I left Duluth at 2:30 a.m. to drop my aunt and uncle off at the airport in Minneapolis, and then continued to drive southward to southeastern MN, to which I had never been. I had a bowl of cereal at home for breakfast, so by 2:00 p.m., when I got to La Crosse, WI, I was rather hungry. Looking for a place to eat in their surprisingly awesome (architecturally and design-wise, not gastronomically) downtown, I ate at an unimpressive pizza joint, where I ended up throwing away about half of the pizza in a garbage can at a Winona park.
In Rochester (which interested me because it is about the same size of Duluth and also in MN), I was surprised to find a small Somali district. I bought a can of hummus, no longer available for some reason at our local Cub Foods, for $0.89. Cheap.
I wanted to make the most restaurant-wise of my trip, so I decided to eat at Sambol, a "Sri Lankan" restaurant in Eagan before going to bed. I was expecting to find egg hoppers and string hoppers and the like on the menu, but no, not at all - almost all the menu items were standard Indian fare you can find at most any Indian restaurant. I ordered chaat papri, a salad-ish mix of yogurt, chickpeas, onions, and some vegetables, which was OK (I'm not a salad guy) and chana masala, which was the worst I've ever had. I don't blame Sambol for this - it's just that I don't like raw onions, which were in abundance in my chana masala. I politely asked for a take-out box, most of which went into my motel room's garbage. I very rarely ever throw away food (the pizza above another rare exception), but considering I was full and had no place to store it, I think you can understand.
NOTE: I just looked at their website. Apparently they also have a Sri Lankan menu. However, nobody told me about it.
After checking out of the local Motel 6, I headed for Akwaaba on Eat Street (Nicollet Avenue), whose menu was found in the Minneapolis yellow pages. Upon arriving at the address, I was surprised to find a small grocery store in its place. Thinking it may be hidden behind the market, I asked the woman running the store about it, only to get a smiling reply of "No more Akwaaba." That sent me to the next nearest West African option, Three Crowns Restaurant and Catering, situated on 2817 Lyndale in Minneapolis. Rather out of place in a hipster neighborhood, Triple Crowns is the epitome of a chowish ethnic restaurant. The room it is situated in is tiny, with only about five or six tables, and the kitchen right in front of you. I have never seen so little division between dining room and kitchen in my life, outside of some private homes. This ain't no Applebee's. I found the scent (which I believe was goat) a bit offensive at first, but after a few minutes I got used to it. What looked like a mother and daughter team was working when I was there, with perhaps a friend with them, having an animated conversation in an African language, English phrases occasionally popping out, while the girl prepared my meal of jollof rice and goat pepper soup. My own mother, 0% Nigerian, has been making "Nigerian pepper soup" for some time, from a recipe I found, ( http://www.chicago.us.mensa.org/featu... ), but this was totally different. She's always made it with beef rather than goat, but I wanted goat, first because it seemed for more authentic, and second because I've never tried it. And I'm glad I did that time, cause I'm never having it again. I just couldn't stomach the taste, and far worse, the texture of it. The broth of the soup had a less offensive (though not what I would call "pleasing") taste to it, and the jollof rice was unique but good. The meal ended up being a little bit expensive for lunch at this type of joint, about $15 if I remember. Unfortunately, it wasn't a weekday when they have their lunch special, which was either $6.50 or $7.50. The older waitress (mother? owner?) came to talk to me, and appeared very thankful I tried out her restaurant. I've noticed this with quite a few ethnic restaurants that don't see many "natives".
For dinner, I chose to eat at Babani's in downtown St. Paul, one of the U.S.'s few Kurdish restaurants. I had heard of it a long time ago and been wanting to try it. Entering I found a well-appointed room, small though not too Chowish this time, nicely decorated with traditional Kurdish costumes, photos of Kurdish life, and newspaper accolades of the restaurant. The clientele was smartly dressed, making me feel a bit out of place in my old "President's Slide" (an alpine slide near Mount Rushmore) T-Shirt and ragged khakis. From previous research, I already knew what I wanted to order, and did exactly that: naan wa paneer, dowjic soup, and kubay sawar (entree). Since the entree came with a choice of soup or salad, the dowjic came at no extra charge. The naan wa paneer, then, was my appetizer. I did not know what to expect, but imagined something like Indian flatbread with a paneer-like cheese - weird for sure. However, what arrived demonstrated that just because one culture's food item shares the name of another culture's, does not mean that they are the same. The "naan" reminded me faintly of French bread, the cheese was feta, with a few olives and salad-type veggies as a garnish. The dowjic soup was excellent, very tangy, but balanced something in the soup that reminded me of...feta cheese. The entree, kubay sawar, is described as wheat dumplings with specially-spiced ground meat inside - what arrived was a bit different than what I was expecting, but was still faithful to the menu's description. Was it good? I'll say okay. Just nothing special. The spices had a surprising resemblance to those found in a Bosnian dish I ordered when in New York. All in all, it wasn't a bad meal, though not a particularly good one either. I ended up spending about $18 for my dinner. Service was good.
