The Twin Cities has never been known as a good place to get soul food, but some dedicated entrepreneurs are making the local food scene take note of an unusual-to-Minnesota phenomenon: black-owned food businesses serving both classic and innovative takes on black cooking.
Speaking to MPR News' Tom Crann, food writer Mecca Bos shares her thoughts and observations on the Twin Cities' emerging soul food scene.
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It hasn't always been easy to get soul food in Minnesota, has it?
No, it hasn't, and I wouldn't exactly say it's easy right now either, although a handful of new black-owned restaurants have been cropping up lately — almost creating something like a "scene" which is exciting.
Why have there not traditionally been more black restaurants here?
The reasons are multiple and complex, but with only a 6 percent black population — up from just 3 percent during the great migration — combined with institutionalized redlining, the destruction of the historically black neighborhood Rondo, along with bureaucratic blockades and access to capital — have made it particularly difficult for black businesses to thrive, and the dearth of black-owned restaurants is evidence of that.
Would you say that's changing somewhat?
Somewhat. Currently, there are a handful of visible black restaurants gaining traction, each one with a personal take on what it means to be doing black cooking, which I find most exciting.
What are some of your favorites?
They're all very different, so it's difficult to choose a favorite, but I would put Klassics Soul Bowl near the top of the list, currently operating out of north Minneapolis' Breaking Bread as a pop-up — with Breaking Bread being a great place to get good soul food in its own right.
Chef Gerard Klass has been creating a fast-casual, build-your-own bowl approach to soul food, while still honoring the farm fresh cooking style he learned from his grandparents. He calls it "soul food reimagined" and it's popular particularly with millennials, vegetarians and vegans for a wholesome yet playful take on classic dishes like greens, black-eyed peas and candied yams.
What else is available if you wanted a more traditional experience?
I really liked a recent trip to Mama Sheila's, which is one of the newer Minneapolis places. On Sunday, there is an all-you-can-eat buffet that is really fun to settle in and make a lingering brunch. They serve just about any classic dish you can think of, but I was particularly fond of the jerk chicken and the macaroni and cheese and for a flat fee you can try everything.
Classics are always great, but what about some of the more innovative spots you mentioned?
Funky Grits has been getting a lot of attention, a counter service spot in a historically black south Minneapolis neighborhood serving inspired takes on bowls of grits; and I'm also really happy to have Trio in my own neighborhood, which is the only minority-owned vegan restaurant in Minnesota, serving a menu section devoted to soul food favorites like smoked ribs and macaroni and cheese, reimagined with plant-based ingredients.
With black-owned food businesses gaining more visibility in Minnesota, who do you think is working to push the conversation forward, and continue to make progress and more room for this kind of diversity in the Minnesota food world?
I'm very proud of the work that Mateo Mackbee, of Model Citizen in New London, Minn., is doing, which is a true farm-to-table restaurant where he and his partner Erin both grow the food on a plot of land near the restaurant, as well as cook it. He's cooking heritage cuisine there, the basis of American cooking, and he will be honoring his mother's native New Orleans cooking at Krewe, due to open this spring, also in New London. And if you're looking for New Orleans cooking closer to the city, try Cajun Twist, just opened on the Theodore Wirth Trailhead.
For more about soul food, read Bos' piece from the Growler Magazine here