Eat Your Way Through Saint Paul in One Perfect Food Day
The very best farmers' markets are never just about the produce, even if having the very best of everything available at that time of the year, in that specific place, is a mighty fine place to begin. Often held in relatively informal, not necessarily inspired locations—shopping center parking lots, beneath highway overpasses—there are so many American markets functioning, if accidentally, as occasional outbursts of exuberance, of life the way it was meant to be lived. They are joyous, free-flowing affairs, interruptions to our fluorescent-lit, pre-packaged existence, creating, or re-creating community in places where there is none.
Some cities, being lucky winners of the weather lottery, get to experience the joy of a fine, outdoor farmers' market year-round, to the point where even the finest examples of the genre can end up being taken for granted, by most locals. Better, perhaps, are the markets held at the peak of summer in places where it is more often than not winter, or at least something in that neighborhood, and where better to look than Saint Paul, one of the coldest big cities in the country.
Operating in one form or another for more than a century and a half, Saint Paul’s sprawling, grower-only market, housed underneath a series of sheds just next to the minor league ballpark, go Saints, is really the only way to begin your Saturday or Sunday morning, at least correctly, between the months of May and October. (A much smaller winter market continues indoors, nearby,) The pride of Minnesota’s capital city, this is as good as free forms of entertainment come, particularly as we move into most productive part of the year.
From now until the very last possible moment in the fall, the market is a colorful blur of fresh produce, sold by a remarkable number of smaller growers. Extraordinarily healthy-looking tomatoes, fat clusters of organic fennel, sugar snap peas by the boatload, knobby little carrots that taste sweeter than you’d expect—it’s all here. There are wildly imaginative floral arrangements, too, often made with colorful northern blooms you may not find elsewhere, there is fresh-squeezed lemonade all but flying out over the counter, and it is barely nine o’clock in the morning, but someone’s usually out there singing—on a very recent Saturday, a gentleman of a certain age was giving his all to a rendition of Puff, The Magic Dragon, as if the last thirty years had not happened, while a crowd of observers munched happily on generously-proportioned maple bacon donuts.
And that’s just your first stop, because there’s so much else to see, and do, and eat. Saint Paul is far from the oldest city in the country, but you can feel history in its bones, and you can see it all around you. For a long time the more conservative partner in the Twin Cities relationship, Saint Paul’s massive hilltop cathedral remains one the most notable buildings in the vintage-leaning skyline. This does not mean Saint Paul is staid, not by any means—this is a diverse and growing city, filled with fascinating finds that will perhaps be unexpected by the first-time visitor. From competing indoor markets catering to the Hmong community, to a classic Mexican cafeteria and mercado, to a sleek new food hall carved from a magnificent old brewery building, not to mention an array of smaller makers dotting the landscape, for anyone looking to stock a pantry (or just spend a day grazing on the local offerings), there’s too much to conquer in a morning, let alone a day, but shall we at least try?
BUT FIRST, COFFEE
For anyone interested in more than your average cup of something, Saint Paul is, fortunately, home to some of the most promising young (or younger) roasting operations in this coffee-mad region. Right now, there are three you really ought to know about. Just over the Wabasha Street Bridge from the classically handsome downtown, go for a fine cup of the Kayon Mountain Ethiopia, if they’ve got it—al fresco, in the sprawling, wooded side lot—at Bootstrap Coffee Roasters.
Across town in one of those hiding-in-plain-sight locations that only feels like the middle of nowhere, the diminutive Roundtable Coffee Works does a great espresso, while at the deceptively modest Roots Roasting, a recent “herbaceous” Indonesian stood out during a weekend of coffee sampling around the Twin Cities.
