How We Stayed Warm in the Winter

Amazing sunset from CozumelLast year, we won a trip to Mexico.  We liked it so much, this year we paid for the privilege to return.  We went to Cozumel, and it was lovely, colourful, warm and most importantly, relaxing in every possible way.  It was a few months ago, but for all practical purposes, we have barely seen the sun since.  The late and rainy spring here in Saint Paul, Minnesota makes us extra glad we were able to have a winter getaway.    Cozumel Sun Cover

We spent the majority of our time in Cozumel on the beach.  I spent a good portion of my time on the beach considering this functional branch and palm leaf umbrella that filled the gaps between the palm trees on the beach, providing shade.  I wasn’t thinking about making one, or how someone made it, just that it exists, it is functional, humble and pretty and provides shade.  That is all I could ask of the umbrella, and of myself.  That, and snorkeling every day to look at the sea rays, seashells and pretty fish.  Fire-breathing dragon! This is a fire-breathing dragon sunning himself at our resort.  Someone might mistake him for an iguana, but that person would be wrong.  According to our scientific research, this is a fire-breathing dragon.How we spent our winter vacation Here is me, posing with one of the books Bjorn read on our vacation.  I might have taken this picture to show off the manicure I gave myself on the beach.  Bjorn read two books on our short vacay:  Love Rock Revolution – K Records and the Rise of Independent Music by Mark Baumgartner and Big Day Coming – Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock by Jesse Jarnow.  He devoured them and clearly enjoyed both of these non-fiction histories of his one of his favorite indie record labels and his favorite band.  Since the trip, we have joked that Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley (of Yo La Tengo) were on the trip with us.  Side note:  on our vacation I only managed to read 5 magazines and one chapter of Big Day Coming and paint my nails.  I really needed to be on vacation.  Reflection

Classic vacation photo:  the subject is extra good looking, you can see a reflection of a palm tree and the ocean in his Ray Bans and there is a guy taking a snooze behind him.  And the model is extra good looking.  Sideways Sol on ourwaytoeat.comThat good looking vacationer came up with the perfect drink for a Mexican vacation or a Minnesota summer day: the Sideways Sol.  This consists of a Sol beer and a shot of tequila.  Add salt and lime if you like.  This is a simple drink for vacation in Mexico slash summer.  Don’t over think it.  Don’t complicate it.  Just enjoy it.En Concierto This is what I mean about Mexico being colourful.  There are mod murals on walls like this one.  I don’t know what it is advertising, but I love the colour scheme.  Sanjor

This is another mod advertising mural.  The colours of Mexico are vibrant, saturated and I can’t get enough.Tacos de Tripa on ourwaytoeat.comEating off-resort favors the bold, experienced and bilingual.  For a taste and texture adventure, one option we came across was tripe tacos.  They are reportedly tasty!Chips, Pico and Fresh GuacWe could have ventured out to eat, but we didn’t.  We took the path of the utmost easy-going every chance we could on this vacation.  Early every morning when we walked to the beach we passed the snack bar at our resort where the cooks were scooping out the ripe green, soft interiors of halved avocados with large spoons, and chopping scores of tomatoes and onions and piles of cilantro and limes.  The result was a lovely plate of chips with pico and guacamole like this one, that we enjoyed several times throughout this lovely, lazy, restorative trip.  I hope, I so hope that we’ll get to go back.

A Taste of Two Great Twin Cities Patios: El Norteño and Ngon

In the summer we spend almost all our downtime at home on our patio that Bjorn built the first spring we had our house.  We eat here, entertain here, do our internetting, gaze at the garden, plan our trips, rehash the day, daydream, read and occasionally we even get up to pull some weeds.  I am serious when I say that I could spend 10 hours a day here from the minute spring arrives until the fall chill takes hold.  Some days, I do exactly that.  Still there are days when nothing is better than to have someone else cook for us and to return to our haunts from the days of apartment living when patio-dining was our best excuse to spend time outdoors.

I rank Salut on Grand Avenue, the Happy Gnome, and W.A. Frost best patios in Saint Paul for great food and drink.  Relaxing through a meal while tucked into a private corner of these outdoor rooms is a magical summer escape.  Sweeneys and Billy’s on Grand have solid bar food and are happening and fun.  Anyone who has ever set foot in Saint Paul, Minnesota at dinner time in the summer already knows about these fixtures.  This means they’re always busy.  Today, I’m going to share a taste of two patios that have a certain popularity, but are a little lesser known.  As a regular at Ngon and El Norteño who likes to be able to march in and sit right down at an open table, I had to think twice before tipping my hand.  In the interest of encouraging the success of restaurants I like, I’m going to give their patios a public shout-out.  For an escape and a reliably tasty meal, the patios at Ngon and Norteño are hidden gems.

