As far as urban enclaves go, northeast Minneapolis is one of the cool kids.
This 7½-square-mile area of the city is a vibrant playground for foodies, artists and hipsters.
People often call it a neighborhood, but it’s really a collection of 13 neighborhoods settled by working-class folks — mainly immigrants from Eastern Europe. Today, the region remains a magnet for immigrants, who are infusing the restaurant scene with new flavors from South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. But you can still find a good Polish sausage here (Sikora’s on NE. Washington Street).
There are plenty of old dive bars around, too. Taprooms (Dangerous Man Brewing, Indeed Brewing, 612 Brew) and food trucks are popping up everywhere, attracting young crowds and contributing to the area’s hip factor. It’s become a haven for artists, whose studios and murals decorate the landscape and have given rise to the area’s signature event: Art-A-Whirl, the annual spring event said to be the largest open art studio tour in the country.
Coming from downtown Minneapolis, drive across the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, where you’ll be greeted by the iconic Grain Belt Beer sign. Head past familiar haunts, Nye’s Polonaise Room and Kramarczuk’s Deli. Turn left onto University Avenue NE. and keep going until you get to 13th Avenue NE. — a small strip concentrated with art galleries, restaurants and shops worth checking out.
A quick breakfast at Maeve’s Cafe (300 13th Av. NE.) is a good way to start the day. This down-to-earth cafe caters to both locals and newcomers with baristas who are friendly and knowledgeable. The menu features casual dining items, along with a few novel creations. I tried the Nutella Panini with bananas and chopped walnuts. Be sure to peek at yourself in one of the assorted vintage mirrors on the wall to make sure you don’t have Nutella all over your face.
The relatively new Eat My Words Bookstore (1228 NE. 2nd St.), just down the street from Maeve’s, is a used bookstore that sounds and smells the way a bookstore should: musty with wooden floors that creak with every step you take. Wander through narrow aisles, browsing the carefully curated selection of hardcover and paperback books — from mystery to travel to children’s literature. The store has an impressive collection of Mark Twain titles and books on Northeast history.
Gumball Collective (158 13th Av. NE.) is billed as an eco-friendly shopping experience. This green boutique sells items made by more than 80 artists from Minnesota and Wisconsin. Everything has been recycled, repurposed or made of Earth-friendly ingredients, explained co-owner Ann Meyers. Her specialty is making T-shirt dresses, turning vintage concert T-shirts and other designs into one-of-a-kind looks.
Meyers owns the store with her sister, Ava Krmpotich, who designs dresses and skirts out of sweaters. Part store, part studio space, part educational space, Gumball Collective offers classes year-round for makers: sewing, crochet, jewelry making, soldering. “I didn’t open this wanting just a store,” Meyers said. “I wanted more of a community place.”
Time for a caffeine recharge at Matchbox Coffee Shop (1306 NE. 2nd St.). Walking down the tree-lined residential street, you might miss it because it’s so tiny. Look for the large yellow “coffee” sign out front. With just one table, it’s the kind of place where all the regulars notice you when you enter. But don’t worry, they’re friendly. “Great coffee, no bosses” is the motto at this cooperative coffee shop. Just remember to hit an ATM before you go: It’s a cash-only joint.
Take a nature break
The farm-to-table movement is alive and well here, and a grass-roots effort to grow local produce used in some of Northeast’s best-known eateries is underway. The Cultivate Northeast movement includes a permaculture demonstration garden located at Lowry and Central avenues NE. This juncture is said to be the city’s third-busiest intersection. Tall sunflowers bloom along with kale, basil, tomatoes and Swiss chard. Two giant murals border the garden — one with the words “Cultivate Northeast” written in a rainbow of colors and the other with images of vegetables, a garden hose and a spade. Rest a while on a bench under a wooden trellis decorated with trailing vines. It’s an oasis amid the hustle and bustle of the nearby bus stop.
Get lost in art
Indulge your creative side with a visit to one of the many artist studios. Many are housed in warehouse buildings tucked throughout the zone called “the northeast Minneapolis Arts District” — bordered by Lowry and Central avenues and NE. Broadway.
Perhaps the best known of the artist studio warehouses is the Northrup King Building (1500 NE. Jackson St.), home to more than 200 tenants. On the first Thursday of each month, many Northeast artists open their doors in the evenings for visitors.
For an adventure, go to the birthplace of Art-A-Whirl: the Thorp Building (1620 Central Av. NE.). Part of the fun is navigating your way through the maze of corridors and levels. There are building maps, but it’s also fun to wander aimlessly and discover some cool studios. “It’s what Uptown was 30 years ago,” said Rae Ann Annala, owner of Costume the Cities, a rental costume shop in the building. “The artists come in and all of a sudden it becomes cool.”
Central Avenue good eating
Of course, no trip to Northeast is complete without a visit to Central Avenue, home to some of the area’s best ethnic restaurants. Flavors from Mexico, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Thailand, India and more abound.
Chimborazo (2851 Central Av. NE.) — serving Ecuadorean cuisine — is a great lunch stop. Owner and chef Marcos Pinguil prepares the foods from his hometown — Cañar, Sierra — potato pancakes, encocado (shrimp stewed in coconut sauce and served with rice and sweet plantains). You’ll feel transported to Ecuador, with traditional Quichua music playing and family photos and Otavaleño textiles decorating the walls.
A bird’s-eye view
Cap off the day on a whimsical note with a Ferris wheel ride at Betty Danger’s Country Club (2501 NE. Marshall St.). For the price of a drink, you can hop on the giant green-and-pink wheel, made in Italy. Be sure to bring a friend. No solo riders allowed. “The Danger” chugs along at a leisurely pace as it takes you high above the club for views of both downtown and the mighty Mississippi River.
On your way down, wave goodbye to Northeast — and to the plastic goat hanging out on the roof.