Why it works: Drop in once and you’ll wonder why the Twin Cities hasn’t been inundated in empanada shops (for another sterling example, check out Boludo at 3749 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., boludoempanadas.com), because these single-serving turnovers make so much sense in the quick-service world. Empanadas readily adapt to a laundry list of fillings, and they travel well, making them ideal grab-and-go fare. Owners and Argentine natives Diego Montero and Nicolas Nikolov know their way around the genre — they’ve been operating a food truck for nearly five years — and they fill their case with nearly a dozen varieties: a lively chorizo with potatoes and chimichurri, ground beef sweetened with raisins and onions, hearts of palm with prosciutto, along with five meat-free options, including a mix of sweet corn, red peppers and mozzarella, plus a Caprese-like turn with roasted tomatoes. A single goes for $4, and then volume pricing sets in: three for $10, or 12 for $36. There are gluten-free options, too.
Caveats: The sandwiches are enormous and shareable ($6 to $14), and they’re fine, but they’re not operating with the same finesse as the empanadas.
Nice touch: Sure, there are perfectly pleasant housemade desserts — tres leches cake, flan — but full marks for featuring exquisitely rendered cookies (the alfajores are superb) from Criollas Pastries, a farmers market favorite. Here’s hoping that this outpost will lead to the bakery’s own brick-and-mortar location.
Beverages: Eleven by-the-glass wines (average price: $9), four local tap beers ($5, including an IPA from neighboring Unmapped Brewing Co.), plus a handful of Jarritos sodas.
Setting: A strip-mall storefront that’s comfortable, attractive and family-friendly.
Service: Friendly and fleet.
Location: 14725 Excelsior Blvd., Minnetonka, 952-303-6081, delsurempanadas.com. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sun.
Why it works: What a great idea, to use several varieties of grits — a creamy, ages-old Southern staple that deserves a wider audience here in the Bold North — as the foundation of a contemporary quick-service menu. The No. 1 seller is the “Acadian,” with good reason: It’s shrimp and aged Cheddar grits, fortified with smoked andouille sausage. “Nine out of 10 questions that I get asked is, ‘Do you have shrimp and grits?’” said owner Jared Brewington with a laugh. “For most people, shrimp and grits seems to be the base memory of grits.” Five other quick-service options place other flavors in the spotlight, including slow-braised pork belly and tender pulled chicken. Not a cornmeal fan? Try the dishes that call upon fluffy, long-grain rice. Grits and rice dishes run $13, and a handful of well-stuffed sandwiches (pulled pork, smoked turkey) are $12. Other thoughtful touches include vegan versions of collard greens and beans and rice ($6), plus a long list of brunch bowls ($12 and $13) that combine grits dishes with hash browns and eggs. Don’t miss the dreamy peach cobbler, made for the restaurant by Lutunji’s Palate. Get this: owner Lutunji Abram is opening an outlet for her cobblers (peach and pecan), white coconut cake and coconut macaroons. Find it at 930 Hennepin Av. S. in Minneapolis starting Feb. 22.
Caveats: A handful of starters — cornmeal battered-and-fried pork belly, walleye cakes — taste as if they’re from a different (and lesser) restaurant.
Nice touch: Any restaurant that keeps bottles of locally produced Cry Baby Craig’s hot sauce on the table is A-OK by me.
Beverages: The highlight is the four taps ($6.50) from first-rate Bauhaus Brew Labs.
Setting: The bare-bones but cheery atmosphere takes its cues from the “funky” name. Go for the music; Brewington could turn his playlist into a profit center.
Service: Hospitable and knowledgeable.
Location: 805 E. 38th St., Mpls., 612-367-4978, funkygrits.com. Open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri., 8 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4-9 p.m. Sat., 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.
Why it works: The setup is a smart variation on the now-familiar grain bowls theme. In this case, native-harvested wild rice, quinoa, jasmine rice and noodles cut from sweet potatoes are all dolled up with a smart array of both raw and cooked vegetables, animal proteins (juicy roast chicken, flavorful braised beef, poached eggs with runny yolks) and a flurry of toppings that range from nuts to herbs to lively dressings. There’s a design-your-own option, and co-owners Kate and Patrick Sidoti have also created seven standard “favorites” that cater to a wide range of appetites and emphasize color, texture and flavor variations. The results are frequently delicious — and virtuous, minus any preachiness — and vegetarians and vegans will find a lot to like. The menu boasts several happy surprises, including a pair of imaginative, designed-to-share snack boards.
Caveats: Yes, it’s evident that the Sidotis are using premium ingredients. But the larger-portion bowls are $15 to $17, unfamiliar territory for those accustomed to Roti Modern Mediterranean prices. Like all other menu items, the desserts — cookies, bars and other uncomplicated options — are gluten-free. The results are more earnest than appealing, at least from my perspective as a prodigious consumer of gluten; still, it’s easy to discern that Kate Sidoti is no slouch when it comes to gluten-free baking.
Nice touch: There’s stoneware and flatware rather than their disposable (and flimsy) fast-food counterparts.
Beverages: A slim but well-chosen array of local beers and moderately priced wines, plus a coffeehouse-like list of coffee and tea drinks. A value-priced happy hour, too.
Setting: A sunny, airy corner spot — on the first floor of an apartment building — with views that stretch to Bde Maka Ska and the channel that connects to Lake of the Isles.
Service: Quick, cashless.
Location: 2919 Knox Av. S., Mpls., 612-261-0506, brimrestaurant.com. Open 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun.