Shrimp al ajillo at Estelle
Sometimes a restaurant lands in a corner of the world that embraces it like a supernova, gathering gusto and hot takes before careening into an impossible-to-maintain reputation. Other times it’s a quiet boop, a small place that serves its neighbors so exquisitely that it is able to settle into a long life of growth and milestones with the people who love it.
One of the considerable charms of Estelle in St. Paul’s Mac Groveland neighborhood is that it’s both — the kind or restaurant that gets other chefs and food fans whipped up with excitement, but also one that reflects its studious, lovely locality. The highly anticipated restaurant from Peter Sebastian and chef Jason Hansen has grown into the kind of place that always seems to occupy murmurs of “Have you been back? We love Estelle.”
Understandable, as there’s much to love about the menu. My favorite way to enjoy it is to order a bottle of rosé and select a parade of snacks like the shrimp al ajillo ($17). A twist on the Spanish tapas, the plump shellfish are dressed with a pimentón-seasoned sauce that’s creamy and smoky with just a little garlic bite. Garnished with bright herbs — dill and cilantro — it’s served alongside crusty toasted baguette slices for soaking up all the sauce. It’s delightful snacking. (Joy Summers)
1806 St. Clair Av., St. Paul, 651-330-9648, estellestp.com
Crispy pork belly garlic noodles from Soul Lao
This one was a twofer of the best kind. Muddy Paws, the longtime St. Louis Park bakery for creative and offbeat flavors of cheesecake, hosts a food truck and live music in its parking lot every Thursday through mid-October. Last week, the selection was Soul Lao, and to be entirely transparent, I was lured there by a social media pic of these garlic noodles ($16). Whoever says Instagram doesn’t depict reality is wrong: this dish was as delicious as it looked.
Slicked with a slightly sweet yet umami-rich garlic sauce, and topped with crisped-up hunks of pork belly fanned out like a deck of cards, these noodles are going in my personal food truck hall of fame. I made a wise move and ordered the whole menu. Crispy coconut rice naem khao ($18) and tongue-tinglingly hot, wok-tossed wings ($15) rounded out the offerings, and I’ve thought about them almost as often as I have those divine noodles.
Bonus: If you happen to find Soul Lao at Muddy Paws (3359 Gorham Av., St. Louis Park, muddypawscheesecake.com) — it’s back for National Cheesecake Day on Saturday, July 30 — do indulge in one of their mini cheesecakes while waiting for your noodles. They sling a few of their inventive flavors (Butterfinger, pink lemonade) from a trailer in their lot. (Sharyn Jackson)
Chashu spicy ramen at Oishii
There’s never a bad time for ramen. It warms on cold days, is oddly refreshing on warm days and soothes the soul any day. But if your only experience with ramen is the four-for-$1 bricks that fed you through college, buckle up. Times have changed.
Exhibit A: Oishii, a casual Japanese restaurant in a Savage strip mall that quietly entered the scene less than two years ago. Unassuming on the outside but vibrant on the inside, the small restaurant is serving up big flavors. A true Minnesotan, before committing to spicy ramen I asked how spicy it was. “You can handle it,” our server said. And I could. Bolder than “Minnesota spice” but certainly not fiery, the spicy broth was filled with all the must-haves, including noodles, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, green onions, fish cake, seaweed, chili sauce and half of an egg, properly cooked in soy sauce. Topped with chashu (braised pork belly), it was a stunning feast for the senses ($14.95). There are many, many other ramen possibilities and finicky eaters can also build their own, choosing everything from broth and noodle type to protein and add-ins. Vegetarians are covered, too.
Not sure about ramen? There are plenty of options: stir-fried noodles, a handful of donburi (rice bowls), fried rice, teriyaki and a full slate of appetizers. They’re all worth trying — after the ramen. (Nicole Hvidsten)
7711 Egan Drive, Savage, 952-855-1004, oishiisavage.5menucities.com
Lobster Roll at the St. Paul Cheese Shop
The first time I went to Portland, Maine, what struck me was how familiar much of the city felt. I turned on the rock-covered beach to look at the giant hill beside me, then out to the expanse of cold, blue water. Between the no-nonsense (but nice) locals and the lighthouse tour, it was akin to my adopted hometown of Duluth. Well, except there’s actual sea in Portland and in it are all the ocean delights Maine is known for. I spent the entire weekend stuffing myself with lobster rolls.
Back in St. Paul, there aren’t nearly as many opportunities to enjoy fat hunks of briny, sweet lobster meat, lightly dressed with a little mayo, lemon juice and a bit of celery for crunch. Then I noticed the board outside the St. Paul Cheese Shop promising a real deal lobster roll ($20).
The slim cheese shop is known for fantastic sandwiches, often featuring Red Table Meat, that takes advantage of the myriad worldly cheeses available and its proximity to Breadsmith. I did not expect a cheeseless sandwich to capture my heart, but this was the freshest bite of Maine I’ve encountered in some time.
Generous gobs of lobster are dressed and served on a freshly made, buttered and grilled hot dog bun from the nearby bakery. It’s not a giant sandwich, and the price tag might imply it’s for sharing ($20). But if you choose to share, you’ll be eyeing your companion’s every bite, so let’s just call it single serving.
The sandwich isn’t in regular rotation, though. It’s best to call ahead for availability or keep an eye out for that sign. (Joy Summers)
1573 Grand Av., St. Paul, 651-698-3391, stpaulcheeseshop.com
Giant Bavarian pretzel at the Freight House
On a Top 10 weather day, a family dinner on a waterside patio was in order. But my first attempt, at the newly reopened and reimagined Dock Cafe, now the Dock, in Stillwater, had a two-hour wait. And rightfully so; people have been missing that patio for two years! But after 45 minutes, we caved and went across the parking lot to the Freight House, which had immediate seating at umbrella-shaded picnic tables on a sprawling deck. With two hungry kids, I needed an appetizer ASAP, and ordered the giant soft pretzel with haste. Good move.
Enormous and piping hot, with a couple containers of pepper jack cheese sauce for dipping, this whimsical start to out long-awaited dinner saved the night. It’s $19, but it could easily could serve six people. And the leftovers, which came home in a pizza box, made a great pretzel bun for sandwiches the next day.
The Freight House, in one of Stillwater’s charming and historic riverside buildings, delivered for the rest of our spontaneous meal, too. Cod coated in an aromatic Alaskan Ale batter ($21) and a plentiful Southwestern salad with chipotle chicken ($17) were highlights. My FOMO for the Dock abated for the time being. Summer’s only half over, with more patio nights ahead. (S.J.)
305 S. Water St., Stillwater, 651-439-5718, thefreighthouse.com