My favorite wish-I'd-said-that quote of the month comes via my colleague Jon Tevlin, and his recent column on the friction between food truck operators and downtown Minneapolis skyway restaurant owners.
"I understand the fear-based reasoning, because this business has been taking it in the shorts," said Zimmern. "But the fact is, half the restaurants in the skyway are serving some of the worst food in the city. They are coasting on convenience."
Ouch. And, true. Actually, I'd say more than half.
But after recently ducking through skyways in a 20-block area adjacent to downtown's most popular food truck locations, I also encountered a welcome number of gems. Here they are, in no particular order.
Nothing against Chipotle – the burrito chain really does it right, in so many ways – but for once could there be a longer line at the neighboring Brothers Deli? That said, the place is always hopping during prime lunch hours, and with good reason: pastrami, corned beef, brisket and other deli classics, all well-prepared, fill out a lengthy menu that’s peppered with careful touches (excellent pickles, a mustard selection that rivals the condiment aisle at Byerly’s) and served in a flash. Jockeying for a table is something of an art, and the kitchen also serves breakfast, a skyway rarity. The place also drips with Minneapolis history. Diners with long memories will recall an earlier Brothers Deli, a popular mini-chain owned by brothers Leonard and Sam Burstein. It closed in 1983. Ten years later, Leonard’s son Jeff Burstein opened his version of the Brothers Deli, and it has been a skyway lunch magnet ever since. Location: Nicollet Mall and 6th Street. Seating: Yes.
There’s always something new on the skyway, and the newcomer du jour is One Two Three Sushi. It's a fast-casual proto-chain from Sushi America, the innovative supermarket sushi supplier and owner of Masu Sushi & Robata. Rather than offer the same-old, same-old pre-prepared rolls, customers can go the build-your-own route, with an impressive variety of choices at prices that start at $7.99. Location: IDS Crystal Court, Nicollet Mall between 7th and 8th streets. Seating: Limited.
Of all the slice shops that dot the skyway, Torby’s Pizza stands out for its sturdy crust and top-quality (and generously applied) toppings. Another plus? Owner Bob (Torby) Torbenson offers a parade of specials, including Monday’s cheapskate magnet: a slice and a soda, for $4. A super-friendly staff works the counter, and Torby's just started delivery, through grubhub. Location: Baker Center, Marquette Av. between 7th and 8th streets. Seating: Limited.
The independently owned coffee shop is a rare breed on the skyway, which is overrun with Starbucks (three skyway locations, seven downtown locations), Caribou Coffee (11 skyway locations, 15 downtown locations) and Dunn Bros. (3 skyway locations, 10 downtown locations). Which is why it’s great to see little Café Patteen plugging along against the tide of the coffee conglomerate. Yes, there’s coffee (from Roastery 7), but the real draw is owner Patteen Leverson’s buttery, lovingly made baked goods. Giant cookies, scones and fruit-packed muffins are the headliners, but the ever-changing daily specials (banana bread, sticky buns and brownies; Wednesday is devoted to 9-by-13-inch pans of mac-and-cheese). For breakfast, there’s quiche, and they’re terrific. Location: Oracle Centre, 2nd Av. S. between 9th and 10th streets. Seating: Limited, but nearby atrium seating.
In US Bank Plaza (nee Pillsbury Center), business lunches tend to gravitate to the first floor’s Atlas Grill. Those without expense accounts know to stick to Good to Go. The counter-service operation – owned by the team behind Atlas and the nearby Mission American Kitchen – puts a Mediterranean twist on sandwiches (made on terrific house-baked foccacia), wraps and salads, all prepared to order using fresh, vibrant ingredients. Don’t miss the well-seasoned lamb and pork, or the tuna-pesto salad. Top price is $6.75, proof that fast food doesn’t have to taste manufactured. Location: US Bank Plaza, 2nd Av. between 5th and 6th streets. Seating: Yes, with sunlight.
It’s easy to find a burger in the Minneapolis Human Habitrail, but the one to beat is at My Burger, where the marquee product is a juicy quarter-pounder, slipped into a first-rate buttered and toasted bun and topped with slightly sweet grilled onions and crunchy sweet pickles. There are add-ons, of course (bacon, mushrooms, fried eggs, five varieties of cheese) and the fries are nothing short of excellent. The only thing missing is a cold beer, but the thick, hand-mixed malts make up for the oversight. Service is fleet, prices are reasonable. (Runner-up: The Burger Place, now in much-improved quarters in US Bank Plaza). Location: 6 Quebec, Marquette Av. and 6th St. Seating: Yes.
Strolling through Secondfloorland can sometimes seem like a stroll through Bad Asian Fast Food World. A happy exception is Zen Box, a sushi-free refuge specializing in familiar Japanese quick-service fare, freshly prepared and reasonably priced. Menu items include chicken-filled gyoza, potato-carrot curry over white or brown rice, grilled tofu with steamed vegetables and cold buckwheat soba noodles tossed with edamame and splashed with a sesame-miso vinaigrette. (Runner-up: Tea House, at 330 2nd Av. S.). Location: 6 Quebec, Marquette Av. and 6th St. Seating: Limited.
How many downtowners know that one of the Twin Cities’ best bakeries is located on the skyway? It’s Cocoa & Fig, and the tiny Gaviidae shop is the source for a slim but wickedly tempting array of imaginative cupcakes (get the C&F riff on the Hostess cupcake, with the word “Love” etched in white icing, just in time for Valentine’s Day), cookies (the colorful almond macaroons are first-rate, as are the heart-shaped faux Oreos) and festive cake lollipops. Here’s a tip: the four-packs of bouchons, intensely chocolately cork-shaped brownies, makes for the perfect $5 gift. Fun fact: The shop’s first downtown presence was as a popular booth at the Thursday farmers market on Nicollet Mall. (Runner-up: Wuollet). Location: Gaviidae Common, Nicollet Mall between 6th and 7th streets. Seating: None, but nearby atrium seating.
Another great here’s-how-we-opened story is Turkey to Go, which started as a Nicollet Mall street vendor before matriculating upstairs to permanent quarters a block away on the skyway. The kitchen concentrates on – you got it -- turkey. Pulled turkey, wonderfully juicy and nicely seasoned and paired with a flurry of sauces, cheeses, condiments and add-ons and served as pitas, salads and two-fisted sandwiches. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because TtoG, an offshoot of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, has a high-profile presence at both Target Field and the Minnesota State Fair. Location: Baker Block, Marquette Av. between 7th and 8th streets. Seating: No.
Why settle for Subway or any of its sandwich brethren when there’s Real Meal Deli? The locally owned mini-chain started in the St. Paul skyway before jumping across the river with two Minneapolis locations. The house specialty is creative made-to-order sandwiches (turkey with goat cheese and a cranberry-apricot compote, meatballs dripping in red sauce and dressed with Parmesan, roast sirloin finished with red onions and Dijon-honey aioli), plus salads that don’t taste as if they came off the supermarket grab-and-go shelf, a minor miracle, at least on the skyway. Reasonable prices, quick service, nice people, it's all good. Location: Baker Center, Marquette Av. between 7th and 8th streets, and TriTech Office Center, 2nd Av. and 4th St. Seating: Baker Center location is strictly buy-and-go, but there’s plenty of seating at the TriTech Office Center outlet, with the added bonus of actual sunlight.