Ngon Vietnamese Bistro – 799 University Avenue, Saint Paul, Minnesota Telephone:  (651) 222-3301

I’ve mentioned Ngon on my blog before.  We keep returning to Ngon and enjoy the authentic and inventive Vietnamese cuisine.  Their use of local and sustainable meat and produce, their stellar selection of exclusively local beers and their house-made charcuterie that Bjorn has enjoyed on earlier visits have proven to contribute to consistently tasty meals.  We found that we equally enjoyed these aspects of the restaurant when we dined on the patio behind the restaurant, hidden from the world by high fences and shaded from the early evening sun by grapevine-wound pergola.  We entered Ngon through the front door which was a bit of an experience in inaccessibility due to the construction of the light rail on University Avenue.  We requested a spot outside and were directed out of the restaurant and back to the sidewalk through the side door and then into the private patio through a gate under a mosiac sign showing the restaurant’s name.  The hostess informed us that we could not have soup on the patio–it is too hot for the servers to carry this out.  When I heard this, I was a little disappointed.  I have ordered Hủ Tiếu with egg noodles almost every time I eat at Ngon.  I am in love with this steamy bowl of squiggly egg noodles and thinly sliced carrot and daikon, halved brussel sprouts, grape tomatoes, whole green beans and bok choy, all still-crunchy, swimming in a light, tasty, clear vegetable broth.  With a little encouragement by my wise husband, I got past my Who Moved my Cheese? moment and realized that change is good, and its high time I venture out into the rest of the menu because it was way too nice to eat indoors.  Now that I’m thinking about it, maybe eating a huge bowl of hot soup on a 90 degree evening wouldn’t be be too many people’s idea of a good time!?We arrived hungry so we started our meal with crispy Vietnamese egg rolls, a crunchy, freshly-fried indulgence filled with vegetables and mushroom served with a little pickly shredded carrot and daikon.

I settled on Bún, a rice vermicelli salad with organic greens, cucumbers, bean sprouts with a generous amount of saucy fried tofu, garnished with more pickly shredded daikon and carrot, herbs and peanuts.  It was refreshing, tasty and totally solid, but won’t oust Hủ Tiếu from its position as my Ngon favorite.  Bjorn ordered braised pork shoulder with basil pasta which he thought was very good.  I didn’t manage to get a photo.

El Norteño — 4000 East Lake Street, Minneapolis, Minnesota Telephone: (612) 722-6888

The patio at El Norteño is similar to all the others I’ve mentioned in that it is secluded.  This particular patio wins hands-down for its foliage and flora, which is well-tended– obviously by a green thumb.  There are potted plants bursting with herbs and flowers and thriving perennials layered several feet deep around inside the entire enclosure which creates a wonderfully lush atmosphere for a relaxing meal.  There is plenty of room on the patio.  The food is straight-forward, authentic Mexican fare.  Tacos, burritos, enchiladas, flautas, tostadas and fajitas with chicken, pork, beef or veggies, served with beans, rice, fresh vegetables and traditional sauces.  It is simple.  Norteño isn’t going to win awards for culinary ingenuity, but the food hits the spot.  The servers who also seem to cook, are few in number, so they aren’t going to win praise for attentiveness and speed, but when you are sitting outside on a gorgeous night, sipping a Dos Equis Amber, eating chips and fresh salsa while waiting for your food to arrive, who is in a hurry, exactly?  El Norteño is licensed for beer and wine only, so wine margaritas are on the menu, but none with tequila.  The only other limitation we’ve faced is our ability to gauge whether El Norteño will be open during dinner hours.  With no website to check, we figure it out by taking a quick drive to Longfellow, and end up at the Birchwood, which is nearby when we’ve guessed wrong, which seems to be about half of our attempts.  Though simple, their food tastes fresh and has good flavor.  This is where I go for Mexican comforts- the lightness of lettuce and tomatoes, rich guacamole, warm fresh tortillas, the energy-giving amino acid balance of rice and beans, and seasoned meats for Bjorn.  

If you’re stuck in the Cities for the 4th of July and need a break from air conditioning, a tasty meal on a patio a little ways off the beaten track is the place to find yourself for lunch or dinner.

