like cheese - weird for sure. However, what arrived demonstrated that just because one culture's food item shares the name of another culture's, does not mean that they are the same. The "naan" reminded me faintly of French bread, the cheese was feta, with a few olives and salad-type veggies as a garnish. The dowjic soup was excellent, very tangy, but balanced something in the soup that reminded me of...feta cheese. The entree, kubay sawar, is described as wheat dumplings with specially-spiced ground meat inside - what arrived was a bit different than what I was expecting, but was still faithful to the menu's description. Was it good? I'll say okay. Just nothing special. The spices had a surprising resemblance to those found in a Bosnian dish I ordered when in New York. All in all, it wasn't a bad meal, though not a particularly good one either. I ended up spending about $18 for my dinner. Service was good.

Later that night, when driving to Ikea, I found a very chow-ish strip mall in St. Paul, "Sibley Plaza". What caught my eye driving down 7th St. was a "Kiev Foods" store. Inside I found all sorts of Eastern European food products - jellies, herring, meats, candy bars, pelmeni, pierogi, and much more, along with used Russian CDs, Matryoshka dolls, etc. I bought a few CDs and a candy bar. The girl working spoke almost no English, and was new, so she didn't know what to do about the CD's, whose cases did not contain discs (they were in a folder). Before leaving I picked up a free Minnesota Russian newspaper, surprised there were so many Russians in the state.

Also in the strip mall was Queen of Sheba, which I entered to see if they had a take-out menu (they didn't, but they did have loud Ethiopian music playing), and "La Hacienda", where I would eat the following morning.

==

I decided to stay another night Saturday, and at around 1 p.m. on Sunday I became hungry and craved something different yet comforting. That brought me to La Hacienda, which I knew from the sign I saw the previous night had pupusas. And a lot more - their menu contained Mexican, Salvadoran, Peruvian, American, and (strangely enough) Mediterranean sections. Along with a pupusa I ordered "carne desfilada" from the Salvadoran section. While waiting for my orders to come to my table, I ate the courtesy nachos and salsa. Their salsa, orange-colored, was awesome - when I asked what it was (I wanted the name), they replied "secreta" (though I was a bit confused - it sounded like "asegreta" or something). I stopped myself to prevent getting full too soon, and I was awfully glad for it when I saw the tremendous size of my "carne desfilada" entree and the pupusa alongside it. With beans, flavored rice, tortillas, salad, and the mix of beef, eggs, and vegetables they call "carne desfilada", it was easily enough for two meals. Everything (except the salad, which I did not eat - see above) was absolutely delicious, wonderful, amazing. Especially the cheese and bean pupusa, which could serve as the gold standard for comfort food. La Hacienda hit the spot, and for only about $14 (going by memory: $8.50 for the carne desfilada, $2.50 for the pupusa, ~$1.50 for the pop, plus tax). I should also mention this was a very Chowish place - simple, an order counter in the back, outside the kitchen, a medium-sized dining room, and a ~100% Hispanic clientele. A guy was there taking pictures for their upcoming website - I might be in the background of one :). The waiter was very kind; no issues with service. My only complaint was the seat. I had one of those row seats - usually the comfortable ones - but it seemed to slide up in the front. (?

)

My final meal before leaving Minneapolis was at Aribel's, a Guyanese restaurant in Richfield. The atmosphere there was unique to say the least - very loud Carribean music playing, just a few Carribean-looking guys eating, along with an older white guy who, by has dancing and praise of the recorded music, was apparently very appreciative of the culture, and highlights from the Indian Zee Sports satellite network on a plasma TV in the back. From the helpful and talkative waiter I ordered "bara" and chicken curry. The "bara" ($3.00 or $3.50) came first, about ten little fried balls made from string beans, to be dipped in a sauce. Both the sauce and the "balls" were delicious, and strongly recommended. Later inquiring whether bara was Guyanese or not, the waiter told me it was, and that the restaurant does "everything that's Guyanese." The chicken curry ($8.95) was a less favorable affair. I've eaten Indian chicken curries countless times, usually chicken tikka masala or chicken makhani, but others as well. As such, I'm used to the chicken being cut up into nice little boneless pieces, and the same being true of other ingredients. What arrived here was a plate of rice and a bowl containing two or three large pieces of chicken, a few large slices of potato, and a sauce. Eating it was a bit...tedious. I wouldn't say it didn't taste good, just not my preferred way. Perhaps I should have ordered "beef pepper pot" ($8.95) or a rice / meat / vegetable mix dish ($6.95 - forgot the name), both of which the waiter proudly pointed out as Guyanese.

(End of report)

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  1. Thanks for the report.

    I assumed you tried the "main" location of Babani's? I've been to the one on West 7th and was a bit disappointed, too. It's been awhile, but my main recollection was that things were simply not at an appropriate temp--they had been made in advance and put in the fridge and then were simply heated up, but not all the way through. That sort of thing. I always hoped the main location would be better.

    And isn't Sibley Plaza a hoot? I'm just amazing how many different ethnicities are represented there. I love browsing Kiev Foods --I got these very interesting frozen cherry dumplings last time I was there--and La Hacienda is a riot. Isn't that the place that has a big sign for gyros out front, too? A true hole in the wall. Here's the last report I think we had on it: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/124930 There's a little place in Sibley Plz (5 Star or something like that?) that I've never tried. I'm not even sure what it is, but it's another tiny little hole in the wall. It's on the "one of these days" list.

    I've wandered by Queen of Sheba a couple of times and though I was intrigued, I was alone both times and it just didn't feel that inviting. I'd love to hear reports from others.

    ~TDQ

    1 Reply
    1. re: The Dairy Queen

      I've eaten at Queen of Sheba many times, although not for the past 4-5 years or so. The first time I was with 5 fourth-graders, 4 of whom didn't want to have anything to do with Ethiopian food. The chef came out to talk with those 4 and accomodated them with American food, and they gave all the children free ice cream sundaes at the end of the meal. Lovely people. I understand there's been a change of ownership, so I can't vouch for how it is now. But based on my previous experience, it was a great place for an injera fix. All the standards were very good, and I thought their vegetarian options were the best in the cities. Just did some searching and it looks like the new owner might be the brother of the previous owner/chef, so it's likely retained its goodness...especially if the row of cabs are still there at lunch.

    2. My mom & I ordered the first two things you mentioned @ Babani's just last week. The food was solid. Not outstanding. The bread was nice, but yeah, totally not 'naan'!! ;)

      The dowjic soup was really intriguing, so if anyone knows how to make it, can they help post?! I got a cup & could have used a bucket. (as in I really liked it - seems like a great way to prepare chicken soup, but I can't figure out how they got the yogurt in there to taste so nice.. if there really is yogurt. I certainly didn't *see* any chicken, so I figure it must be the broth).

      1 Reply
      1. re: reannd

        Folks, in order to keep this board narrowly focused on where the best chow can be located in the Midwest, please limit your replies in this thread to a discussion of local restaurants and sources...please post recipes for dowjic soup on the Home Cooking Board where recipes are discussed.

        Thank you for your understanding.

      2. Thank you so much for that great report (I met you at the Hmong-market chowdown). I have to agree about Babani and I am thankful I am not the only one. When I ate there (admittedly some time ago, like a year) I got what seemed to be a can of unflavored chickpeas dumped on a plate and heated. Felt like I was going to cry, as I was so hungry and psyched to eat there.

        My piano teacher referred the other day to 5 Star, in Sibley Plaza simply as "the buffet" as though I'd know what he meant. Couldn't really get from his description if it was Asian, though it has crawfish on the buffet, so heck. I'm going to check it out. And then hike over to Kiev for the frozen cherry dumplings.