DO A TAMALE RUN
Each of the three coffee stops are worth your time, and all sell beans to take home, but only one, and that’s Bootstrap, is just down the hill from the heart of Saint Paul’s well-established Latin American community; at the heart of it all is the sprawling El Burrito Mercado, a terrific Mexican market known for its panaderia and on-site, cafeteria-style restaurant; the tamales, particularly the ones filled with well-marinated, scarlet-tinged pork, almost have no right to be this delicious, this far north of the border; for those looking to keep it light, choose from a generous array of pan dulce; for about ten dollars, you can take home a dozen, far better than average conchas.
PLAY THE MARKETS
While the Saint Paul Farmers Market is a serious affair that demands as much time as you can allow, and there are plenty of snacks, including delicious roasted corn on the cob (3 for $5, on a recent visit) to keep you fortified, this is far from your only stop of the day. Equally a part of Saint Paul life is the scene at both Hmongtown Market and Hmong Village, twin hubs for the Twin Cities’ sizable Hmong population, which has grown over time, beginning in the post-Vietnam War era, to become one of the largest concentrations of the culture in one place, anywhere in the world. Hmongtown is the older sibling, with lots of market stalls to check out (including, at least in season, an array of fresh produce); Hmong Village came slightly later, and if you’re hungry when you turn up, you’re in luck—a dizzying array of food vendors are ready to serve you, but during the steamy summer months, the one-two punch of fresh green papaya salad from Mai’s Deli (be sure to specify how spicy) and a cooling bubble tea at Blueberry will be difficult to top.
Still not marketed out? Good, because the petite (but powerful) West Side Farmers Market, operating on Saturdays only, offers a little bit of all of the above, but without the sprawl—tucked into a charming old neighborhood that feels a lot further away from downtown than it actually is, the market is held next door to a local hangout, the Icy Cup, which does a good affogato with the house soft-serve ice cream.
THE LATEST (AND GREATEST?)
Saint Paul’s absolutely massive cathedral isn’t the only bit of gasp-inducing grandeur on the skyline; dating back to the mid-1800s, the Schmidt brewery is one of the more extravagant buildings of its kind, and over time the sprawling complex has been converted into a mixed-use complex that recently opened the doors on a long-promised food hall, the Keg & Case Market.
From artisanal halvah to organic cotton candy to ambitiously-priced smoked brisket, here you have both feet firmly planted in the new, flashier Saint Paul, but there are some bright spots for those who came looking for an actual market—Forest to Fork has been referred to as Minnesota’s first wild foods grocery store, a brilliant if small selection of foraged items, including—of course mushrooms, supplemented by their own on-premises (can’t miss it) grow chamber.
CLASSIC SAINT PAUL
From the critically-acclaimed Saint Dinette, overlooking the historic farmers' market block, to the funky Cook, a progressive neighborhood diner with a distinct Korean twist, way up on the East Side, St. Paul is not short of a weekend brunch option or two, but there’s an extremely strong case to be made for the one that’s been around for a really long time. Up on Grand Avenue, one of the city’s most desirable commercial thoroughfares, Cafe Latte is a sparkling clean and very busy cafe/cafeteria, a multi-level, multi-faceted gathering space where people are as likely to turn up for generous slices of tres leches cake (the original’s a keeper, but take a leap and try the salted caramel) as they are cups and bowls of the memorably delicious house chicken chili, served with a generous portion of the essential accoutrements, including green onions, bright orange cheddar, and thick sour cream.
There are times, particularly around lunch time on weekends, where you can barely claw your way in the door, but don’t be shy—there’s plenty of seating in the back, the service can be quite welcoming, the food is simple and delicious, and the cakes alone are worth a trip.
DO THE GRAND TOUR
You’ve come this far down Grand Avenue, and there’s so much more to see, and to shop for—before you wind down your tour, examine the selection of Midwest-made products at Golden Fig Fine Foods, and sample the local and global offerings at the St. Paul Cheese Shop, one of the best in the Twin Cities, which could also be said for the St. Paul Meat Shop, a home cook-friendly butcher that works with as many local farmers as it possibly can, to keep its supply local, sustainable, and just plain great quality.