Much poetry has been written as an ode to the city; the place where we were born and/or raised, that has shaped us. Poetry, pictures, paintings and films. We look for these things and as the arts they help us to define ourselves as they define the world around us.
However, as the “roving gourmand” Jim Harrison states plainly,
“How feebly the arts compete with the idea of what we are going to eat next.”
Isn’t it true that a good meal trumps all else? That the Mona Lisa cannot truly be enjoyed on an empty stomach? That we will walk out of an Oscar-worthy film to satiate a begging appetite? That we cannot read, or write, or dream, or laugh when hunger pangs beg the largest question of them all:
Who am I, if not someone who needs to eat?
So then we define the city by its food. It’s step one, maybe, the base (cornerstone) of how to describe the landscape. We start here.
But then we ask what kind of food culture can be created when a city’s identity is changing; when people are moving in, and out, of its borders at a rapid pace?
Regardless of what the landscape will look like in 5, 10, 20 years or more, these dishes remain truly representative of the Capital City’s soul. It’s core. And they will keep us fed today so that we may go on and enjoy everything else she has to offer.
17 dishes that define St. Paul
Pelmeni at Moscow on the Hill
These dumplings are simple. They are delicious. As a happy hour snack, as an entree, as a chaser for the house-made, now ubiquitous horseradish vodka that reminds why why Moscow on the Hill is such an important piece of the St. Paul landscape. You can have get the Peasant Pelmeni that come with cheese on top (sure to please any Midwesterner) or Vareneki (vegetarian), but the very best always have been, and always will be, the classic Siberian, filled with spiced pork and covered in vinegar and sour cream.
Moscow on the Hill | 371 Selby Ave, St Paul, MN 55102 | (651) 291-1236
Juicy Nookie at The Nook
There are, of course, plenty of places to get a good Jucy Lucy in St. Paul. Blue Door Pub, for example, does it with unmatched creative flare. But nowhere truly captures the St. Paul aesthetic of big flavors in quaint settings like the Nook. The cheesy, gooey goodness of their Jucy Lucy hits the spot, cooked to perfection every time. The bowling alley downstairs, where you can also order from the full menu while knocking down a few pins and knocking back a few beers, is an added bonus.
The Nook | 492 Hamline Ave S, St Paul, MN 55116 | (651) 698-4347
Pot pie at The Lexington
It may not be the same pot pie as was served 50 years ago, but it feels pretty close (according to the people who grew up with it, at least). That was before our time, but this, the “newest” restaurant on our list (it reopened in February 2017), while also being one of the oldest, more than deserves its place. A phoenix from the ashes, run by Jack Reibel and the minds behind Smack Shack, blends old and new into something beautiful, tasty, special; a supper club that understands how the past can be pushed, with respect, into the future.
The Lexington | 1096 Grand Ave, St Paul, MN 55105 | (651) 289-4990
Art Song’s recipe chicken wings at Hickory Hut
Soul food in St. Paul is something to be celebrated. Even for someone who prefers his wings saucy as opposed to dry-rubbed, these wings are special. But outside of being addictingly delicious, they also represent a St. Paul, man, myth, legend: Tiger Jack, who sold them at his small shack up the street for years. Jack, Art Song’s wings, and Hickory Hut also represent the history of the razed Rondo neighborhood. The decades-old recipe stands strong against the changing of the times, and is finger-licking good to boot.
Hickory Hut | 647 University Ave W, St Paul, MN 55104 | (651) 224-9464
Papaya salad at Thai Cafe
There is something undeniably unique about papaya salad. It’s at once sweet and savory, with an unmistakable funk (from the fish sauce), and a spicy bite that hurts so good but doesn’t linger. It’s a flavor explosion unlike any of the other dishes on this list. When St. Paul opened its doors to refugees in the 1970’s, the food landscape changed forever (and certainly for the better): diner-culture infused with bright flavors previously unimagined. St. Paul still benefits from the dense array of East Asian dishes found across the city, and Thai Cafe’s papaya salad is perhaps the crown jewel.
Thai Cafe | 371 University Ave W, St Paul, MN 55103 | (651) 225-8231
Denver omelette at Coffee Cup
We can’t ignore our Midwest sensibilities. Our agricultural heritage. Some of our very best food still comes from the land, from the products of farm animals turned into breakfast that would be more than one person’s choice for their last meal. The enormous, cheesy Denver omelette, complimented by savory ham and diced green pepper, is the cultural representative of old-school St. Paul eating. Dive in with gusto, tackling this beast the way only a Minnesotan can.
Coffee Cup | 1446 Rice St, St Paul, MN 55117 | (651) 489-0020
Pho at Trieu Chau
This was hard, nearly impossible even, for us to rank. Pho certainly deserves (probably more than one) entry into this list as a St. Paul staple, but how could we honestly say which bowl is the most-St. Paul of them all? After months of sampling pho across the city, we found ourselves coming back to one place: Trieu Chau. It’s a hole in the wall, passionately run by a family that knows tradition and flavor trump all else when making a good meal. They don’t have a website, so you’ll just have to trust us and check it out for yourself.
