The Twin Cities have quietly become home to one of the most vibrant food scenes in the Midwest. But tradition is still key to the way locals eat—the large population of Scandinavians in Minneapolis and St. Paul means there are plenty of bakers, butchers and grocers who have been creating "food done right" for generations.
The Ale Jail
Minnesota has been in a full-fledged beer boom in the last few years. The historic Land of Sky Blue Waters (that’s the Hamm’s jingle, of course) went from having a mere handful of existent breweries (Grain Belt, Summit, and our alt-craft-scenester heroes Surly) to dozens. Which is to say nothing of the brewing boom going on in Wisconsin, a mere hop-skip from St. Paul, and all that’s going on in nearby states like Iowa and Colorado. All of this brewing has resulted in a nice, weird phenomenon in the Twin Cities: A beer connoisseur rivalry between St. Paul, home of The Ale Jail, and Minneapolis and the western suburbs, home of the Four Firkins.
Now each store gets special editions, limited allocations, and hosts only-for-them beermaker afternoons. You can’t consider yourself a real beer nut and only go to one of these stores. In the same way that, a generation ago, a hipster could spend his day in Minneapolis record-store hopping from Garage d’Or to Oar Folkjokepus to the Electric Fetus, a hipster today will spend it bopping from Ale Jail to Four Firkins and back again. Owners Paul and KaTrina Wentzel are also owners of the boutique wine shop directly next-door to The Ale Jail, a spot called the Wine Thief, and recently opened an all-local dairy gelato shop on St. Paul’s main drag, called Cow Bella—which is to say they’re making St. Paul elite, surprising, and delicious, and making the twin rivalry between the Twin Cities more vital and fun than it’s ever been.
Clancey's Meats & Fish
Clancey’s is Minneapolis’ leading butcher shop, any which way you cut it—and yes, those cuts can be made with the in-house band-saw, with which they disassemble many, many local animals. Kristin Tombers, the shop’s owner, works with farmers mostly in southern Minnesota to find those animals, and then she and her merry band of meat-cutters transform said animals into everything imaginable: fancy double-cut beef-porterhouse steaks, simple filet mignon discs, beautiful heirloom-breed fat-crowned pork chops, whole spring lamb legs, fat duck breasts, and also less-prestigious cuts, gussied up with chef know-how—fennel pollen bratwursts, brandied-fig pork sausage, lamb merguez sausages, allspice-flecked headcheese, coffee-ancho-crusted strip steaks, short ribs cut paper thin and given a sheer Mexican-marinade, and much, much more.
The narrow shop has become a standard stop on every ambitious Minneapolis chef’s culinary training (much of the meat know-how in northern Midwestern kitchens comes directly from Clancey’s) as well as for the state’s best sandwiches. Ever hear how butchers eat better than the rest of us? It’s particularly true here: The butchers roast their own prime rib, smoke their own ham, pickle their own corned beef, smoke their own pastrami, and bake their own turkeys for the sandwiches, made on Rustica baguettes, which change every day. They’re the perfect lunch to tide you over through a day of carnivorous stew-making or barbecuing.
Cossetta's Italian Market & Pizzeria
St. Paul has a long and rich Italian history, dating from the boom years of the late 1800s, when Italian artisans came en masse to the Midwest to lay the bricks, cut the stones, install the stain glass, and generally create the cities we recognize today. Cossetta’s Italian Market traces its origins to that glorious past; it first opened in 1911 and is still going strong—and getting bigger. Half the current Cossetta’s is an old-fashioned Italian market: They make their own breads, cookies, and focaccia (under the leadership of a bona fide Italian baker); they make their own sausage (the cheese-enhanced pork spirals are fantastic); they import most of the rest, including the real Parmigiano Reggiano and Neapolitan-approved tomatoes.
The other half of the current Cossetta’s is a counter-service old-fashioned Italian-American red sauce joint, serving big extra-cheese-covered pizza, sausage pepper subs, fresh cannoli, and the works. Soon Cossetta’s plans to open a sit-down, more formal Italian restaurant, and when it does it will be one of the largest tributes to the Italian-American experience in the Midwest. Speaking of the Italian-American experience, you can typically see that experience onsite, in third-generation owner Dave Cossetta, who can often reminisces with old neighbors and friends who have come back to the neighborhood for Cossetta’s sausage and peppers.
The Four Firkins
Minnesota has some deeply interesting beers: Olvalde, for instance, makes true farmhouse ales, that is, beers and ales made from barley grown and malted on their farm, in southern Minnesota, and hops grown there too. And sometimes Olvalde goes even crazier, and ages their farmhouse beer on on-farm rhubarb; and when they do something like that the shop it ends up at is Four Firkins, a true phenomenon on the western edge of Minneapolis in the suburb of St. Louis Park.
Pop in and you’ll find more than 2,000 square feet of only beer, including a truly jaw-dropping array of Belgian imports, and charismatic owner Jason Alvey busying himself with some terrifically special event or other, like the unveiling of a special tiny cask (a “pin”) of dry-hopped beer from local brewer Lucid, designed exclusively to be drank by Four Firkins guests. Or the careful rationing of tiny allocations of Surly SYX, the Minnesota cult brewery’s strong ale aged on six species of wood. Or the signing of petitions to change state law so that owner Jason Alvey could sell Four Firkins branded shirts to his passionate fans. (Previously, liquor stores could not sell their own branded merchandise. For some dumb reason.) That law passed! So did the one Alvey led allowing him to charge for in-store classes. The law passed because the charismatic Australian Alvey has bigger-than-life energy (possibly fueled by beer?) and a vast army of beer fans (certainly fueled by beer) inspired to write letters and contact legislators on his behalf. And that’s the story of how a deeply interesting beer scene is advanced in ways that promise to make it even more interesting—pint by pint.
When Wisconsin and Minnesota are not glowering at one another about the latest Packers/Vikings battle, the states join hands to sing kumbaya over the greatness of our local cheese scene. And it’s a profound greatness. Wisconsin, of course, has rain-irrigated pastureland to rival the best of Switzerland, and has earned the title of America’s Dairyland, but the state’s enormous commodity cheese production often dwarf’s the many artisan producers laboring meaningfully in those rolling green hills. Meanwhile, Minnesota has similar dairyland and similar great cheesemakers.
Now, the problem: Hyper-local cheeses can be very difficult to taste all together. Twin Cities cheese shops tend to reserve only a very small portion of their case to local cheese, and since production tends to be small to begin with, finding many local cheeses can be a project akin to looking for a cheese needle in the proverbial cheese haystack. Enter Grassroots Gourmet owner Vicki Potts, who has the best local cheese case in the state. Look for grass-pastured sheep’s milk cheese from Minnesota’s own Shepherd’s Way—their blues have taken best-in-the-country awards, repeatedly. Donnay Granite Ridge soft-ripened goat’s milk cheese is a bona-fide local cult cheese; it’s utterly subtle and flowerlike, like eating a white blossom. And Alemar cheese company makes a Camembert from grass-pastured cow’s milk that’s as good as anything French. Wisconsin cheeses include Carr Valley, Marieke, and Widmer, and the shop also stocks honey and jam from small local producers, in case you want to put together a cheese platter as stupendous as a good Pack/Vikes border battle.
Heartland Farm-Direct Market
Chef Lenny Russo grew up in Hoboken, NJ, above his family’s Italian market. He moved to Minnesota as a young man for a girl, but immediately fell in love with Minnesota’s great abundance of wild and farmed options. Thirty years later he’s the state’s leading locavore, a perennial James Beard award nominee, and the owner of a spacious, gleaming market attached to his restaurant, Heartland. The Heartland Farm-Direct Market, which overlooks St. Paul’s historic downtown farmers market, is essentially a retail mirror of what is available inside his restaurant-kitchen, including the specially butchered and aged beef cuts, chef-made stocks and hams, and all the other things that a head chef is used to having at his disposal.
In the meat case you’ll find the components which make his legendary charcuterie plates: Mangalitsa prosciutto, lamb terrine, goat rillettes, duck ham, beef braesola, braunschweiger of wild boar, and much more. But you’ll also find airline-trimmed raw chicken breasts (that is, breasts with the cage-bones removed, and the wing bones left in, for better flavor, better handling in the pan, ease of cutting at table, and more elegant presentation), raw wild-boar chops, and whole rainbow trout. Heartland also has a cheese counter; and they’re the only retail source of Lovetree Farm’s goat’s milk cheese (considered some of the United States’ best). They have a farmers market section, with hazelnuts, celeriac, and everything else; their freezer case is stocked with frozen quarts of fish fumé and lamb Bolognese sauce; and a refrigerator case holds duck eggs and high-fat, restaurant-only butter for pastry super achievers. If you ever wanted to be a Midwestern locavore chef, in your jammies, in your own kitchen, here’s how.
The Wadi family has had profound effects on the quality of life and general deliciousness of life in the Twin Cities. The family, Palestinian Muslims who spent time in Kuwait before immigrating to the United States, is most prominent in local food circles because elder son Majdi Wadi leads the two Holy Land markets—the enormous one in Northeast and a smaller, but still significant one, in Midtown Global Market in central Minneapolis. These markets are wonderlands. Shelves and shelves of bread, most baked on-site, are the first thing you see when you walk in, followed by golden squares of honey cake, cylindrical stacks of pita bread, long Afghani sesame loages, Lebanese lavash, Tandoor-oven bread, zatar cheese pies, spinach pies, and much, much more. The bakery of Holy Land, considered the best of its kind in town, supplies itself, but also does a robust wholesale business to local groceries, which keeps product fresh.
