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Recommendations for St Paul and Minneapolis

I am traveling to St Paul in a couple of weeks alone for a conference for the first time. Do you have suggestions for where I could eat in St Paul or Minneapolis? I will most likely stay in St Paul to eat 2 nights and go to Minneapolis for one. Nothing too formal as I will be dining solo most likely. I like all types of food and love trying something new and unique to the area. Thanks!

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  1. In Minneapolis, 112 Eatery is a good place to dine alone, especially (but not necessarily) if you can snag a seat at the bar. Make reservations. If you can't get in, slide up to Be'Wiched, which makes the best sandwiches ever.

    At least two dozen people here have "Brasa" hot-keyed, and it has locations in both cities, so let's get that out of the way.

    In St. Paul, the Blue Door Pub has outstanding renditions of our native burger, the Juicy Lucy, and is also a nice place for solo dining. Punch Pizza is informal, unique, and good for solo dining.

    Cafe BonXai on University is good for solo dining, especially if you take that term very literally. Actually, any Vietnamese or fusion on University Avenue. Honestly, if you want to know what sets the Twin Cities apart, it's Vietnamese food. Don't let anyone trick you into thinking walleye is anything special.

    3 Replies
    1. re: kevin47

      For dmlewis' planning it would be good to know that the second Brasa location kevin47 mentions in St Paul will not be open for at least another week or two yet, according to owner Alex Roberts.

      A couple other practical questions to help your search:

      will you have a car? travel between minneapolis and st paul on public transport isnt that unpleasant, unless you are going to or coming from somewhere other than the downtowns.

      What do you mean by not too formal? People are always posting looking for things that arent too fancy or expensive, but these are highly relative terms - there are a number of really good, relatively nice, but not "formal" places in town, so either a bit more about what you would like, or maybe a price range that works for you would help a lot. also, where are you coming from? knowing what foods are generally available could help target good recommendations.

      1. re: tex.s.toast

        I will not have a car and will be relying on public transport. By not too formal, I just don't really enjoy dining solo in a place that is too fancy. In terms of price range, I am fairly open. I am from Greenville, SC. Thanks for the help!

        1. re: dmlewis

          I went to school in Greenville, SC (Furman). I hope you enjoy your time in MSP. Lucky for you it's not winter. When I was down south, no one would ever believe me when I told them how cold it got up here.

          If you're looking for some St. Paul history and don't mind grease, try Mickey's Diner.

          Mickey's Diner
          36 7th St W, Saint Paul, MN 55102

    2. DM

      over the last 6 months jfood has been travelling a ton to MSP for biz. He eats almost every night solo in lots of restaurants. He learned of all of these on this board from incredibly wonderful posters. He also posted almost every one of these experiences and then posters would add to the reviews. From Bulldog to Cosmos with tons in between.

      Do a search of "jfood" and you will see all the restaurants where a solo diner has gone. And most places he snags a seat at the bar.

      If you get a little more specific there are many who will guide you along.

      1 Reply
      1. re: jfood

        I will check that out. I did see the review for Manana and that looked great. Thanks!

      2. I am staying at the Embassy Suites downtown also- are any of these places close by? Thanks!

        1 Reply
        1. re: dmlewis

          ooh wait--there is more than one ES hotel-- are you staying in ES metrodome (minneapolis), ES downtown st. paul, or one of the ES in bloomington? don't want to direct you wrong. . . i'm guessing you'll stay at the st paul location?

        2. You might want to try Heartland Cafe. The food is all local and very good. There is a wine bar attached where you can get most of what's on the main menu. That's a good place for a little more informal meal, like a small entree and a salad or a soup and salad. It's on a bus line, if that matters.

          Another place on a bus line is the Cheeky Monkey, a sandwich and coffee place that's been getting a lot of attention on this board.

          I think you'd be comfortable in either of these places dining solo.

          1 Reply
          1. re: karykat

            If you are by the light rail, I would suggest a trip to Minnehaha Falls and eat at Sea Salt. It's a fabulous little eatery by the river and waterfall that has great seafood. Try to go on off-peak hours. I think they have music in the park coming soon as well.

