Takeout from Samarkand
This was an especially frigid week, one that called for takeout of the warmest kind.
I'd been curious about Samarkand since before it was Samarkand. The spot in Plymouth's Willow Creek strip mall used to be Baku, an Azerbaijani restaurant that looked like it turned into something of a nightclub on Saturday nights. I'd notice the place hopping after going to the movies nearby, back when we used to do things like go to movies, or nightclubs.
In late 2019, the restaurant reopened as Samarkand, named for the city in Uzbekistan where the proprietors hailed from. The cuisine of Uzbekistan — a former Soviet republic — and Samarkand is as melting pot as it gets. "The city was smack in the middle of the Silk Road," said manager Aziz Radjabov. "A lot of merchants went there and a lot of cuisines got mixed up. We have a lot of dishes from the East and some from the West."
And this might be the only place around to get them. Radjabov says Samarkand is the only Uzbek restaurant in Minnesota (with only about 50 Uzbek families in the state).
Dumplings and noodles by way of Asia share space on the menu with Mediterranean stuffed grape leaves, Middle Eastern-style kebabs, and Russian beet soup and pickled herring. The dish that's most traditional to Uzbekistan might be plov, a hearty rice dish with carrots and cumin-seed seasoning that's served with a hunk of braised beef ($12-$16).
The mantu were some of the largest dumplings I'd seen, with a chewy dough filled with beef and such deeply sautéed onions that it becomes almost sweet (three for $12). And the chuchvara soup, a piping hot beef broth, came with what must have been a dozen miniature versions of those dumplings ($8-$12).
If the food doesn't warm you up, dancing will. The music continues on Saturdays (as COVID allows), with mostly Russian bands getting customers on their feet. "People come in those days at 7 and stay until closing time, just eating and enjoying music," Radjabov said. I can't wait to finally check it out in person. (Sharyn Jackson)
16 Nathan Lane N., Plymouth, 763-545-9842, samarkand.restaurant. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tue.-Fri. and Sun., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sat.
Rock shrimp tempura at Yumi
There are some dishes that are mandatory. You can't go to Chicago's Au Cheval without getting the burger. It's ridiculous to resist the wings at the Monte Carlo in downtown Minneapolis. And even before digging into the giant sushi at Yumi, first there has to be an order of rock shrimp tempura ($13.95).
Yumi has become the celebration restaurant of choice for our 12-year-old. Over the past couple of years he's discovered a deep love for sushi, which I'm taking as evidence of my successful urban kid rearing (never mind that he still doesn't eat his sandwich crusts). So, when he aced his grammar assessment this week, we treated him to a night at his favorite sushi restaurant, and I got to indulge my deep and abiding love for the rock shrimp tempura.
The beauty of this dish is in the careful cooking of the little shellfish. These curls of sweet seafood are lightly battered, cooked until just opaque and then tossed in a zesty mayo sauce that's just this side of spicy and served atop a little salad. The little crispy bits never overwhelm the sweet little shrimps inside, and it's an ideal way to kick off a celebratory dinner. (Joy Summers)
Yumi Sushi, 400 Selby Av., St. Paul, 651-207-6810; 217 Water St., Excelsior, 952-474-1720; 200 Southdale Center, Edina, 952-405-9830. yumisushibar.com, 4-9 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 4-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Roasted Brussels sprouts at Pizzeria Lola
When pizza cravings call, it's always best to answer. Which is why we recently found ourselves braving subzero weather for Korean BBQ and Lady Zaza pies ($20 each) at Pizzeria Lola.
But we took a short detour on the way to pizza nirvana when our server mentioned the special starter: Brussels sprouts with butternut squash, baby pearl onions and Parmigiano-Reggiano ($14). With two all-star vegetables, it was an offer we couldn't refuse. (Wise move on our part.) The sprouts were roasted to charred perfection, the squash was melt-in-your-mouth tender. Red pearl onions, often just an afterthought, held their own with a sweet, pleasant pop. Shards of nutty Parm were a nice — although unnecessary — addition. Together, it was a plate of wintry heaven.
Did that stellar side fill us up a little too soon? Yes, but that's OK. It just meant more pizza to take home for when the pizza craving calls the next morning. (Nicole Hvidsten)
5557 Xerxes Av. S., Mpls., 612-424-8338, pizzerialola.com. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Tortas Cubana at Taco Libre
When hunger rumbles from head to toe, that's the time to hit Taco Libre. Snacks, though available, are not the point here. The local mini-chain is built for the hunger Olympics.
Be ready for a place that makes a sandwich so stuffed, so dripping with gooey insides and spicy sauce that your calendar should include post-eats recovery time. The Cubana tortas ($13.99) pulls up to your grill stuffed with a hot dog among the thin, crispy steak and ham like it was any other kind of lunchmeat. There's also creamy avocado, smashed beans, spicy jalapeños and melty cheese. The whole mess is precariously contained by tender bread that's been grilled to a crispy crust. It's double-handed eating, the kind of sandwich that requires commitment. Once in hand, it cannot be put down.
The fact that this sandwich is such a glorious beast shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Taco Libre's signature dish, the machete. It's the size and shape of the blade, and has become a culinary dare in some circles. The entire menu at Taco Libre is stacked with Mexican street food with fresh salsas and hearty portions. (J.S.)
1221 S. Robert St., West St Paul, 651-444-8820, tacolibreusa.com, Open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 10 a.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun. Other locations in Eagan, Oakdale and Edina.
Key lime pie from Key West Bistro
National Pie Day was this week, which is different from Pi Day in March. But I'll take either excuse to eat pie.
I celebrated with a slice of Key lime pie, which is almost as transporting as a plane ticket out of here. It came from Key West Bistro, a south Minneapolis coffee shop that pays homage to the favorite vacation spot of owner Dan Milis. The former analytical chemist went there frequently until he changed jobs, lost some vacation time and had to find a way to bring Key West here instead. He opened the bistro in 2018.
The cafe, filled with tropical plants, spotlights the southernmost point in the continental United States' proximity to Cuba with a menu of Cuban coffee and pressed Cuban sandwiches. But the pie, Milis said, "is everyone's favorite." His tantalizingly tart recipe is classic, with bonus touches of a scratch-made graham cracker crust and whipped cream. It's $5.50 a slice, and plenty of people order whole pies for $20.
Another way to get a shot of vitamin C is to order any of Milis' limeade mocktails, including his invention that mixes cold-brew coffee and limeade ($4-$4.75). They go surprisingly well together. (S.J.)
2803 E. 38th St., Mpls., 612-729-9718, keywestbistro.com. Open 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat.