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On the art of trying new restaurants

When you travel down any of the diverse commercial corridors of the Twin Cities, new and unexplored restaurants are all around you.

Snack Chat on University Avenue doesn't yet have a permanent sign, but their website is great.
Snack Chat on University Avenue doesn't yet have a permanent sign, but their website is great.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

Many years ago, I embarked on a new restaurant exploration practice that I called my “try-new-things” routine. At least once a month, I’d go to an unknown-to-me, non-chain restaurant or deli, some place I’d never been and that was not directly recommended.

When you travel down any of the diverse commercial corridors of the Twin Cities, new and unexplored restaurants are all around you, sometimes lurking in strip malls or old brick buildings. Maybe a brand new vinyl sign appears on the Boba Tea place on the corner. Maybe it’s an East African deli or a BBQ place or one of the increasing numbers of cajun seafood restaurants appearing everywhere.

My “try-new-things” routine didn’t last very long. It was too easy to return to the familiar haunts, my old favorite cafés and restaurants, and I forgot about it for years.

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The meticulous checklist approach

That failure is why I find inspiration in The Heavy Table, the long-running food and restaurant website (now supported by Patreon). In addition to running foodie reviews, chef chatter, and lists of openings and closings, they performed what has to be the greatest “try-new-things” endeavor in Twin Cities history. It was called the “checklist” program, where a crew of food reviewers systematically ate at, and reviewed, every non-chain restaurant on East Lake Street, University and Central Avenues.

All three of the checklists were mind-boggling enterprises that took months to complete. To even attempt to eat every restaurant on University Avenue, for example, reflects the kind of obsession one associates with Captain Ahab. A crew of four people, editor James Norton, the writer and photographer Becca Dilley, the writer M. C. Cronin, and the enigmatic illustrator known as WACSO, have made trying new restaurants down to a science.

To put it mildly, I was deeply impressed with the efforts. For those unfamiliar with Twin Cities’ geography, Lake Street, Central Avenue, and University Avenue are the most diverse, restaurant-packed streets in the metro area. Each stretches for miles. They each post scores of restaurants reflecting a kaleidoscope of culture, history, innovation and immigration that result in constantly evolving culinary mashups.

The most amazing thing about all of the checklist projects is that the group went everywhere, from the fanciest white tablecloth joints to the least-advertised back of the grocery lunch counters you’ll ever see.

The digital restaurant divide 

But that was then. These days, the COVID pandemic has changed how many people interact with restaurants. Today, even the most word-of-mouth family restaurants are well served by having a slick digital presence.

That’s been the focus of the St. Paul Restaurant Resiliency Program, an innovative partnership between the city and NCXT (pronounced “next”), a digital consulting firm based in Minneapolis.

“The program got started at onset of COVID,” said Jonathan Banks, who runs the NCXT, which had been collaborating with the city on tech assistance. “When COVID hit, conversations turned into [asking], ‘Who in the city is going to need the greatest amount of tech assistance?’ We ended up settling on restaurants. They were going to be hit, and not going to be able to do any type of business if they didn’t have digital capabilities.”

For the last year and a half, Banks and his crew have offered a constantly evolving set of consulting tactics for restaurants throughout the city. On the Restaurant Resiliency menu was everything from website help to streamlining online delivery to COVID protocols to copywriting (they have a group of marketing volunteers from the nearby Land O’Lakes corporation).

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Over the last few years, relying on lists from the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections, they’ve consulted with dozens of restaurants throughout St. Paul, making it easier for them to connect with home-bound. The list includes places that range from Hamburguesas el Gordo to the venerable Swede Hollow Café.

For example, with help from NCXT, Snack Chat, which now occupies a coffee shop space in the massive Griggs-Midway building, now boasts an amazing website that makes it simple to order lunch.

Jonathan Banks
Jonathan Banks
“They were in Phase 2 of the program, and have actually taken on new tech,” explained Banks. “They’ve moved onto a vendor called Bento Box that automates marketing for restaurants, so that people can order online through this platform.”

One of the biggest challenges for restaurants coping with the pandemic was transitioning to  delivery service, as the vast majority of business moved online and off-site.

“In-house delivery is difficult to set up if you haven’t done it historically [and] if you’re not a pizza joint or noodle joint you might not have that capability,” Banks told me.

Banks said that having Minneapolis and St. Paul both cap charges for app-based delivery services at 15% was hugely helpful.

“It made it much more predictable for both customers and the restaurant about what their fees were going to be,” Banks said. “We just needed to have the tech conversation about where this link goes on your website, how to price differently between delivery and eating in person, [and] how to encourage people to … do… a carry out order next time instead of delivery.”

Back on Lake Street     

One group of people that are immune to marketing: the Heavy Table checklist crew. They’re going to visit your restaurant whether you like it or not. It turns out they’re still at it, with funding from the Lake Street Council, doing an “update” along East Lake Street of their meticulous checklist project.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to chow along with the crew as they tried the new restaurants in the Midtown Global Market — still the best food hall in the Twin Cites — as well as a few other miscellaneous places that Norton had spotted.

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I found the team gathered in the corner of the Oasis Café, a new Mediterranean Deli that occupies the former Holy Land Deli site. The four tasters stood circled around a corner table covered in plates: falafel, a giant gyro, hummus, fries, and samosas.

Following along with the process was fascinating. Everyone took one small bit of everything, and reacted.

“I like the hummus and you can really taste the lemon,” someone mumbled.

“This tastes good, I guess” I replied.

All the while, Norton was scribbling down notes, keeping track of everyone’s comments. The published Heavy Table report spoke glowingly about the hummus — “a surprisingly layered and complex thing, with real hits of tahini and olive oil giving it a rich fullness” — and the gyro meat — “not leathery, nor overly salty, and particularly good when enjoyed with the accompanying sauce (which strongly resembled Russian dressing).”

We were out of there in under fifteen minutes, and for the next few hours, we visited every unexplored restaurant we could find.

Reviewing the cuisine at Snack Chat.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Reviewing the cuisine at Taqueria el Primo 2.

The Venezuelan Arepa Bar was a smash, vaulted into “the rarified realm of ‘actually enjoying the food’”. The new BBQ joint, Soul to Soul Smokehouse, was good enough that I got to keep the leftovers: an amazing banana pudding and a half-smoked chicken “gorgeously CLOBBERED with herbs.” We tasted dishes at an immaculately clean, late-night taco place called Taqueria El Primo 2, where I tried birria tacos for the first time. And finally a food truck named Loncheria Los Amigos where everything, apparently, was over-salted.

(Most of the restaurants have great websites, by the way, a sign of the post-COVID times.)

Not everyone is so meticulous, nor would I wish that kind of tenacity on anyone. But for the rest of us, it wouldn’t hurt to try out a new restaurant every once in a while, someplace you might have barely noticed in a strip mall or on an overlooked corner. Whether they have a good website or not, it can be richly rewarding to get out of your comfort zone and see more of the city around you.

That reminds me, I’ve been meaning to go to the Ethiopian restaurant two blocks from my house ever since I moved into the neighborhood. Maybe this is the week to try it out.

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