          2. I am going to second Mickey's Diner. If you're in downtown St. Paul, its the place to go. The cheeseburger and baked beans cannot be beat. If I want breakfast, I usually get the 2s, which is 2 eggs, 2 pancakes, and 2 bacon/sausage (although, frankly, they almost always give me like 5 bacon.)

            Its not anything fancy or groundbreaking, but they do the classics right. Its a good way to experience the "real" St. Paul, whatever that means.

            Don't get the chili though.

            1. i think the food at mickey's is something you could skip, but get a cup of coffee/pastry or something, and get a passerby to take your pic in front of the diner (old dining car), maybe? st paul & mpls have many much finer venues.

              in st paul: heartland, strip club, meritage, los ocampos, tanpopo
              mpls: 112, saffron, lucia's, craftsman, alma, brasa, many more

              3 Replies
              1. re: soupkitten

                Great recommendations for St. Paul, soupkitten (as always!) Don't forget Ngon Bistro on University Ave.


                1. re: The Dairy Queen

                  *duh* yup ngon should definitely be on the list, & i must have brain-freeze! the OP should *definitely* get some vietnamese food while in msp-- if not at ngon, then maybe on "eat street" in mpls. pho or bahn mi for lunch or a late night snack, or a nice refreshing bun salad (rice noodle) if the weather is hot. i do rec ngon if the OP is a beer lover-- ngon's beer list is all-local & very good. the bistro atmosphere is really great for the solo diner as well-- the OP could get a small table or sit at the bar. university ave in general is great local color-- the hmong farmer's market is just down the street, etc.

                  1. re: soupkitten

                    doh-- just checked the OP's profile to try to figure out where s/he is from-- saw a post re: chinese restaurants-- perhaps the op would love the st. paul location of tea house, or little Szechuan, which is also on university ave.

                    & thought i'd put the links so the OP can plan transportation

                    Lucia's Restaurant
                    1432 W 31st St, Minneapolis, MN 55408

                    Restaurant Alma
                    528 University Ave SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414

                    1806 St. Clair Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105

                    Ngon Vietnamese Bistro
                    799 University Ave W, Saint Paul, MN 55104

                    Little Szechuan - West End
                    5377 16th Street, St. Louis Park, MN 55416

                    Tanpopo Noodle Shop
                    308 Prince St, Saint Paul, MN 55101

                    Craftsman Restaurant
                    4300 Lake Street, Minneapolis, MN 55406

                    112 Eatery
                    112 N 3rd St, Minneapolis, MN 55401

                    410 Saint Peter St, Saint Paul, MN 55102

                    The Strip Club
                    378 Maria Ave, Saint Paul, MN 55106

                    Taqueria Los Ocompo 11
                    895 Arcade St, Saint Paul, MN 55106

              2. Check out the Craftsman in Minneapolis. It's a relatively low-key place with a nice little bar where you can eat peace or chat with the bartender. They have a nice emphasis on local ingredients with solid, well-crafted food. As an added plus, if you're relying on public transportation to get around, it's right on the 21 bus line, which runs between St Paul and Minneapolis. You can make a reservation there if you like, but I've never had trouble just walking and getting seated (especially if it's just me).

                1 Reply
                1. re: jaywhy

                  I agree with LOTS of Soupkitten's recommendations. Just an FYI (I used to live over in E. St Paul)....if you plan to eat at Tanpopo Noodle Shop OR The Strip Club, get bus info for the 63...., if you plan to eat in DT Minneapolis, you will need to get info on the 94B or D, if you plan to eat on University Avenue, you will need bus info for 21, 16 or 50. This might get kicked to a different CH site b/c of bus route info

                2. I'm from DFW and I'll be in MSP in about 2 weeks. I will be spending a week there, staying at a Homewood Suites near the Mall of America and I'll have a car.

                  Taken note of plenty of great suggestions already, but here are a few specific things I'm looking for:
                  -My office is within walking distance of Mall of America, and I'm afraid that most of my coworkers love eating at chains. Any good suggestions for lunch? I have no qualms going off on my own if there's anything I can quickly grab.

