Fast and Fabulous

Our story begins with a hungry young lass on her way to lunch at a new restaurant. She’s dragged along her lunch date to see what all the fuss is about, but upon entering the establishment, she feels a certain unease. The place is packed, and she is assured by a less-than-sweet hostess that the wait is a solid forty-five minutes, even for a bar table. A generally unfriendly atmosphere causes our heroine to grab a takeout menu and leave, sputtering a fabricated story about returning for dinner another night with some large—very large—group.

But she’s still hungry, and her date is getting cranky. While she straps him into his car seat, she is forced to make a decision: She’s losing time, losing a three-year-old’s patience, and losing ground in the battle for a good lunch. It may be time to settle. Heading to a nearby place we’ll call Smartguy Bagels, she orders a standard PB&J for her date and a chicken Caesar salad for herself. With her first bite, she discovers the chicken is still frozen. Alerting the good people at the counter to this tragedy, our plucky girl watches as the chicken is lifted off the salad, tossed into the microwave, then plopped back onto the greens. It is this display of fast-foodsmanship, coupled with one more bite of alternately searing-hot and semi-frozen chicken, that leads our defeated young woman to conclude: It is what it is.

Yet, there is a happy ending of sorts to this tale. The plight of our stunningly beautiful heroine grows increasingly rare these days, because of the hottest trend in the restaurant industry: fast-casual dining. Coined in the mid-’90s, “fast-casual” or “quick-casual” describes restaurants that fill the niche between fast food and casual dining, between McDonald’s and TGI Friday’s. These restaurants offer expedited service, but with better food and a more comfortable ambience than fast-food outlets. Diners usually order at a counter, with the food either picked up at said counter or delivered to the table. Not a surly hostess in sight.

Not that I think this tolls the death knell for full-service restaurants. People still enjoy being tended to and consulting with knowledgeable servers. But frequently, the quick café fits the bill: when you’re running late, when you have kids in tow, when you refuse to eat in the car, when you want something healthier than fast food—which means most of the time for most of us.

Big players on the fast-casual scene include the familiar Panera, Noodles & Company, and Pei Wei Asian Diner, a chain mostly present in the Southwest but with a few outposts here.

In addition, the fast-casual trend has caught the eye of local culinary types, so the local scene promises to get better and better. Tim Niver and Aaron Johnson, the boys behind Town Talk Diner, are shopping for a site for a fast-casual Italian restaurant; and Alex Roberts, of Restaurant Alma, is opening Brasa, a saucy, south-of-the-border-flavored rotisserie joint in Northeast Minneapolis, sometime this summer. I desperately want to name two other industry players who are looking and scheming, but they still need their day jobs, so all must remain hush-hush for now.

Not that there isn’t already plenty of fast and fresh food available around town. Lucia’s Bakery & Take Home is one of the more recent and welcome additions to the market. Pop in for some sweet or savory crêpes, freshly made soups, and daily bread specials. Most of her sandwiches feature meats and ingredients from local farms and producers (as if you’d expect anything less from Lucia). Meanwhile, at Yum Kitchen and Bakery, the menu changes about every three weeks—a distinct departure from the big chains’ fixed menus. You’ll always find innovative sandwiches, like the hot turkey mole with manchego cheese, and they’re courting the dinner crowd with entrées like seafood stew and ribs. Take home a whole chicken dinner with two sides if you’d like.

Pizza, of course, fits the fast-casual bill to a T. Punch Pizza, which started as a full-service restaurant in St. Paul, has expanded over the Cities with express locations. Simply order your Toto pizza (this model is beautifully smothered with prosciutto, arugula, crushed red pepper, and goat cheese), and, by virtue of that nine-hundred-degree wood-fired oven, it’s ready in a flash. Slower to arrive, but bigger, are the classic New York-style pies from Snap!, like the Snaparooskie, piled with sausage, pepperoni, onion, green pepper, and mushrooms.

Step out of the rut and try Sea Salt for seriously high-quality fast fish. A po’boy or a grilled marlin taco with a side of clam fries in Minnehaha Falls park will heal any memories of bad lunch. Or step away from the burrito and check out Kabobi in Eden Prairie. Meats, seafood, and vegetables, fire roasted in the Persian tradition, tucked into flat bread with brilliantly spiced sauces and snappy sides should be a welcome change for any palate.

