Off the Eaten Path: 128 Café
The 128 Café has been a fixture of St. Paul’s Merriam Park neighborhood since 1996, but when Jill Wilson bought the place, it was still a risky investment. The 128 Café is tucked into the basement of an apartment building, and located off the main strip on Cleveland Avenue. Nevertheless, the dining room has a kind of unassuming elegance, and the same can be said for the food. Wilson puts it best, saying it feels a bit like going to a neighbor’s house for dinner—that is, if your neighbors happen to be good cooks. Foodies have always frequented the place, but it remained the Twin Cities’ best-kept secret until 2010, when instead of trying to get diners to find her hidden restaurant, Wilson decided to bring the restaurant to them with a custom-built food truck.
During the summer, they serve lunches to the corporate set in downtown St. Paul, and appear at special events.
Their off-site menu presents a scaled-down version of restaurant favorites and hearty, entrée-sized salads. The Ginger-Soy Sirloin Skewers ($9), for example, are a fixture both on the truck and in the dining room. In other hands, its moderately spicy cashew sauce could be overwhelming, but restraint seems to be characteristic of Chef Ian Pierce’s dishes. Thus unfettered, the tender sirloin, pickled carrots and greens make for a charming appetizer.
If you are visiting for the first time, you should order either the Roast Garlic Apple Chutney with goat cheese, apple slices and grilled baguette ($10), or the Beet Salad ($8). The salad is an inspired twist on the classic, with fennel, goat cheese, candied pumpkin seeds, dressed oh-so-lightly with a refreshing lemon vinaigrette. If pressed to make a decision between the two, I would favor the roasted garlic chutney. The baguette is toasted to perfection, with just enough bite for texture but not so crisp that it loses its toppings. It seems like such a small point, but quite a few restaurants err on the side of overdone. The chutney has just the barest hint of mint, but it is quite complementary with the mellow roasted garlic and brightens up the entire dish.
With our starters we have been sipping the spry, citrusy Châuteau Haut-Rian Semillon/Sauv Blanc $8/30. Wilson refers to it somewhat jokingly as a “porch-white,” and in the thick muggy midst of our Minnesotan July, I take her meaning. Their wine list may be small, but it is no afterthought—each has been carefully selected to accompany specific dishes and add interest to the evening. As we transition to our appetizers, we move to the Dolcetto d’Alba Vigneto Vantrino Albarella ($11/40). With a big nose of dark fruits and a little black pepper, it was nevertheless food-friendly.
If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of 128 Café’s BBQ Baby Back Ribs ($18 half/30 full), they are a must-try when paired with the rich, Ridge “East Bench” Zinfandel ($46). A side of sweet and spicy barbeque sauce is wonderful for drizzling over the accompanying mashed potatoes and sautéed vegetables, but the meat is flavorful enough to be enjoyed plain. I don’t order ribs enough to have a “technique” down, but Wilson lends me her favorite method—flipping them over and removing the bones from the back. If you’re looking to impress your companions with your excellent table manners, I’d suggest you do the same. If not, by all means pick them up and have at; the ribs have quite the reputation here, and I don’t think anyone in the dining room would judge you.
We also tried the Pork Tenderloin with roasted potatoes, mustard greens, grilled peach and a bacon and molasses vinaigrette ($20). It has all the makings of a masterpiece if only the vinaigrette were a bit more assertive. The other flavors of this dish meld so well, it almost needs just a little something to stand out. That said, I realize that I have been consistently praising the kitchen for their restraint, and this entrée is perfectly in line with what you’re really looking for when you go to the 128: an unfussy experience that feels more like a food-spa than the typical Twin Cities hotspot. This tenderloin is downright homey, and to be honest, sometimes that’s exactly what you need.
Dessert almost felt superfluous at this point, but should you have room, a small dish of Izzy’s vanilla ice cream and a fudge brownie, topped with crumbled pecan brittle, is the perfect finishing touch. If you’re on a budget, Sunday through Thursday a three-course dinner is just $25 if you stick to the daily specials. But even on the weekends, the 128 Café is a delightfully affordable date spot. The 128 also participates in Dining out for Life and other charitable events. For more information about how to participate, or to make reservations, visit 128cafe.net.
128 Cleveland Ave. N., St. Paul, MN 55104