Restaurant Reviews

Cook St. Paul

There’s room for the new with respect to the old at this diner.

Cook St. Paul
Photo by Caitlin Abrams

There’s Heritage, and then there’s heritage. The Heritage movement, which is all about the young and hip celebrating old-style brands like Red Wing boots and Faribault wool blankets, doesn’t have much to do with the restaurant world. In fact, sometimes you see the young and hip chefs pushing forward so fast that they loudly blow right by anything that might have the perceived stink of status quo. And I love them for it. We often champion the new, because the new needs evangelists, but that doesn’t mean we don’t also love the ones who have recognized the value in slowing down and listening.

Cook St. Paul opened in the spring on Payne Avenue in the old Serlin’s Café. That street is not a hot hipsterish haunt with chalkboard coffee shops and donut dens every five feet. It is a humble East Side street full of old shoe stores, florists, heating and air conditioning repair shops, and mechanics. Some of those businesspeople have been there forever; my father-in-law used to be one of those mechanics. Serlin’s was a place where he would go for coffee in the morning or for a sandwich after work when he had young kids at home. He is an old man now who is so great at storytelling that I don’t have enough space on this page to truly tell any of his tales.

My youngest kid and I thought we should bring him to Cook St. Paul for lunch. We thought we could get some good tales spun for the price of a few hours and some pancakes. Owners Eddie Wu and Charles Cook redid the Serlin’s space in a modern way, with clean white walls, a tall black wall bench, and exposed-bulb light fixtures, but the attitude and feel of the space when you walk in is nothing but heritage. Sure, there are old maps on the wall depicting the neighborhood, but it’s more about the respect that the new owners have for the old neighborhood, particularly the old neighbors. I’ve seen Wu chatting up other old mechanics, and bridge club ladies, without a hint of hurry. He’s not biding his time until he can get to the next task. He’s listening to the sounds of his patrons, the people who will decide whether or not he becomes a part of the history of this block.

The food we are all eating is classic diner food, made with the contemporary focus on good/local ingredients and solid technique in whatever you’re doing. Cakes and eggs are all done wonderfully, the French toast is sturdy and rich, and the hash browns are crisp and fluffy. The French cake stack is a monster hybrid of hash browns in pancakes, topped with eggs, bacon, and French toast, which might be a terrifying amount of food if it weren’t all so good. There’s a thoroughly updated and comforting crock of mac ’n’ cheese with andouille, a salt-crusted roast beef plate that is soft and luscious and all old-school, and a cream of chicken wild rice soup that sets a high bar. Chef Charles Cook has a secret following for that one. The classic Monte Cristo is likewise a new experience for those seeking nostalgia but secretly hoping it will be even better than they remember. It is.

Don’t worry kids, you’ll still find a forward culinary glance here and there. Wu has a wicked house-pickled cabbage, and he showcases it in some Korean dishes on the menu. Bi bim bop with braised short rib and the Korean spicy burger with sharp cheddar and sweet radish relish will please all the grandkids for years to come. That is, if the old-timers ever give up their seats.

1124 Payne Ave., St. Paul, 651-756-1787, cookstp.com

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