Panda Crunch from the Salsa Collaborative

There's nothing like meeting a new maker bubbling with promise and big ideas. Usually these moments occur inside a restaurant — last fall, this one just happened to be in a suburban backyard. That's where I met Nikki and Brian Podgorski.

The duo had been hard at work with the Salsa Collaborative, making hot sauces and salsas, when a chef/friend invited them to compete in a backyard cooking competition, where they'd face full-time chefs and food professionals. "I couldn't believe they even invited us," Nikki said.

Not only did they put in a good showing, but they won the whole thing, in part due to an otherworldly bun Nikki spent two days baking and had only recently invented: the Brissant.

Since then, life has been moving pretty fast for these two. Nikki finally left her day job and they began using kitchen space at St. Paul's Dark Horse to make their products. Now the Salsa Collaborative is selling the Brissant, a glorious enriched dough that's part croissant and part bun, in their space at Departments at Dayton's. And their product line has expanded to include Panda Crunch ($12), which demands space on your pantry shelf.

It's a chile crunch, which is having a condiment moment, but this one is made with gochujang, a red chile paste used in Korean cooking that delivers a deeper, richer flavor along with a smooth heat. This sauce doesn't tear the roof of your mouth off with a single scoop, but it's a snappy, savory spice begging to be spooned over eggs, dipped into ramen, stirred into mayo and slathered on sandwiches — the possibilities are yours to create.

I recently met the couple again, this time in a restaurant. They stood shoulder to shoulder with some major names in our local culinary world, cooking a dish that Nikki called "my life on a plate." Sticky coconut rice is wrapped around braised short rib, steamed in banana leaves and served alongside an herbaceous Cambodian steak sauce. On top, the Panda Crunch sat like a thunderous ruby jewel, pulling the whole thing together.

Buy it directly online, or take an afternoon to peruse the Dayton's marketplace and arrange your own maker meeting. (Joy Summers)

700 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.,;

Honey and whiskey-glazed steak tips from O'Shaughnessy Distilling Co.

I'll admit I'm not a huge whiskey fan, but one way I will gladly consume the spirit is in the form of the delectable sauce on these succulent tenderloin tips, served in the whiskey lounge of the still-shiny-and-new O'Shaughnessy Distilling Co.

Tender meat is served swimming in a glaze made of local honey and O'Shaughnessy's flagship Keeper's Heart whiskey. And at $13, it's a hearty "small plate" that can easily stand in for dinner if you wisely use any available bread to sop up that velvety sauce.

The lounge, in the burgeoning food-and-drink district of Minneapolis' Prospect Park neighborhood, is a stunning place to grab a couple of those small plates from chef Austin Bouchard, and verdant, dare I say vegetable-forward cocktails devised by food and beverage director Pip Hanson. And you're not limited to whiskey drinks here. The Allium Smash ($12), made with O'Shaughnessy's Guard & Gate gin, rosa vermouth, lemon, seltzer, and — yes — chives, was garden-fresh and, blessedly, didn't leave me with onion breath. (Sharyn Jackson)

600 Malcolm Av. SE., Mpls.,

Birria Tacos from Los Ocampo

Los Ocampo opened its first location in 2003, and since then the family-owned business has grown into a local mini chain of taco stands and full-service restaurants serving Mexican fare reminiscent of what you'd find visiting different regions of the country.

One location is close enough to my house that our family has become dependent on taco and horchatas on weeknights when we're too exhausted to cook. As happens with restaurants like that, I have my order and rarely deviate. That is, until this past week when I noticed birria tacos on the menu.

Birria originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco, where meat is stewed in a broth of cumin, adobo, garlic and toasty brick-red chiles. Traditionally, it's a tough meat that needs the low-and-slow time to unwind and relax into the liquid.

Los Ocampo's version is a gorgeous plate of muy rica meat, sauce and cheese ($14.99). Corn tortillas are filled with meat and griddled until the cheese gets gooey in the middle and lacy-crisp around the edges. Plunge the taco into the rich bath of consommé served alongside it, making sure to fish for the errant strands of beef and flecks of cilantro, and let that juicy goodness permeate every bite. It's rich, warm, bone-deep comfort food. (J.S.)

Los Ocampo locations: 615 W. University Av., St. Paul; 1751 Suburban Av., St. Paul;

Cheese board at Barley + Vine

The first time we tried to walk into this Lakeville charmer, the wait was more than an hour. On a blustery Wednesday. So we went back the following night — with a reservation — and learned the previous night's special was half-price bottles of wine and $8 cheese boards. That explained the crowd.

We may have missed half-price bottles of wine, but glasses of the house vino were $4.50 that night and, thankfully, the cheese boards weren't going anywhere.

As someone who believes that cheese makes everything better, it was the perfect way to begin the evening. The menu has a selection of eight cheeses from a variety of local, regional and global makers. Diners create their own boards with three or five cheeses ($12.95 or $18.95). We stuck close to home, and chose the soft Stickney Hill Dairy goat cheese from Cold Spring, Minn., AmaBlu from Caves of Faribault, just down the interstate, and aged cheddar from Widmer's Cheese Cellars in Theresa, Wis. We chose well. The goat cheese was soft and mild with just a slight tang, a perfect introduction if you're trying to convince a picky eater to try goat cheese. The cheddar, aged two years, had a pleasant nuttiness to it and was bursting with flavor, unlike some supermarket staples. However, the blue cheese, assertive without being overbearing and just the right amount of crumbly, stole my heart. All will make appearances on my shopping list.

Housemade baguettes and a mixture of dried fruit and nuts complement the cheeses. And, if you order too much cheese (if there is such a thing), the leftovers are a nice start to tomorrow's meal at home, too. Our delightful server even threw in more baguette slices; I just wish she would have thrown in the great board, too. (Nicole Hvidsten)

17516 Dodd Blvd., Lakeville,

The East Coast on a Passover popover at Cecil's

Passover runs through Saturday evening, and the holiday has a specific set of dietary guidelines that I'm loosely following this year. For me, that means forgoing leavened bread, and a vague adherence to traditional Kosher guidelines — no mixing meat and dairy, mainly.

Cecil's, St. Paul's classic Jewish-style deli, is one of the few Twin Cities restaurants that go the extra mile for the holiday. No, the corned beef isn't Kosher, and yes, I may have sat near a guy who ordered salami and cream cheese on matzo. But if you're Kosher-flexible, then Cecil's is a great place to dine out on the holiday, along with Crossroads Delicatessen in Hopkins, Mort's Deli in Golden Valley and the three Yum! Kitchen and Bakeries.

Cecil's Passover menu includes fried matzo, chopped liver, lox and onions, flourless brownies, and — a favorite — matzo meal popovers. Though they're made with ground matzo rather than flour, the eggy buns simulate regular bread well enough to hold up to any of Cecil's many sandwich options for a $2.99 upcharge. I subbed a popover on the East Coast sandwich ($12.99), with a simple filling of cold sliced corned beef and coleslaw that pairs perfectly with some hot and crispy crinkle fries.

The popovers, and the rest of the Passover menu, are only available as supplies last for the next few days. And post-Passover, the sandwich is great on bread, too. (S.J.)

651 S. Cleveland Av., St. Paul,