Appetites: Minneapolis' Seward neighborhood becomes a culinary destination

Verdant Tea
Nate Uri, left, and Geoffrey Reiff, who work at Verdant Tea, plan new menu items while enjoying tea Monday, Oct. 21, 2013 at the tasting room and tea bar that opened this summer in the Seward neighborhood.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

The Seward neighborhood in Minneapolis has long been known for its diversity, its progressive politics, and the co-op and cafe that bear its name. But it's increasingly becoming known for a place to get a great bite to eat. James Norton, editor of Heavy Table, joined MPR News' Steven John to talk about the neighborhood's eats.

Photo gallery: A Minneapolis foodie enclave

STEVEN JOHN: A lot of folks in the greater Twin Cities probably don't much about the Seward neighborhood, let alone that it is a destination for good eating. Is it, really?

JAMES NORTON:I'll make the case. Seward's rep as a place where you'll get a hemp-bread and sprouts sandwich and Fair Trade coffee served with vegan creamer isn't wrong — it just isn't really complete anymore.

The neighborhood's core ideals of knowing where food comes from and how it got to our plates are reflected nearly anywhere you eat, but there's an increasing sophistication about flavor and variety that is making it a great place to dine.

Birchwood Cafe
The Birchwood Cafe, a long-time Seward neighborhood dining destination, is known for its focus on local, sustainable and organic ingredients Monday, Oct. 21, 2013 in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Take Tracy's Saloon for example. It was, until recent times, sort of a sleepy working class neighborhood bar. It was overhauled in 2006 and has become a really remarkable compromise between the old and the new — you can get a burger and a beer, or you can get a really excellent house curry on lemon rice. It's fast becoming one of my favorite chill-out restaurants in Minneapolis.

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JOHN: Seward's Birchwood Cafe has also grown its reputation beyond just a neighborhood eating spot in their almost two decades in operation.

NORTON: Very much so. The Birchwood is poised to launch a major crowdsourced funding campaign on Kickstarter — they're seeking $100,000 over the course of 29 days — in order to renovate and reboot the restaurant.

Birchwood Cafe
The Birchwood Cafe is celebrating 18 years in business with a Kickstarter campaign to help finance an expansion project. A kickoff party is planned for Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013. Expansion plans include more seating, a bigger kitchen, additional bathrooms and solar panels on the rooftop.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

JOHN: That seems like an ambitious goal. What precisely are they hoping to do with the money?

NORTON: It's extremely ambitious, but also not unrealistic. Local restaurant watchers know that the guys who run Travail in Robbinsdale were able to raise a quarter million dollars with their campaign to "democratize fine dining," which demonstrates what a good pitch for a restaurant with a strong, enthusiastic clientele can accomplish. Travail proved that they were about more than just selling food — Birchwood can credibly make a similar claim.

Seward Co-op
Mehdi Kennar, a floor supervisor at the Seward Co-op, hands a shopper her groceries Monday, Oct. 21, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

If they make their goal, Birchwood is going to expand their tiny kitchen, which is regularly overwhelmed during Sunday brunch, add some seriously environmental improvements including a rain garden and a solar panel array, expand their dining room, and — if they can swing the licensing — add a vestibule entryway to keep out cold weather. It should be a real boost for the neighborhood.

JOHN: Let's talk about the Seward Co-op, which has been around for more than 40 years now. Is it still a neighborhood mainstay?

NORTON: More than that, if that's possible. They've been booming. If you've tried to park in Seward Co-op's lot any time over the past year or two, you know they're doing well. It's not quite as ridiculous as the situation over at the Wedge, but it's getting there. The co-op's new location has been exceeding its own revenue projections since opening its doors in early 2009, to the extent where they're planning to open a second location in the Powderhorn neighborhood a few years from now to help balance the demand for their food and philosophy.

JOHN: Now, it's not all good news on the Seward culinary front, I understand.

Verdant Tea
Tea steeps for a tasting at Verdant Tea on Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. Teas, from top to bottom, are Laoshan Green, Laoshan Black and Yunnan White Jasmine. The teas come from small family farms in China.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

NORTON: Unfortunately, no. The long decline of True Thai restaurant ended early this month with the restaurant's closure. At the height of their powers about five years ago, they were regularly winning citywide "best of" awards, but they faced a number of challenges including the tragic hit-and-run death of their chef Anousone Phanthavong in 2011. He was the pedestrian in the Amy Senser trial that garnered so much publicity.

JOHN: So, what do you think the future holds for dining out in the Seward neighborhood?

NORTON: Operating in Seward Co-op's old location is a teahouse called Verdant. It's less a tea house than a flavor laboratory — the stuff they're doing with kombucha, housemade Sweet Science ice cream, soba noodles, chai and more is knocking my socks off. It's one thing to have a clever idea, but quite another to follow through, and they're doing both.