Conventional wisdom dictates that frozen Minnesotans should have all winter-related minutiae down, well, cold. Take hot chocolate. Given our subzero climate, we ought to have a permanent lock on the title of Cocoa Capital of the World, right?
Wrong. Nailing down a noteworthy mug of chocolatey dairy deliciousness in this snowbound burg is about as rare an occurrence as encountering a Mother Jones subscriber at a Mike Huckabee rally.
Nine times out of 10 this menu staple is a tossed-off afterthought, a one-dimensional squirt of Hershey's chocolate-flavored syrup (or, if you're fortunate, Ghirardelli or Guittard, which aren't much of an improvement) stirred into tepid 2-percent. For this exercise in ordinary, Twin Citians are often asked to shell out as much as three hard-earned dollars, a scandalous scam. Luckily, the joys of hot chocolate not only live, but prosper, at a few area establishments.
Owner Andrew Kopplin is a rarity in the beverage business, treating the art of coffeemaking with the respect, care and ambition that it deserves but so seldom receives. And in his cozy Hamline-and-Randolph storefront, St. Paul's barista par excellence is taking the same route with hot chocolate. This is definitely a grown-up's hot chocolate, designed to be enjoyed slowly, and it's all about top-shelf ingredients: The milk is from Crystal Ball Farms, an organic farmstead dairy near Osceola, Wis., and cocoa is mixed with an exceptional single-origin chocolate produced by Colin Gasko of Rogue Chocolatier, an upstart Minneapolis chocolate maker. Gasko's impressive product radiates intensity both in terms of flavor and color; it's not a weak tan or a drab brown, but a deep, honest-to-goodness chocolate. That's it, no other adornment. And you know what? It doesn't need it.
490 S. Hamline Av., St. Paul, 651-698-0457, www.kopplinscoffee.com; $3.75 to $4.50
Who needs Gore-Tex when you have this? The Birchwood calls its take on a classic formula Mexi Cocoa, but a more accurate name might be Antifreeze, because if there's a beverage (OK, a nonalcoholic one) that can defrost frozen humans, this is it. The process starts with wholesome steamed milk -- from a Hastings dairy cooperative -- and a mild cocoa. Then the fun begins. First there's a spicy, nose-tickling dash of cinnamon. Then a throat-warming cayenne wallop grabs the spotlight, followed by a tiptoed trace of allspice. Oh, yeah: With each passing moment, an enormous dollop of thick, freshly whipped cream lazily dissipates into the hot milk. Don't head to the skating rink without it.
3311 E. 25th St., Minneapolis, 612-722-4474, www.birchwoodcafe.com, $3
Pure, clean ingredients are the watchwords at Intelligent Nutrients, where a blend of the IN's in-house organic cocoa, organic milk (cow, soy and/or rice) and an agave syrup are steamed into a tall glass that's capped with a thick, wonderfully foamy head. The overall effect is pale and laid-back, and it's perfectly OK to stop there, but don't, because the bar flirts with rose water, chai spice and espresso combos; the brainstorm that really stands out features a shot of freshly juiced ginger. Wow! The result is lively, unexpected and marvelous.
893 E. Hennepin Av., Minneapolis, 612-617-2003, www.intelligentnutrients. com, $2.50 to $3.50
That the home of Sonny's Ice Cream should make a superior hot chocolate probably falls squarely in the no-brainer department. Just don't ask how it's prepared, because co-owner Ron Siron is a keeper of all kinds of culinary secrets. "I see him making it in the back and he won't tell me anything in it," admitted my friendly barista when I ask how she made it. "But one day I saw him reach for the vanilla extract and I thought, 'OK, vanilla. Now I know at least one ingredient.'"
I swallowed my disappointment, and my curiosity, and decided to just enjoy. No questions, no notes, just a few moments to revel in the soothingly mellow chocolate flavor, the silky texture, the naughty swirl of whipped cream dusted in gently bitter cocoa. I completely forgot that just outside the door, snow was blowing sideways, that's how quickly I retreated into warmth and comfort. And thanksgiving, as I raised my cup to the memory of Ron Siron's father, Sonny Siron; the big-hearted heart of Sonny's Ice Cream died late last month. (Call ahead; winter hours are limited.)
3403 Lyndale Av. S., Minneapolis, 612-822-8189, $3.35 to $4.35