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Dec 29, 2007 08:36 AM

Minneapolis-Cheap but Unique

My husband and I are visting Minneapolis in late February for a wedding. I'm looking for lunch and dinner ideas. I'd love to eat at restaurants that are not too pricey but also unique. Also we hope to try restaurants that most locals would enjoy (not the tourists). Any suggestions would be aprreciated. Thanks ya'll.

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  1. You don't say where you're from (in order for us to gauge what kinds of foods might seem common to you) but I think Ngon Bistro (Vietnamese, leaning heavily towards the French...) on University Avenue in St. Paul is pretty unique and very affordable. On Wednesday nights, they offer a 3 course meal for two, with a bottle of wine, for $50.

    Also, in Minneapolis, if you're looking for cheap and don't mind cafeteria style, there's a good section of cuisines available at Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis. I like the al pastor huaraches at Taqueria Los Ocampo, just about everything at La Sirena Gorda, the tortas at Manny's are pretty good, the triangle meat pies (sambusi?) at Starlight Cafe, the vegetable curry at Safari...lots of choices.

    Enjoy. Please report back!


    9 Replies
    1. re: The Dairy Queen

      Kramarczuk's is another place favored by the locals (though, again, it's another "cafeteria style" place) that is very affordable--fantastic sausages, and though I'm no expert, I love their poppyseed and their apricot kolachies. I don't know if that's unique to you:

      Another unique (for its personality, more than anything--they often have an accordian player upstairs in their little dining room) and affordable spot on University Avenue in St. Paul and open for lunch and Tues-Fri only is Russian Tea House. Family-owned in an old house and with a teensy menu, but with charm to spare.

      Here's an article from a beloved local food critic on her favorite "cheap eats" in the Twin Cities--all of these--Bombay 2 Deli, Shish, Rice Paper, Taqueria La Hacienda, get the chowhound nod, though there are often fistfights on the board over who prefers Punch vs. Pizza Nea.

      In Roseville, a suburb of St. Paul, is a place I love called Maverick's that makes wonderful shaved roast beef and beef brisket sandwiches (great chocolate shakes, too, though their strawberry shakes are to be avoided at all costs). I don't know if it's terribly out of your way or not--it probably would be if you're going to be in Minneapolis proper. They've remodeled since the photos in the link were taken, but the food hasn't changed.

      Not typically thought of as a "cheap eats" distination, but because I love it so, I'm going to recommend 112 Eatery. You'll probably want a reservation (I always have excellent luck for the 5pm on Sunday slot), though you might be able to squeeze in at the bar, particularly for late night dining. Now, you can drop a lot of dough at 112 Eatery, but you don't have to, if you order judiciously. The food tends to be so brilliantly rich that I think it's best shared anyway--even the "small" plates. It doesn't bend them out of shape at all if you plan to share and they happily will split dishes for you. They don't mind if you order only the cheap things either. I've seen entire tables order only the burger and fries there (post Viking's game in their purple gear). When we go, my sweetie and I always split a small order of the stringozzi with lamb sugo ($8) and another entree--maybe the 112 burger ($9) (which is super rich with brie cheese and served on an english muffin) and/or an order of the tagliatelle w/ foie gras meatballs ($12). We always split an order of two sides--usually the cauliflower fritters ($7.50) or the housemade gnocchi ($8). The cold cuts w/ pickles ($9), which is actually an appetizer, is pretty hearty if you wanted to split it. Usually, we're too full for dessert. They will bring you a little parfait dish of housemade caramel popcorn with your check anyway (as well as little dishes of olives and almonds at the commencement of your meal.) Not necessarily an easy menu for vegetarians to navigate, by the way.

      There are lots of beloved-by-Chowhounds places along "Eat Street" in Minneapolis, including more or less all of the Vietnamese places Pho Quan, Pho Tau Bay, Quang, and Jasmine Deli (In the link, chose "restaurants" from the drop down menu for the " business directory category". Wait a second and the names of all the restaurants will come up. Panic not that McDonald's comes up early in the list--it's a shame that it does, but it's not representative of the wide range of chow that's available).

      Since it's just the two of you, for breakfast, I'm going to recommend Colossal Cafe in Minneapolis.

      Another true neighborhood place, though not basement cheap, but a good value given the high quality of the ingredients is Birchwood Cafe

      Here's a thread I love called the "cheap fancypants challenge" that might appeal to you


      1. re: The Dairy Queen

        Thank you so much for all of your suggestions. Although we are from South Carolina and we are probably going to freeze our fannies off we are really looking forward to experiencing the different cuisines of Minneapolis.

        1. re: cooper71

          Oh, you'll have a grand time, though, yes, it will indeed be cold. My first visit to the Twin Cities--also from a warmer climate--was in January.

          Keep in mind that many of these restaurants aren't in the prettiest parts of town, part of what helps them stay affordable, but it's all pretty safe. You wouldn't want to walk alone at night on University Ave or Lake Street, but, given how cold it is, I'm guessing you won't be walking much anyway.

          Midtown Global Market has a couple of lots--both to the East (which is covered and sometimes you have to pay, though just a buck or two) and a paved lot to the West (which is often free, but full). If you go to Ngon Bistro (which is lovely inside) you can park free in Phil's lot in the evenings. I love their ginger chicken, their ginger creme brulee, their mong bean cheesecakes, their sweet potato fritter appetizer. And oh! their duck confit appetizer. Dara Moskowitz--a multiple time winner of the James Beard award for food writing--listed their pho as one of her top ten dishes of 2007. The pho is a bit controversial on this board because it's atypical, but I love it.

          The Twin Cities have the largest populations of urban Hmong and Somali immigrants in North America--so the Southeast Asian food (mostly represented on the list I gave you by Vietnamese restaurants) is genuinely good here. Also, Safari (both at Midtown Global Market and on Lake Street), Starlight Cafe (at Midtown Global Market) might give you easy exposure to African food, if you haven't tried it before.

          You can find Scandinavian treats (ie., lefse, even frozen lutefisk, the stuff you hear Garrison Keillor talk about on Prairie Home Companion) at Cafe Finspang at Midtown Global Market, if that appeals to you and get a sense of this region's Eastern European influences at Kramarczuk's.

          Birchwood sources ingredients locally (as does Ngon, when possible).

          Goodwill is a place to go if you discover while you're here that you need some warmer casual clothes (coats, sweaters, maybe boots). If you're out and about--dress in layers starting with long underwear--and bring your heaviest boots, hopefully ones with enough room for thick socks. I find if I can keep my extremities warm, I'm fine.

          Pho (beef noodle soup) from any of the Vietnamese places I listed would keep you warm, as well as the udon or soba from Tampopo in downtown St. Paul (also focusing on sourcing local ingredients). There's a pay lot near Tampopo--$1 on evening and weekends.

          Chowish places to warm up with coffee or tea:
          Common Roots Cafe

          Kopplin's coffee on Hamline at Randolph in St. Paul While you're there, look for this very locally made chocolate "Rogue Chocolatier"

          Finally, Cafe Latte on Grand Avenue at Victoria in St. Paul (look for the parking garage on Victoria--yeah, you'll have to pay, but it's better than a long walk in the snow) is pretty reliable for coffee, tea (even afternoon tea), salads and soups. Their turtle cake is much acclaimed, but, if you're in the neighborhood and you really want a super unique, very local treat, I recommend heading to Bravo! Bakery on Grand Avenue and try a slice their green tea cake (with red bean filling) or creme puffs. They also have some pretty unique "faux" meat rice dishes on their menu.

          Another good soup is the coconut soup at Cafe BonXai on University Ave just West of Snelling in St. Paul (small parking lot in back).

          Have fun!


          1. re: The Dairy Queen

            I would also add Eat Street. From about 14th to 28th on Nicollet Ave in Minneapolis there are about 40 restaurants. Most are Asian, but there are other great places too.

            Quang is my favorite Vietnamese place. Their egg rolls are simply the best, their pho is great, and their bun (vermacelli salads) is great. They are at about 27th.

