Minnesota cuisine has taken a global turn toward a broader offering of foods, because a large population of immigrants bring the foods of their homelands to our local restaurants. And, although our culinary heritage may be slanted toward food with mild spice, we have an adventurous streak.
In the Twin Cities, you’ll find high concentrations of ethnic cuisine, but it isn’t necessary to travel that far outside Maple Grove to expand your dining palate. A wide selection of cultural food experiences, with intense flavors and unique ingredients, is waiting.
Thai foods are heavily influenced by flavors and traditions of bordering countries, including Burma, China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. At Lemon Grass, owner Ann Ahmed creates a menu that forces diners to venture beyond their comfort zone and explore the deep, rich flavors associated with this style of cooking. “We are not Minnesota-palate friendly,” she says, “but customers keep coming back—so we know they enjoy what they’re eating.” For 10 years, Ahmed’s customers have enjoyed her signature curry dishes, duck entrees and especially the pad Thai ($9, with added cost for protein). Her signature dish, wild chicken curry ($16), is a fusion of both Indian and Thai flavors, coconut milk, bamboo shoots, basil and butternut squash. The restaurant also includes a sushi bar.
Mexican foods have become a homogenized blend of flavors and tastes, brought together through European and Spanish influence on indigenous tribes. Dishes are based on three main ingredients found native to Mexico—beans, corn and peppers.
El Rodeo delivers everyone’s south-of-the-border favorites including burritos, tacos and enchiladas, plus specialty dishes such as steak Mexicano, a 14 oz. T-bone topped with sautéed onions, peppers and tomato, served with rice and refried beans and tortillas on the side ($13.49). “The restaurant is always very busy,” says manager Jose Rojas. “Customers love the carnitas and fajitas the most.” Every Sunday and Tuesday from 4–8 p.m., kids 12 and under can eat from the kids’ menu for $2, including beverage. Happy hour drink specials can be found Sunday-Thursday, 2–8 p.m.
Although many styles of cooking encompass Chinese food, our Western culture is most familiar with Cantonese dishes, created around well-balanced ingredients with less focus on spicy notes so as not to overwhelm the fresh flavors of the food. China Dragon, operated for more than 30 years by brothers Mike and Paul Moy, emphasizes meals with fresh vegetables. In addition, the Moy brothers explore Szechuan food as well, a cuisine with prominent traits of spicy, hot, fresh and fragrant flavors.
Also family-owned, Yu Fong expands on the Chinese menu with an array of noodle dishes, with origins varying greatly depending on regional influence. Pad Thai (Thailand), chow fun (Cantonese) and lo mein (Chinese) are perennial favorites, and Yu Fong also offers house specialty dishes that pique curious taste buds such as the triple Mongolian delight, a mix of beef, chicken and shrimp with mixed vegetables in the chef’s special hot sauce ($6.75 pint, $10.75 quart). Yu Fong also offers an extensive vegetarian menu and inexpensive lunch options Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
With a flair for something different, Hiroaki (Rocky) Aoki opened the first Benihana restaurant in New York City in 1964. A descendant of a Japanese samurai warrior, he employed famed Teppanyaki chefs to cook tableside on large iron griddles, wowing customers with intricate knife skills and theatrics. Rocky’s choice is a huge favorite, according to manager Casy Chung: “Our customers select this dish more than any other.” Composed of hibachi-grilled chicken and steak, customers enjoy this with soup, salad, shrimp appetizer and mixed vegetables, as well as steamed rice, green tea and dessert ($27.75). Enjoy a glass of sake and other Japanese spirits with your meal as well.
New Orleans cuisine may not come to mind when thinking globally, but the basis of Creole tradition is rooted in the 18th-century settlers of French, African and Spanish descent. NOLA Bistro & Bar, (formerly Collage Café) in Osseo has curated a far-reaching fusion menu that touches all manner of cultural tastes based in traditional Creole standards. With fresh, organic ingredients tailored to the Minnesota palate, the famous foods of Louisiana are served with less emphasis on frying. Owner Kavita Mehta says that the crawfish and shrimp étouffée ($26) is the most popular dish. The signature dish, blackened catfish, consists of a deeply seasoned catfish filet topped with tomato sauce, served with red beans and rice, cucumber, vegetables and a tomato-onion relish ($24). The restaurant offers options for making the dishes spicier, if desired.
Italian cuisine varies greatly by region. From the heavier, meat-centric dishes found in the northern end of ‘the boot’, to the lighter, seafood based meals in the south, Italian food offers wide-ranging favorites. Biaggi’s menu travels the entire country, from Americanized standards to dishes not found at other restaurants. Manager Mark Borowiak speaks enthusiastically of the garlic shrimp oreganata ($17.99), sea scallop risotto ($22.99) and fettucine with lobster ($17.99), a sumptuous blend of black fettucine with rich chunks of lobster, wild mushrooms and chili flakes in a creamy lobster sauce. “It’s easily our most popular menu item,” he says. The generous gluten-free menu at Biaggi’s also makes Italian dining more accessible to everyone.
(Sea scallop risotto with basil and pine nut pesto takes center stage at Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano along with a burrata caprese drizzled with olive oil and balsamic glaze.)
Olympia Café boasts “something for everyone” and delivers on that promise, drawing on all manner of Mediterranean fare found in the islands that make up this beautiful country. With gyros and salads, Greek-themed burgers along with traditional entrees such as spanikopita, pastitsio and moussaka ($10.99 each), they’ve got Greek food covered. A full brunch menu with basic American fare boasting Greek attributes adds yet another element of dining in Osseo. House-made baklava, hummus, tzatziki and homemade salad dressings are available as well.