A Taste of Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis

This is the third post in a short series about restaurant experiences we’ve had around the Twin Cities in recent months — in this post, I will share a little taste of the Midtown Global Market.

Sonora Grill – Midtown Global Market 920 E. Lake Street, Minneapolis, MN, Telephone: (612)871-1900

I will begin and end this post with the same question:  If you haven’t been to the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis for sight-seeing, shopping and a meal, what are you waiting for?!  Midtown Global Market is an indoor market located at the intersection of Chicago and Lake Street, housing interesting sights, sounds and tastes around every corner.  I will cut to the chase and say that the area it excels most in is food.  To begin, there is the Sonora Grill.  Sonora Grill appears to be a totally unassuming taco stand.  I don’t blame you if you confuse the signage for a Chipotle knock-off.  The presentation is casual and the price-point is similar, but the comparisons stop there. Sonora Grill is in fact the place in the Market to head to directly, if you like the thought of a chef who cut his teeth at Bar La Grassa, Solera and Barrio running his own show and serving up inventive, tasty South American and Spanish food all from scratch, and with zero pretense.  When I first read about Sonora Grill, we had already been to the Market a few times.  Our first attempt to eat at Sonora was a fail — we got to the market too late on a Sunday.  More on that later….  With better planning, we finally made it for lunch at Sonora, and my eggplant Carmelo, a “Sonora style taco” consisting of breaded, fried eggplant, chimichurri aioli, roasted pepper and sautéed onions on a double layer of corn tortillas was super delicious. On its own the eggplant Carmelo has the power to beckon me back to the Market… possibly this weekend.  For their size and price ($2.50 a pop) you can easily eat two or three Carmelos.  I had one, but only because we had chips, black beans and rice on the table to share.  If eggplant isn’t your thing, Carmelos also come with pork, chicken, tilapia and beef skirt steak for the same price.  

Bjorn ordered a Pork Guajillo Bocadillo ($8.50) which is described as a Spanish and South America-style guajillo-marinated pork sandwich with sautéed onion, Chihuahua cheese, tomato and arugula, served with fresh-cut french fries and cilantro aioli.  My cousin Alice who dined with us had the most impressive looking meal: a Pork Pincho ($8.95), which is a skewer of guajillo-marinated pork shoulder served with guajillo beans and Peruvian rice.  Let me emphasize the high quality that comes with the inviting low prices and casual atmosphere of Sonora Grill.  The Head Chef Alejandro Castillon and his small band of hard-working sous-chefs show up early so they can do things like make the aioli from scratch beginning with eggs and marinate the meat.  They buy their buns at the Salty Tart, a bakery in the market, and their tortillas from another local maker nearby.  

What to drink with your Carmelos, Brocaderos and Pinchos?  A  bottle of Jarritos soda ($1.25) of course!

After our meal we strolled around to see what interesting things we’d find in other shops and stands around the Market.  We ran across Smoked Trout and quail eggs.  I have never tasted a quail egg, and I am going to buy some the next time I make it to the market.  I am not sure how I feel about eating duck and quail eggs; I am reserving judgment at least until I’ve tried them.  We browsed through Fiesta in America, a shop full of bright colour, Mexican souvenirs, decor and an extensive selection of candy from Mexico.  Then we headed over to Holy Land, a Minneapolis-based Middle Eastern Grocery and Deli with a large presence in the Global Market.

I have yet to eat at the extensive buffet at Holy Land, but I always find something interesting at the grocery store.  Pictured just above is a selection of cheeses, including Bulgarian Feta and Egyptian Cream Cheese for sale from behind the deli counter.  Holy Land Hummus and Pitas are available in grocery stores all over the Twin Cities, and I often try a new flavor of hummus, or pick up a bag of pitas.  In my opinion, Holy Land sets the standard upon which to judge all pocket bread and hummus.

Holy Land also sells olive oil and Basmati rice in large-volume packaging, for those with a serious appetite for Basmati.  Or, for restaurants, I’m guessing.