            People really like Jasmine Deli. I think it is a bit Americanized. They do not accept credit cards, so be prepared. It is also Vietnames. Its at about 26th.

            Safari, as mentioned above, is Somali. It is good. It is one of the few Somali restaurants where I as a woman feel comfortable. It is also at the MGM if you go there. The restaurant is at about 18th or so?

            The Black Forest Inn is a German restaurant that has been around FOREVER. It is at 26th. They have good beer and some nights an accordian player. It is a fun place.

            There are a lot of other places up and down the street. Most are good. There is middle eastern, greek, american, japanese, and mexican also.

            And, if you are looking for Mexican, head down Lake street. Great stuff there too.

            1. re: churchka

              If you're taking votes, I also vote for everything churchka just mentioned, and we're not related or anything.. just some solid listings above in my opinion.

              My second choice for cheap but unique is if you're stuck staying near the mall of america you can find some pretty damn cool places in this little strip mall on 494& portland in bloomington, then portland & hwy 62 (aribels).

              MGM is the nicest of all these - but I've been to places kinda like this in other cities (our food is better here!!), so I don't know about 'unique'. Go get fish tacos (seafood verde version) from the blinky sign after trying a smaller dish at Safari. You won't be disappointed!


              1. re: reannd

                I'm going to respectfully disagree about Midtown Global Market--just to set proper expectations in case the OP or others who stumble on this thread in the future have been to similar markets... While I indeed do love it (and therefore recommended it) and think it's a great place to direct people for variety and general affordability and convenience in terms of it's all-in-oneness, etc., I don't think "our food is better here" compared to other such markets like Reading Terminal in PA or Ferry Plaza in SF or Jean Talon Market in Montreal. Furthermore, while, again, I love Midtown Global Market, I don't think the stands at Midtown Global Market are even as good as the original incarnations of those same eateries outside the market. For instance I think the chow at the other locations of Manny's are better, the chow at the other La Loma (in Mercado Central) is better, and so on.

                But the chow is very good and, for convenience, it can't be beat. Also, I like the public art there. In fact, overall, it just has a nice "public space" kind of vibe, with clean bathrooms and even an ATM machine. EDIT: and, it's all indoors, for those who want to stay out of the cold in winter or the heat in summer.


                1. re: The Dairy Queen

                  Hey no prob w.the disagreement. I guess I meant MGM was the 'nicest' w.repsect to 'looking' compared to the other places making ya drive down snowy streets. I think the places inside the MGM are samples of some of the most interesting food stops in town, not just random places that wanted a new location. I do wish there was more than just the one Vietnamese, though.. or at least one w.a big noodle soup bar.. like Pagoda (I haven't even been there yet, but I think a place like that would do well).

                  Our food is better here compared to one I went to in DC somewhere and another in Columbus. =) (I was tryin to make us sound good!!). Never been to the places you listed !

                  1. re: reannd

                    I've never been to the ones in DC or Columbus, so, maybe between the two of us we've got them all covered!

                    But, I TOTALLY agree with you about the relative "accessibility" of Midtown Global Market for Twin Cities visitors looking to avoid some of the weather issues (such as having to climb over big burms of snow in your inadequate shoes after you've parallel parked on the street)---first, it has parking. In contrast, I love Mercado Central on Lake St. several blocks East of Midtown Global Market, but didn't recommend it because parking is a real hassle there. Also, while I think we have very good Mexican chow in the Twin Cities (and a genuinely thriving Latin American community), I don't think it's something we do especially well compared to other places (though, I'm don't know about South Carolina where the OP is coming from). (Southeast Asian, on the other hand, I think is something pretty special here--other Asian, while, yes, we've got some great stuff, it isn't our particular specialty.)

                    Ngon Bistro has parking, the setting is lovely (though the neighborhood ain't so glam), it's very affordable, delicious, and I've never really been to a place like it either in the Twin Cities or elsewhere. I just think it's really lovely and special.

                    Black Forest as mentioned by Churchka also has a parking lot and is a reasonable entree into German food if you haven't tried it before. The menu can be hit or miss, but I love their red cabbage and had a wonderful rabbit dish there once. It's especially lovely in summer on their outdoor patio with the fountain, but, that's not much help now! I don't think of it as especially "cheap" though--really, more of a moderately-priced place.

