Inside the Best Global Specialty Markets in the Twin Cities

How are people like pandas? We tend to eat what’s immediately at hand in our environment. I think about this all the time: Pandas in their bamboo forests are not so different from human beings at Costco. They eat only what is right at the ends of their paws—what they can walk to, what they’re used to eating. We do the exact same thing, though we may have obscured that fact from ourselves. We tell ourselves we’re doing something “normal” or “efficient” or “prudent” or whatever it is we say as we gather our food, when in fact we’re consuming what is simply easiest to eat inside an ecosystem we didn’t create, just like pandas in a bamboo forest.

Unless! What if we suddenly went into another ecosystem and ate what was in there? Wouldn’t that be an adventure? Wouldn’t our world materially change, like pandas suddenly going out for tacos? Think about it. Better yet, do it.

I’ve been driving all around the metro finding the best global markets to expand my eating ecosystem. I looked for places with either significant hot (temperature) food or important takeout. Most of all, I looked for places with a big wow factor, because you deserve to spend a weekend in Seoul or Siena without having to go to the airport; you deserve the joy of finding a whole delicious new world and seeing your usual world in all kinds of fresh ways.

The Greatest Shawarma In Minnesota—No Kidding! 

Sun Market

When I was a baby restaurant critic, an editor asked me to find the best shawarma/gyros in the Twin Cities. Twenty restaurants and a persistent sickish feeling later, I sadly realized that almost everyone got their Greek-inspired gyros and pitas off a truck from one Chicago supplier. It was like devoting a week of my life to finding the best Hostess Twinkie. However: Patience pays. Decades later, I have finally found my holy grail—in a strip mall in Coon Rapids! Walk into Sun Market and find the farthest back corner—that’s where the magic happens. Two spits turn—one a handmade cone of bright orange spicy chicken, the other a handmade cone of beef.

A few steps away from the turning gyros, the Iraqi version of a tandoor oven. I was lucky enough to be there one morning while a baker spread balls of dough over a dome, pricked them with a tool, spread them more until they were thin as parchment, and then swirled each rapidly through the air to slap on the inside wall of the oven. This tandoor-made bread, called tanoor, is 18 inches across, bubbled with char, and stupendously delicious. This oven is also used to produce samoon bread, which is sort of football shaped, like a pita bread pinched and drawn apart in two fingers. When you order at the back counter, someone cuts your choice of chicken or beef off the spit; loads it into a cut samoon bread; piles in onions, tomatoes, lettuce, and pickles; and then squirts in lots of a tahini-based lemony sauce. Friends, the sauce turns the bread into something like a Levantine bread pudding, then the charred and chewy meat harmonizes with the fillings, and suddenly you can’t believe you’re in a north suburban mall and want to call every chef you know.

A conversation with the people running the place led me to understand that this isn’t just any shawarma; this is Baghdadi shawarma. “It’s the best in Minnesota,” said the guy behind the counter with a shrug, like he was telling me something unchallengeable, like: “That’s a pine tree.” He was right. I’ve been back twice now. It’s amazing how this shawarma hits all the notes: sour (pickles), salty (tahini sauce), rich (meat, and the way the sauce plumps the bread), sweet (bread), fresh (lettuce and tomato), and bitter (char). Life is crazy! I ended up waiting decades for a shawarma, and it was worth it. 89 85th Ave. NW, Coon Rapids, 763-571-2164

Authentic Palestinian Dinner Party, At Your Place? 

Pangea Market and Grill

Near Sun Market, find Pangea. The Palestinian market and bakery is also the most popular halal butcher shop in the north metro, plus it has its own quick-serve restaurant. To do Pangea like a pro, you must understand that the quick-serve restaurant seems like a Chipotle, but it’s actually far more useful: It has a whole shadow identity as a grab-and-go caterer—a place you can get Greek salad for four or 10, tabbouleh for as many people as you can seat, heaps of kofta, piles of skewers, vast amounts of fancy restaurant–quality hummus for a crowd—you get the idea. Consult Pangea’s website for a full preorder—though if you’re just in the neighborhood grabbing lunch, please know the falafel sandwiches are some of the best I’ve ever had: such a fresh-tasting, herb-bright chickpea mix in the falafel itself.

