Diners south of the Minnesota River have a surplus of familiar chain restaurant options. Yet it's not impossible to find an independently owned gem in Prior Lake, Savage, Burnsville, Eagan, Apple Valley and Lakeville. Here’s a highly subjective list of standouts.
One of these things (is not like the others)
In the Land O’ Bland that is the food court at Burnsville Center, feisty and friendly Pimento Jamaican Kitchen sticks out like a delicious sore thumb. Owners Yoni Reinharz, Tomme Beevas and Serge Kogan (he’s the chef, a vet of D’Amico Cucina, Oddfellows and Red) opened in August after securing their lease in a novel way, winning a year’s free rent as the top award-getter on the Food Network’s “Food Court Wars.” Their counter-service operation is a kind of Caribbean edition of Chipotle, incorporating deeply flavorful pork and chicken into Jamaican street fare-inspired dishes. One American quality they get just right: the big portions-reasonable prices equation.
24 Burnsville Center, Cty. Rd. 42 and Burnhaven Dr., Burnsville, 952-435-5552, http://pimentogrille.com
Italian on the lake
Perron’s sul Lago doesn’t look like much from the outside — it’s located on the second floor of an anonymous commercial condominium — but inside, its warm autumnal tones and lake views (sul lago is Italian for “on the lake”) are a fine backdrop for Todd Perron’s spirited cooking. Perron is a south-of-the-river (SOTR) rarity, a chef who not only runs his own show, but makes a go of it, with an impressive nine-year track record. A Capital Grille alum, Perron handles his bruschettas, pastas, risottos and grilled steaks and chops with care and finesse. For those with an appetite for something less than white-tablecloth, there are pizzas, meatball sandwiches, lasagna and other casual bites. One final note: It may not feel like it at the moment, but warm weather will one day return, so don’t forget about the restaurant’s scenic balcony.
16154 Main Av. SE., Prior Lake, 952-440-1411, www.perrons-sul-lago.com
Two eggs over easy, with a side of nostalgia
History is in semi-short supply SOTR, even in a town that goes back as far as Savage. Which is why, after 42 years in business, it’s a relief to see that the Windmill Cafe is still going strong. It’s a truck stop minus the diesel pumps, and the interior is cozier than its modest concrete-block face might otherwise suggest. The menu is straight-up short-order cooking, notable for its rib-sticking portions and moderate prices, everything from two-eggs-any-style with hash browns and fried ham, fluffy pancakes, corn beef hash, biscuits and gravy and chicken-fried steak at breakfast to lunch’s hot turkey sandwiches, patty melts, mushroom cheeseburgers and other greasy-spoon fare, all served in a flash by a hospitable and no-nonsense staff. Truly, a community treasure.
5367 Hwy. 13, Savage, 952-895-1869, www.windmill cafemn.com
Rambling Porter Creek Hardwood Grill sprawls out across some seriously expansive (and handsomely decorated) real estate. Its menu is no shrinking violet, either, although quantity doesn’t trump quality. Braised bone-in lamb shanks with Israeli couscous, flatbreads dressed with silky house-smoked salmon and lemon-kissed chèvre and juicy chickens roasted in a wood-burning rotisserie are just a few examples of how chef James Foley makes this well-run and justifiably popular offshoot of Doolittles Woodfire Grill stand apart from the fierce dining-out competition surrounding Burnsville Center. Dessert? The butterscotch panna cotta, by a mile.
14201 Burngarten Dr., Burnsville, 952-698-1888, www.portercreek.com
Too cold for ice cream? Nope.
Because ice cream and polar vortex aren’t exactly simpatico, spouses Dave and Sherry Ringberg go to great lengths to lure customers into their Ring Mountain Creamery Cafe. They’ve developed a place that’s friendly to Wi-Fi camper-outers; there’s a small room tailored for group get-togethers; local artists’ work hangs on the walls; they serve a (not bad) warm sipping chocolate, and there’s even a flickering fireplace. But really, in a perfect world, the made-on-the-premises ice cream, gelato and sorbet should be enough of a draw. There’s never fewer than 40 ever-rotating varieties stretched out among two scoop cases, and they’re funneled into cones, cups, sundaes, shakes, malts and floats. Generous portions, competitive prices, nice people. What’s not to like?
