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5 best things our food critic ate in the Twin Cities this week

I’m on vacation, but here’s a rundown of my dining diary for the few days prior to leaving for the shores of Lake Superior. What were your top eats of the past week? Share the details in the comments section. 

Peanut butter-filled chocolate cookie at World Street Kitchen

This is one of those ideas that immediately beg the question, “Why didn’t someone think of this before?” (OK, someone somewhere probably has). “It’s, like, ten years in the making,” said chef/co-owner Sameh Wadi. The cookie’s roots reach back to Saffron – Wadi’s much-missed Warehouse District restaurant (2007-2016, R.I.P.) -- where the staff meal often featured a variation on this treat. “Rick Smrstick our baker and I tweaked them for World Street Kitchen,” said Wadi. Any and all tinkering has paid off. The filling follows creamy P.B. tenets -- no “chunky” here -- but it isn’t straight-from-the-jar peanut butter; the formula is clearly modeled on the classic Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup format, only way better. The crinkle-topped cookie is soft and chewy with a just-right chocolate aura, a fitting envelope for that smooth filling. One bite, and I knew that I was going to be spending the winter months in the kitchen, attempting to replicate Smrstick's and Wadi's cookie-baking triumph. $2.75. 2743 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., 612-424-8855

Yum-Yum Rice Bowl at World Street Kitchen

When chef Sameh Wadi and his brother and business partner Saed Wadi launched their World Street Kitchen food truck in 2010, this beauty was a menu staple. I’m not suggesting that WSK’s rice bowl was the first to materialize on the Twin Cities dining landscape, but its high profile certainly sparked the seemingly never-ending rice bowl boom. It helps that the versions at the WSK brick-and-mortar restaurant remain as tasty as ever. Sameh Wadi ensures that his signature dish covers the quick-service, meal-in-a-bowl checklist: variations on color, texture, flavor and temperature, all enriched by a soft-cooked, runny-yolk egg. The design-your-own factor comes in with the addition of handled-with-care proteins: grilled chicken, caramelized lamb belly, lemongrass-scented meatballs, Korean-style beef short ribs, tofu. Portions are more than generous, and it never hurts to double-up on the meat. $11.50 to $14.75, with double-up prices an additional $3.50 to $5.50. 2743 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., 612-424-8855

Sourdough flapjacks at Sun Street Breads

There are plenty of styles of pancakes, and this is a variation that I happen to love: thick, slightly doughy, as big as a dinner plate and fueled with sourdough, which produces a tang that just can’t be replicated with baking powder, baking soda or other go-to pancake leavening agents. Leave it to a skilled bread baker to deliver a first-rate pancake, right? It’s like knowing you’ll encounter a fantastic cheeseburger at a steakhouse. But chef/co-owner Solveig Tofte is typically modest. “They’re pure Nancy Silverton,” she said, referring to the influential Los Angeles chef and author (find the recipe in Silverton’s 23-year-old landmark cookbook, “Breads from the La Brea Bakery”). The batter is sweetened with maple syrup rather than sugar – I’ll remember that substitution the next time I haul out the pancake griddle at home -- and the syrup that’s served on the side is the real deal, not the fake, corn syrup-ey, imitation-flavored dreck that mars the flapjacks at so many Twin Cities breakfast haunts. $4.95, $6.95 and $8.95. 4600 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-354-3414

Margherita pizza at Punch Pizza

Do we even realize how fortunate we are? Any day of the week, we can walk into a Punch Pizza outlet – there are 12 locations -- drop a reasonable amount of cash, wait about five to 10 minutes and then indulge in one of the region’s great pleasures: a handmade replication of the pride of Naples, Italy. Over the past 23 years, the company’s expansion hasn’t sacrificed quality; the commitment to consistency is remarkable. The Neapolitan-style pizzas sport crusts that are puffed and charred on the edges, stretchy and limp on the bottom, and they’re topped with a discerning and uncomplicated array of toppings and then baked in showy wood-burning ovens. I tend to veer towards the Margherita with mushrooms and ham (that’s the pizza, pictured, above), dappled with milky mozzarella and tons of fresh basil, but that’s just me. Tip: It’s worth a trip to the original Punch in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood, the only location in the chain with table service, because it’s also the only location to feature calzones, and they’re fantastic. $6.95 to $14.70. Twelve Twin Cities locations, including outlets in Maple Grove, Wayzata, Eden Prairie, Woodbury, Eagan, Vadnais Heights and Roseville

“Heirloom” pizza at Due Focacceria

Looking over this list, it’s awfully bread-ey, isn’t it? I guess my body is telegraphing the message to carb-load for winter. The draw here was the toppings: the heirloom tomatoes, sweet corn, zucchini and basil mirrored my farmers market shopping list. Enjoy them while we can, right? Add mozzarella and the kitchen’s dense, yeasty focaccia, and you’ve got a compelling new way to think about pizza. I’m looking forward to returning to this newcomer – it’s the work of the enterprising couple behind Italian Eatery – and grazing my way through the rest of the counter-service menu. $5. 475 Fairview Av. S., St. Paul, 651-493-8735

5 best things our food critic ate in the Twin Cities this week

From Maryland-style pit beef sandwiches to a brownie of my dreams, here are the highlights of a few visits to the new Graze Provisions + Libations food hall. What were your top eats of the week? Share the details in the comments section. 

Baltimore sandwich from Carbon Coal-Fired Pit Beef

Let’s shorthand that name to Graze, shall we? The North Loop’s small-scaled food hall (520 4th St. N., Mpls.) is a collection of seven food stands and a pair of bars. Many of the vendors were recruited from the local food truck universe, and let’s just say that the hall’s operators were successful in their curatorial duties.