                    There's a pay lot across the street from 112 Eatery.

                    Taqueria La Hacienda on Lake Street used to have a glorious lot but last time I drove by there someone was doing some construction that seemed to eat most of the lot.

                    Russian Tea House has a lot.

                    I agree with you that I wish that Midtown Global Market had more Southeast Asian places. I also mourn the passing of Birchberry, the Native American shop there. Even though it wasn't a restaurant, I liked their cookbooks and thought it was a great source of handharvested wild rice.


              2. re: churchka

                Great point about going down Lake Street for Mexican. One place that is a little cheaper than the Midtown Global Market and much more unique is Mercado Central. Parking and seating can be a bit of a challenge, but the food and atmosphere are authentic. The MGM is easier to park at and much easier to move around, but Mercado Central has a much more authentic feel.

      2. There is a place on Lake Street called T's Place, on the same block as Town Talk Diner. It is an Ethiopian-Asian fusion restaurant. I haven't been, so I can't vouch for the food, but it is unique.

        Has anyone been?

        2 Replies
        1. re: churchka

          I believe you're thinking of Singapore! on 55th St. in far south Minneapolis, which for some time was an Ethiopian / Malaysian fusion restaurant (doesn't get any stranger, does it?) I went there back in June, expecting this, but was a bit dismayed to learn that the Ethiopian chef had left! Whatever the case, the Malaysian food on the menu was good.

          1. re: tvdxer

            The former Singapore! chef, Tee Belachew, has opened his own place in midtown: T's Place. I haven't been, but it's getting some raves in this thread:


            T's Place
            2713 E Lake St, Minneapolis, MN 55406

        2. La Hacienda in the Sibley Plaza strip mall in St. Paul may not have a chic or classy ambiance, but the food is great, the prices are low, and the menu is interesting to say the least (separate Mexican, Salvadoran, Peruvian, American, and Mediterranean sections). Do what I did and try the pupusas or the traditional Salvadoran shredded beef and egg dish, "Carne desfilada". Muy rica! The sauce that comes with the courtesy nachos they bring out before you order is really good too. And did I mention they're cheap?

          Bombay 2 Deli in NE Minneapolis, also mentioned here, is very, very good, even cheaper, and quite unique in that it is an Indian snack bar. Their "menu" contains both common and hard-to-find Indian snacks (I strongly suggest visiting on the weekend when they have their samosa chaat available), as well as a few curries (two curries + rice / bread for $5.49). And the lady at the desk you order your food from is terribly sweet.

          If you're looking for a very unique cultural experience, try the Hmong International Market's (in St. Paul's) food court. If you're not Asian, you'll definitely stick out, but it's a very interesting and cool place with a lot of vendors serving apparently very authentic SE Asian food, particularly Hmong, which is difficult to find elsewhere.

          There is also a large Somali population here. There are several Somali establishments along Lake St., but you might not feel comfortable as a couple there, because women tend to sit in a separate seating area. One that's more accustomed to a non-Somali clientele is Safari, located on "Eat Street" (Nicollet Ave), and also with a "fast-food" outlet in the aformentioned Midtown Global Market.

          I wasn't too amazed by the food, but a truly unique restaurant cuisine-was is Babani's in Downtown St. Paul. They serve Kurdish food. Get the dowjic soup, whatever you do.

          I don't know what you have for transportation, but if you have a car and wouldn't mind driving a short distance into the suburbs, there's a Guyanese restaurant in Richfield, "Aribel's", that many here have raved about. Again, very unique.

          6 Replies
          1. re: tvdxer

            I've heard that Babani's is the only Kurdish restaurant in the U.S.--I don't really know if that's true, but it' s cool to say, isn't it? That said, I've only been to their outpost on West 7th in St. Paul and really do not recommend it, I'm afraid. I understand their other location is the one tvdxer visited the time he visited and reported on it. Perhaps it's better, but I'm afraid my experience at the West 7th location really turned me off.

