Eat Street -- it's the only place in Minneapolis where you can find a one-bedroom brownstone apartment with a mile-long kitchen.
Back in the day, before the city concocted the hokey nickname and hung unreadable blue banners from every Nicollet Avenue streetlight from downtown to Kmart, only neighbors in Whittier and Stevens Square knew the best places to go for baba ghanouj and broken rice plates. Since its christening as Eat Street, the neighborhood has slowly improved and almost everyone from Camden to Nokomis knows about Quang and Azia.
With the exception of a McDonald's and a Starbucks, chain restaurants have ignored this part of town. With gentrification at the neighborhood's borders, mom-and-pop joints are expanding from eight-table holes in the wall into 20-table dining rooms.
Still, for the novice Eat Street diner, it's easy to feel like a tourist in your own city. It's also just as easy for the regular to be blinded by loyalty to one restaurant and miss out on the offerings of 20 others.
Feel like flaming saganaki? Murgh tandoori? Pollo en mole poblano? In a 10-minute walk, you can eat all three and score a lychee bubble tea for dessert on the way home. Let's break it down, meal by meal.
Like your grandmother's tomato soup, pho -- the national soup of Vietnam -- is the perfect winter comfort food. In Vietnam, pho varies by the region. On Eat Street, pho varies by the block. Pho fans all have their favorite restaurants, and mine is Jasmine Deli.
The broth there is the perfect combination of salty and sweet; the noodles are silky yet firm. The cooks are quite generous with chicken and tofu. The soup is served with bean sprouts, fresh herbs, slices of jalapeño pepper and a wedge of lime, so you can season it to taste. In addition to cilantro and green onion, don't be surprised to find several cloves of fried garlic in your bowl. Split your pho with a friend and save room for a vegetarian baht mi -- a sandwich served on a crisp baguette filled with fried mock duck and stacked with slivers of jalapeño, carrot and cilantro.
Fans of Vietnamese cuisine will find a voluminous menu, and more elbow room, at neighborhood icon Quang. During the weekend rush, however, you'll also find a longer wait for a table and a less attentive staff.
Many Eat Street restaurants are focusing more on vegetarian and vegan dishes. If you're into mock meat, try Evergreen Taiwanese Restaurant. Mock beef, mock shrimp and even mock squid -- almost every entrée in this basement eatery can be prepared without meat. With so many options, it's tempting to forget about the tofu, but don't. The three-cup tofu is one of the better offerings on the menu. Fried in sesame oil with garlic, ginger and Thai basil, these tasty squares of tofu leave your mouth with a little kick of hot pepper.
Like lunch, dinner on Eat Street is a casual affair. Hoodies and jeans are the standard evening wear. Entrees can be a little more expensive (and larger) than lunch, but two people can share an excellent meal for less than $30.
Nicollet Avenue has many Mexican eateries, but it is Salsa a la Salsa that scoffs at Minnesota's Nordic palate and serves up a kick-ass mole. Start with the orange jimaca salad or the tostones con camarónes, fried plantains and shrimp sautéed in a smoky chipotle tomatillo sauce and served with a delicious papaya chutney. For an entree, try the pollo en mole poblano, camarónes chiltepin or the flautas de papa. Tacos, tamales, enchiladas and more can be ordered á la carte and made vegetarian.
If you prefer curry to chiltepin, Peninsula Malayasian Cuisine will not disappoint. In fact, it's not unusual to feel torn between two really different entrees such as the mango chicken and the red curry beef stew hot pot.
You don't have to dig sauerbraten or hasenpfeffer to fall in love with the desserts at the Black Forest Inn (1 E. 26th St.). The apple strudel is divine. With the slightest touch of your fork, the buttery pastry reveals the warm, cinnamon-baked apple slices, raisins and almonds hidden inside. The hazelnut torte, a fluffy hazelnut cake layered with raspberry preserves and covered in buttercream frosting, is equally decadent. The rich and velvety hot chocolate is served with two homemade marshmallows. The dining room, decorated in dark wood and stained glass, is cozy, and the small bar is even cozier. While you wait for your order, count how many inebriated gnomes you can find in paintings around the room. If you're really lucky, an accordion player might honor your table with a German Christmas carol.
For sweet freaks on the go, try one of the 80 varieties of bubble tea at Bubble Delite (2515 Nicollet). The lychee slushy with nectar coco is so wonderfully sweet and chewy, you'd swear you were drinking Gummi Berry Juice. A fruit slushy is your best bet, because milk teas are blended with non-dairy creamer and can be a little gritty.
With its beautiful Asian art, high ceilings, dark booths and candle-lit tables, Azia's dining room is more impressive than its entrees. Don't get me wrong - the plating is beautiful and the food is flavorful, but as a regular of Thom Pham's first restaurant, Thanh Do in St. Louis Park, I find Azia's menu overpriced for its offerings. However, Azia is open late, and with great happy hour specials on appetizers and drinks, it is perfect for a nightcap. Pot stickers, spring rolls and cranberry puffs always taste better with a glass of half-priced sake.
Bored with hipsters and frou-frou martinis? Skip Azia and walk across the street for a margarita and a little karaoke at Pancho Villa (2539 Nicollet). Native English speakers may need to dust off their high school Spanish; "Sweet Caroline" is not sung here. The regulars croon to Latin American superstars such as Luis Miguel and Marco Antonio Muñiz. Drinks are cheap and the food is even cheaper. Two Negro Modelos and a slice of tres leches will set you back only $13, including tip.
Breakfast options are pretty limited but growing. Serving tasty pumpkin pancakes and customizable egg scramblers with garlicky potatoes, the Bad Waitress offers a modern twist on more traditional all-American breakfast fare. From the light fixtures to the bar stools, Bad Waitress' devotion to '50s and '60s kitsch is tastefully reflected even in the menu fonts. It's also one of the few places on Eat Street that has free wi-fi.
For those who want to avoid the weekend crowds and confusion at the Bad Waitress, a hearty breakfast awaits you across the street at the Black Forest. German-style meats and cheeses not exactly your thing? Try a bowl of muesli with homemade yogurt or a cream scone fresh out of the oven. A few blocks north, the Acadia Cafe serves decent Belgian waffles and breakfast sandwiches. It may lack the kitsch value of Bad Waitress, but it's easy on your wallet.