When general manager Rob Whitney and chef Alejandro Cerdas Monge took over the former Cafe Zentral, they re-christened it World Cafe, a reflection of their global approach to flavors.
Sure, they offer basics — the build-your-own sandwiches are a considerable step up from Subway — but what makes this gem stand out is Cerdas Monge’s imaginative, attentive quick-service cooking.
The star of the show is a daily rice-and-beans bowl, served with mock duck or tender, juicy chicken. It could be a rich, hearty mole, but consider it your extra-lucky day if Cerdas Monge has been slow-simmering coconut milk in curry paste, peppers and blazing Thai chiles, and then liberally spooning the sweet-hot results over jasmine rice and crunchy vegetables. Whatever the combo, it’s a steal at $8.95.
Cerdas Monge also keeps the panini presses going full-throttle, churning out creative variations (the Cubano is a must) that more than match his excursions into his inspiration-of-the-moment soups and chilies.
It’s also the rare skyway spot that serves a decent breakfast. I love the crêpes, so eggy and tender and golden, their toppings (Nutella-banana, butter-sugar) a welcome exercise in discipline. And the handful of a.m. wraps and sandwiches are as well stuffed as their noon-hour counterparts.
The coffee’s good, too, which should come as no surprise; in a past life, Whitney was the owner of the former Montana Coffee House, a North Loop pioneer, and he knows what he’s doing. Next up: a proprietary blend, from a Costa Rican coffee farmer, a connection to Cerdas Monge’s native country.
While he’s hammering out the kitchen’s ins and outs, Cerdas Monge is letting others do the baking — the results are perfectly serviceable — with one glowing exception: slabs of a crazy-good bread pudding, fashioned from bakery case leftovers, which often mean blueberry or banana-nut muffins. It’s carb loading at its most decadent.
The duo took over the Soo Line Building space in October, a rare indie among the neighborhood’s incessant chain-driven, food-court environment.
“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a challenge to get the skyway crowd,” Whitney said. “We’re proud that we’re owner-operated, but it’s also a challenge not being like everyone else. But all we can do is try and bring more believers into the fold.” Amen to that.
105 S. 5th St., Mpls., 612-298-6808, worldcafempls.com. Open 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays.
It’s a tiresome trope: How many restaurants have been described — in most cases, inaccurately — as the “Chipotle of (fill in the blank)”?
Too many. But here’s the thing: The most expedient way to categorize the remarkable Bep Eatery is labeling it the “Chipotle of Vietnamese food.”
The setups are remarkably similar. Diners move along a line and select from a mix-and-match set of ingredients, creating one of four dishes — in this case, it’s spring rolls, banh mi, pho or a vermicelli rice noodle bowl — that are assembled in front of them by a friendly, fleet-footed staff.
Owners Mark and Thanh Myhre are first-time restaurateurs, but their rookie status is nowhere evident in this first-rate enterprise.
Mark, who has a background in marketing, supervises the business, and Thanh — who left his native Vietnam as a 7-year-old — is the cook.
He makes a lasting impression by wisely concentrating on bright, deeply vibrant flavors, from the pho’s pristine chicken or beef broths (their flavors coaxed from bones during a slow 16-hour simmer) to the wide array of garden-fresh herbs and vegetables. It’s street food, served one floor up.
The price is right, too: All four main dishes are $7.95, and most beverages (including Vietnamese coffee and an array of Minnesota-made Joia sodas) are in the $2 to $3 range.
Two caveats: Steel yourself for the ever-present line (it moves with relative speed) and don’t count on securing a table, as there are only a handful of seats on the premises, a cramped converted conference room.
The couple married four years ago, and the restaurant’s limited hours are a boon when it comes to the demands of raising their 2-year-old daughter. Still, what’s it like working side by side all day, and then going home together?
“People ask us that all the time,” Mark said with a laugh. “We’re still married, and we hope to be able to do this forever.”
This diner hopes so, too. Business is good (next up: breakfast), so much so that the Myhres plan to launch a second downtown outlet this year. I have one word of advice: Hurry.
