Chicken arepa from Arepa Bar
When chef Soleil Ramirez emigrated to this country in 2016, it was Venezuela's loss and Minnesota's gain.
After spending several years in chef Jack Riebel's kitchen at the Lexington, Ramirez struck out on her own, using the Midtown Global Market as a launchpad. Her cheery counter-service setup, which opened Jan. 6, offers a quick glimpse into her native country's cooking with dishes that range from slow-braised beef with black beans to a long list of arepas.
"Arepas are the easiest way to show people that we are Venezuelan," she said. "It's our most famous dish, and I thought I would use the name — and have them on the menu — to say, 'We are Venezuelan.' "
For her arepas roster, Ramirez has wisely adopted an accessible format, one that's familiar to anyone who has stepped inside a Chipotle. When it's split open, the pan-fried white corn cake ($10) basically becomes a vehicle for delivering all kinds of flavorful goodness, and that's the place to start the build-your-own thing, choosing from pulled chicken or pork, shredded beef, grilled vegetables, an avocado purée, hearts of palm, several cheeses, chimichurri and more.
It's easy to see that Ramirez is applying her fine-dining experience to elevate every detail of these street-food staples. The juicy, flavor-packed chicken was fantastic, seasoned with a lively blend of green onions, leeks, garlic, cumin and bay leaves. And the toppings? So appealingly colorful, and vibrantly fresh.
Yeah, I'll be back. (Rick Nelson)
920 E. Lake St., Mpls., 612-353-4885. Open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tue.-Fri. and noon-6 p.m. Sat.
Black milk tea from Machi Machi
We lost Unideli, the counter inside United Noodles, last year. (Good news: you can still get takeout char siu, fried rice and bánh mì at the market.) Its replacement is something entirely different. Machi Machi is a Taiwanese tea bar, and the United Noodles outpost is only its second shop in the U.S. The menu is full of colorful delights that mix different teas and smoothies with gelatin, fresh fruits, tapioca, taro balls, cream cheese foam and even crème brûlée — basically dessert in a cup.
"It brings something you haven't seen before to tea drinks," said staffer Brittney Somerset.
Apparently the stars of social media are bottled drinks that start with a layer of vanilla bean-flecked panna cotta on the bottom, and cotton candy-pink strawberry latte on top ($7.25). Shake them up for some fun. The bottled teas are the bestsellers so far.
"A lot of people find us through Instagram," Somerset said. "I think a lot of people come in and didn't know this was here, because it's in a grocery store."
The gray, kind of blank space in the middle of the market is meant to hold tables and chairs, but for now it's takeout only.
I ordered the Black milk tea with crème brûlée topping, a sweet eggy custard with burnt sugar crisps that, when mixed in, give it a textural surprise ($6.50). I also tried an oolong tea with salty-sweet cream cheese foam that whisps beautifully down into the drink below ($5.50). Because everything is made to order, you can select your sweetness preference — something I was grateful for. Light sugar was enough for me, and despite the candy store on top, the refreshing tea flavor shone through. (Sharyn Jackson)
2015 E. 24th St., Mpls., 612-208-0123. Takeout only, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. daily.
Salmon Oscar from Coastal Seafoods
How fortunate that United Noodles and Coastal Seafood's new Minneapolis digs share a driveway. After picking up my tea, I stopped at the market to get fresh fish for dinner (tilefish, pan-seared with some herbs and butter — yum). On the way out, I also grabbed something from the company's new take-and-bake line of frozen dinners. Salmon Oscar en croute was my pick: an individual-size casserole of salmon, crab, mashed potatoes and asparagus, topped with puff pastry. (They also have frozen crab macaroni and cheese, seafood fettuccine and seafood lasagna, all a steal at $10 each.)
The market introduced the frozen meals about a month ago, and they are constant sellouts, said Coastal Seafoods' marketing director, Keane Amdahl. They're not exactly pandemic-related, but "good timing," he said.
