“I feel like we could be in Uptown,” said my friend, and he was right.
Although we were dining smack dab in the middle of St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood, the fun and funky storefront was pushing all kinds of on-trend design buttons normally associated with south Minneapolis hangouts: walls of horizontal reclaimed lumber, rough-hewed tabletops, eye-grabbing screen prints by Twin Cities artist Adam Turman. Oh, and a coffee bar stocked with top-shelf Dogwood Coffee beans.
But there’s more to Groundswell Coffee beyond those first impressions. Owners Seth McCoy and Tim Gilbert have been bringing about a gradual metamorphosis of their laid-back business, culminating earlier this year by expanding, renovating and hiring a chef. He’s Johnny Becker, an Asheville, N.C., transplant who performs some minor miracles in his bare-bones kitchen.
On paper, Becker’s work appears to be basic Coffeehouse 101 stuff. But in reality, much of it is rises far above standard-issue Caribou.
During the day, the focus is on a handful of carefully prepared sandwiches ($8 to $12), headlined by a pair of gussied-up grilled cheese variations and a tempeh Reuben that almost makes a pastrami lover forget that it’s meatless. Skip the rote cheese plate. Instead graze through an array of spreads, including those based on the specialty cream cheese company that Becker started in Asheville.
A super-fresh guacamole and a punchy salsa are served with crispy tortilla chips. Becker also cranks out a few tacos that would be the pride of any food truck, and they’re the centerpiece of his happy hour (3 to 6 p.m. daily) deal: $5 buys a taco and glass of beer or wine from a short but well-edited list. Not bad, right?
In the evening, the emphasis changes to flatbreads ($12 to $13), and they’re fine, with chewy, semi-round crusts heaped with a medley of like-minded toppings. The one to order is a colorful medley of roasted vegetables, and while it isn’t terribly pretty, there’s a lot of life in the version topped with salsa, feisty chorizo and, after it comes out of the oven, blobs of that tasty guacamole.
But Becker’s also choosing to feed the neighborhood with a pair of changes-weekly dinner specials. Last week he was baking off slabs of all-beef meatloaf, each robust bite singing with sweet roasted onions and caramelized peppers (and plenty of garlic), with roasted new potatoes acting as a base and crispy sautéed kale and a rich pan gravy for finishing touches. Becker applies an inverse relationship between portion size (enormous) and price ($13, a major value).
Baker Megan Greulich fills the counter case with all kinds of reasonably priced temptations. In the morning, the stars of the show are tightly coiled, cinnamon-packed rolls blanketed in cardamom-teased cream cheese icing. Like Becker, she doesn’t forget about vegan and gluten-free diets, and when the time comes to segue into cupcake territory, Greulich is more than up to the challenge. Like all good neighborhood hangouts, there’s ice cream (from Izzy’s) by the scoop.
Breakfast ($7 to $10) is a treat, particularly on weekends when the menu expands. Greulich fires up the waffle iron and cranks out tender buttermilk beauties with a hint of a cornmeal crunch. Becker serves them straight up with berries, nuts and maple syrup. But they’re even better when stacked, sandwich-like, and filled with his crazy-good pecan/candied bacon cream cheese (given Becker’s cream cheeses — love the cranberry-habanero combo — it has to be a matter of time before Greulich tackles bagels, right?). A savory pork gravy smothers similarly savory bacon-gruyère biscuits. Or for sheer overkill, there’s Greulich’s vegan-but-doesn’t-taste-like-it banana bread, done up French toast-style and served with a half-dozen belt-busting garnishes.
Even the iced tea, so often the neglected coffeehouse stepchild, is handled with care. Come to think of it, Uptown should be so lucky to have a place like this.
1340 Thomas Av. (at N. Hamline Av.), St. Paul, 651-645-6466, www.groundswellmn.com. Open 6:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 6:30 a.m.-midnight Fri., 7:30 a.m.-midnight Sat., 7:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Sun.
A bite to eat at Buttered Tin
Meanwhile, in St. Paul’s Lowertown: A former sub shop, reborn as the Buttered Tin, has quickly become both the breakfast-and-lunch spot that the neighborhood has always curiously lacked, and the morning-and-afternoon destination that every neighborhood wants.
Owners Alicia Hinze and Jennifer Lueck have a great how-they-met story. Hinze, a veteran of Cupcake in southeast Minneapolis, was hunting around for space for her own bakery/cafe, and through a circuitous connection — one of those you-should-meet-my-cousin’s-husband’s-cousin stories — she met with Lueck, who was working in restaurant public relations but, as it turned out, dreamed of opening her own place. They got to talking and realized they shared nearly identical business plans. A partnership was born.
By emphasizing fresh ingredients, house-made practices and time-tested formulas, Lueck and Hinze are simultaneously underscoring just how good quick-service food can be and, by comparison, how mediocre it usually is. That the vast majority of prices are below $10 is another reason to love.
The lunch menu is anchored by comfort food-esque sandwiches — the tuna melt to end all tuna melts, a glorious chicken club — and crisp, colorful salads. At breakfast, a daily “hot dish” turns out to be a rich deep-dish strata. French toast meets bananas Foster, with over-the-top (in a good way) results. As a part of the kitchen’s everything-is-better-with-bacon mantra, enticingly browned buttermilk pancakes are embellished with bacon-infused butter. Even something so basic as scrambled eggs or two-eggs-any-style gets treated with tender loving care.
Hinze is the baker, and her work will revive the sense memories of anyone with pre-Betty Crocker grandmothers. Those thoughts will certainly come roaring back with a single nibble of Hinze’s ultra-moist sweet breads: a poppyseed-riddled orange bread, a dense banana bread enriched with chocolate chips or a blend of raspberries and bits of white chocolate.
Given her Cupcake pedigree, it should come as no surprise that Hinze has a firm handle on the genre, right down to her dreamy Swiss meringue buttercream icings. To say that the cookies are habit-forming is an understatement.
But what’s most memorable are Hinze’s nostalgic nods to Hostess snack cakes. By invoking a golden vanilla cake and freshly whipped cream, her Twinkie totally trumps the factory’s spongy, flavor-free version. Her deeply fudgy version of a CupCake/Ho Hos mash-up is another guilty pleasure. With these two home runs, perhaps Hinze will turn her talents to the Sno Ball. Or could there be Suzy Q’s in her future, and therefore ours? Here’s hoping.
On the savory side, whatever Hinze touches turns to gold. At breakfast, a sweet, crumbly corn muffin becomes the basis for awesome huevos rancheros. Fabulously tender, thyme-scented buttermilk biscuits set a high standard for an equally appealing pork sausage gravy. Several sandwiches start with square loaves of a sunflower-topped honey-wheat bread. Oh, and a wonderfully robust tomato-basil soup shares the bowl with what the menu labels croutons but turn out to be butter-soaked cubes of grilled cheese sandwich goodness.
“I love butter,” said Hinze with a laugh. “If you saw my toast in the morning, you’d say, ‘Yeah, she likes butter.’ ”
The casual setting is cheery and spotless, with counter service on weekdays, and table service on weekends, when the neighborhood is flooded with St. Paul Farmers Market shoppers. 237 E. 7th St., St. Paul, 651-224-2300, www. thebutteredtin.com. Open 7 a.m.-3 p.m. daily.