Reuben from Nighthawks Diner + Bar
Sometimes we miss out on the best that neighborhood restaurants have to offer if we live outside a reasonably walkable zone. Which might be why it took me seven years to find out that Nighthawks, the Kingfield neighborhood diner inspired by the Edward Hopper painting, makes some of the best pastrami this side of the New Jersey Turnpike. It was a happy accident that it popped up on a delivery app for me at lunchtime this week, and when I saw the pastrami was housemade, I pounced.
Their spiced, smoked brisket takes some 16 hours to make, and you get a half-pound of thick-cut slices on either of the two sandwiches that feature this better-than-deli meat. I went for the Reuben ($18), which also showcases a distinct sauerkraut that stays crunchy even after a turn on the griddle. The cabbage is cooked, rather than fermented, and is amped up with trimmings from Nighthawks' housemade bacon (another smoky, meaty triumph). It's a perfectly tangy counterpart to the melted Swiss, Russian dressing, and of course, that rich and dreamy pastrami. The whole thing was a knockout, even after a spin in the air fryer to reheat.
The Reuben and the hot pastrami sandwich (also $18) are among Nighthawks' top sellers. "People come here just for that, and it's fantastic that they choose us over other places that probably have great ones," said chef Tyler Wilcox. The pastrami has been on the menu since Nighthawks opened in 2015, then with former Haute Dish chef Landon Schoenefeld in the kitchen. Wilcox has recently taken the reins, and he's added a few of his own tricks, including an intriguing Swedish meatloaf I'll be going back for soon. (Sharyn Jackson)
The Whole Banana at Elusive by Dashfire
The only reason this drink order was placed was at the urging of Elusive's co-owners Lee Egbert and Jeff Rogers; an icy Minnesota night hardly had me in a tropical mood. But I was won over by their naked enthusiasm.
This was a drink that's been nagging at the back of Rogers' creative brain for years as he tried to unlock a true banana flavor. Most drinks and spirits that purport banana flavor end up tasting cloyingly artificial. Now, I was the weird kid that reached for the bottom of the Popsicle box for the yellow-flavored discards, and I've been known to enjoy the oblong Runts. But it just wasn't a flavor I wanted in my grown-up glass.
After I ordered, both men took time to offer me lengthy, astute explanations of the chemistry involved in extracting actual banana flavor — using the acids in green bananas and the honey sweetness of the too-ripe-for-banana-bread fruit. This drink is a peek behind the curtain of what these two are doing at their cocktail lounge that's also a bit of a lab, where they dig deep and share knowledge about spirits and the craft of distilling.
For the drink ($13), it was indeed true banana flavor: alternately bright and caramelly, structured and an easy-sipper. Definitely a top-banana cocktail. (Joy Summers)
1620 Central Av. NE., Suite 152/Dock 10, Mpls., 612-354-3021; dashfire.us/cocktailroom
Caprese Salad from Green + the Grain
There are some foods that seem to taste better when made for you, not by you. For me, that's a salad. There's something about a predetermined combination of ingredients — or the ability to choose from an array of toppings far greater than anything in my kitchen — that brightens my lunches.
So it's no surprise that when I am working in the office, I head to one of the salad spots in downtown Minneapolis, and the local chain Green + the Grain is one of my favorites. While there are several salad combos available, I can't pass up anything Caprese. Here, farro is combined with spring greens, basil and baby spinach along with grilled chicken, tomatoes, mozzarella and pita chips, all held together by balsamic vinaigrette ($13). It's everything you could possibly want in a salad.
It's also a salad I thought I could only enjoy when I'm in downtown Minneapolis. Turns out, Green + the Grain is happy to bring lunch to your home office — or at least close to it. Its mobile eatery system allows customers to preorder salads (or soup or chili) and have them delivered to pickup sites in several neighborhoods and suburbs, from Savage to St. Louis Park. (Third-party delivery service is available, too.) A brilliant way to adapt to the ups and downs of its downtown customer base, and a brilliant way to support a local business. (Nicole Hvidsten)
Downtown Minneapolis locations at LaSalle Plaza, U.S. Bank Plaza, Baker Center and Oracle Building; in St. Paul at Wells Fargo Place; greenandthegrain.com
Onion rings at Manning's Restaurant & Bar
Mention Manning's to University of Minnesota alums and watch their hands instinctively curl, grasping an invisible schooner. This warmly lit restaurant and bar has been serving students free popcorn, an all-day menu and those giant goblets of beer to generations since opening in 1932. I was enticed to visit by a crew of erstwhile Gophers who assured me I would love the onion rings ($9.50).
Now, I'm something of a ring connoisseur. While some girls studied gem cuts, I studied the art of the fried onion at backcountry bars filled with salty characters. Even so, I've never had another like Manning's. A puffy batter encapsulates each slice, rising with a bit of chew and a saffron-colored interior dough. Where many onion ring batters are limited in actual flavor, this one carries a toasty dried onion nuance to each bite, doubling down on the flavor. Each ring presents an alluring burnt sienna cast. The onion flesh inside strikes a textural balance with a clean bite countered by substantive integrity. Borrowing from our friends in Wisconsin, I added on a side of ranch, and let me tell you, friends — that was a sweet flavor alchemy that brought the onion flavor up just one more notch to over-the-top. (J.S.)
2200 Como Av. SE, Mpls., 612-331-1053, manningscafe.com
Bufala margherita at Punch Pizza
What better way to start a new year than with an old favorite? My family jumped into 2023 by going out this week for one of our greatest hits of 2022 (and 2021, etc.): our usual order at Punch Pizza.
The top-notch local chain for true Neapolitan-style pizza serves up wood-fired pies with consistency you can count on, and my beloved bufala margherita never does me wrong. It's the standard crushed tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and basil ($12.75), but I like to request it NEO style for an extra 50 cents; that's with extra tomato and olive oil, which emulsifies with the melted cheese to make one swimming mess of divine flavors that I sop up with that blistery charred crust.
While the wait for these pies, fired at 900 degrees, is never long, here's a tip: Use the nifty preordering app, and your pizzas will be ready within 10 minutes of sitting down. For families with young kids, that's a must. (S.J.)
Multiple locations, including Grand Avenue, Highland Park, Woodbury, Eagan, Roseville, Apple Valley and Vadnais Heights in St. Paul and the East Metro; Lake Street, Northeast, Stadium Village, Eden Prairie, Wayzata and Maple Grove in the West metro. punchpizza.com