"We have a lot of people who are always looking for easier ways to get seafood into their diet," he said. "This is a great midweek sort of thing." And yet, "it's certainly not your standard TV dinner." The Salmon Oscar is something you might find at a steakhouse: a decadent dish bubbling with cream and encased in buttery pastry that incorporates entree and side dish all in one.
I also bought a frozen pint of lobster bisque, a signature soup the market has sold for years (and a regular item on the new in-store cafe's menu).
Compared to other so-called bisques that are glorified cream soups, this one is "a true bisque," Amdahl explained. It's thinner and lighter, but packed with flavor from chunks of lobster meat and an ultra-reduced lobster shell stock.
The soup is also $10 and enough for one, maybe two. Or you could get 4 pounds for $33. It won't last long. (S.J.)
2007 E. 24th St., Mpls., 612-724-7425; 74 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul, 651-698-4888. Open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Warm caramel roll from Karyn's Quarantine Kitchen
While converting the former Bar Brigade into Myriel, chef/owner Karyn Tomlinson is running a weekend-only takeout operation that offers a Saturday supper and a super-casual Sunday breakfast.
The latter's menu includes egg sandwiches, which are made with fabulous housemade pork sausage (Tomlinson, the national winner of the prestigious, heritage pork-centric Cochon555 chef's competition in 2018, butchers whole hogs from Hidden Stream Farm in Elgin, Minn.) and terrific house-baked English muffins ($9); Yukon Gold potatoes roasted in duck fat ($8); Swedish egg coffee (gratis); and these first-rate rolls ($5).
"When I was growing up, my mom used to make caramel rolls, and it was such a treat," said Tomlinson. "For me, this is very nostalgic."
Rather than using her mother's one-size-fits-all white bread recipe, Tomlinson calls upon another cherished family tradition, her great-grandmother's milk- and butter-enriched dough. The gloriously uncomplicated results, perfumed with cinnamon, are tender and slightly sweet. The gleaming caramel glaze, which leans into its dairy richness and leaves a slightly salty bite, is the perfect finishing touch ("It bugs me when caramel is straight sugar," said Tomlinson, echoing the pastry chef side of her résumé), and the scale is just right, too.
"It's not the size of your head, so you won't feel bad about yourself afterward," Tomlinson said with a laugh. "We're trying to strike a balance." (R.N.)
470 Cleveland Av. S., St. Paul, 651-340-3568, myrielmn.com. Open for takeout Sat.-Sun.
Purple sticky rice from Union Hmong Kitchen
Union Hmong Kitchen launched a couple of make-at-home kits for the holidays that, amazingly, wound up outselling takeout at the time, said chef Yia Vang. So, the kits are back, no holidays required.
Grill kits are on their way — they're just waiting on some equipment from Vietnam that'll go in each box. For now, you can get a sample pack of all Vang's sauces and spices ($65). And the Sticky Rice at Home Kit ($55), which comes with a rice-steaming pot, woven steamer basket, wooden rice paddle and two quarts of the purple and glutinous rice mixture used in the restaurant.
It's quite a sight, in a big box wrapped with embroidered ribbon. The kit comes with a recipe card, but I suggest going to the website to watch the video tutorial on rice-making if you want to master the ball-forming shake of the basket. That shake-and-toss has turned into something of a social media challenge, Vang said. Young Hmong, Thai and Laotian social media users have been making videos showing how high they can throw the rice in the air. But Vang suggests a more conservative toss, something instilled in him from his mother.
"When we were kids and we would do it, my mom was like, 'Stop playing with your food. If it hits the ground we don't have rice.' "
The process is easy, though, and you'll be rewarded with a mass of chewy rice you can pull apart with your hands (not a fork, per Mama Vang) and use to sop up the bright and spicy Tiger Bite sauce and other big flavors in Hmong cooking.
"The point of the rice is it is the equalizer," Vang said. "You don't season it because all of the seasoning and umami is in the protein and the vegetables. It helps balance everything out. Rice is the key ingredient of Hmong food." (S.J.)
693 Raymond Av., St. Paul, 612-431-5285. Open for takeout and delivery 4 p.m.-8 p.m. daily, except Tuesdays.