Enter through the restaurant. If you’re just there for snacks and breads, order a “big side” of lemony hummus topped with oil and a spicy pepper relish and another “big side” of beautiful, silky roast baba ghanoush. Grab a bag of super-fresh pita, a slab of Greek feta cheese, and as many sorts of olives as feels right. Consult the produce case for rare items like fresh green uncured olives—is this the year you brine your own? Don’t miss the metro’s widest selection of Turkish delight, excellent individually wrapped jewels of pistachio, nougat, and sometimes rose petals. If you’ve been reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with someone you love, definitely bring them for all the Turkish delight, no scary White Witch!

Don’t miss the butcher shop. People drive for miles to get fresh halal goat and big legs of lamb for celebrations. Back in the aisles, you’ll find Palestinian olive oils and sage-scented black tea. By the time you pay for your groceries, your to-go order should be ready. 8500 Springbrook Dr. NW, Coon Rapids, 612-254-2010,

Create Your Own Bollywood Adventure 

Pooja Grocers

You know how we’re surrounded by algorithms but kind of don’t see them? Do this: Go into your Netflix account and search for “Bollywood,” and you’ll find you’ve broken the usual algorithm, as tons of Bollywood films (try the mega-hit 3 Idiots; it’s terrifically funny) suddenly appear to allow for your own at-home film festival. Next, head to Pooja Grocers, on Central just south of 694, to prepare.

When you arrive, turn your attention to the bins by the door. This is the bulk-Indian-subcontinent-snack paradise you didn’t know you needed. For $4.99 a pound, bag up spicy curried peanuts; chickpea-flour-battered crispy nuggets; and a craveable curried potato chip, raisin, and crunchy-bit mix that you’ll soon be eating by the handful, plus half a dozen more items. Now, from the aisles at Pooja, add breads, like garlic naan or spiced crispy papadums. Add some frozen treats, like maybe one of the party-sized samosa boxes? Add jars of Indian chutneys. If you actually want to cook, consult local chef Raghavan Iyer’s excellent 660 Curries cookbook for all the winter-warming easy goodness you’ll need. Next, look carefully at the drink aisle—what could be your signature cocktail? Is it bright pink rose sharbat, a super rose-fragrant drink, with prosecco or gin and lemon? Is it mango and mint squash with Campari?

Finally, do not miss the phenomenal selection of fun ice creams. What is kulfi? It’s a traditional Indian ice cream, denser than usual Western ice cream and available in dozens of flavors. I was enchanted by the single-serving cups—kaju draksh, anjeer, badam carnival, thandai, santra (that’s cashew-raisin, fig, almond caramel, rose and various nuts and seeds, and orange, in case you were wondering)—try them all! Once your cart is full, walk over to the piping-hot samosa case and reward yourself with a paper bag’s worth of hot, spicy, crispy dollar samosas to eat on the way home. 4864 Central Ave. NE, Hilltop, 763-571-1899,

Party Like A Taco Boss! 

Colonial Market and Restaurant

This find has grown in south Minneapolis like one of those stop-motion animations of a plant. It started as a little unremarkable sprout of a market beside landmark heritage bakery Marissa’s at 28th and Nicollet but grew and grew into a prodigious flower with a thousand blooms! Though some of those blooms are veiled, as it were, depending on the day you visit. On a sleepy Monday, you might not notice much more than a solid quarter acre of south-of-the-border candies, bright

piñatas, and an abundance of grocery items. But on a Friday or over the weekend? Colonial becomes an absolute thrum of happy happenings, as frequent customers from all over the metro arrive to 

supply their own parties. Sidle up to the dessert counter for a watermelon agua de frutas or a cup of fresh mango slices and ice cream turned into that wonderful sundae, the mangonada.

