Out of the way eateries

88 Oriental Foods' pork sausage is served with cabbage, sliced carrots, and pickled sliced jalapeño rings.

James Healy

88 Oriental Foods’ pork sausage is served with cabbage, sliced carrots, and pickled sliced jalapeño rings.

Grant Tillery

For all the attention fine dining and trendy restaurants receive on the local food scene, the backbone of most dining-out experiences are neighborhood restaurants that march to the beat of their own drum. Often lost in the shuffle, these grocery store counters, mercado stalls and strip mall secrets offer magical culinary adventure away from the growing number of trend-chasing gourmands in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
 
These five spots don’t serve four-star dishes on silver platters, and that’s not what they aim for. Complex, heartwarming dishes dot their menus and signs, and their affordability make return visits easier.
 
88 Oriental Foods
291 University Ave. W., St. Paul
 
Papaya salad is a contentious topic around town. Some prefer Lao style, heavy on funky anchovy sauce that coats the squeaky green papaya strips. Others prefer Thai style, known for the sweetness of dried shrimp and the crunch of peanuts. If Lao style is what you’re seeking, 88 Oriental Foods has you covered. The University Avenue grocery store has a little deli counter in the back where employees lovingly prepare papaya salad with a mortar and pestle. The deliberative process is a joy to watch, and allows for taste tests to make sure the spice level suits your needs. For $6.50, it makes for two full-sized meals. Pick up an order of pork sausage ($3 for 10 pieces) while you’re at it.
 
Filled with thin noodles, the sour, pungent porcine rounds are so good I ate half of them at the deli counter and in the car.
 
Ha Tien Market
353 University Ave. W., St. Paul
 
Just down the block from 88 Oriental Foods lies another superb Asian market — Ha Tien. Like their neighbor down the street, they have a top-notch deli counter that’s one of the best takeout options in the cities. Ha Tien is known for its Vietnamese specialties, and their roast pork banh mi ($5) is the best iteration of the sandwich in town. The pork is roasted in-house and shaved off a slab behind the counter. Take one bite of the sandwich and you’re in heaven. The fatty roast pork is succulent, and the traditional banh mi accoutrements are all present in proportionate amounts. Though the Cadillac-sized sandwich is more than enough food by itself, you’d be remiss to skip the seafood egg rolls ($1).
 
Hot Indian Foods
920 E. Lake St., Minneapolis
 
The Midtown Global Market isn’t exactly off the beaten path. While Hot Indian Foods is hardly ignored by the masses, it deserves more love than it gets thanks to its innovative approach to Indian fusion cuisine. Much like local strongholds World Street Kitchen and Vellee Deli, Hot Indian Foods features a menu of burritos (Indurritos in their case) and bowls Chipotle style — spring for the lamb in burrito or bowl form. Finished in a spicy sauce laden with chickpeas, the lamb swims in tangy coleslaw that refines the intense heat.
 
La Loma Tamales
1515 E. Lake St. Suite 126, Minneapolis
 
La Loma Tamales’s Mercado Central outpost dishes up the most authentic rendition of the Mexican masa-based favorites in town. Run-of-the-mill chicken, pork and cheese tamales dominate the menu, and they are elevated beyond their basic status thanks to the care for flavor and proper seasoning. The crown jewel of La Loma’s tamales is the Oaxaqueno, a chicken tamale cooked in red chili sauced and wrapped in banana leaves. While the former brings the burn, the banana leaf adds a slight sweetness that reconciles the heat without blowing out the fire. For $3.50, there’s no reason not to get two, plus a third, fourth and fifth for the road.
 
Friends Café
1711 Rice St., Roseville
 
If you ever find yourself in Roseville, skip the chain dining around Rosedale Center and head to Friends Café on the suburb’s southeastern outskirts. St. Paul has a large population of Karen residents — Burmese refugees who immigrated to Minnesota due to genocide in their homeland. Located next to a pawnshop in a strip mall, Friends Café brings the flavors of Burma to the refugees and curious eaters throughout the cities. Try one bite of their Burmese shrimp and eggplant curry ($11) and you’ll be hooked.
 
Burmese curry is oilier and heavier on the garlic than its Thai and Lao counterparts, making for an intense, complex flavor explosion on the first bite. Soupy and rich, it’s the perfect foil for the shrimp and eggplant that luxuriate in the sauce.