Colinary Tour of Minnesota – Cuba

It’s only my second day into this project am I’m already reaping major benefits.

I was on a double at work yesterday, which left me little time to track down an international lunch or dinner spot to test out. But I did have time for “the most important meal of the day” (Cadswallop if you ask me…..Hagrid reference anyone?). I don’t even know any foreign breakfast spots back home – do people in other countries even eat breakfast? – so I definitely don’t know any here. Thank God for Google.

Thirty seconds later I’m looking at the CityPages ’10 Best Breakfast Spots in Minneapolis’ and it’s full of typical sounding restaurants like Al’s Breakfast, Hot Plate and Milda’s. I’m sure they’re delicious, but not what I’m looking for. Only one place on the list seemed like it fit the bill – Victor’s 1959 Cafe.

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I can’t honestly say I’ve ever eaten Cuban food. I’ve had a Cuban sandwich before, but I’m sure Cuban’s have had a cheeseburger before as well…not saying much. The idea of Cuban breakfast intrigued me.

It was a short drive out of the city, heading south. The big buildings and massive apartment complexes faded into rows of trees lining one way streets with modest homes hugging the curbs. Yellow and orange leaves lined the drainage area between the curbs and asphalt – more on the ground than on the limbs. I turned right off of Blaisdell Ave. onto 38th street and nearly drove by the place. The bright turquoise paint on the building is the only thing that stopped me. In a city that hunkers down underneath dark jackets and brown buildings for five months a year, Victor’s stands out like like a large white man in Peru. Trust me, I can verify that analogy.

There are a grand total of two parking spaces in their parking lot, so I kissed that option goodbye and found street parking nearby. My first experience with Victor’s was before I even set foot in the place. A kid about my age walked by me on the sidewalk with a to-go box in his hands. I was watching my breath make steam in front of me when I caught a whiff of whatever he ordered…I knew I was in for a treat.

Sure enough I walk into the small entryway and I’m greeted by a full-on assault to my senses. My eyes light up with every color in the color wheel lining the walls, floors and ceiling before me, my nose is infiltrated with the smell of sizzling steak and onions and I hear the clanking of pans and shouts of Spanish from the kitchen. The entire place is about the size of my apartment; it probably seats no more than 25 total. I belly up to the bar (seating: 4) so I don’t hog up valuable table space (a nice little life hack I’ve learned from my days in a restaurant up here) and take in my surroundings. First thing I notice, they’re cool with graffiti. Scratch that, they encourage graffiti. Every wall is plastered with signatures, pictures and hearts with initials inside done in Sharpie. I comment on the decor and the server hands me a coffee mug with Sharpie’s – they’ve embraced it.

I look over and see that Guy Fieri has visited this place on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives – he too signed his name. My anticipation for this place continues to grow.

I get a coffee and make small talk. Victor’s has been there for 17 years. They close from 2pm to 4:30pm. The servers are off on Sunday and make a plan to get mimosas. Good for them.

I’m hungry and don’t really feel like trying to nail down the perfect order so I go with the first thing that looks good – the Cuban Scrambler. Three scrambled eggs covered with black beans with a side of fried sweet plantains and Cuban toast with Guava jam.

Cuban Scrambler - three scrambled eggs, black beans, fried plantains and cuban toast with guava jam,

Cuban Scrambler – three scrambled eggs, black beans, fried plantains and cuban toast with guava jam

You know when you’re on vacation and you go to a beach bar with a really cool atmosphere and have a great time? The bar is cool, the people are happy but the food isn’t really anything special? You leave there thinking, ‘that was fun but that food wasn’t really that good’….yeah Victor’s isn’t anything like that.

Whoever cooks the black beans knows what they’re doing. The eggs are eggs…there’s only so much that you can do with eggs. The plantains are as good as I’ve had anywhere but the Cuban toast is what set it off. Warm and fluffy, it’s two large slices of bread that felt like they were slid over the grill for a minute rather than in a toaster. It was perfect.