A La Salsa Restaurant Mexicano and Bar — 920 E. Lake Street, Minneapolis (612) 872-4140

We also have eaten at A La Salsa in the Midtown Global Market several times.  When you are at the market, it is a great place to choose if you want to sit down and be served at your table, if you want a beer or a margarita with your meal, or if you are like us and you get to the Market late and other stands are closing.  Most importantly, visit A La Salsa if you enjoy authentic Mexican food.  A La Salsa has an extensive menu of traditional Mexican dishes that are delicious and well-priced.  Pictured above is Bjorn’s plate – Flautas de Pollo – ($8.50) Three tortillas filled with spicy-seasoned chicken, rolled, fried and topped with refried beans, crumbly, moist queso fresco and crema.  Flautas are served with lettuce, guacamole, pico de gallo and a dollop of sour cream.  I ordered Chille Relleno ($5.50) and a vegetarian tamale ($2.50) a la carte, which were delicious, but did not photograph well.

Along with our main plate we were served a generous side plate of mildly spiced black beans.  I love black beans and crave them at breakfast and supper alike.  A plate of black beans with their comforting smooth and pleasant soupyness and a mild, cumin flavor makes certain that you won’t leave A La Salsa hungry. 

The Midtown Global Market is a fun place to visit to eat, shop and sight-see and grab a quick, casual meal with your family.  This taste of Sonora Grill, Holy Land Middle Eastern deli and grocery and A La Salsa only scratches the surface of the vast shopping options and eating establishments available at the Market from around the world.  As I said before, if you haven’t been to the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis for sight-seeing, shopping and a meal, what are you waiting for?!

Getting Ready for Mexico and a Late Lunch at Rosa Mexicano

We’re taking a trip to Cancun, Mexico in a week, and so we’ve been looking for ways to sample south-of-the-border flavors as a fun way to gear up and get excited.*  Today, I sat down to write a post about a delicious Mexican meal we ate yesterday, and I made myself a snack to enjoy while writing.  I doubt I’m the only person who gets hungry when reading and writing about food.  I don’t usually snack while I post, but this is the sort of activity weekends are made of at our house.

This simple snack verging on a meal is known in our house as Chip N’ Chee.  It was christened by our friend Jonny, who prefers to top his Chip N’ Chee with kippered snacks.  My version consisted of Nacho Chips, sliced black olives and Colby Jack cheese, melted in the microwave for about 30 seconds, served with smoky jarred Frontera Habenero Salsa and a Tecate beer.  It can be made more elaborately with jalapeno, diced tomatoes, and onions then heated in the oven and served with sour cream and guac, but I went for simplicity today.  Are tortilla chips and melted cheese an authentic Mexican snack?  No, but it has some authentic elements,** and I think it is fair to call it Minnesota-Mexican.***  Yesterday was a lazy day that started with sleeping in and then eating a hearty brunch sandwich.  That sort of morning meal is best followed by either a late lunch, or an early supper, whichever suits your fancy.  We fancied a late lunch.   We were downtown running errands yesterday afternoon and found ourselves hungry, so we decided to stop for a mid-afternoon bite.  I was shuffling through my mental list of restaurants to try, and fortunately, our upcoming trip to Mexico jogged a memory of a recent Heavy Table post about Rosa Mexicano, a new Mexican restaurant in downtown Minneapolis.  I was able to locate the restaurant’s address quickly on my handy-dandy new smart phone.  Rosa Mexicano is a Mexican restaurant that has been around since the ’80’s in New York and Miami, and just recently showed up in Minneapolis on the corners of 6th and Hennepin.  We arrived and were seated immediately in the dining room.  The decor is colorful and sleek, and there is zero kitch which is ubiquitous with Mexican restaurants throughout Minnesota.****  The dining room was wide open, and about half full of diners, which I would imagine is a decent crowd on a Saturday afternoon on which a snowstorm  is expected.  We sat at a two-top in the center of the room, and I faced a tiled blue fountain above which was suspended a mobile with a hundred or so small, identical white human sculptures poised in mid-dive and suspended by fine wire at varying levels above the fountain’s square pool.  Other than the impressive fountain and diver mobile at room’s center, the only decor to be seen are straight-sided glass vases displayed along the wall separating the dining room from the bar, each containing a liquid dyed different colors with, what I guess, was food coloring.  The walls, tables and chairs are painted in blocks of purple and pink, a nod, I’m guessing to the restaurant’s moniker.  Our server was raring to go and encouraged us to try the famous guacamole, which is their signature dish, made table-side on a cart.  I glanced around the room and determined that the big pot of guacamole would be too much for me today unless it was the only thing I was going to eat, so we decided to try it another time.  Again, at the suggestion of the author from the Heavy Table article, and in preparation for Mexico, we decided to select a  flight of three tequilas to share.  We opted for Reposado tequilas; tequilas that have been rested on oak barrels for a time.  We selected the Hurradura, Corazon and Tres Generaciones, and we liked them all, but liked the third the best.  The flight is served in  skinny hand-blown shot-glasses of uneven size and were accompanied by a 4th shot glass containing a salty and spicy tomato-y “Sangrita,” aka, chaser, which we sipped, but didn’t finish.