        4 Replies
        1. re: jeanmt

          Oh, if 5 Star (and now that I think about it, I think you're right) is the buffet, I mispoke. There's a little tiny storefront right next to/or just a door or two down from La Hacienda that I was thinking of as a little hole in the wall place. I think, from Sven's post in the old thread that I linked above, it's a Somali coffee shop.

          Nevertheless, if you do try the buffet, please report back. I peeked in there recently, too (the same couple of days I was attempting to peek into Queen of Sheba), but it didn't appeal to me. Don't know why. It looked very buffet'ish. I guess that's truth in advertising!

          You'll notice when you're at Kiev, that they also sell injera. HA! Not that Russian, but a source nevertheless...

          Good thing tvdxer posted on this--it's time we had an round of updates about the little shops in Sibley Plaza!

          ~TDQ

          1. re: The Dairy Queen

            5 Star isn't the buffet. It's around the corner (next to La Hacienda). The buffet is called "Buffet King". As far as Chinese buffets go, it's fine. Not as good as the Atlantic Buffet in Bloomington, the New China Buffet in Eagan or New King's Buffet in Brooklyn Center (probably the best of the lot). I wouldn't recommend going out of your way to get to Buffet King.

            1. re: MSPD

              Ah, yes, that's right! Thank you! Have you tried 5 Star? (which, we've now established, is NOT the buffet.) Is is the Somali coffee shop?

              ~TDQ

              1. re: The Dairy Queen

                I can't remember if I've been into 5 Star. Certainly not enough to have made an impression if I have. For some reason, I don't think it's a coffee shop but I could be wrong.

        2. I'm glad to know La Hacienda is back up to snuff. When I first moved here almost 4 years ago, I used to frequent it for lunch. Then, for some reason, it really fell off - first to forgettable, then to regrettable. But that was years ago, and now I'm looking forward go going back again.

          Also love Kiev. Great little Russian style sandwiches and pirogies for takeaway eating.

          1. A few additional notes:

            * Yes, I did try the main location on 544 St. Peter. In fact, I didn't know they had another location.

            * Yup, Lacienda (how it's pronounced) did have the sign for $3.50 gyros! LOL! I was going to put that in the report but ended up not writing it.

            * Aribel's had a smell similar to Triple Crown, though much weaker. They also had goat on the menu. I think that's what that smell is. Are there any traditional American dishes with goat meat in them?

            * I love hole in the walls. Coming from a family business family, I know what they're going through trying to make it. Plus they're usually quirky and fun. The opposite of standardized sterile chains - but many if not most people prefer those.

            * I noticed the gigantic Chinese buffet too. I have good memories visiting those kind of places as a little kid, but they scare me away now.

            * I forgot to mention that Rochester has what appears to be a small Somali district downtown, with an "African International Market" restaurant and a small grocery nearby selling all kinds of Afr-indian goodies. I picked up a can of Ziyad hummus, which our local Cub Foods appears to have stopped selling, for just $0.89. I should have eaten in Rochester instead of at Sambol (still kind of annoyed I didn't see the Sri Lankan menu) - I wanted to try Indian in a Minnesota city the same size as Duluth (where we have the wonderful India Palace).

            * I walked into a "Gangchen Bar & Restaurant" on Nicollet Ave. just for the heck of it and picked up a take-out menu. I was surprised to see they had momos (along with the standard Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese-influenced items). Are momos popular in the Twin Cities or something? I can think of at least four places that have them now.

            * The bathrooms at Aribel's were marked "Damas" and "Caballeros" from the building's Mexican past.

            1 Reply
            1. re: tvdxer

              Further note:

              That should be "carne deshilada", not "carne desfilada". No wonder why I only found one Google result for the latter. I noticed there were numerous results for "carne desfiada", which seems to be the literal Portuguese translation "carne deshilada" (Portuguese preserves the "f", which at the beginning of many words eventually became a silent "h" in Spanish). When I arrived home, I looked up "deshilada" in the Spanish dictionary, but it wasn't there (though "desfilada", a similar word indeed, was). Anyway, the translation into English of this delicious dish is "shredded beef".