The lady next to me ordered the steak breakfast. She looked like she just came off of a long nursing shift – she ordered a well-deserved mimosa. From the looks of it, all sorts of people eat at Victor’s. An old couple wandered in; looking wildly confused and skeptic. Two regulars were greeted by name. A foursome of college kids. Several individuals like myself and the nurse who just wanted something delicious to start/end their day.

After it was all said and done, I asked if I could sign my name net to Guy Fieri’s. The servers were appreciative that I asked and obliged me saying, “Once you’re article is famous we can claim both of you!”. There’s a good chance I talked up this ‘food blog’ a little more than it’s worth but hey, no harm no foul. And give Guy some credit, I can’t describe Victor’s any better than he did…”Off da hook Cuban food!”

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They serve beer and wine too!

They serve beer and wine too!

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If you're not paying attention, you'll drive right by this place!

If you’re not paying attention, you’ll drive right by this place!

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Cuban Scrambler - three scrambled eggs, black beans, fried plantains and cuban toast with guava jam,

Cuban Scrambler – three scrambled eggs, black beans, fried plantains and cuban toast with guava jam,

Pretty much every inch of this place has been Sharpie'd over!

Pretty much every inch of this place has been Sharpie’d over!

Craft coffee at Victor's

Craft coffee at Victor’s

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Culinary Tour of Minnesota – Vietnam

A friend told me recently I need to focus my career goals on something that I am passionate about. I agree entirely. I want to live a life of purpose and meaning – where I wake up everyday excited to get to work. Only problem is…I don’t know what that passion is yet.

That’s not to say that I’m not passionate about things, because I am. I just don’t know which passion I should try to turn into a career. So in the spirit of making a choice rather than being scared into indecisiveness, I’m going to spend my upcoming months doing something that I love…eating.

That’s right folks, it’s time to do what I do best; shove food in my face. But not just any food. My goal over the next however-many months in the Twin Cities is to eat food from as many different cultures/countries as possible and tell you about it. I’ve noticed that Minneapolis/St. Paul has an above-average amount of international influence – especially in the culinary scene – and I want to try it all. I don’t have any formula or general gameplan to speak of as to how I’m going to attack this daunting task other than to eat. A lot. But if you know me…I think I can handle it.

So without further ado, here we go.

VIETNAM

Vietnam is first on the list simply because it was on my way home from work today. I stopped for a late lunch at Lotus to Go Go – the takeout spot so nice, they named it twice. Even at 2:15 p.m. the place was busy. Located in a small shopping lot on the corner of LaSalle Ave. and Grant St. in downtown Minneapolis/Loring Park – Lotus isn’t somewhere you’d drive by and think, “Oh honey, that place looks cute, let’s try that.” Quite on the contrary, it sits alongside a liquor store, a gas station and some oddball apparel shops. I don’t know what it is about Asian restaurants attached to gas stations but I’ve never been disappointed by one in my life. (If you ate at Shangrila Asian Bistro in East Cobb before it shut down, you know what I’m talking about.) There’s little to no parking to speak of and there’s a good chance you’ll have to ward off (or give in to) some beggars before you get inside. But once you do – you’ve made it.

Serving up authentic Vietnamese dishes like Com Ga, Bahn Mi and Pho alongside fan favorites like Pad Thai, Kung Pao Chicken, Lo Mein and the likes – Lotus offers a real Vietnamese cuisine as well as some flair on many traditionally Chinese dishes. I went for the Com Tam – grilled pork over rice with an egg (?), lettuce, cucumbers and pickled daikon & carrots.

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The pork was seasoned with something on the sweet side and it was delicious. I’m not even going to try to act like I know Food Networks phrases to talk it up – all I know is that it was awesome. Best part was the $9.99 price tag for a filling meal. If there’s one thing I know know, it’s that I’ll be back to Lotus to Go Go.