One quick-casual joint I’d be happy to have in my neighborhood is The Bad Waitress. With a snarky twist on fast-casual, diners grab a table and fill out their own ticket (choosing a monster or superhero name as an identifier), which they bring to the counter. The food delivered is comfortably familiar and always tasty. If I lived nearby I’d be there for the pumpkin pancakes at breakfast, the grilled-cheese deluxe at lunch, and the mac & cheese at dinner (plus late-night hot dogs).

According to the National Restaurant Association, Americans will spend some $150 billion this year at quick-service restaurants. As for our amazingly witty heroine, we can be assured that her portion of the bill will be spent thoughtfully. No longer satisfied to accept “what is,” she’s quite excited to see “what will be.”
SHOP TALK

Get ready, get set … summer festival season is kicking into gear. Whether you’re planning to brine cabbage for Henderson’s Sauerkraut Days (June 22-24), toss back a rhubatini at Lanesboro’s Rhubarb Festival (June 2), or train for the milk run during Willmar’s West Central Dairy Days (June 1-15), check in at ExploreMinnesota.com to get all the tasty details … Beginning June 7, the Mill City Farmers’ Market will be open Thursday evenings from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Given their track record with the Saturday morning market, this could make Thursday the tastiest night of the week … When it comes to learning the basics of baking bread, you can’t get much more basic than the class at Historic Fort Snelling on June 9, which focuses on the brick-oven and iron-kettle baking techniques of yore. Plus, while your bread bakes, you can churn butter and make preserves for that freshly turned loaf (www.mnhs.org) … Classic cars go nicely with burgers and shakes, wouldn’t you say? With the coming of summer, these nostalgic treats can be enjoyed at such throwback joints as St. Paul’s Dari-ette Drive-In (1440 N. Minnehaha East, St Paul; 651-776-3470) and the Minnetonka Drive-In (4658 Shoreline Dr., Spring Park; 952-471-9383), both of which play host to hot-rod buffs and the onion-ring cognoscenti alike.
CUISINE SUPREME

Saffron
A table here will soon be as prized as the spice for which it is named. Saffron’s brightly colored and inviting dining space has already attracted a small but loyal group of devotees, but the masses can’t be kept from this kitchen’s delectable dishes for long. Playing with traditional Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavors, the cooks devised a menu with contemporary edge. A beautifully pale veal-tuna carpaccio is touched with brown butter vinaigrette and hazelnuts. The salmon-clam tagine celebrates fennel. The blue-crab salad with avocado balances the heat of curry with a kiss of citrus. Treat yourself to some hibiscus lemonade or the Saffron version of a bloody mary (the Harissa Mary, oh yeah) if you find yourself waiting at the bar for a table—a practice you’ll have to get used to here. 123 Third St. N., Minneapolis; 612-746-5533; www.saffronmpls.com
Manana
Nestled on the corner of Seventh and Arcade streets in St. Paul is Manana, a small pupuseria. If you’re muttering “pupusa-wha?” you’re not alone. Pupusas, though popular in El Salvador, are rarely seen this far north. Made with a thick and puffy handmade corn tortilla, they are stuffed with creamy melted cheese and your choice of chicharonnes (chicken) or loroco (a briny vine-flower bud from Central America). You’ll also find fresh Mexican tacos, burritos, and carne asada on the menu, as well as Salvadoran favorites like flaky empanadas, tasty pasteles (beef pie), and crispy fried plantains. Since everything is under three dollars, ordering up a mess of pupusas with chilled rice milk horchata will make you feel virtuously frugal, happily fed, and in the know. 828 Seventh St. E., St. Paul; 651-793-8482; www.mananarestaurant.net www.mananarestaurant.net

Naviya’s Thai Kitchen
Dwelling in the shadow of a Richfield water tower, this restaurant retreat endeavors to create dishes that heal the body and soul through the traditional five flavors (hot, sour, salty, sweet, bitter). Somehow “creamy” might be added to that list, as a taste of Naviya’s lightly herbed cream-cheese wontons is certainly palliative, and possibly addictive. The lunch buffet offers a nice sampling of the regular menu, including a pungent coconut lemongrass soup. The Bangkok hot plate features a lovely abundance of garlic. The crispy fish cakes come replete with a zingy, sweet-and-spicy cucumber sauce. Heck, the teas alone are reason enough to visit. Check out the oolong graced with an essence of orchid, or splurge on a pot of pu-erh vintage cave-aged tea. 6345 Penn Ave. S., Richfield; 612-861-2491

Read Stephanie March’s blog at www.rakemag.com/today, find more restaurant reviews at www.rakemag.com/restaurants