            La Hacienda--while it does indeed offer all this big variety of Latin American cuisines, it doesn't necessarily in my opinion represent all of them--or even any of them-- particularly well. But, it is cheap. And has parking. And is yummy enough even if not "best of breed." And is friendly.

            I do love the Hmong Market food court (and it has parking), if you're in for a real cultural experience (it really does feel just like some markets in Asia) and don't mind that the surroundings are very very plain and frankly overly-worn. Here's a post about it, with photos: There is a new location opening nearby very soon (in fact, it has already opened , but I guess not all the vendors are in) that sounds like it's going to be fantastic and lots of the vendors from the "old Hmong" market are moving in there--don't know if they're closing up their stands in the old location. I'm kind of holding out for that before I send people to the older Hmong Market because I'm not sure what its status will be by late February. Here's a blurb about it that appeared in the PiPress recently (I was sort of holding off posting about Golden Globe International since another 'hound actually tipped me off to it --even before it appeared in the PiPress--and, I was hoping, would post about it to further enhance his already extensive chow creds. But since it came up...).

            EDIT: P.S. I don't mean to be so contrary today. Maybe I'll be less contrary "next year." :) Happy New Year, everyone.


            1. re: The Dairy Queen

              Just to clarify on the Babani's "outpost" issue, the W 7th shop (I think it's called Babani's express) has a very different menu and the quality doesn't come close to the main restaurant.

              Not to say that I think the main Babani's is super-standout, but it's quite pleasant, while Babani's express has been consistently disappointing.

              1. re: diesel

                i'd describe the main restaurant as very homestyle, okay-to-very-good food & unpretentious surroundings. nice friendly service and homey atmosphere. some craveable menu gems, a little hit & miss, a great low-key option if you live in/around st. paul or are in the area, decent ingredients, not expensive. while babani's *almost* gets there as a local gem it's a little bit of a stretch to rec that anybody drives across town for the food, imo. heard some ick stories about the w 7th location & it looks like they cater to the sports center crowd, so i have avoided it.

                1. re: diesel

                  Very good to clarify! As a former St. Paulite, Babani's express is strictly for a gyro, fries and coke. The restaurant is unique, but if you are only in town for the weekend, I'm not sure if that is where I would go.

                  Here are my suggestions:
                  Get a Juicy Lucy at Matt's Bar at 38th and Cedar. My brothers-in-law from San Francisco have marked this as a must-stop when they are back in town for the holidays - they have joked about starting their own little bar which serves the same.

                  If you are on the St. Paul side I'd try one of the great Vietnamese restaurants on University mentioned in this thread already -- for Chinese I really like Little Scezchuan which is on the same strip as the Vietnamese places (Western and University).

                  In Minneapolis, MGM is a fantastic place to spend an afternoon sampling a lot of great food - highly recommended.

                  If in Downtown Mpls, 112 Eatery is a little pricy for your request, but worth every penny - I'd make reservations now though! The same said for Luci (not Luci Ancora) in St. Paul -- best food I've ever eaten at a restaurant with a Pabst Blue Ribbon sign outside.

                  The Eat Street suggestions are dead on as well.

                2. re: The Dairy Queen

                  Somebody else here said the Babani's on W 7th was a fast-food type outlet - is it still around? I've only heard about it here. The main course I ordered at their downtown location (kubay sawar, if I remember correctly) wasn't anything special (though not at all bad), but the fact that it's a Kurdish restaurant automatically drives it up on the "uniqueness" scale.

                  Yup, I think I remember you made a report about the "taco crawl" you went on, and that alone probably makes you more qualified to speak of Mexican food than me :). After all, I can't even say I've had huarache or pozole :( As for Salvadoran, the only time I ever had it was at La Hacienda - but I was simply blown away by what I ordered (carne desfilada and cheese / bean pupusa). So much good food at a fairly low price. Maybe their dishes really vary - I wonder what ethnicity the owners or chefs are.

                  1. re: tvdxer

                    Babani's on W 7th isn't a fast food outlet as much as it's just a small restaurant that as soupkitten mentions above caters more to the Xcel arena crowd. I haven't been there since my dreadful experience but it was certainly there last time I drove past--maybe a month ago?


