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Appetites: Here's where to find the best comfort food in the Twin Cities

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Monte Carlo
A snowy Monte Carlo bar in downtown Minneapolis.
Clint McMahon / Creative Commons via Flickr

We are in the depths of another cold snap here in Minnesota, and if that snowy landscape reminds you of mashed potatoes it means you're craving a hearty, nostalgic meal. 

So for many of us, the idea of comfort food — from pot roast to modern spins on our favorite cold-weather classics — is a good one. Rachel Hutton, editor in chief of Minnesota Monthly magazine, spoke with MPR News' Tom Crann about where to find the best comfort food in the Twin Cities.

Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

CRANN: Just hearing the words "pot roast" makes me crave the dish. Where should I go?

HUTTON: The most famous rendition in these parts is served at the Modern Café in northeast Minneapolis. It's been on the menu for at least a decade and has become something of an icon. It's a textbook execution: rich, tender hunks of meat paired with creamy mashed potatoes and horseradish sauce. 

CRANN: What about chicken pot pie? Or chicken noodle soup?

HUTTON: I was at the St. Paul Grill a few weeks ago when temps were in the single digits, so I went straight for the chicken pot pie. It's not quite what you might expect as the crust is chewier than a flaky pie crust, but it's delicious. It's stuffed with meat and vegetables and a rich, silky gravy. 

There's great chicken noodle soups at one of the last places you'd expect to find it: Monte Carlo. A lot of people think of the Monte Carlo as a time-warp cocktail bar, but they serve a terrific home-style chicken noodle soup.  

CRANN: What about breakfast food, say biscuits and gravy?

HUTTON: Ordering biscuits and gravy can be a risk: I've been served plenty of tough biscuits and bland, gloppy, wallpaper-paste gravy. Two places that do it right are Sun Street Breads and Be'Wiched Deli. At both spots, the biscuits are perfectly pillowy and gravy is packed with flavor and personality.

CRANN: Where are some good places to go for modern comfort food?

HUTTON: Haute Dish, as the name might suggest, is big on blending gourmet and comfort fare. They do a chef's version on the classic Midwestern tater tot hotdish; it's deconstructed and each element is an upgrade on the ingredients that grandma used: short ribs instead of ground beef, porcini mushroom béchamel instead of canned cream of mushroom soup, and homemade "tots" that are more like croquettes. 

Parka is another great spot for Gourmet Granny fare. Their menu is a little in flux right now, but in the past I've had chef-updated meatloaf and even Jell-O salad, a dish that both my grandmas made but that I'd never seen at a restaurant.  

CRANN: How about mac and cheese? That's quite a decadent upgrade of the stuff in the blue box that we ate as kids. Where's your favorite version?

HUTTON: I liked the lobster mac and cheese at the old Forum quite a bit, so I'm waiting for someone to resurrect that historic space and bring it back. But my new favorite version is at Smack Shack in the North Loop; they specialize in lobsters so it's no surprise they do it right. Plus, you can have a mini spa experience by peering into the giant lobster-boil pot. When the air is as cold and dry as it is, I'll take a steam treatment wherever I can get it.

CRANN: A lot of these dishes are Midwestern classics, but I'm thinking of a newer dish that's becoming a classic here in its own right: the Vietnamese soup pho.

HUTTON: There's so many great places to get it. Anywhere from a tiny hole in the wall on the Eat Street portion of Nicollet Avenue to University Avenue in St. Paul. One of my favorites there is Ngon Bistro, which is currently closed for repairs after a pipe burst above their dining room. 

For those who haven't tried pho before, it generally comes in giant portions of meat, noodles and tofu. And be sure to add the fresh basil, bean sprouts and lime that comes on the side. But the heart of soul of good pho is its broth; that's what makes or breaks it.