                  -Bars/pubs that emphasize local and other craft beers. Sounds like Ngon's a good place to hit, any others?

                  -I have yet to encounter a place that has universally good Vietnamese in their entire menu so I'd like to request some more specific suggestions on Ngon. From experiences in Houston, to excel at moderation is to be good at nothing and there are specific places that I go to for pho, for banh mi, bun cha, etc. What would be their specialty? What is your favorite dish? Please name some specific dishes that you like.

                  Also many thanks soupkitten for the extensive list, I'll be doing some more research on them. Most excited about Tampopo and Brasa so far, and I'll pore through jfood's reviews as I'm also a big fan of desserts and ice cream.

                  Looking forward to y'alls responses.

                  18 Replies
                  1. re: air

                    In terms of ice cream-you hit the jackpot!! Try Izzie's or Grand Old Creamery in ST Paul, or Pumphouse Creamery in Minneapolis

                    1. re: air

                      As far as the beer angle goes:

                      You should try to make it to Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery-- it's a brewpub whose IPA (Masala Mama) is one of the best in the country. Try it on cask if it's available... their other beer is very good too.

                      Otherwise, there are lots of good options for bars with good beer lists. I'd recommend the Muddy Pig and the Happy Gnome, both in St. Paul. The Gnome has more "upscale" food (hit or miss, in my experience), the Pig more basic pub stuff. Both have superb, local and regional focused, beer lists.

                      1. re: mtullius

                        Cask conditioned IPAs are always wonderful! Now that you had mentioned a specific brewery, do you have any others you particularly like?

                        1. re: air

                          On the brewery front, look for Surly, Flat Earth and Lift Bridge. These three are at the top of the local craft beer game, and can be found in a lot of places. Surly should be found at most larger liquor stores in 16oz 4 packs of cans, and if you are really lucky, you could come across a coffee bender, a coffee infused version of their very popular oatmeal brown ale (though it looks like it only comes out in cans in winter, you may see it on tap around town).

                      2. re: air

                        Regarding Ngon-- I've never had anything I didn't like here. I especially like the various BĂșn though. The lettuce wraps are a great starter. Now that I think about it, I've never had their Pho, but friends that I've been with have liked it. Although I believe that some 'hounds say that Ngon's Pho is not a strictly traditional interpretation. But I don't think anyone has said that their Pho is not *good* just not traditional. I think Ngon does a really wonderful job at presenting Vietnamese cuisine, slightly more upscale or fusion-y (with French?) than many of the other Vietnamese places in town. And I love that they are very focused on using local meats and products, including beer and even wine (lots of non-local but organic wine too).

                        But I wouldn't hesitate to try some of the other Vietnamese places- Saigon is probably our go-to. It's also on University Ave in St Paul. I always get Pho there, never been disappointed. And limeade (I swear about 75% of the reason we go to Saigon is cos I need a limeade fix! I don't really understand why Ngon doesn't do limeade).

                        1. re: turtlebella

                          Thanks for all the recommendations so far. I'm excited!

                          "Although I believe that some 'hounds say that Ngon's Pho is not a strictly traditional interpretation. But I don't think anyone has said that their Pho is not *good* just not traditional"

                          turtlebella, I'm glad you said all that; it's the exact response I was looking for. Through my reading, I wasn't really sure if what I should expect out of Ngon. Seeing comments about the menu was a whole wasn't helpful, but I also noticed some details on their pho and got curious about what makes theirs special. Is it just the pho that has gone outside the box? Does this trend apply for the rest of their menu? My favorite Vietnamese dish is bun thit nuong and now I'm wondering if they've gotten creative with it as well.

                          1. re: air

                            Ngon is an upscale Vietnamese restaurant. I would describe is as Vietnamese with a twist. Sometimes that twist means taking some traditional Vietnamese dishes and using extra-high-quality or unusual ingredients. Sometimes, it means taking French classics and reinterpreting them in a Vietnamese style. It's not a typical hole-in-the-wall, but it is very good. If you want more traditional Vietnamese, we can steer you in that direction too. But I would give Ngon a try, if I were you. It's unlike any other place you've been to.

