Hotspots: Where to eat in St. Paul right now

·13 min read

Apr. 22—As things slowly return to a version of normal, more restaurateurs are taking a chance and opening a new eatery.

We've been busy checking out all the fresh restaurants in town, and there's a lot to like!

Here's the latest round of St. Paul hot spots, the new kids on the block, the bold and the brave who have thrown open their doors in recent months during a pandemic, one we hope is on its way out.

We think they're all keepers and hope you'll go support these fledgling businesses.

BOLE ETHIOPIAN CUISINE

We are so very glad this former University Avenue business is up and running again — this time in the former Delicata/Fox Trot/Java Train spot on Pascal Street in the Como neighborhood.

They've totally classed up the space, adding a few accent walls and some stonework. It's so cute that we can see it being a regular date-night spot.

It's not hyperbole to say one of our favorite meals on earth is a good Ethiopian vegetarian platter, and Bole's definitely delivers. Three varieties of deeply spiced lentils (it's such a magic trick that they manage to make them all taste so different!); tender cabbage and potatoes; bitter, spicy kale; and green beans and carrots round out the platter for two, which is more than enough for a hearty meal for you and your sweetie.

If you're in a meaty mood, there's plenty to keep you happy — everything from beef and lamb tibs to a richly spiced doro wat (chicken stew). And of course, with every meal, plenty of spongy, tart injera bread, used in place of silverware to grab little bits of this and that.

Bole was destroyed during the unrest following George Floyd's death, and a GoFundMe campaign was swiftly organized and funded to help them buy the new building and start over.

Bole Ethiopian Cuisine: 1321 N. Pascal St., St. Paul; 651-330-2492; boleethiopiancuisine.com

CHIP'S CLUBHOUSE

We are thanking our lucky stars that chef Tara Coleman decided to relocate from Chicago to the Twin Cities and that she's now opened two restaurants.

Hot Hands Pie & Biscuit was an instant success, and Coleman has piggybacked on that to open Chip's next door, in the former Monkey Temple space.

There, Coleman and Gina Mangiameli are serving a wider variety of comfort foods (and craft cocktails, made by one of our favorite bartenders, Tim Leary) in a full-service setting. We tried a smattering of the menu and everything was delicious, starting with a fun, vegetarian cashew and herb pate.

But the item we can't stop thinking about is the loosely pattied, juicy, perfectly charred, aioli- and melty American-cheese-adorned burger. We eat a lot of burgers, and this one borders on perfection.

And this is one place where skipping dessert would be a sin. We had the most fantastic sundae with toast-flavored ice cream, a jammy topping and buttery toast crumbs and a towering Funfetti cake that was as pretty as it was delicious.

Chip's Clubhouse: 272 S. Snelling Ave., St. Paul; 651-330-1617; visitchips.com

FRANK'S LEVEE TAVERN

Just when we think Dave Cossetta is done adding things to Cossetta Alimentari, his giant ode to all things Italian on West Seventh Street, he does something new.

This bar, in a former overflow space on the complex's second floor, focuses on Italian street food and drinks, and does it well.

An imported, hand-carved bar is the centerpiece of the space, which is cozy and has lots of televisions for the pre-game and in-game crowd.

Choose from all kinds of snacky goodness — four kinds of meatballs, a half-dozen wing flavors, three varieties of arancini (fried risotto balls), focaccia pizza and more.

We were pleasantly surprised by the amount of flavor in the chicken meatballs, and we'd definitely order the New Orleans dry rub wings again, but the best thing we tried was the polenta ragu board — a pile of steaming polenta covered in meaty sauce, served on a board tableside.

There's also a burger — yes, Cossetta's now has a burger — that we can't wait to try.

Frank's Levee Tavern: 211 W. Seventh St., St. Paul; 651-222-3476; cossettas.com

HAMBURGUESAS EL GORDO

This family operation that continues to expand locations throughout the metro, including two St. Paul spots in recent months, is a destination for Mexican street fare in the form of fully loaded tacos, burritos, burgers and hot dogs.

Must-orders are the authentic Mexican burgers in the style of street vendors in the northern part of Mexico. And the best introduction to this is the Del Gordo Burger, which seems like a cross between a Big Mac and a Whopper and then some. Lots of ingredients get packed into this double patty burger — mozzarella and cheddar cheeses, ham, bacon, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, avocado and pickled peppers among them.

