Minnesota has had a perplexing relationship with Asian fusion cuisine these last few years.
First, a primer on Asian fusion. This was a cuisine born in the 1980s and 1990s when a new wave of Asian immigrants came to the United States, bringing with them a wave of intriguing fresh flavors, such as lemongrass and passion fruit.
Simultaneously a new generation of chefs was rising, cooking California cuisine (baby vegetables, small greens) and nouvelle cuisine (broths and lighter oils instead of butter sauces). One met the other, and Asian fusion was born.
Two of the greatest, and most celebrated, fusion chefs are Wolfgang Puck, with his California restaurants Chinois and Spago; and Jean Georges Vongerichten, whose New York restaurants JoJo and Vong were especially strong with Thai and Vietnamese flavors. The world beat a path to their door. They won awards, riches, reknown. Then they came here.
Wolfgang Puck opened 20.21 in the newly renovated Walker Art Center in 2005, and Jean Georges Vongerichten opened the Chambers Kitchen in 2007. And Minnesotans ran them out of town on a rail! Both closed -- Chambers in late 2009, 20.21 earlier this year.
But no sooner did they close than Minnesota fell in love with Asian fusion cuisine -- but this time, a homegrown version.
One of the biggest buzz food experiences in the Twin Cities this year is the food truck Vellee Deli, which serves Korean barbecue tacos, Thai curry-filled burritos, and, my favorite, a banh-mi submarine sandwich filled with papaya, pico de gallo, and sweet and lemony Hmong lemongrass sausage.
Another new restaurant is near the University of Minnesota, Green Spoon, which serves a Korean barbecue Philly cheesesteak. At this year's big-buzz pizza place, Pizzeria Lola, owner Ann Kim serves up an astonishingly good kim-chi topped pizza. And there's a restaurant in northeast Minneapolis called Ginger Hop that makes a pretty mean kim-chi Reuben.
So, why did Minnesota reject Asian fusion superstars like Puck and Vongerichten, and then embrace homegrown fusion? Orneriness? Crantankerousness?
If I had to pinpoint it, I'd say that Minnesotan-Asian fusion really succeeds when it's a very well-done comfort food (pizza, tacos, a cheesesteak, a Reuben) given a delicious twist.
Then again, it just might be destiny. There has been one bit of Asian-Minnesotan fusion which has been very popular for decades, more or less without any Minnesotan participation at all.
Yes, I mean spam sushi, which is a hugely popular food in Hawaii, and even in Minnesota -- if you know where to look for it. (Hint: Try Midori's Floating World, in south Minneapolis.) Is it delicious? Well, I'll leave that to every individual to decide for themselves.
But this much is true, the authentic taste of Minnesota is ever evolving, in surprising and delicious ways.
The restaurants discussed in this story:
2600 University Ave. SE, Mpls., (612) 208-0529;
5557 Xerxes Ave. S., Mpls., (612) 424-8338
201 East Hennepin Ave., Mpls., (612) 746-0305
Midori's Floating World Cafe
2629 E. Lake St., Mpls., (612) 721-3011