Food trucks have definitely raised the creativity standards for quick-service lunches. But with warm weather on the horizon, don’t give up on downtown’s second floor just yet.
The wish-I’d-said-that quote of the month comes from Andrew Zimmern, he of cable television’s “Bizarre Foods” and the initials in AZ Canteen, a food truck that debuted late last summer.
Zimmern was discussing with Star Tribune columnist Jon Tevlin 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, it’s probably 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.
The Brothers Deli 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 baked goods, top-drawer condiments) and served in a flash. Jockeying for a table is something of an art, and the kitchen serves breakfast, a skyway rarity. The place is also steeped in 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, and 10 years later, Leonard’s son Jeff Burstein opened his version of the Brothers Deli; it’s been a skyway lunch magnet since. Seating: Yes.
50 S. 6th St., 612-341-8007, www.thebrothersdeli.com
The real deal
Why settle for Subway (five skyway locations) or any of its franchised brethren when there’s Real Meal Deli? The locally owned mini-chain started in a 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 net. The 2nd Avenue location features a daily $7.93 blue plate-style special (turkey with cornbread stuffing and mashed potatoes on Monday, sausage lasagna with garlic toast on Wednesday) and also serves egg sandwiches, scrambled egg bowls and oatmeal in the a.m. Seating: No at Marquette Avenue, yes at 2nd Avenue.
733 Marquette Av. S. (Baker Center) and 331 2nd Av. S. (TriTech Office Center), 612-436-0114, www.realmealdeli.com
The sweet spot
How many downtowners know that one of the Twin Cities’ best bakeries is parked on a skyway? It’s Cocoa & Fig, and the tiny Gaviidae shop is the source for a slim but wickedly tempting array of imaginative cupcakes (pick up C&F’s luscious riff on the Hostess fudge classic), cookies (it’s easy to fall for the scalloped-edged faux Oreos) and festive cake lollipops. The four-packs of bouchons, intensely chocolate-ey cork-shaped brownies, are ideal $5 gifts, or, better yet, as a midafternoon indulgence. Fun fact: The shop got its start as a popular booth at the Thursday Nicollet Mall farmers market. Seating: No, but nearby atrium seating.
651 Nicollet Mall (Gaviidae Common), 612-333-1485, www.cocoaandfig.com
Hold the sushi
Wandering through Secondfloorland can sometimes seem like a stroll through Bad Asian Fast-Food World (and make a person wonder about the efficacy of air ventilation). 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. Seating: Limited.
601 Marquette Av. S. (Six Quebec), 612-341-3313, www.zenbox.com
Have it your way
At My Burger, 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 long, golden 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 and friendly, prices are reasonable and the communal tables encourage noon-hour socializing. Seating: Yes.
601 Marquette Av. S. (Six Quebec), 612-436-0330, www.myburgerusa.com).
Food with a twist
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 stay upstairs in the Human Habitrail and 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, flavorful ingredients. Don’t miss the smartly seasoned lamb and pork, or the tuna-pesto salad. Top price is $6.75, proof that fast food doesn’t have to taste manufactured. Seating: Yes.
200 S. 6th St. (US Bank Plaza), 612-341-4600, www.urgoodtogo.com
Worth the wait
Here’s how to find the Burger Place: look for a line (it moves fast). When this runs-like-clockwork operation relocated to its new higher-profile location, it added much-needed elbow room but kept its winning formula of juicy, piping hot burgers, served in toasted buns with a medley of toppings. Skip the salad — you’re already having a third-pound burger, so this is not the time for moderation — in favor of the excellent fries. There’s a convenient short-order breakfast menu, too. Seating: Yes.
220 S. 6th St. (US Bank Plaza), 612-338-1213, www.theburgerplace.com
The one constant among the skyways is change, and the newcomer du jour is One Two Three Sushi. It’s a fast-casual proto-chain from Sushi America, the innovative Eagan-based supermarket supplier and owner of first-rate Masu Sushi & Robata on E. Hennepin in Minneapolis and at the Mall of America in Bloomington. Rather than offer the same-old/same-old pre-prepared rolls, 1-2-3 lets customers go the build-your-own route, culling from an impressive variety of building-block choices, with prices starting at $7.99. There’s also a small selection of ramen bowls (try the slow-roasted pork belly) and steamed buns. Seating: Limited.
80 S. 8th St. (IDS Crystal Court), 612-354-3040, www.onetwothreesushi.com
Another great here’s-how-we-opened story is Turkey to Go, which began as a Nicollet Mall street vendor before matriculating upstairs to permanent quarters a block away on the skyway system. The kitchen concentrates on — you got it — turkey. Specifically, pulled turkey, wonderfully juicy and nicely seasoned and paired with a flurry of sauces, cheeses and add-ons and served as pitas, salads and sandwiches. Name sounds familiar? Turkey to Go, an offshoot of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, has a high-profile presence at Target Field and the Minnesota State Fair. Seating: Yes.
706 2nd Av. S. (Baker Center), 612-655-1795, www.turkeytogo.com
Pizza that’s tops
Of all the slice shops dotting the skyways, Torby’s Pizza stands out for its thin, sturdy crust and well-chosen — and generously applied — toppings. Another plus? Owner Bob (Torby) Torbenson offers a parade of specials, including Monday’s cheapskate magnet: a slice and a soft drink for $4. A super-friendly staff works the counter, and Torby’s just started delivery, through grubhub.com. Seating: Limited.
109 S. 7th St. (Baker Center), 612-746-5111, www.torbys.com
The cafe that could
The independently owned coffee shop is a rare breed on the skyway system, which is overrun with Starbucks (three skyway locations), Caribou Coffee (11 skyway locations) and Dunn Bros (three skyway locations). Which is why it’s great to see little Cafe Patteen plugging along against the coffee conglomerate tide. Yes, there’s coffee (from Roastery 7 in Brooklyn Center), 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 Leverson keeps things interesting with a daily specials roster, which could mean banana bread, sticky buns, brownies or, on Wednesday, mac-and-cheese. For breakfast, there’s quiche, and it’s terrific. Seating: Limited, but nearby atrium seating.
920 2nd Av. S. (Oracle Centre), 612-371-0262
And keep in mind ...
The swell baked goodies at Wuollet (200 S. 6th St., 612-767-4420, www.wuollet.com). The better-than-decent steam-table Asian fare at Tea House (330 2nd Av. S., 612-343-2133, wwwourteahouse.com). The enormous tea assortment at Northern Lights Tea Co. (811 LaSalle Av., 612-332-8869, www.northernlightstea.com). The refreshing, ever-changing inventory of frozen yogurt flavors at Cool Cups (120 S. 6th St., Mpls., 612-333-3982, www.coolcupsyogurt.com). The alluring sweets of all stripes at Amy’s Classic Confections (601 Marquette Av. S., 612-436-0016). And the bargain-priced salad bar at Sky Bites (811 LaSalle Av., 612-338-3008, www.skybitesmn.com).
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