The Changing Climate of Minnesota Wine
Where the Pros Are Eating Now
St. Paul’s new Kalsada raises a question: Is the Twin Cities Filipino food scene currently amazing, or what?
by Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl
September 11, 2022
Photos by Caitlin Abrams
Kalsada sets a magnificent table. Can you spot the teddy bear ice cube, the purple ube frappé, and the updated chicken sisig? (Hint: It’s under the egg.)
Purple as a violet, purple as a Joker suit, purple as Grimace the friendly McDonald’s monster, the hotcake hit the table at St. Paul’s new Kalsada. Heads from four nearby tables swiveled round, while a little girl holding a menu stood up and pointed, pigtails vibrating: “What are those? Can we get them?”
Meet ube! Anyone who doesn’t know ube, pronounced “oo-bay,” gather round. It’s a variety of purple yam that grows well in the Philippines, and in the last month, I’ve found it in the Twin Cities: in pancakes and ice cream at Kalsada, in cake and in ice cream on top of the spectacular halo-halo dessert at Pinoy Fusion on University in St. Paul, in a bun at Champlin’s Ku•Ma•In, and in coconut cream beneath flan from Marla’s Baked Goods. Ube stars in crinkle cookies at Stella Belle and in a frappé at sister coffee shop Astoria. It’s in the freezer case at Asian Mart in Burnsville in ice cream and on its shelves in pancake mix. Welcome to the best time in the history of time to eat ube and Filipino food in Minnesota.
The cream of the crop is modern Filipino Kalsada, the third project, following coffee shop Astoria and breakfast/bakery café Stella Belle, by Leah Raymundo and her life and business partner, the former D’Amico Cucina chef John Occhiato.
Their collaboration is making magic. For proof, consider Kalsada’s version of the humble dish arroz caldo. Usually a hearty, thick rice porridge made with chicken, at Kalsada the dish is deconstructed into two components. First, a bowl of saffron-yellow soup bright as egg yolks, made brighter still with handfuls of just-cut scallions. Then, a plate of delicacies to add as you wish, including curling pea tendrils; creamy hard-boiled eggs; sawsawan (a perky cane vinegar, onion, Thai chili, and garlic dipping sauce) ; and bites of boneless chicken that have been flash-fried in cornstarch so that they’re light as bubbles. Precise, delicate, it looks like something that could have whisked out the kitchen doors of Cucina. Other dishes could never ever do so, like the three remarkable burgers with shoestring fries. One, a beef smash burger, vaults right to the top 20 in town, mainly because it’s tricked out with tangy, cheffy elements like caramelized onions and a Duke’s Mayonnaise–based sauce. The other two are rooted in Filipino sausage culture. An embudito burger is made by griddling Filipino meatloaf; the longganisa burger is made with a Filipino version of chorizo, but mild—it’s awfully good. Burgers in a different language!
Interviewing Occhiato and Raymundo together on the phone, I got the sense of how big personalities with diverse strengths can add together to make something bigger than the ordinary force exerted by two people.
First, I got the love story. They met when Occhiato was in charge of the kitchen at the InterContinental in downtown St. Paul, while Raymundo worked the dining room.
“I was the asshole in the back,” recalls Occhiato.
“And he was making all my coworkers cry,” says Raymundo. “I say, I’m the only one who makes me cry, so that was the end for him.”
The two started talking about their own entrepreneurial dreams immediately, they recall. “Then the hotel said, ‘No relationships between managers,’ so I said, ‘You can keep him,’” remembers Raymundo, who already had a lead on a 900-square-foot coffee shop, which would become Café Astoria. She opened it in 2017 and went on to conquer the internet with her Instagrams and TikToks of lattes and matchas that look like marbleized rainbow art papers. After first growing Astoria, they then added Stella Belle, which has a menu of quickly served bowls and wraps, but not just the usual suspects. They serve Caesar salads and smoothies, but also smoky roast potatoes with Manchego and a sunny-side-up egg.
“She’s the smartest owner-operator I’ve ever worked with,” says Occhiato. “We had customers who came into Astoria all the time for Crashed Ice, then they left town, gone for a year, come back, and she sees them, remembers their order, and has it ready for them at 6:30 in the morning. She’s the one who had us put all these vegan items on. I’m the one who’s like, ‘Why am I making 20 orders of eggplant skewers? Is this the State Fair?’ Personally, I’d like to make crab fat fried rice, which will cost too much and no one wants.”
Raymundo pipes up: “You have to offer what your customers want—or else they make you pay!”
With Kalsada, the two filled the restaurant with what customers want: a gorgeous version of pancit canton, with resilient noodles bristling with fat, tender shrimp; sweet pork; and lots of green onions, mushrooms, and cabbage. It’s a popular Manila street food dish, done to fancy-Italian-restaurant-customer standards. The vegan barbecue skewers were born as Occhiato struggled to invent various ways of treating tofu skin to make it resemble Raymundo’s favorite street food skewers, chicken intestines.
The flavor universe the two work in is all from Raymundo’s home. Kalsada’s best seller is a simple chicken adobo, vinegar-slicked, truffle-touched—the meat long cooked but not too long cooked.
