Photos by Eliesa Johnson and Caitlin Abrams
Trung Nam French Bakery
Trung Nam French Bakery
From 19th-century aristocrats parading horse-drawn carriages to 1950s drag racers tearing down the strip, the St. Paul stretch of University has a history of showing off. Flashy modern gentrifiers like the light rail and that forthcoming soccer stadium carry the flag, but behind the swagger is a quiet middle-class soul. You can see it in the countless stalwart businesses that dot the avenue: Asian restaurants and grocers (e.g., Shuang Hur, Cheng Heng), crusty dives (Big V’s), and oddball retailers (Ax-Man Surplus, Purrniture Cat Furniture). Drag racing is no longer allowed, so your best bet for cruising University is on the Green Line, with frequent stops to explore the thoroughfare’s more understated charms.
From the State Capitol to Hwy. 280
Western Sculpture Park
A small plot of grass in the shadows of the State Capitol just off the drag is the unlikely home of a Mark di Suvero and a handful of other large-scale works by national artists. Take that, Walker!
387 Marion St.
Trung Nam French Bakery
As in “French-Vietnamese” bakery. As in killer banh mi and coconut croissants. As in go already!
739 University Ave. W., 651-229-0887
Kim’s Oriental Market
Don’t let the drawn blinds fool you: This Korean corner store is nothing but welcoming. Kim’s specializes in fermented funk (think kimchi and gochujang) and hard-to-find herbs like wild sesame leaves. You’ll pay more than at larger Asian grocers, but the ma-and-pa vibe and great selection make it worth the trip.
689 Snelling Ave. N., 651-646-0428
Urban Lights Music
On a back wall is an autographed poster from Virginia hip-hop group Clipse that reads, “Keep grindin’.” That could be the mission statement for this 22-year-old institution beloved by fans of R&B, hip-hop, gospel, and jazz.
1449 University Ave. W., 651-647-9650
On’s Kitchen Thai Cuisine
It’s tom yum soup season, and one of the finest bowls in St. Paul is found at this dimly lit hole in the wall near the Turf Club. If fish-saucy broth isn’t your jam, you can’t go wrong with the crab fried rice or the pad Thai.
1613 University Ave. W., 651-644-1444, onskitchen.com
Smallest Museum in St. Paul
Outside the entryway of Workhorse Coffee Bar hangs a vintage fire-hose cabinet, which, thanks to funds from the Knight Foundation, exhibits a revolving door of local artwork (including the sculpted frogs we saw on our last visit; props to artist Abigail Allan).
2399 University Ave. W., 651-348-7561, workhorsecoffee.com
Ha Tien Market
Come for the art deco confines, stay for the glorious Vietnamese food counter, which slings the best banh mi this side of Saigon.
353 University Ave. W., 651-227-7136
Russian Tea House
A rarely open restaurant in someone’s actual home sounds like a dicey proposition, but after 40 years the Tea House has real cred, and the piroshki and slow-braised beef stroganoff from Linda and Nicolai Alenov’s kitchen really are masterful. It’s only open Fridays from 11 am to 3 pm, so plan accordingly.
1758 University Ave. W., 651-646-4144
Shegitu Kebede and Frewoini Haile, the owners, hail from Ethiopia and Eritrea, respectively, which makes their East African restaurant a political statement as much as a temple of injera and curried lamb. Their homelands have been at odds for decades, but Flamingo is all about harmonious vibes and flavors.
490 N. Syndicate St., 651-917-9332, flamingorestaurantmn.com
The Dubliner Pub/ Bonnie’s Café
One’s an authentic Irish-American haunt that would fit in South Boston. The other is a greasy spoon with checkered tablecloths and counter seating. Lucky for alcoholic pancake lovers, they share the same one-story brick building.
The Dubliner Pub
2162 University Ave. W., 651-646-5551, thedublinerpub.com
2160 University Ave. W., 651-644-3393
This wood-paneled basement bar is the Turf Club’s best-kept secret, home to clown-themed décor and eclectic live music with an ear on jazz.
1601 University Ave. W., 651-647-0486, turfclub.net
Mr. Michael Recycles Bicycles
Owners Michael and Benita Warns run a self-described ministry whose calling is to give away bicycles to those in need. Stop by and donate a bike or buy a used part or accessory (90 percent of sales go toward donating more bikes, 10 percent to charity).
520 Prior Ave. N., 651-641-1037, mmrbstore.com
Raymond Avenue, between West Territorial Road and University
Just north of University is an overlooked micro shopping spot full of businesses existing together in thematic symbiosis—the woman digging for vinyl at Barely Brothers also appreciates the coffee roaster (Roundtable Coffee Works), as well as Foxy Falafel’s brick-and-mortar space and Shag Studio vintage clothing store. It’s like a Gen-Xer dream date!