Later that night, when driving to Ikea, I found a very chow-ish strip mall in St. Paul, "Sibley Plaza". What caught my eye driving down 7th St. was a "Kiev Foods" store. Inside I found all sorts of Eastern European food products - jellies, herring, meats, candy bars, pelmeni, pierogi, and much more, along with used Russian CDs, Matryoshka dolls, etc. I bought a few CDs and a candy bar. The girl working spoke almost no English, and was new, so she didn't know what to do about the CD's, whose cases did not contain discs (they were in a folder). Before leaving I picked up a free Minnesota Russian newspaper, surprised there were so many Russians in the state.
Also in the strip mall was Queen of Sheba, which I entered to see if they had a take-out menu (they didn't, but they did have loud Ethiopian music playing), and "La Hacienda", where I would eat the following morning.
I decided to stay another night Saturday, and at around 1 p.m. on Sunday I became hungry and craved something different yet comforting. That brought me to La Hacienda, which I knew from the sign I saw the previous night had pupusas. And a lot more - their menu contained Mexican, Salvadoran, Peruvian, American, and (strangely enough) Mediterranean sections. Along with a pupusa I ordered "carne desfilada" from the Salvadoran section. While waiting for my orders to come to my table, I ate the courtesy nachos and salsa. Their salsa, orange-colored, was awesome - when I asked what it was (I wanted the name), they replied "secreta" (though I was a bit confused - it sounded like "asegreta" or something). I stopped myself to prevent getting full too soon, and I was awfully glad for it when I saw the tremendous size of my "carne desfilada" entree and the pupusa alongside it. With beans, flavored rice, tortillas, salad, and the mix of beef, eggs, and vegetables they call "carne desfilada", it was easily enough for two meals. Everything (except the salad, which I did not eat - see above) was absolutely delicious, wonderful, amazing. Especially the cheese and bean pupusa, which could serve as the gold standard for comfort food. La Hacienda hit the spot, and for only about $14 (going by memory: $8.50 for the carne desfilada, $2.50 for the pupusa, ~$1.50 for the pop, plus tax). I should also mention this was a very Chowish place - simple, an order counter in the back, outside the kitchen, a medium-sized dining room, and a ~100% Hispanic clientele. A guy was there taking pictures for their upcoming website - I might be in the background of one :). The waiter was very kind; no issues with service. My only complaint was the seat. I had one of those row seats - usually the comfortable ones - but it seemed to slide up in the front. (?)
My final meal before leaving Minneapolis was at Aribel's, a Guyanese restaurant in Richfield. The atmosphere there was unique to say the least - very loud Carribean music playing, just a few Carribean-looking guys eating, along with an older white guy who, by has dancing and praise of the recorded music, was apparently very appreciative of the culture, and highlights from the Indian Zee Sports satellite network on a plasma TV in the back. From the helpful and talkative waiter I ordered "bara" and chicken curry. The "bara" ($3.00 or $3.50) came first, about ten little fried balls made from string beans, to be dipped in a sauce. Both the sauce and the "balls" were delicious, and strongly recommended. Later inquiring whether bara was Guyanese or not, the waiter told me it was, and that the restaurant does "everything that's Guyanese." The chicken curry ($8.95) was a less favorable affair. I've eaten Indian chicken curries countless times, usually chicken tikka masala or chicken makhani, but others as well. As such, I'm used to the chicken being cut up into nice little boneless pieces, and the same being true of other ingredients. What arrived here was a plate of rice and a bowl containing two or three large pieces of chicken, a few large slices of potato, and a sauce. Eating it was a bit...tedious. I wouldn't say it didn't taste good, just not my preferred way. Perhaps I should have ordered "beef pepper pot" ($8.95) or a rice / meat / vegetable mix dish ($6.95 - forgot the name), both of which the waiter proudly pointed out as Guyanese.
(End of report)