1965 Cliff Lake Rd., Eagan, 651-454-7464, www.ringmountain.com
Main Street cafe, suburban-style
When Burnsville set out to create a semi-downtown from scratch (saddling it with that lame Heart of the City name) one detail planners got right was luring Jensen’s Cafe into the mix. Every Main Street needs a Main Street cafe, right? That’s exactly what this sunny, cheerful and perpetually crowded restaurant is, a welcoming focal point for its community and an offshoot of its more formal dinner-only sibling, Jensen’s Supper Club in Eagan. The kitchen is far more ambitious than, say, the Windmill. Or Perkins. Instead of one Benedict, there are six, and leitmotifs along the lines of strawberries-and-cream float through the pancakes, French toast and waffles rosters. The breakfast-all-day menu features such classics as crepe-like Swedish pancakes with tart lingonberry sauce, eggs scrambled with smoked salmon and finished with dill-laced hollandaise and cinnamon-caramel rolls served in gasp-inducingly jumbo portions. Lunch and dinner also emphasize selection, quality and value.
12750 Nicollet Av. S., Burnsville, 952-808-0500, www.jensenscafe.com
New in the neighborhood
Cupcake owner Kevin VanDeraa won top honors on the Food Network’s “Cupcake Champions” — the sort-of Super Bowl of the channel’s “Cupcake Wars” series — in July 2012, and he’s been on a major expansion push ever since. For the fourth outlet of his popular bakery, he’s landed at the former Pardon My French, attractively transforming it into the SOTR source for all things frosted, colorful and sugary, including a tempting selection of Crayola-tinted almond macaroons and lovely pastries. What sets VanDeraa’s Eagan iteration apart from his others is that he’s devoting part of the space’s vast acreage to the Mason Jar, a casual all-day cafe devoted to scratch-made favorites, including pancakes, scrambles and quiche at breakfast to a forget-about-Panera selection of thoughtfully prepared sandwiches (a classic Club, an open-faced tuna melt, a rich mushroom-based veggie burger), salads and chewy, well-topped pizzas. Top price is $13, and there’s a decent selection of beers and wines.
1565 Cliff Rd., Eagan, 651-340-6214, www.cup-cake.com
Two tastes of the East
The strip-mall Asian restaurant, one indistinguishable from the next, is alive and well SOTR. Still, two stand out. Hoban Restaurant turns out a lengthy roster of rustic, boldly flavored Korean favorites, with generally favorable results, starting with its homey selection of banchan, those tasty fermented, steamed and fried vegetable side dishes (the restaurant’s dedication to its karaoke facilities is similarly impressive). Meanwhile, tiny, inexpensive Satay 2 Go — it’s a 12-seater, tops — turns out lovely satay, noodle and rice dishes hailing from Malaysia, Indonesia, China and Japan. They take the “to go” part seriously, because the highly portable buns filled with barbecued pork or sweet red bean paste are not to be missed.
Hoban Restaurant, 1989 Silver Bell Rd., Eagan, 651-688-3447, www.hobanrestaurant.com; Satay 2 Go, 6670 150th St. W., Apple Valley, 952-891-8551, www.satay2go.com
Lakeville’s seafood surprise
Seafood-wise, there are no huge surprises at Copper River Fish & Chop House. Its roster is filled with salmon, tuna, scallops, shrimp, walleye and other routine entries. There are also expertly grilled steaks, a small selection of fresh oysters and other Oceanaire-like basics. What’s unanticipated is finding such an ambitious (and not inexpensive) restaurant in the parking lot of a Lakeville strip mall. The setting is a knockout, too, the dramatic former home of Copper Bleu and then Molly Cool’s Seafood Tavern. In this case, the third time appears to be the charm. Want to start small? Take advantage of the early bird special, served 4 to 6 p.m. daily: appetizer, entree and dessert for $30; a glass of house red or white is $3.
17516 Dodd Blvd., Lakeville, 952-432-2722, http://crfishandchop.com
Apple Valley’s gastropub
Stroll into the Valley Tap House, and the very first sensory experience is a wood-smoke nose tickle. It’s one of many major changes this sibling to the Lyndale Tap House in Minneapolis (and Prairie Tap House in Eden Prairie) has made to the building’s former tenant, a cookie-cutter sports bar. That fragrant oak scent permeates into the kitchen’s signature item, a mountainous sandwich of tender, highly seasoned and ruby-red roast beef, thin-sliced and stacked high on a toasted kaiser roll and dressed with a mild horseradish sauce. It’s superb. Without feeling formulaic, many standard-issue gastropub elements are present and accounted for, including soft pretzels served with a jazzy honey mustard, a monster bowl of ale-steamed mussels, Scotch eggs, maple-glazed pork belly and a long list of locally brewed craft beers.
14889 Florence Trail, Apple Valley, 952-431-2337, www.thevalleytaphouse.com
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