Minneapolis’ inability to keep a good Southern restaurant functioning has been, sadly, well established.
But here’s a crazy, counter-intuitive thought: Maybe the best Southern restaurant in town is simply hiding, inside a bakery known primarily for its killer baguettes.
This thought occurred to me halfway through a dinner visit last week, in which I dandled a few feather-light hush puppies between my fingers and contemplated the rest of the menu: What next, shrimp po’ boy or fried chicken biscuit? New Orleans catfish or salt roasted chicken with Creole sauce? What? When did Sun Street, the bakery famous as the showcase of not-Southern baker Solveig Tofte, of the magnificent baguettes and hearty ryes, go all Southern? And could they do it?
I promptly ordered the catfish and Creole chicken—whoa. The catfish was so crisp the crust shattered when I touched it with my fork, the accompanying heap of collard greens was sensuously great, iron-y and lush and firm, the red beans and rice were even better, understated, tender, and powerfully flavorful. The chicken, called Nettie’s Hen, was extraordinary, salt roasted, the skin a mahogany brown, the flesh falling off the bone and so deeply flavorful it made me, as a pretty good roast-chicken cook, suddenly come down with pangs of chicken-wonder, and, I’m not ashamed to admit, a little chicken-envy. And the Southern sides were glorious, tangy mustard greens, plump and charming black-eyed peas, and the red pepper Creole sauce was just a vision of loveliness, tart and light, understated but focused. For dessert . . . what else? Fresh blueberry ice cream, and icebox lemon cake with whipped cream. Light, country, church social perfect—since when, and in Minneapolis?
I called the next day. Owner Solveig Tofte told me the dinnertime Southern tilt has been evolving recently. “We’ve always tried to focus on American food,” Tofte told me, “and Southerners have done such a good job with using American ingredients that if you’re trying to think about local sauces and sides, it’s easy to head a little bit south and do that. But it really has to do with Annette and Mateo.” That would be Annette Colón, the dinner chef, and Mateo Mackbee, her sous chef.
Annette Colón is mostly known in the Twin Cities for her ten year stint as chef de cuisine at Lucia’s, but she has her own history too, growing up in Puerto Rico and New England, a heritage which comes together on her menu in dishes like a buttermilk-brined fried chicken, and the pineapple mojo on the hush puppies. “Whenever I cook something lately I feel like I keep ending up in that Southern region,” Colón told me. Next up, she’s working on a root beer-braised pork belly for BLTs. “In Puerto Rico people love Malta,” the non-alcoholic malt beverage that tastes sort of like a halfway point between coffee and cola. “And in Puerto Rico pork is huge, hugely important. But Malta is an acquired taste,” Colón told me. “So I’m thinking root beer-braised pork, which is done in New Orleans. It’s going to be intense.”
Meanwhile, Colón’s Southern tendencies are being emphasized and improved by Mateo Mackbee, her sous chef, who has deep New Orleans roots. “My mother is from the 5th Ward in New Orleans, and my grandfather grew up there, he used to be a chef on a ship,” Mackbee told me. “New Orleans food is what I grew up eating. I grew up here, but we’d go down there three or four times a year, and those meals were so special to me, so close to my heart.” Mackbee used to cook at the Walker and Wolfgang Puck’s 20.21, and later at Sea Change, that’s where he honed the technical skills necessary to make catfish like that. For his next act, he tells me, he and Colón are going to roll out his family’s jambalaya.
And then they’re going to think about fried chicken.
I’m already thinking about it. I’m also thinking that the best Southern restaurant in Minnesota is hiding right behind a well-known baguette.
Sun Street Breads, 4600 Nicollet Ave., Mpls., 612-354-3414, sunstreetbreads.com