                            1. re: air

                              I'm not the best person to answer your question, I don't think. For Vietnamese I tend to just approach a dish on its own and see whether I like it. I don't know enough to do otherwise (with Mexican food I'm very different and have definite opinions on how a dish should taste/be prepared, etc. so I know the feeling).

                              Maybe someone more knowledgeable will chime in. Otherwise, I would just go for it, if I were you. I'd be surprised if you were disappointed at Ngon.

                                1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                  Thanks, TDQ. I knew this was out there, but couldn't find it when I did a quick search.

                              1. re: air

                                I would say that Ngon Bistro emphasizes local sourcing ahead of "tradition", so, they may tinker with the flavors of the dish in order to bring out the best in the ingredients they've sourced locally (although, they do say on their menu that the spices for the pho come from Vietnam). I don't think you can point to massive departures from tradition (it's not as if they are using angel hair pasta in their pho instead of rice noodles or something), it's more subtle than that.

                                They are, for instance, using grass fed Thousand Hills Beef, and they try to bring out of the best in it. I think this also can cause shifts what turns out to be the "star" of the dish. For pho, should the star the eponymous noodles? the broth? or the beef? How you answer that question might lead you to different conclusions about Ngon's pho. It's that way all the way down the menu, including the bun.

                                If you're looking for a restaurant that takes the best of Minnesota --Southeast Asian influences and fresh, local ingredients--and rolls it all into one, Ngon is a great choice. If you're looking for Vietnamese food that transports you to another continent with each bite (and its atmosphere), there are better choices than Ngon.


                                1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                  yup, & the "best vietnamese noodle house" debate has raged on thru countless msp threads! :)

                                  i think Air might enjoy quang or jasmine deli (& "eat street"--south nicollet ave-- in general) in minneapolis for a more traditional vietnamese restaurant experience, tho ngon is still great for the local beer list that Air looks for. . . but ngon bills itself as a "vietnamese bistro," not a traditional vietnamese restaurant, and its menu incorporates other influences and adapts local foods-- if i had one meal and one meal only at ngon, i wouldn't order pho or bun salad (i'd definitely get the coconut confit and probably some game, or pork belly, or short ribs).

                                  Quang Pastry & Deli
                                  2719 Nicollet Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55408

                                  Jasmine Deli
                                  2532 Nicollet Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55404

                                  1. re: soupkitten

                                    Yeah, I usually order the French-influenced dishes at Ngon, although, if I'm feeling like pho, I order pho.

                                    As beloved at Quang is, and though it's certainly "more traditional" than Ngon, similar to Ngon, it is still viewed as a restaurant that caters to non-Vietnamese.

                                    But, delicious is delicious. Just make sure your expectations are in line about what you're looking for.


                                    1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                      not to try to pick any bones, but i'm not sure how valuable "caters to non-vietnamese" is in this context-- vietnamese food has been a part of msp food culture long enough now that it isn't unusual to see the more popular (bigger) vietnamese restaurants like quang crowded with tables of non-vietnamese or mixed groups. ime quang is usually 1/2 & 1/2, with large vietnamese families & smaller groups of non-vietnamese. groups of high schoolers in msp go out for bubble tea the way in other areas of the country they'd hit a mcdonald's or a starbucks, and pretty much anyone who happens to live in the vicinity of a decent vietnamese restaurant will probably patronize it pretty frequently--especially if it's on the cheaper end of things, like quang is.

                                      quang's menu doesn't include fried rice, like a lot of msp area vietnamese restaurants that really really do try to cater to non-vietnamese crowds-- (although it does have cream cheese wontons LOL)-- and they only serve pho ga on the weekends. they don't have a "lunch special" page where you get an egg roll with your meal, & they don't have a buffet. all of quang's servers & managers are bilingual. if you check out the whole menu (link below) i think most of the offerings are pretty traditional and you can get items like nuoc rau ma/pennywort drink, which you can't really find too many other places. there are *lots* of vietnamese restaurants in msp that have way more americanized menus, imo, so it doesn't really phase me to see non-vietnamese folks eating at quang-- they've probably been coming in for 10-20 years after all, like me. . .