Four elements demand your attention. One: Find the pollo al carbon counter—that’s where whole lime-and-chili chickens are cooked over charcoal. I think this is one of the best chickens in town—so tender, so smoky, so right. Two: Find the salsa deli case and discover limy, perky tomatillo salsa by the pint; fresh-as-anything guacamole; quick-pickled onions and vegetables; and everything you need to act like you have a whole restaurant’s cooking crew helping you fill a banquet. Three: Look up at the sign above the deli counter for the family-meal-to-go deals, like two pounds of carnitas or two pounds of spicy pork barbecue, along with a quart of rice, a pint of refried beans, tortillas, and a couple of liters of Jarritos. Four: If you’re ready to cook, don’t miss the produce section, with pre-bundled packs of posole add-ins, like cabbage and sweet-corn rounds, and a butcher case with all the pre-seasoned fajitas and pork al pastor you need to sizzle up great tacos in moments. 2750 Nicollet Ave., Mpls., 612-871-6322,

South Metro Foodie Corridor

From hoagies and smoked fish to kasha and larb

South metro folks, let’s talk about how lucky you are and what a supreme foodie destination Highway 13 has become between the airport to the east and Highway 169 to the west. Let’s start with the Italian stalwarts Buongiorno Deli (981 Sibley Memorial Hwy., St. Paul, 651-905-1080, and Brianno’s Deli Italia (2280 Cliff Rd., Eagan, 651-895-1174, facing off just near 35E, each with the best hoagies in town. How can each have the best? It’s a personal taste thing: Brianno’s eggplant parm is beyond compare, but then so is Buongiorno’s calabrese sandwich, with all the good tangy antipasto peppers and aged provolone.

Off Highway 77, you’ll find Minsk Market (3920 Cedar Grove Pkwy., Eagan, 651-209-0564, The Eastern European paradise with exquisite fresh pickles, rare smoked sausages, beautiful smoked fish, and gorgeous chocolates also has hot food to eat in the moment, like the pasty/calzone–cousin stuffed hand pie called pyrizhky.

Next, traveling east, is Paradise Market (1309 Hwy. 13, Burnsville, 952-882-6574, plus two other locations in Maple Grove and Hopkins). The pan–Eastern European specialty spot has a hot bar (kasha and cutlets) and premade deli case (potato salad and beets), as well as the tangy loaves of rye and fill-your-own-container pickle barrels.

Into this highway of legends we now add Groceries of the Orient (also known as Oriental Market Plus, 3101 Hwy. 13, Burnsville, 952-882-7890). Let’s agree that the name doesn’t matter as much as what’s inside. There, you’ll find a hot barbecue counter with all the good crispy-skin pork you need for a quick dinner, as well as fried tropical treats like plantains and taro fritters.

You’ll also find refrigerator cases stocked with spectacular—and I truly mean spectacular—takeout. The big boxes of larb salad alone would make the place destination-worthy. Larb, of course, is a salad of herbs, such as mint and basil, plus toasted rice powder and meat. My favorite here is the chicken larb, made with not just the bird’s meat but also the chicken livers and gizzards. The whole thing comes together with these primal notes that remind me of something like a smoky whiskey or Northern Rhône Syrah, deeply appealing, funky notes that spark alive with the herbs, lime, and spice. Phenomenal, terrific, amazing. For the adventurous, there’s a raw-beef larb too, like steak tartare in a different language.

If you’re treasure hunting, you might also find a few local Asian food start-ups launching their products on these shelves. I tried MamaSai’s homemade pad Thai sauce; a DIY tricolor tapioca dessert kit from Kai’s Kaopia; and molded coconut jellies in the shapes of various flowers and leaves, which were as pretty and precise as anything I’ve ever seen on a French petit four display. It’s just everything you want in a market: a little bit of a business incubator for cool new food start-ups, a little bit of a lifesaver for a busy family person, and a little bit of a bargain-minded foodie carnival of delights.

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