After perusing the menu for a time I opted for Tacos Vegetales a la Brasa, which are Skillet Roasted Seasonal Vegetables topped with a soft herbed cheese and served with red bean chili, corn esquites and a tomatillo mocajete salsa.  Per the title, the roasted carrots, onions and green and yellow zucchini squash arrived in a small square skillet, with each accompaniment in its own separate dish, perched on top of my plate.  The dish was served with a side of flax tortillas, which arrived in a pink plastic tortilla warmer.  The pink plastic serving dish was, in my opinion, the only cheesy element of the restaurant’s overall presentation, but I guess if you are going Rosa, you go all out.  I was a little nervous about flax tortillas and considered asking them to bring me corn instead, which are served with all of the restaurant’s meat-centered dishes.  I kind of hate how vegetarian dishes are always accompanied by healthier breads and sides than omnivore options.  Just because I don’t eat meat doesn’t mean I am trying to eat extra-healthy all the time.  I presume in this case, the corn tortillas served with the non-vegetarian dishes contain, or are cooked in pork or beef fat.  Unlike the numerous disappointingly dry whole wheat buns I’ve eaten with veggie burgers around the world, the flax tortillas were fresh, not overly grainy and overall quite good.

Bjorn chose the Enchiladas Mole Xico, which consists of two corn tortillas filled with shredded beef seasoned with chipotle peppers and topped with Veracruz mole made with raisins, plantains,  hazelnuts, pine nuts, ancho and pasilla chilis and garnished with Mexican creama and queso fresco.  In addition to our individual plates of food we were served a generous bowl of the house rice topped with cilantro and another ample serving of refried black beans topped with queso fresco as well as two salsas: a smoky pasilla de Oaxaca which we loved, and a salsa de tomatillo y Habanero, which we liked less.

As a whole, we both thought the meal was special.  The food was beautifully presented and the flavors were well-developed and were surprising and unique, compared to almost all Mexican food that either of us have eaten.  There was an obvious attention to authentic flavors and careful seasoning.  Of everything on the table, I most enjoyed the refried beans and the corn esquites.  The refried beans were creamy and tasty.  Corn esquites was new to me, made of fresh corn cut off the cob, and served in a creamy sauce with cayenne pepper and Cotija cheese.  I also enjoyed the dollop of creamy, mild, herbed cheese on top of my veggie tacos.  Using only a touch of cheese has become fashionable in higher-end Mexican restaurants because it is more typical of authentic Mexican cuisine.  It is a contrast to the melted-cheese encrusted plates at a typical Mexican restaurant in the Midwest.  I like cheese though, so I was glad they didn’t skimp.  Bjorn was most impressed with the spicy beef in his enchiladas, the flavorful mole, and the smoky pasilla salsa.   There was plenty to eat without getting stuffed.  In addition to the great flavors, there were certain details of the food presentation that increased our enjoyment.  The water was served out of pitchers containing ice, but there was no ice in our glasses.  The separate serving dishes for each of the meal’s elements made it easier to enjoy their distinct flavors and textures without having them run together on our plates into a nondescript mass.  We left just as it began to snow, feeling warmed, satisfied, and happy to anticipate a trip to Mexico in our near future.

*Not that we need much help to get excited for a free, all-inclusive trip to Mexico in December.

**The most authentic Mexican element of this snack is probably the beer.

***Sitting down to eat and write about this lead me to ponder why there is so much discussion of authenticity in preparing a regional cuisine when we are so blooming far from locales where these cuisines originate?  I think people want you to know that with exceptions of home-cooked meals by people who learned at home, and restaurants that pay attention to authenticity, what you make in your Midwestern home and eat at most Midwestern restaurants is nothing like the local cuisine of say, Tuscany, or Jalisco.  Nonetheless, there are some nods in that direction, and it is great to enjoy food with a measure of global curiosity.  At the same time it is important to understand and appreciate the truly traditional and authentic approach to cooking and eating from different parts of the world.  If I ate only the traditional dishes of our region, I would go pretty hungry as a vegetarian.

****Save for Masa, another downtown Minneapolis where the decor and all surfaces in the restaurant are stark white.