Holy Land also makes and wholesales a line of hummus spreads, appetizers, and salads, which they sell to regional groceries, though to find the greatest array you need to go to the original store. If you do, you’ll see all the makings for a deluxe spread of Middle Eastern mezze, ready to go, like plump little grape leaves, fresh springy tabbouli, compact already-fried falafel balls, a zesty cucumber sauce, smoky baba ghanoush, more than half a dozen sorts of hummus (from traditional tahini to a Greek-influenced artichoke and spinach), and more unusual dishes like mish, a spicy, zingy, yogurt-and-feta based dip not unlike Middle Eastern pimento cheese, and labneh, a Middle Eastern way of making yogurt cheese into spheres, and curing it in spiced olive oil (think of labneh as the Arabian peninsula’s version of bocconcini, those little Italian mozzarella balls which show so well on a tomato salad). What to pair with it all? Maybe halal lamb chops (or halal beef mortadella) from the well-stocked meat case; the market has a butcher shop in the back which takes apart whole, local, halal-slaughtered animals, making it a destination for budget hunters (best prices on lamb in the area) and offal-fans (one of the most reliable places to find beef tripe, lamb tongues, and such). If you need inspiration for what to do with lamb belly, stop by Saffron, a downtown restaurant helmed by Sameh Wadi, one of the younger members of the clan, and the current world-record holder for the youngest-ever chef-contestant on Iron Chef America. He makes the best lamb bacon ever.
Minneapolis’ Scandinavian, Lake Woebegone heritage of white-on-white foods is nationally famous, and Ingebretsen’s is where you shop for it. You enter through the gift shop, which happens to be of national importance in the field of Scandinavian needle arts, don’cha know, and proceed to the meat market in the back. That’s where you’ll find half a dozen different varieties of house-cured herring, as well as a pink-and-brown rainbow of house-made, house-smoked sausage, including Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian ring sausages, and old-world specialties like lamb Rollepulse, an intensely gamy dried sausage not unlike braesola.
Whatever you do, don’t leave without a few pounds of their Swedish meatball mix, a beef and pork blend that just about defines Christmas in Minnesota. The butcher shop typically has lines stretching around the block for the week before Christmas, when they sell about 10,000 pounds of the stuff to tradition-loving fans. Ingebretsen’s will also sell you gravy by the quart to go with the Swedish meatballs (just okay) and pints of lingonberries (utterly necessary.) Check the freezer case for bakery goods sourced from Scandinavian-specialty bakers around the metro area (the Blackey’s jet-black pumpernickel and buttery kringle are stellar). Look carefully and you’ll see, beside the breads, Ingebretsen’s own vinegar-touched Swedish brown beans. Pair those with one of the ring sausages for an utterly authentic Scandinavian dinner. It’s not New Nordic, it’s grandma’s Nordic home cooking, but it’s inspiring, good, and utterly authentic.
Northeast Minneapolis is distinct from the rest of the city. It was settled by successive waves of Eastern Europeans, often immigrating from a particular Ukrainian, Russian, or Polish village en masse, setting up as a sort of American version of that far-off village, arranged around a particular church that echoed one from the homeland. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren frequently moved out of the neighborhood, and over the years the number of Eastern European butcher shops have dwindled, leaving one king of the neighborhood behind: Kramarczuk.
Founded by Wasyl Kramarczuk, who fled the Ukraine in advance of the Nazis, the butcher shop is famous across the Midwest for making their own old-world sausages and charcuterie—from head cheese to pale Ukrainian sausages and firecracker red Polish. They also have a fantastic Soviet-style counter-service restaurant that feels about a mile long and offers rib-sticking options like Szegedin (goulash), holubets (stuffed cabbage), and varenyky (stuffed dumplings, like pierogi.) On many evenings, Ukrainian or Russian church bands play as you eat your goulash, for that particularly balalaika-inspired feeling. For anyone seeking a taste of the rest of Eastern Europe, a taste of great sausage, or a simple taste of living Minnesota history, Kramarczuk can’t be beat.
Farmers markets are, obviously, wonderful in every possible way—except when they aren’t. Not every farmer has the time to put in a full farmers market day, and what if they only have a few cases of a particularly interesting crop? And what of customers with busy nine-to-five (or much longer) jobs who would like to go to the farmers market but just can’t squeeze it in? Local D’Lish owners Ann and Yulin Yin have stepped into that space and created what is essentially a local Minnesota farmers market, but one with a single cash register that takes credit cards and will bag your groceries for you. Here you’ll find whatever produce is in season, from dwarf pea-shoots in late winter to heirloom tomatoes in high summer to apples and storage squash when the trees start to turn color. Foraged morels, ramps, and other hobbyist-food-side-projects tend to end up here first too, whether it’s tiny runs of caramels or a single case of garden-grown peanuts.
But that’s not all! The Lins have a straight-from-the-farmer meat case, which means they are the only Minneapolis source for fresh, never-frozen chicken from Callister Farms, a chef’s darling local farm—they even sometimes have rare poulet rouge birds. Local D’Lish is located none too far from the Mississippi river, in a downtown warehouse-space, and if you check the shelves deeper into the store you’ll find they’re essentially an incubator for the tiny, local food businesses that still have their entrepreneurs working day jobs. You’ll see candies, chips, baking mixes, cooking sauces, and more. In the winter Local D’Lish holds indoor winter-markets, with even more small vendors invited to attend. Think of it not as a store but as a wonderful farmers market for when ordinary farmers markets don’t quite work