Diverse ethnic fare: Eat Street, Minneapolis

To my left was a sturdy, red-shuttered German restaurant, the Black Forest Inn. To my right was the simple but cheery-looking Pancho Villa, serving Mexican food. Next door to it was the Tibet Lotus Flower Shop.

Such ethnic diversity, within a block, certainly is not unprecedented in the Midwest. But this melting pot stretches for 17 blocks, from Grant Street to 29th, south of the well-toned “restaurant row” of Nicolett Mall in downtown Minneapolis. African to Arabian cuisine wafts through here, on Eat Street, as the locals call it.

Northeast of downtown is another deep pocket of ethnic influence, known more for its food markets, although restaurants also exist. Eat Street East, on Central Avenue from 13th to 50th, has all kinds of ways to make your head turn and stomach churn. Carl Antholz is just the guy to help you maneuver through it all.

He is a chef-teacher at Kitchen Window, a huge kitchenware store that also presents dozens of cooking/eating/food tour classes. Among the more popular ones are Carl’s Ethnic Market and Hidden Gems bus tours, two ways to get acquainted with the Twin Cities’ best ethnic food spots. These occasional tours resume in late April.

It takes five or six hours and the cost is $70, which includes enough food samplings to prove that Garrison Keillor’s state isn’t all white bread and hot dishes. Hidden Gems ends with the preparation of a late lunch, made from ingredients that Carl purchases while playing tour guide at almost a dozen markets.

He is a pleasant and passionate guy who will rattle on about how there are 25 types of eggplant at summer farmers’ markets. He will proclaim that Asian markets have the best fresh seafood in the city. He will offer recommendations about where to buy the freshest salsa, the prettiest bakery.

The latter? Patrick’s French Bakery on 66th Street West, near Southdale Shopping Center, he insists. “Everything is picture-perfect there,” Carl says, and it’s not hard to agree. Paris-born pastry chef Patrick Bernet at age 13 began his apprenticeship under a master chef in Alsace; his specialty is “sugar artistry.”

But we digress. The Kitchen Window’s massive class list includes generic and specialty cooking classes, for ages 8 to 80. They are framed as corporate team-building events, ways to help kids become helpful the kitchen, good getaways for mother-daughter combos, groups of friends, romantic couples.

“There’s something about the kitchen that breaks barriers,” Carl observes, while chatting last fall in the store’s kitchen classroom, which typically accommodates 18-30 students.

Another option is the Celebrated Chefs program, in which students get a behind-the-scenes view of a local restaurant. Some will want to work for their meal; others just want to eat it after watching it be made. Both extremes are welcome; the three-hour Saturday luncheon programs typically cost $65 per person.

For more about all classes that are offered, go to www.kitchenwindow.com or call (888) 824-4417. From Thai curries to a Tuscan winter feast, chocolate seductions for Valentine’s Day, Indian appetizers and Asian soups, Executive Chef Scott Rosenbaum’s staff seems to work hard to mix creative approaches with their culinary knowledge.

Also highly regarded is the Cooks of Crocus Hill, with locations in St. Paul and Edina, Minn. For more about their cooking classes and merchandise, go to www.cooksofcrocushill.com or call (651) 228-1333.

“Many chefs from around the country are regularly scheduled to teach a variety of classes,” says the Internet site.

Last fall in the Twin Cities, I stayed at the Nicollet Island Inn, a nifty place because, well, it’s on a little island in downtown Minneapolis. Very novel. Plus, the bed had a mattress whose firmness could be adjusted – big time – with the push of a control panel. Very strange, and entertaining.

While feeling anti-social, restless and hungry, I began to roam for a restaurant. A short walk away, on East Hennepin Avenue, was a gem: Nye’s Polonaise, a Polish supper club that has been around since 1954 – and probably not been redecorated since then. That’s a good thing.

Huge flower patterns make the carpet and walls hard to forget. Deep red was a dominant color. Waitresses flashed big smiles and were dressed like they were ready for team bowling. The place was packed on a Thursday night, retirees to twenty-somethings, some fresh from work, some stacking wrapped gifts for a birthday celebration.

Fried frog legs were $9.95, and it was tempting. Hadn’t had them since the 1970s. When did they become so scarce – or politically incorrect – in Wisconsin?

But I settled for a smaller wave of guilt: the $13.95 Polish Sampler, from the appetizer menu. It easily was enough for a full meal: a Polish sausage, lots of kraut (to my dismay), huge potato dumplings, golabki (cabbage roll with a sweet/spicy kick), plus three gorgeous cheese-filled pierogis (doughy turnovers).

For another $1.75 (per person), you can get wild by adding a relish tray of raw veggies, pickles, pasta salad.