Tacos and burritos are authentic. For filling choices, make sure the wonderfully seasoned roasted pork Al Pastor is part of your order. And the offerings don't stop there. You'll also find things like Cubano and chicken sandwiches as well as hot dogs on the menu.

Hamburguesas el Gordo: Four locations, including two in St. Paul: 161 N. Victoria St.; 651-528-7956 and 927 Payne Ave., St Paul; 651-348-2484; gordoburgers.com

IFOODS DELI INC.

Things at restaurants can change often these days amid the pandemic. When we stopped by this new casual St. Paul spot, a deli with hot and cold ready-prepared foods as was spotted in social media posts was not offered that day. Rather, things were made to order.

There can be a wait time that can run long depending on how busy things are. But it can be worth it, partly because this spot is very affordable ($2 for 2 egg rolls, $5.50 for six wings; pho and khao poon noodle soups for $7.95 each), and partly because everything we've tried here is delicious.

The most outstanding of the items we tried were the golden crisp egg rolls, in which you can choose pork or chicken for the filling. It was rolled just the way we like it, reminiscent of a Vietnamese egg roll, with things like clear noodles, carrots and black pepper. Another favorite was an order of the neutrally seasoned wings that also came out golden crisp.

Combo meals are available that allow you to have several items off the menu, including egg rolls and wings, all on one platter along with your choice of white rice, fried rice or, our favorite, sticky rice. While you're at it, add an order of the spicy Thai-style papaya salad, which easily feeds four as a side, to share.

We also love that this place offers party trays (staff advises to order at least four hours in advance) with combination platters of things like egg rolls, wings and spring rolls. That way, you can bring some of iFoods greatest hits to that next gathering when needing to feed a crowd.

IFoods Deli: 1515 White Bear Ave., St. Paul; 651-888-6995; facebook.com/IFoods-Deli-Inc-107162871099590

LA BOULANGERIE MARGUERITE

P.J. Murphy's recently closed temporarily for a rebrand, expanding the bakery's French offerings as a nod to chef/co-owner Francois Kiemde's culinary background as a French-trained chef. As part of it, the spot has reopened under the name La Boulangerie Marguerite (pronounced Lah Boo-Lanj-Er-EE Mar-Gah-Reet).

Longstanding favorites and original recipes of top sellers such as doughnuts, fritters, sourdough bread and baguettes from P.J. Murphy's remain. Now you can also get croissants as well as an expanded selection of breads including Vienna, focaccia and pain rustique varieties. The expanded offerings are a welcome addition to this classic St. Paul bakery, as the most recent owners carry on traditions of the beloved 100-year institution while ushering in a new era ripe with contemporary, European flair. Among the top items on our list are the flakey croissants (almond filled, especially), the decadent Caramel Nut Sticky Bun and the tart Raspberry Bread that is especially wonderful when toasted and served alongside coffee or tea. Select items may be limited from day to day. So if you want to guarantee your bakery picks are in stock, consider pre-ordering.

La Boulangerie Marguerite: 1279 Randolph Ave., St. Paul; 651-699-9292; la-marg.com

NELLIE'S

The new Nellie's is serving something not found in the Twin Cities metro previously: build-your-own ice cream sandwiches.

Co-owner Daved Najarian got the idea from visits to Los Angeles in which he would come across build-your-own ice cream sandwich places. Although this version has a local spin. Ice cream is custom-made for Nellie's in Minnesota and made with 14 percent butterfat. Cookies are made even more locally — literally on the other side of the wall from neighboring business Vikings and Goddesses Pie Co., the other business along with Nellie's that took over the former Izzy's Ice Cream space on Marshall Avenue near Cleveland Avenue.

In addition to ice cream sandwiches, cups and cones are available.

A recent sunny afternoon was a perfect day to check out the new ice cream sandwich offerings. Staff is behind the counter ready to build your ice cream sandwich based on your selections. Choose two cookies or bars — and you can choose two of the same or mix and match — for the outside of your sandwich. Options include chocolate chip and peanut butter cookies as well as Rice Krispies bars. Then, move down the line and choose an ice cream flavor — 20 varieties ranging from strawberry and mint chip to butter pecan and vegan dark chocolate during our visit. Next, you have the choice of having your ice cream sandwich rolled with sprinkles from a station with things like Funfetti, M&M's and cereal. At the end, you can take your ice cream sandwich creation as is. Or, you have the option of having your ice cream sandwich put through a hot press. By doing this, it caramelizes the cookie and warms it up, but leaves the ice cream fully frozen. It's a route to go if you love your cookies served warm.