                                      1. re: soupkitten

                                        It's only useful in the context that air seems like s/he is looking for the kind of experience where there's nothing that is "outside" the box or "creative". http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/6243...

                                        So if you think that is a continuum of "good" Vietnamese restaurants in the Twin Cities, with Ngon on one end for less traditional and Pho Tau Bay on the other end for more traditional, Quang falls somewhere in between.

                                        I'm a huge fan of Ngon Bistro and a huge fan of Pho Tau Bay. I think it's possible to love both "extremes" and all of the shades in between. It's just a matter of setting expectations so that if you're seeking a certain kind of experience, you're not going to be disappointed.


                                        1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                          oh! you know, i think i misunderstood what you were getting at, TDQ. okay, i think i agree with your post after all.

                                          well, for anybody looking for variations on "in the box" vietnamese cuisine, eat street is a good place to explore, if time permits.

                                          as far as Air's fave dish (pork bun salad) goes, i think that ngon does a fine and quite traditional rendition of this dish-- not too fusion-y :) --though you can get a decent bun salad all over msp, so i'd still say get something else on ngon's menu other than bun salad or pho. maybe Air could do an eat street pork bun salad showdown, with reviews of this dish at a half-dozen or more places. i'd read it, since i love pork bun salads too. :)

                                          here are some more msp vietnamese restaurant threads

                                          1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                            To clarify: I'm not averse to trying something nontraditional, and that's why I opted to keep prying about what sets Ngon apart. I grew up in Houston where there are plenty of traditional Vietnamese places. The fact that Ngon has deviated away from the norm, to the point where they've sparked such a discussion, piqued my curiosity. I was further baffled upon reading about their craft beer selection, I had no clue what to think!

                                            Thank you so much for the insightful comments! And as much as I love bun thit nuong and would love to compare, that's a bit excessive for a week. I'll likely pick out one of the dishes mentioned earlier at Ngon.

                                            This is just the first of many trips I'll be taking to MSP, and it's nice to see the wide variety of options and the local hospitality.

                                            1. re: air

                                              Good deal! Well, if you have plenty of traditional Vietnamese places, I absolutely encourage you to try Ngon Bistro. Another place that's really interesting if you like Southeast Asian food is Cafe BonXai on University Avenue, just a block or two West on Snelling. It's Hmong owned and has some interesting fusion, electic-type dishes.


                            2. The Keys Cafe on Robert Street (downtown) is fantastic for a huge breakfast (which I'd eat any time of day). Very casual, local flavor. We always go out of our way to eat there when in St. Paul. The hash is particularly wonderful. Order only one pancake as they are huge.


                              1 Reply
                              1. re: summeroftom

                                I would agree with Lucia's-especially the TO-GO section if you want to buy some things for your hotel room (if you have a fridge) They have great coffee, salads, and I always love the ham and cheese crepes there. The wine bar is on one side, and the TO-GO bakery is more like a coffee place...

                              2. Quick update because the trip is near! Here's my itinerary for the week, it's not in any particular order.

                                Unfortunately I am trapped near the office/Mall of America for lunch. Found a couple decent sounding places, but I could use some more suggestions please.
                                -Twin City Diner
                                -Al Vento
                                -California Cafe

                                I'll get to have four dinners outside of the wasteland:
                                -Ngon Vietnamese Bistro
                                -The Nook
                                -Heartland Cafe

                                Other miscellaneous essentials, namely beer and ice cream:
                                -Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery

                                9 Replies
                                1. re: air

                                  I've never heard of Twin City Diner. You might double check to see if CA Cafe is Still open.

                                  I love Ngon Vietnamese Bistro. The Nook is good if you like burgers and want a truly St. Paul experience. Not everyone loves their cheese-stuffed burgers, but I love their Molitor, with fries.