Trieu Chau | 500 University Ave W, St Paul, MN 55103 | (651) 222-6148
Spaghetti (or Mostaccioli) with tomato sauce at Degidio’s
We don’t order much else here. Or anything else, really, except for the occasional side Caesar salad and the pizza fries appetizer. But there isn’t really a need to. Nothing else on the menu quite compares to the decades-old (8+ decades) red sauce recipe and the pasta done just right, with or without a meatball on top. Dishes like these keep St. Paul’s past alive, and remind why it shouldn’t be forgotten. And yes, we know Cossetta is right down the street. But for us, this is the true St. Paul red sauce; unchanged, untouched, unbeatable.
Degidio’s | 425 7th St W, St Paul, MN 55102 | (651) 291-7105
Oysters (or any fresh seafood) at Meritage
Meritage remains the crème de la crème of St. Paul restaurants, offering a magical experience across from whimsical Rice Park in downtown. And nothing is more magical than their oysters, shucked fresh for you on the spot, with a little house-made mignonette on the side. Proving that you don’t have to live on the coast to get world class oysters, the fresh seafood case is a special treat. In fact, Minnesota’s midland location means we get to enjoy the freshest from both coasts on a regular basis. Fantastique.
Meritage | 410 St Peter St, St Paul, MN 55102 | (651) 222-5670
Margherita Extra at Punch Pizza
The original Punch opened on Cleveland Avenue in Highland Park long before it became a popular Twin Cities pizza chain (still only local TC), and long before receiving national praise (and an invitation to the White House for co-owner John Sorrano) from President Obama. The original location offers table-side service, different than the offshoots, but the classic, no-frills Margherita Extra, with fresh basil, their famous mozzarella di bufala, and Mt. Vesuvio tomatoes, remains simply the best no matter where you are.
Punch Pizza | 704 Cleveland Ave S, St Paul, MN 55116 | (651) 696-1066
Ramen at Tanpopo Noodle Shop
The ramen craze has swept furiously through Minnesota, and has led to really memorable bowls at places like Tori Ramen and Red Lantern, But Monday nights have been dedicated to Tanpopo, the only night they serve theirs, for years. It’s classic shoyu ramen, with melt-in-your-mouth pork shoulder, that is the purest example of Japanese comfort cooking you can find in the city. There are plenty of new places that certainly do their thing, but nothing beats the original.
Tanpopo Noodle Shop | 308 E Prince St #140, St Paul, MN 55101 | (651) 209-6527
Doner at Black Sea
Minnesota’s first Turkish restaurant operates quietly across the street from Hamline University on Snelling Avenue. But it’s not just hungry college students that have taken advantage of the Turkish-style gyro known as the doner that has made Black Sea famous. A pita pocket full lamb shaved right off the spit and topped with a house tzazkiki, it is quick and absolutely delicious, as well as being thrifty (which is great whether you’re a college student or not).
Black Sea | 737 Snelling Ave, St Paul, MN 55104 | (651) 917-8832
Ultimate Combination at Fasika
It feels a bit like cheating, as there is a little of everything that makes up this one “dish.” But the truth is that everything is on point, and everything should be tried. Vegetarians will enjoy the lentils, stewed greens, beets, eggplant. Omnivores will enjoy the lamb, beef, chicken all brought to life by the warm spices of East Africa. You can of course get it with rice instead of the typical injera, but, short of a gluten allergy, why would you? The injera is so good, and eating with your hands is half the fun.
Fasika | 510 Snelling Ave N, St Paul, MN 55104 | (651) 646-4747
Tamales at El Burrito Mercado
El Burrito Mercado is in and of itself an institution. It’s a hub of activity, sitting in the midst of District del Sol like the sun sits in the middle of the sky. It brings people together the way few places can; all of St. Paul comes together to enjoy something from El Burrito Mercado. There are excellent grab-and-go options and great baked goods as well, an entire grocery store, a gift shop, art, music… But Tamales, the classic Mexican street food made so soft and never dried out, get the royal treatment here all day every day. The very best introduction.
El Burrito Mercado | 175 Cesar Chavez St, St Paul, MN 55107 | (651) 227-2192
Steak at Mancini’s
Some things in life don’t need much explanation: It’s steak. St. Paul-style. Nothing more, nothing less. Mancini’s doesn’t even serve much else. A little lobster, a shrimp cocktail if you know who to talk to. But you come, get a seat in the classic dining room, and let yourself be transported straight to the heart of the city with a Strip, Sirloin, Filet, Kebab… and that’s about all there is to it.
Mancini’s | 531 7th St W, St Paul, MN 55102 | (651) 224-7345
Chicken Salsa Chili at Cafe Latte
The Grand Avenue mainstay does a lot of things right. This is one of the few things you can get every day, as their cafeteria-style selections are constantly on rotation, but that isn’t the only reason it was added to our list. It’s fairly simple, really. Some of the best dishes are the ones that don’t try too hard: Just a little spice, a lot of tomato, chicken, beans, and a rich, savory flavor that stays with you long after you’ve scraped the bottom of the bowl with your spoon. Get the cheese, sour cream, and purple onion on top for the full experience.
Cafe Latte | 850 Grand Ave, St Paul, MN 55105 | (651) 224-5687