Neighborhood Food Watch: Eat Street, Minneapolis
The Street: Nicollet Avenue, just south of downtown, between Grant Street and Lake Street
Vibe: International flavors in a low-key Midwestern atmosphere
Background: This 17-block stretch of Nicollet Avenue represents the full cultural diversity of Minneapolis. Nicollet has long had a reputation as food-centric street, in part due to an influx of Southeast Asian immigrant entrepreneurs who moved here in the 1980s. In the mid-1990s, as the area reached a culinary critical mass, a few restaurant owners joined forces to brand the corridor as "Eat Street"; today, everyone calls it that. The heart of Eat Street is between 25th and 29th Streets, where some 30 restaurants represent seemingly every corner of the world, with prices to suit any budget.
Start Here: At the corner of 26th Street and Nicollet, you can see the story of Eat Street in a sweeping glance. For the sake of history, begin at the Black Forest Inn (right), the city's German food standard-bearer and a Nicollet Avenue stalwart, having been here since 1965 (co-owner Joanne Christ was one of the leaders of the Eat Street branding effort). Step inside for an Old World overdose: a showcase bar with carved dark wood and a dining room with paintings of rustic manors nestled along the Rhine and other rural tableaus. And, most important, plates piled with house-made bratwurst or, from the "Very German" section of the menu, nieren-sauteed veal kidney with spaetzel and red cabbage ($16, about the mid-point of entree prices here). You'll also need a beer, so get the Paulaner Salvator, a rich, dark doppelbock.
Back outside, stand on the corner to take in what Eat Street has become: a pleasing jumble of cultures, as though someone pulled country names from a hat and randomly assigned storefronts. Next to the Black Forest Inn is Little Tijuana; directly across 26th Street are The Bad Waitress, a quirky modern riff on an old-school diner, and a Vietnamese bistro called Jasmine 26, the snazzier younger sibling of Jasmine Deli, on the other side of Nicollet Avenue.
When Jasmine Deli opened in 2000, its nine tables were most likely to be filled by the area's Vietnamese community, but it soon began attracting all manner of fans. It has a classic street-food tmosphere, like many Eat Street establishments: acoustic tile on the ceiling, buff-colored laminate and large bottles of sriracha sauce on the tables and astonishingly low prices on the menu, which tops out at $8.95. Order the tamarind chicken wings and a bánh mì (right) -- a sandwich consisting of an agreeably crunchy baguette overstuffed with meat, cilantro and sliced carrots and cucumbers -- and you'll still receive change from your $10 bill.
In 2007, Jasmine Deli's owners opened Jasmine 26. The difference starts with the upgraded aesthetics, which strike an egalitarian balance between chic and cozy. Boxy modern light fixtures cast a sultry amber glow, making this an ideal date-night spot. The menu is more expansive here, too-though, at $12 to $15 for an entree, not wallet-busting expensive-with highlights including lemongrass ribs and bubble tea cocktails, a grown-up twist on a Southeast Asian street food standby.
A block south on Nicollet is Harry Singh's Original Caribbean Restaurant, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sort of place known for its roti-a flatbread that Singh fills, burrito-style, with his signature curries. There's chicken ($9.95), of course, and goat ($10.95), but go straight for the curry potato and chick pea roti ($9.95), a heady study in complex yet mellow flavors, quintessential comfort food. If you crave more spice, add a few drops of the restaurant's mouth-incinerating hot sauce, which conclusively disproves the stereotype that food in Minnesota is uniformly bland.
In case it wasn't already clear: Lake Wobegon, this is not (even if there is a small-town feel to the low-slung buildings and the unassuming energy of the street, lively but far from frenzied). "This is a blended community, and that's something we see as an asset," says Marian Biehn, executive director of the Whittier Alliance, the local neighborhood group. And as new investors come into the neighborhood, Biehn and other community leaders work diligently "to get them to buy into that vision."
So far, so good: Evidence of this "blended" vision abounds, manifest in the diversity of your fellow eaters on the prowl and in your food options. There's Mexican, there's Greek. Chinese. Mediterranean. The Old Arizona Chocolate Lounge. And, back near 26th Street, consider a Malaysian restaurant called Peninsula; try a curry you've never heard of and thank me later.
Nightcap: Kitty-corner from the Black Forest Inn are the street's newest, swankest additions: Icehouse and Eat Street Social (right), both less than a year old. The Social gets the nod for its cocktail craftsmanship. It's already renowned for both impeccably made classics and original recipes like the Harvest Soon, which includes gin, cocoa nib liqueur and egg white. The Social also crafts old-school soda fountain drinks like house-made root beer and Bronx egg creams with the same care, for those who prefer a less potent nightcap.