Starting with the recruitment of Stephen Trojahn and Catherine Eckert. For Graze, the couple decided to branch out from their well-established Gastrotruck brand. Eckert is a Maryland native, and on a visit Trojahn fell for the region’s pit beef stands, which specialize in charcoal-grilled beef that's sliced thin, stuffed into buns and covered in a horseradish sauce that’s universally referred to as “Tiger Sauce.” That tradition sparked the idea for Carbon Coal-Fired Pit Beef.

“We decided that rather than do a hundred different things, we wanted to focus on few things, and do them really well,” said Trojahn.

Mission accomplished. I adored this sandwich ($11, pictured, above), not only for its brazen deliciousness, but also because its deceptively simple appearance hides a deep sense of craftsmanship. 

The beef, sourced from Peterson Craftsman Meats in Osceola, Wis., is bottom round, an affordable, often overlooked cut that Trojahn skillfully improves. He nurtures it over slow-burning charcoal until it’s tender as all get-out, slices it so it's not quite paper-thin, but certainly cardboard-thin, stacks it in a milk-enriched, buttered-and-toasted bun (from Denny’s 5th Avenue Bakery in Bloomington) and ends on a pair of high notes: a pile-on of punchy pickled red onions and horseradish-laced sour cream. He’s as pleased with the results as I am.

“This gives me a chance to play with a charcoal grill every day,” said Trojahn with a laugh. “It’s like I’m in my back yard all the time, and it doesn’t get much better than that for a chef.”

The stand puts that stellar beef to other uses, including a French dip and a Philly-style cheesesteak. Don’t miss the fries, hand-cut Idaho spuds taken to a dark golden brown and cleverly finished with two Maryland touches: celery salt-forward Old Bay seasoning, and a snappy vinegar powder. Kudos also for stocking cans from Northern Soda Co., including a vivacious, not-too-sweet root beer.

Empanadas at MidNord Empanadas & Churros

Phil Gaffney, another prominent Twin Cities food trucker, has set up a brick-and-mortar outpost of his fan favorite MidNord Empanadas, with a slight switch: he’s added churros to the title, and to the menu. “Who doesn’t like a good churros?” he said with a laugh, and he’s right; he’s frying up a vegan version, and they’re terrific. After seven years in a mobile kitchen, Gaffney has more than proved that he’s a skilled empanadas maker; at Graze, he’s selling a handful of mix-and-match varieties (two for $9, three for $12). My favorites? The tender, slow-braised pork, sweetened with plantains and enriched with smoky poblano peppers. Oh, and the first-rate chimichurri chicken, the juicy meat popping with obviously fresh and copious amounts of lime, parsley, cilantro and oregano. What a delight to have Gaffney’s handiwork available on a more regularly scheduled basis. 

Beef banh mi burger at Lu’s Restaurant

What an inspired idea: merge the traits of a banh mi with those of a burger ($11), and who knows the ins-and-outs of the banh mi better than the folks at Lu's Sandwiches? The Angus beef patty, thick but loosely formed, hugs the bun’s edges and surely teeters toward half-pound status. It’s grilled to order, and taken to a just-about medium, with streaks of pink in the center and crusty bits of char on the exterior. The rest? Brilliant. There’s a heaping helping of freshly chopped cilantro and mint, loads of crispy (and flavor-inducing) fried shallots, a colorful handful of pickled carrots and daikon (its vinegar acts as a small-scale palate cleanser), a few slices of heat-inducing pickled jalepeno and a melty slice of provolone. That’s all stuffed into a triumph of a bun, a house-baked beauty that's formed into a Kaiser roll-like shape and mimics a baguette’s strength. It’s a monster of a burger -- thank goodness the stand supplies knives and forks – and it’s fantastic. There’s the option of a plant-based (and soy-free) patty (at the same price, a nice touch), and there’s nothing wrong with the modest portion of McDonald’s-like fries.

Double A at Soul Bowl

The recent Popeyes vs. Chick-fil-A brouhaha seems meaningless after encountering chef Gerard Klass’ ingenious and gleefully over-the-top play on the fried chicken sandwich ($12). The dreamy fried chicken – served in a beyond-generous portion -- possesses that ideal juicy meat/crispy coating juxtaposition, and Klass dresses it in tangy collard greens and mac-and-cheese because, why not? A sweet-hot honey-Sriracha sauce is a welcome finishing touch, and the topper is a gently sweet cornbread bun, its soft texture precluding thoughts of handheld sandwich consumption. In other words, this is another knife-and-fork delicacy, one that’s certainly big enough to share. Another reason to visit: Klass offers a long list of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. Plus, the lavender lemonade ($3) is refreshing as all get-out. 

Brownies at Honey and Rye Bakehouse

Regulars at the H&R mother ship in St. Louis Park know first-hand that baker Anne Andrus really knows her stuff. Witness the myriad reasons she creates for making an a.m. visit to Graze: sticky caramel-laden pull-aparts; spiraled cinnamon-and-sugar-dusted morning buns; scones enriched with Cheddar and fueled with jalapenos, which constitute a jolt of a wake-up call; thick slices of rich banana bread; and spot-on croissants, some filled with Gruyere and ham, others scented with almond. Outside of breakfast, Andrus has a gift with all kinds of butter-laden sweets, including spongy, can’t-eat-just-one madeleines. A pinnacle Honey and Rye experience is the brownie ($3.25). Sturdy and intensely chocolaty – their bittersweet bite borders on thirst-inducing – they sport a caffeine jolt that rivals that of a double Americano. Andrus’ well-tuned sense of asceticism serves her well, because these fudgy squares are notable for what they don’t have: no mint icing, no “turtle” treatment, nothing to blur their obvious quality. Instead, simplicity rules, to the benefit of brownie connoisseurs and novices alike.

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