“Back home, I grew up playing outside in the street. Simple food, just having it, that was my everything,” she recalls. “That’s where the name came from: Kalsada means street. We were poor. I’d find recycling, bring it to the store to trade for vegetables, find mangoes to eat, coconuts, and sell coconut juice.”
Occhiato, listening, adds: “She’s been honing her business mind since 5 years old.”
You can’t miss Kalsada’s purple pancakes.
I ask about ube—what is this purple yam to her? At Christmas, recalls Raymundo, she would be dispatched to the neighbor who sold charcoal-roasted ube, and she’d stagger home under the joyful weight of the tray. “It was a very, very big deal to have ube,” she recalls. “Not everyone had it. You get it home, boil it, shred it, cook it with margarine, steam it for hours, then you could not eat it till after midnight on Christmas Eve. We were so excited—we were the most excited you could get.” After ube Christmas, it was back to the streets seeking recycling, back to the kalsada that came before Kalsada.
The big break? Raymundo’s aunt got the golden ticket of a U.S. job at 3M as a chemical engineer. Eventually, she brought over family, including Raymundo, at 17, who went from the kalsada she was born into to the one she made from hard work and inspiration. And in this second one, she not only gets as much ube as she wants; she can share it with the world.
In Minnesota’s Filipino food scene, foodie explorers’ dreams come true at Pinoy Fusion, a food counter in the back of the grocery Phil-Oriental. Old-school University Avenue experts will know Phil-Oriental as one of Minnesota’s first Filipino markets and may know Pinoy Fusion as a food truck that sometimes set up out front. Well, Evelyn Quinones is the brilliant chef who ran the truck, and in late 2019, she bought Phil-Oriental. By mid-2021, she’d transitioned out of her truck to a full brick-and-mortar kitchen at the back of the market. Now she serves exquisite, wonderful, terrific, you-need-to-know-it food from 11 in the morning till 5 pm on Fridays and Saturdays and 4 pm Sundays.
The first time I went, it was a Saturday at 11:30 in the morning, and there was a two-hour wait—which tells you how good it is and, I learned later, reveals a lot about the Filipino expat community. They show up early and are busy on both Fridays and Sundays, and Saturday is their day. Pinoy Fusion anytime except early Saturday? No great wait, still great food. Pinoy’s pork barbecue sticks are my personal favorite in town—not too sweet, well charred, fatty, beautiful. The beef caldereta is a Spanish-influenced stew, not unlike pot roast, with tomatoes and green olives, and it’s both hearty and so easy to love. Sisig (“see-sig”) is a Filipino bar food made traditionally of liver and pig’s head leftovers. Just about every Filipino spot in town has one; for instance, Kalsada’s is made not with pork but with chicken and is a bit like a fancy breakfast hash. Pinoy’s sisig is my favorite in town. It’s only for the organ meat lovers, but the way Quinones makes a sour chicken liver sauce to dress gelatinous pig parts and charred onion—thrilling. If you like Ukrainian sour head cheese, French pig’s foot with vinegar, or liver and onions, think about trying this sisig—you might discover your new greatest passion.
The way nearly all the smaller Filipino operations in the Twin Cities work is they put their menu for the weekend on Facebook, and then customers spring to action. Pinoy doesn’t serve its sisig all the time, for instance. The three dishes that people drive across the state for, I learned by talking to fellow line-standers, are: the lechon kawali, a shatteringly crisp version of air-fried pork belly barbecue, the skin blistered to cracklings, the meat jelly-tender—it’s as good as barbecue gets. The lumpia: Every Filipino spot has its own take on lumpia, the Filipino crispy good stuffed snack that’s a cousin to the Chinese egg roll. Pinoy Fusion’s are lighter, smaller, more tender, and more numerous than anyone else’s. When I had them, ten bucks netted an overfilled, piping-hot boxful. Made with little nubbins of flavorful and tender ground pork, carrots cut as tiny as jewels, and springy noodles, they’re as precisely made as anything in a Michelin-starred restaurant. I found them breathtaking.
The best halo-halo in the history of Minnesota, from the weekend food counter by Pinoy Fusion at the back of the market Phil-Oriental.
The third dish? My final recommendation at Pinoy: If you care even one iota about dessert, do not miss Pinoy’s halo-halo, pronounced like hello, with an a sound like in cat. Halo-halo means “mix-mix” and is roughly analogous to a sundae, meaning it’s different everywhere, within certain parameters. It always has shaved ice, for instance. It always goes in a cup and has treats submerged within, which could be tapioca jellies, sweet red beans, fresh cubes of fruit, or two dozen other add-ins. I’ve had about six versions in the Twin Cities now, and Pinoy’s is by far the most delicious. It comes with a big scoop of ube ice cream, a delicate rectangle of prettily broiled flan, creamy sweetened rice, flavorful jelly cubes, abundant fresh fruit, and macapuno, the special young coconut that is prized for the way it shreds into strings. A lot of other halo-halos in town are more like a canned fruit cup, while Pinoy’s sings a siren-like song: Drive in from Rochester, drive in from Fargo, think about this cup of wonder the whole time, home is calling.
