1. Aloha Poke
First off, pokē rhymes with “okay.” And the Aloha brand started in 2016 in Chicago’s French Market at Ogilvie Station. “The lines were legendary—it just took off,” says CEO Chris Birkinshaw. Two more locations were added immediately, and the brand has exploded into five states. “And it’s still growing strong.”
Pokē is a traditional Hawaiian dish made of diced raw fish, and Aloha started with simple bowls created from raw fish or tofu—marinated or “naked”—and fresh, colorful ingredients and sauces piled on top. The basic concept has remained the same across locations, but antibiotic-free (cooked) chicken and all-natural, farmed shrimp were added to the menu for customers who want to try pokē but aren’t sold on the idea of raw seafood.
“You can make it packed with superfoods or crunchy, indulgent and filling,” says Birkinshaw. “It’s ‘good mood food.’ You just feel good after you eat it—whether it’s after a workout, a light lunch, or filling up on protein.”
Woodbury’s City Place Market location opened in September 2018, where Pie Five was previously. The team ripped out the now-obsolete ovens and invested in the client-facing spaces. There’s an industrial-tropical look that mirrors the other stores, with corrugated aluminum and pops of fresh greenery. Every Aloha restaurant has a signature wall of bobbling hula dolls imported from Hawaii; they give an instant sense of place and serve as a perfect backdrop for the Instagram-worthy entrees.
“Minnesota, for the most part, wasn’t familiar with the brand,” says district manager Brandon Lanier. But within a couple months of the grand opening, there were already a bevy of regulars, he says. “We’ve had people eat an entire bowl and love it so much they come right back in line and order another to take home.”
What to Try
Ordering can be a challenge the first time. Bowls are made-to-order with a choice of three sizes, a base of greens or brown or white rice, pokē (protein), and any or all of 12 ingredients and seven sauces.
“If you’re overwhelmed, House Bowls are a great place to start,” says Birkinshaw. The Crunch Bowl is the favorite of three house options at all Aloha locations and comes with jalapeños, cucumbers, scallions, edamame, tobiko (fish roe) and “crunch”—tempura fried onions—topped with spicy aioli and Samurai sauces.
2. Viet Cajun & Noodles
It’s always a good sign when a restaurant has to shut the doors because it’s had such an overwhelming response during its soft opening. And that’s exactly what happened when Viet Cajun and Noodles opened in the former Bruegger’s Bagels spot on Commerce in fall 2018.
Owner Steven Tonthat is a transplant from Vietnam, living in Woodbury since 2000 and operating two nail salons here. When Bruegger’s announced it was closing next door to Miley Nails, he enlisted the help of a friend and longtime chef and restaurateur to bring “Viet Cajun” flavor to the area.
Tonthat’s family owns a number of the unique fusion restaurants in Houston and Los Angeles, where the concept is catching on in a big way. “My cousin in Houston taught me all the good, secret recipes,” says Tonthat. So what is Viet Cajun, exactly? Picture a traditional southern-style shrimp boil, with colorful chunks of corn-on-the-cob, red potatoes and brightly colored seafood. “But it’s not actually Louisiana Cajun…instead it’s infused with Vietnamese spices. It’s a little different, more flavorful.”
Everything on the restaurant’s well-focused menu is made from scratch, never frozen. There’s a lineup of traditional Vietnamese vermicelli dishes, rice plates, egg and spring rolls, and signature pho soup. That’s served alongside boiled southern-style dishes with crawfish, crab legs, lobster or jumbo shrimp at market price, with fresh-drawn garlic butter sauce. And if you’ve never had baguette with your Vietnamese food…you can here.
What to Try
Well, there’s the famous beef noodle pho, for one. It’s a mash-up of Tonthat’s wife’s recipe and that of his cook, Lan. “We didn’t want the food to taste industrial. We wanted it to taste homemade, but not too homemade—not too strong,” Tonthat says. “We had to find the perfect blend.”
Pho (pronounced fuh) is slow-cooked broth soup with gluten-free noodles garnished with cilantro, green onions, bean sprouts, jalapeños, basil, hoisin and sriracha sauce—and served with a lime wedge for extra brightness. It’s Asian comfort food at its finest, and it’s catching on locally.
“The bone broth is slow-cooked for ten hours. There’s powdered stuff out there, but we won’t do that. It’s just not good!” says Tonthat. “Our broth has great depth—people say they can taste the difference.” From there? Obviously the Cajun. Your Instagram feed will thank you.
3. Ramen Station
There are a few things that are noticeably bigger at Ramen Station. Opened in January 2016, it’s the only Japanese-style ramen restaurant in the Twin Cities, and its décor and menu are heavily influenced by Japanese design and culture.
First, there’s a 30-foot-long, Japanese-style bench with tables lined up against it, so visitors sit community-style as they enjoy their traditional Japanese yakisoba and udon stir-fried noodle dishes or one of the many types of signature ramen. And then there’s the way the ramen is eaten.
“With chopsticks and a big spoon—it’s different from a Chinese ramen spoon, about three times bigger,” says manager Jimmy Xiao, quick to explain the ins and outs of the Asian hot soup that’s gaining popularity locally as a go-to comfort food. “When they hear ‘ramen,’ some people think of instant noodles. But we start with raw noodles and cook them fresh in a special wok. But it’s the broth that’s special—it takes eight hours to make.”
The base ramen broth is made from bones and fresh ginger and garlic simmered stovetop, giving it a bright depth and making it filling, but not heavy.
“Ramen is healthy. It’s not greasy. There’s no MSG or added sugar or salt,” Xiao says. “And it’s a good price.”
What to Try
The Takoyaki—fried octopus ball—appetizer is a hit for its distinctive crunch. And of the many types of ramen on the menu, the favorites are Tonkatsu—broth with egg noodles, braised pork, egg, green onion, bean sprouts, seaweed and spinach—and Tantan, a spicier version with ground pork. Use chopsticks to grab and wind the noodles against the ramen spoon before eating them.