                                  RE: Heartland--there's the restaurant and the adjacent wine bar. I assume you mean the latter?

                                  I love Izzy's!


                                  1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                    Mega fast reply! Those results came from a variety of searches for Mall of America. I'd be real disappointed if I had to resort to eating at chains for lunch every day. Thanks for that tip.

                                    I've made Juicy/Jucy Lucy's before, so I figure I should do the right thing and have one while I'm at it's birthplace.

                                    Are Heartland and Heartland Cafe not the same thing? I'm interested in the restaurant that soupkitten recommended.

                                    1. re: air

                                      Soupkitten recommended Heartland, and (not to speak for her), I am sure she would endorse your eating either at the restaurant (more of a formal experience, including the availability of the prix fixe menu--reservations recommended) OR the adjacted wine bar. The wine bar is more casual, and you have the option of ordering a la carte and don't need reservations. Same chef, same kitchen, even most of the same menu items.



                                      1. re: air

                                        While the nook is known for its lucy's (and its cajun lucy's - called the molitor as TDQ mentions) i dont think anyone would claim that it invented them.

                                        The debate over the birthplace of the JL is firmly between Matt's Bar at 38th and Cedar Ave in MPLS and The 5-8 Club at 58th and Cedar. Ive never been to the 5-8 but would have to say that the nook's JL (and definitely the molitor) are better than the offerings at Matt's (where american cheese is the only option - as is traditional). I won't wade into the much (recently) discussed merits of various places JL's but will say that the 5-8 club is rather close to the mall of america and could make a reasonable choice for a not-too-distant lunch, though whether you replaced or supplemented a Nook trip would be up to you.

                                        1. re: tex.s.toast

                                          5-8 club is 7 minutes away from the office, appreciate the recommendation! Sounds good.

                                          And to clarify, I meant birthplace in the sense that, I'll be in Minnesota - shoulda said that to begin with before I started a fire. I don't want any part of this debate, we get in the same kind of argument over BBQ in Texas :)

                                          1. re: air

                                            now that we know where you are staying (and where you are coming from) consider Kabobs Restaurant at 494 and portland (near to the mall) which is a hyderabadi place speciazing in meat-based indian food (notably kabobs - duh, and also biryanis).

                                            Also right there is La Mixteca which has received raves on the board before (specifically for their soups, i believe) but if you are coming from texas you may not be that interested in our mexican offerings (though i will say that taqueria los ocampo with several locations in minneapolis and st paul compares favorably to the mexican food i was raised on in san francisco).

                                    2. re: air

                                      The California Cafe at the Mall of America is gone and has been replaced by Crave, which I would argue is instantly the best restaurant in the MOA.

                                      Twin City Grill is the other place I think you were referring to...and it sucks. You'd be better off at the Ruby Tuesday in the mall. Replace that with Crave and do something else for lunch on your second day -- the crepe stand is good, Wolfgang Puck Express..heck, even Johnny Rocket's for a burger.

                                      The mall still has Napa Valley Grill which was a sister restaurant to California Cafe. That might interest you as well. Tiger Sushi is there too...expect grocery store grade sushi which, for me, is just fine for a healthier lunch option.

                                      Anyway...the rest of your list is great. Enjoy!

                                      1. re: air

                                        Easterner giving feedback on your choices:

                                        Al Vento - had some good pasta from there, nice place, jfood wants to return.
                                        -Ngon Vietnamese Bistro - liked alot, Pho and both duck dishes, short rib not so much
                                        -The Nook - on a monday night not so great experience, also returning
                                        -Brasa - love it
                                        -Heartland Cafe - went to regular heartland and liked
                                        -Izzy's - fantatstic - two words - gotta have the dulche de leche
                                        -Pumphouse - inconsistent, great one time, just OK second

                                        1. re: air

                                          Twin City Diner isn't bad, my wife really likes it.

                                          California Cafe changed to Crave - It was just OK, I'll give it another chance.

                                          Napa Valley Grill isn't bad either at the MOA