Restaurant ownership is not for the fainthearted.
Just ask first-time restaurateurs Julie Hartley, Greg Cummins and Ami Francis, who wanted to funnel the foods they favored during their extensive travels through Asia into a quick-service, quality-minded restaurant that would cater to both drop-in diners and the delivery circuit.
It took them four years just to nail down suitable North Loop real estate before they even began sweating the details of designing and building their Sweet Chow. They astutely recruited some serious culinary talent — John Krattenmaker, a Fika vet — to run the kitchen.
After a late-winter debut, much tinkering occurred, not only with the menus but with the restaurant’s format, switching from counter service to table service and then derivations thereof, until finally settling on a convenient, order-at-the-counter setup. Last month, an ice cream shop — the nucleus for every self-respecting neighborhood, right? — materialized in the restaurant’s remaining square footage.
I pretty much adored what Krattenmaker was doing. Here’s how much: One effort, delicately fried cod brimming with dill, would have easily landed on my list of the year’s top 10 dishes, if it were still on the menu.
Which is why I’m sorry to report that he’s no longer in the kitchen (here’s hoping that he and his outsized gifts land elsewhere, pronto). His chef de cuisine Kyle Imes remains, as do most of the spirited and inventive ideas and practices that Krattenmaker introduced.
Although unfamiliar — at least, professionally — with Thai, Vietnamese and Korean cuisines, Krattenmaker dove in with enthusiasm, obviously going to great lengths to translate his technical know-how into rebooting the fast-casual format.
His method? Painstakingly building dishes from the ground up but investing heavily on the front end, enabling the final product to be assembled and served with relative speed.
Here’s an example: After brining whole briskets for 10 days, the meat gets coated with black pepper and toasted coriander and then it’s cooked, low and slow, for 12 hours, until a blackened crust develops while the deeply flavorful beef remains firm yet fork-tender. A few hefty slabs of that rosy, fat-laced meat becomes the backbone of an artfully composed rice bowl.
Rather than the kitchen-sink quality that feels etched into this familiar format, the Sweet Chow version sticks with punchy housemade kimchi (its vinegary punch slightly muted by Asian pears, a clever touch), crunchy pickled veggies and a soft-cooked egg, giving that beef the center-stage spot it deserves.
That’s what sets this place apart: Even familiar dishes studiously avoid the ho-hum factor. Check out the papaya salad. A throwaway in almost every Thai strip-mall restaurant within 100 miles, it’s a revelation here, thanks to vivid contrasts between in-your-face heat of raw Thai chiles, the cool succulence of shredded green papaya, the bright acidity of tomato and the punchy crunch of peanuts.
Or chewy, ovoid-shaped rice cakes — they’re made with rice flour, so think “Asian gnocchi” — finished with kimchi, a poached egg and bean sprouts tossed in hearty mushroom-hoisin sauce. Or chicken wings, the skin crispy, the meat abundant and sesame perfuming but not overwhelming each bite. Or a spiced-up fried chicken sandwich, served at lunch.
Local, seasonal vegetables get their due. Hurry in for the last of the season’s sweet corn. After it’s roasted, Imes goes elote-style, slathering on a coconut cream/lime juice sauce, toasted coconut flakes, cilantro and a whisper of chile powder; the results are fantastic. Kudos also to roasted baby carrots, their quiet sweetness mirrored by a coriander/cilantro green curry sauce, and their autumnal color accentuated by grilled kale.
Other delights await on this quirky, tightly edited menu (those expecting an exhaustive guided culinary tour through the Pacific Rim should look elsewhere). If the kitchen kept late-night hours, a bowl billed “Wide Noodles” would be my favorite post-last-call fortification. It’s a play on Pad Se Ew, a Thai street food staple that tosses wide-cut rice noodles (caramelized in a suitable shallot/fish sauce/lime juice sauce), broccoli, shaved broccoli stalks and egg. Imes — he has Sea Change and the former Heyday on his résumé, and his career is one to watch — adds just-right finishing touches in the form of fried peanuts and a sprightly herb salad.
Elsewhere, satays are often overcooked disappointments, but not the pork versions here. The pork sausage is also a must, with ground shoulder and pork fat blended with lime leaf, garlic and tons of lemon grass. It’s perfectly complemented by a sweet-hot chile sauce.
For those looking to share — and this is the kind of place where it’s fun to fill a table with dishes and let the forks and chopsticks fly — there’s a wonderfully uncomplicated whole-fish preparation. Right now it’s red snapper, thoughtfully deboned, fried whole in a cornstarch/rice flour coating and finished with lime and garden-fresh herbs, a disciplined approach that is indicative of this operation.
Kudos also to the condiment trio, each calling upon fermented red bean paste, fish sauce, garlic and other Southeast Asian building blocks and ranging from mild (well, in Minnesota terms, more like medium) to unapologetically four-alarm.
Did I flip for everything? No. Fried rice was uncharacteristically dull and an eggplant/potato curry was dessert-level sweet. More on the so-so sweets in a moment.
The restaurant occupies the ground floor of a plain-spoken three-story structure from 1884 that probably survived downtown’s late-1950s/early-1960s teardown craze only because it sat a few hundred feet outside the boundaries of the Gateway Urban Renewal district.
Lucky for it, and lucky for us. Inside, the minimalist, loft-like space is all exposed brick and timbers; 134 years from now, will people prize the building materials we use today? Unfortunately, it’s one of those places that feels cavernous when it’s not busy. On those occasions, take a seat at the kitchen counter, and watch.
That it bears a gallery-like quality is no accident, as it quietly doubles as a venue for the work of local artists: vivid travelogue photography by Tom Adair; a moody, large-scale canvas by Harland Snodgrass; and a puzzle-like abstract painting by James Kielkopf are just some of the highlights.
Those who live or work in the North Loop, or downtown, or on the Mississippi’s East Bank neighborhood should take full advantage of the restaurant’s partnership with Rocket, the bicycle delivery service. Krattenmaker and his crew wisely built portability into their cooking equation, which is so often not the case in today’s go-go Bite Squad/GrubHub/DoorDash universe.
Desserts are, for the most part, forgettable: something fried (think “Asian churros”), something baby food-ish (a coconut-flavored rice pudding-esque concoction), and something fabulous (an appropriately decadent pot de crème). But why bother, when there’s a fully loaded ice cream scoop shop on the premises?
A good one, too. Kirsten Poppenhagen — another Fika vet — is performing minor miracles with cream, eggs (lots of eggs, I imagine, as this luscious product has a decadent, frozen-custard-like edge), sugar and add-ons.
Expect about a dozen flavors, produced in small quantities using a showy batch freezer that resembles a soft-serve dispenser. Some are straight-up standards — vanilla, chocolate, what is perhaps the dreamiest iteration of chocolate-chip cookie dough in the 612 area code — and others either pay attention to the season (honey-roasted plums, swirled into vanilla ice cream) or take their flavor cues from the East: a blend of Thai basil, mint and chile, or a refreshing ginger-mango-lemon combination.
Poppenhagen also crafts fanciful sundaes from a well devised list of housemade toppings, and fashions imaginative liqueur-laced malts and floats. In a just world, there would be a line out the door.