Bep Eatery, 100 S. 5th St., Mpls., 612-338-5189, bepeatery.com. Open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays.
Salad success story
The Myhres considered starting their business as a food truck. “But we didn’t want to get lost in the shuffle,” Mark said.
Green + the Grain owners Tiffany Hauser and Dustin Naugle initially followed a similar strategy. They wanted to start with a skyway location, but after four exasperating negotiations with landlords fell through, they bought a truck, a comparatively easier route.
“We made that decision in February, and we were on the streets in May,” Hauser said.
That was 2014, and their salad-focused enterprise was the immediate hit they knew it would be. Still, the notion of a permanent location remained firmly rooted in their minds and business plan. Driven as ever, their brick-and-mortar iteration finally came to fruition last July.
A flurry of salad shops have blossomed in the skyway in the past two years, but G+TG stands out for its commitment to originality and freshness.
And quality. The chicken is sourced from all-natural, free-range Amish farmers; the bacon hails from sought-after Thielen Meats in Pierz, Minn.; the spinach and grains (farro, wheat berry, quinoa) are all-organic products.
A small percentage of diners prefer the menu’s design-your-own option, but the bulk of the shop’s sales are devoted to their well-composed signature salads, which deliberately develop memorable flavors and textures.
My current favorite is a Thai-influenced mix that’s popping with basil and cilantro, with a peanut dressing that’s the opposite of shy. A close second is the Moroccan, with its saffron-scented couscous, cool grapes, toasted almonds and chewy kale. For diners searching for a more portable option, all salads can be rolled into wraps.
One bummer is that Hauser and Naugle are vexed by distribution problems with the superb (and superbly tangy) organic frozen yogurt that they’ve been serving since Day 1. It should rematerialize in time for the return of warm weather.
Those who have stood in line at G+TG will be pleased to learn that Hauser and Naugle are opening their second skyway outpost — same menu, more seating — in a former sub sandwich shop in the Roanoke Building.
Construction is underway, and Hauser estimates they’ll be up and running in two months, next door to two other food trucks that have brightened that skyway pathway, Vellee Deli and Turkey to Go. Three makes a trend, right?
Green + the Grain, 800 LaSalle Av. (LaSalle Plaza), Mpls., 612-341-9000, greenandthegrain.com. Open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays.
Keep in mind
On the subject of salads, Greenfield Natural Kitchen (120 S. 6th St., 612-455-7060, greenfieldnk.com) does the design-your-own salad routine very well. Kudos for its breakfast menu — it’s basically scrambled eggs tossed with salad fixings — as well as the excellent beverage options (downtown’s best fresh-squeezed lemonade) and admirable commitment to recycling and composting. A second location (800 Nicollet Mall, 612-314-4808) opened last month.
Like-minded Sprout Salad Co. (555 Nicollet Mall, 612-886-2723, sproutsalad.com) is also in major expansion mode, with branches planned for downtown St. Paul and Stadium Village near the University of Minnesota. Pros? Excellent proteins (juicy blackened shrimp, succulent grilled salmon) and imaginative dressings (try the carrot-ginger). Cons? Tiny seating area.
On the horizon
The chains show no sign of slowing down. Chicago-based Naf Naf Grill is opening its second skyway location in City Center, and Five Guys Burgers and Fries is landing its first downtown outpost (serving milkshakes, a company rarity) in RBC Plaza.
The offerings at the vast majority of Asian skyway restaurants taste as if they all fell off the back of the same truck. But not always. Tiny newcomer Orient Express Chinese and Malaysian Cuisine (601 Marquette Av., Mpls., 612-341-3313) is the place for quick-service roast duck.
This spring, Greek Grill & Cafe will reopen, in the Northstar Center (625 Marquette Av., Mpls.).
The happiest news is that Pad Ga-Pow — promising “fresh, fast and authentic Thai cuisine” — is coming to the former home of Sky Bites in the Highland Bank Court building (811 LaSalle Av., Mpls.). It’s the work of the folks behind the terrific On’s Kitchen in St. Paul.