While it sometimes feels otherwise, Minneapolis and St. Paul don't have a monopoly on one-of-a-kind dining experiences.
"Barbecue might be the most opinionated of cuisines," said Charlie Johnson, and you know what? The owner of Q Fanatic BBQ and Grill is absolutely right. It doesn't hurt that he and I are in agreement on what constitutes fantastic barbecue. Namely, meaty pork ribs rubbed with plenty of ground peppers and other complementary spices, slowly cooked over apple wood until the smoke insinuates itself into -- but doesn't overpower -- the meat. A lively, espresso-kissed sauce is served on the side, where it belongs.
Johnson's pulled pork, similarly smoky and beautifully seasoned, is almost as good as his succulent, slow-roasted chicken. I loved the flavorful brisket, too; all three are served straight up (in third-pound and pound portions), in affordable family-style combination platters and generously stacked in sandwiches built with so-so par-baked rolls that Johnson wisely dresses up with plenty of butter and freshly chopped garlic.
Much of the rest of the menu hits all the right marks. Johnson cures his own brown-sugar-rubbed bacon, and it's terrific. The crunchy coleslaw has a teasing vinegar bite, and the creamy potato salad is little more than hunks of red-skinned new potatoes, hard-cooked eggs and tons of green onions. The baked beans are fortified with scraps of ribs, brisket or bacon, and it's impossible to stop at a single spoonful. Even dessert is a treat, a giant chocolate-white chocolate-butterscotch cookie that more than earns its "Monster" name.
Johnson's family -- spouse Jodi and their children Zander, Hannah and Camden -- are the friendly faces behind the counter. The whole operation raises a question: When the setup is this accomplished, why eat anywhere else in Champlin?
Q Fanatic BBQ and Grill, 180 Miller Rd., Champlin, 763-323-6550, www.qfanatic.com. Open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, noon to 9 p.m. Saturday and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday.Generating heat in Bloomington
When a group of kitchen and front-of-the-house employees from Little Szechuan in St. Paul decided to bust a move, they followed an all-American pattern and migrated from the city to the suburbs. I like to think of Grand Szechuan as University Avenue's loss and Bloomington's gain. Believe me, the Valley West shopping center has never tasted so good.
The lengthy menu makes "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" seem like light reading. But beyond its well prepared Asian 101 staples -- Kung Pao beef, sesame chicken, General Tsao's shrimp, cream cheese wontons -- the restaurant deserves special attention for its adventurous use of rare-in-Minnesota ingredients: jellyfish, beef and pork tripe, beef tongue, pork ears, eel, fish heads and frog legs.
Like its inner-city inspiration, Grand Szechuan also favors unabashedly fiery, sweat-inducing fare. Noodle dishes are a house specialty, and if a dish contains gently smoked tofu, order it. No alcohol -- yet. Service is friendly and fast; it's tough to find a price higher than the low teens, and the setting is more sophisticated than its shopping center address might otherwise suggest.
Grand Szechuan, 10602 France Av. S., Bloomington, 952-888-6507, www.grandszechuan.net. Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4:30 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.Brazil comes to Hopkins
The former home of Gusto Cafe and Wine Bar didn't stay dark for long. Happily, the Mainstreet storefront has found new life as Samba Taste of Brazil, where the Pantano family -- Brazilians Joe Luis and Maria Lucia and their son Gabriel -- infuse a warm and gracious sense of hospitality into their colorful, casual restaurant.
The starters start out right: tender rice croquettes, the tasty salt cod cakes, grilled bread topped with grilled shrimp liberally dressed with garlic, fried pastries filled with hearts of palm or ground beef, pork-chile sausages smothered with grilled onions.
The home cooking-style entrees lean on the comfort-food end of the dining spectrum. A stew of black beans and sausages had a crockpot vibe (in a good way) and was served with couscous-like farofa (toasted flour), rice and collard greens. Beef is served a half-dozen ways, usually with mashed potatoes or rice or a cassava puree. Tilapia, lobster and shredded cod also make it on the menu, which is rounded out by several stick-to-your-ribs rice dishes (accompanied by chicken or shrimp) that were billed as risottos but had more of a paella feel.
Some dinner prices veer into the mid-$20s, but most hover in the mid-teens. Lunch's salads, sandwiches and entrees land in the $6 to $9 range. Skip the imported-from-New Jersey desserts and stick with the decent house-made flan. A small market is stocked with Brazilian supermarket staples, and the moderately priced beer and wine rosters include a few South American selections.
Samba Taste of Brazil, 922 Mainstreet, Hopkins, 952-935-2708, www.sambatasteofbrazil.com. Open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757
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