              2. Oh, now I remember why I popped into this thread this morning until I got distracted (darn head cold--I'd forget my head if it weren't actually attached and, frankly, as lousy as I feel that wouldn't be such a bad thing right now...)

                But, 20.21 (the fancy Wolfgang Puck restaurant in the Walker Art Center) apparently offers a prix menu on Thursday nights for $20.21 in the lounge and bar. That also entitles you to free admission to the Frida Kahlo exhibit. If you don't know of the Walker it is a world-class contemporary art museum (the outdoor sculpture garden is a must-see, even in winter, with it's lovely Minneapolis skyline backdrop)--one of the crown jewels of the Twin Cities, in my opinion. Three courses with two choices for each course.

                Apparently, the prix fixe deal (excluding admission to the Kahlo exhibit) is offered Tuesday thru Sat, bar & lounge only, first come first served only, no reservations accepted.


                This deal isn't mentioned on their website and I haven't tried this menu for myself, but it might be worth investigating.

                Now, here's the thing, this may or may not be that unique to you. Puck has jammed a restaurant in multiple museums around the U.S. and has lots of non-museum restaurants scattered about, too--so, is it really that unique? It's "Asian inspired" California cuisine, for what it's worth--not particularly Minnesotan (although, we do seem to have a lot of independently owned Asian fusion restaurants here. Because of our Southeast Asian influence? Or just a decade late on the trend? Not sure).

                Personally, I've only been to 20.21 for the brunch buffet and while pretty good, I'm not sure it was SO much better than your average brunch buffet to justify the price premium. (Although, I will say, I thought the smoked salmon pizza that they brought to our table was fantastic. I hate to be such a sucker, but those pizzas are Pucky's specialties, ya know? It was good.) But, 3 courses for $20.21? Well, that's a good deal if the food is still good and the setting is, like I said, a world class art museum.

                But, there ya go. One more option, especially if you want to feel really urbane.


                4 Replies
                1. re: The Dairy Queen

                  can anyone confirm the $20.21 meal at 20:21? I've heard about it too but I believe it to be hearsay. I'd love to check it out as it sounds like a fabulous deal.

                  1. re: babaoriley7

                    Goodness--I'd be very surprised if Kathie Jenkins put "hearsay" in her Pioneer Press column, a link to which I provided in my post above. She says she ate there... Nevertheless, I just called the restaurant and was able to confirm with the gentleman who answered that this $20.21 prix fixe menu is available in the BAR and in the LOUNGE (NOT the restaurant itself) 5:30 to close Tues-Sat. I asked if it was a temporary or seasonal thing and he said no, that it used to be just their happy hour, which they've expanded to include this prix fixe thing.


                    1. re: The Dairy Queen

                      It certainly sounds like a good source! I had heard from message boards and the like and wasn't sure if it was legit. Thanks for checking it out.

                      Now, when to go!??

                    2. re: babaoriley7

                      I can confirm . I have had it twice while sitting at the bar. The first time was a fennel and noodle "Honk Kong Style" salad, fatty pork belly and loin, and an outstanding creme custard with berries for dessert. All in all worth the $20. The second time was a forgettable salad as I can't remember what it was, grilled ling cod with lemongrass and another great napoleon dessert. I was less impressed on this occasion but still worth $20.

                  2. If you feel like breakfast for lunch (eggs benedict, anyone?), I recommend Al's Breakfast in Dinkytown. It's cheap, and it's certainly unique - more "breakfast theater" than a restaurant. It's tiny (a narrow 13-seat diner) and always crowded, so expect a wait, and don't go with more than two people.

                    I love this place, especially for the wally blues (blueberry walnut pancakes), hash browns, and the aforementioned eggs bennie.


                    1 Reply
                    1. re: AnneInMpls

                      Al's, how could we forget! t's a Minneapolis institution that won a James Beard "American Classics" award a few years back. It absolutely belongs on any list of cheap, unique (for it's atmosphere), and delicious. Thank goodness Anne popped into this thread!