While there's plenty to choose from at Nellie's, know that you don't have to choose between ice cream or cookies for dessert anymore. Because at Nellie's, you can have it both ways.

Nellie's: 2034 Marshall Ave., St. Paul; nelliesicecream.com

PEKING GARDEN

Cantonese-style dishes are being served once again from this three-decades-old institution that recently reopened in new digs near the Minnesota Capitol along University Avenue in St. Paul.

The restaurant is a destination for many reasons — rice and noodle stir fries, seafood and Peking duck. You can't go wrong with anything you order, but the multi-course family-style meals are a great way to try several items while having a well-rounded meal.

Just order off the Family Specials category, with every order including soup, duck, seafood, tofu, stir-fry vegetable and dessert. Also great for grazing are the Peking duck specials that are a way to enjoy the dish in multiple ways. We recommend the Peking three ways, with multiple duck preparations as is traditional in China. At Peking Garden, that means three courses and a meal made up of duck soup, duck pancake wraps (advice from staff: roll the pancake like a burrito after filling it with duck, hoisin sauce and herbs and vegetables provided) and a duck vegetable stir-fry with rice. The dish serves 3 to 4 people and, at $43 total, it's a steal.

Keep in mind that Peking Garden is reopening in stages. The spot is currently offering takeout only. If all goes as planned, full-service dine-in will start in early May.

Peking Garden: 394 W. University Ave., St. Paul; pekinggardenmn.com

TONO PIZZERIA + CHEESESTEAKS

Great Philly cheesesteaks are almost unheard of in these parts, so it's not surprising that this slick operation opened a second location less than two years after its first.

The first is in Maplewood, the second in the former St. Clair Broiler space on St. Clair and Snelling avenues. The St. Paul space sports a clean, modern design and a counter-service model. We've only ordered takeout, but the operation has been efficient and friendly each time.

Pizzas are wood-fired with a slightly floppy, chewy, yeasty crust. Toppings are evenly distributed, the red sauce fresh and bright and the white sauce used appropriately sparingly. We are huge fans of the Spicy Tono, which sports red sauce, pepperoni cups, hot chili oil and hot honey. It's spicy, savory and a little sweet and we could probably eat it once a week for eternity and not get sick of it. The Fungo, with white sauce, truffle oil and mushrooms, is also a winner.

And the cheesesteaks? Stahp! They are so good. Tender meat, squishy bun, caramelized onions and peppers (if you want them), and you gotta get the Cheez Whiz (but they do have other cheese options if you're against that delicious processed goo).

Tono Pizzeria + Cheesesteaks: 1580 St. Clair Ave., St. Paul; 651-243-1978; tonomn.com

ROK EATERY

This new cheffy spot in the Rathskeller building on the Schmidt Brewery site is celebrating grilled and smoked foods year-round with beautifully plated, great-tasting Japanese and Nordic fare.

Dishes — made up of appetizers, salads, sandwiches and Nordic- and yakitori-style bowls (starting at $17) — have wonderfully varied layers in every bite, including a not-to-be-missed Beet Salad with pistachio vinaigrette, goat cheese, dill and smoked sea salt.

The bowls are something to behold, too.

Yakitori is typically grilled chicken on a skewer. In addition to chicken for yakitori-style bowls — which, by the way, are wonderfully cooked with that grill flavor we love and contrasting flavors from pickled Fresnos, gingered cabbage and preserved egg yolk — there are other options such as duck meatball, pork tenderloin and shiitake mushroom bowls. You can choose between rice or soba noodles to go with it. In addition to yakitori, Nordic-style bowls are also a great way to go and come with different protein choices, including chicken, pork and a vegetarian-friendly Roasted Celery Root with roasted beet puree and charred broccoli.

Note that Rok Eatery is rolling out in phases. Right now service is take-out only, with the patio/outdoor seating expected in the next few weeks and the dining room/indoor seating opening sometime this summer.

We can't wait to head back to dip into the sandwich and salads category and try that breaded pork Katsu Sandwich and the Smoked Trout Potato Salad that also caught our eye. Because here, you can mix and match Japanese and Nordic flavors seamlessly.

Rok Eatery: 882 W. Seventh St., St. Paul; 651-528-7273; rokeatery.com