The host with the most is Rowan Gutierrez, who runs Manila Sizzling Wok and Grill—everyone calls it Manila Sizzling—across the street and down a bit from Pinoy. Walk in and you’ll find a spick-and-span counter, a handful of new shiny tables, and a few steam trays holding the day’s delights, which were posted earlier on Facebook. Gutierrez will walk you through the day’s options, but he particularly specializes in different barbecue options and in being the friendliest person in town. He’ll offer to make you a catering tray; he’ll chop up a dry and delicate sisig with a perfectly fried egg even though it’s not on the menu; he’ll send you home with a free container of sauce. I have seen his entire tiny restaurant packed to the gills, all with customers he coaxed in to enjoy what really happens on a Saturday, which is a lot. Hospitality fans, a new best friend awaits.
The heart of the community is Watson Fong, owner of Burnsville hidden gem Asian Mart, a grocery store and deli found in a strip mall right behind the south metro’s whiskey-laden Blue Max Liquors. The deli counter holds Filipino barbecue skewers, terrific roast chicken, broasted chicken, ever-changing desserts, and specialty fried fish. In the chip aisle? All of the Filipino crunchy snacks an émigré needs to get that taste of home. In the freezer case? Ube ice cream to light up your teen’s Instagram, individual serving sizes of pure frozen calamansi juice to boost your LaCroix or level up your gin. Seriously, home bartenders, home bakers: Go. So many fragrant tropical fruits and juices.
Asian Mart is also where the local Filipino community mails boxes home, some 50 every week or two. “If you want to understand Filipino people in Minnesota, you should see the boxes we send,” says Fong. They’re filled with goods it’s hard, or expensive, to get at home. Fong knows the community and gets the delicacies like ube popsicles and fresh mango concentrate everyone craves.
“I’ve been in Minnesota 24 years. I’d say most of the immigrants started coming in the 1970s, 1980s—doctors, surgeons to Mayo, that kind of thing. No one in the Philippines knew Minnesota, maybe up till the Timberwolves; it’s big basketball country. Manila is like the whole of Minnesota in one city: crowded, pollution, criminality, everything no one likes. So, we think education, and get money for your family from somewhere else. Filipinos in Minnesota are mainly nurses, doctors, engineers, IT workers. Who works on Christmas in Minnesota? Filipinos—to get that overtime to send money home. I know three recruiters in the area who bring nurses in on three-year contracts. It’s normal to send money so your family will be happy. We learn English from kindergarten; everyone grows up speaking English, so that’s an advantage we have. So maybe first a doctor comes; if they like it here, maybe they bring their brother, sister, their mother, everyone. And then everyone is homesick for our food.”
And that’s how we got a Filipino restaurant boom! If you really want to go deep in your understanding, rent the biggest movie out of the Philippines ever, Hello, Love, Goodbye. It’s so very funny, so very feminist, and it all turns on expat work and entrepreneurial hustle, which is the engine behind each Twin Cities tasty Filipino treat.
The spot for communal feasts is Apoy. When Apoy opened in 2018 in south Minneapolis, it quickly made a name for itself as the Filipino cocktail leader. Nowadays, it’s really the land of live music and lining the tables with banana leaves and piling up a kamayan multicourse feast, with elements like chicken inasal, braised pork, and lumpia. It’s $40 a person, and most everyone adds a grilled pineapple piña colada or mojito with rambutan juice. What an irresistible party.
The Pinoy Fusion counter when it’s just a little crowded.
Champlin’s little to-go spot Ku•Ma•In is a rising star. Try the ube ensaymada (like a brioche bun) and the terrific kare-kare beef and peanut stew. Marla’s Baked Goods is the name to know for traditional, technically exquisite Filipino commercial baking with ingredients like macapuno, that prized variety of stringy coconut, or maja jelly, which is made with sweet corn. Maybe you want a few dozen ube pan de sal, buns that are bright and purple with that signature yam—but are fluffy and mild and taste a bit like a cloverleaf roll—for your Thanksgiving this year? The Filipino Village Grocery Store, in Mounds View, is the north metro’s center of Filipino food. Not only does it have the biggest selection of Marla’s treats, but it’s also where you’ll find the traditional delicacy specialist Redd’s Kitchen—don’t miss the bibingka, halfway between a flan and a glutinous rice cake, cooked in banana leaves. Inday’s Kitchen is a food truck with plans to be a brick-and-mortar restaurant soonish. It tends to park by Filipino Village and often sells to-go meals out of the store—get the chicken adobo.
That’s the size of the Filipino scene as of this writing, but I’ll bet it keeps growing. According to the Pew Research Center, Filipinos are the third-most-numerous group of Asian Americans in the U.S.—Pew counts 4.2 million Filipinos, 4.6 million folk from the Indian subcontinent, and 5.4 million people from China. Will the Twin Cities ever have a Filipino food scene as rich and diverse as our Chinese and Indian scenes? Eat around, and I think you may find that the answer is we already do.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl was born in New York City little aware of her destiny—to live well in Minnesota. Dara writes about food, people, places, and now and then, things! She has five James Beard awards out of 13 nominations, and has won three CRMAs.
September 11, 2022
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