Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Yabba dabba doo! The era of Paleolithic dining is upon us. From Uptown and Edina (Agra Culture) to Lino Lakes (Paleos), from Loring Park (The Third Bird) and St. Anthony Park (Foxy Falafel) to downtown St. Paul (The Strip Club Meat & Fish and Heartland), the Twin Cities is suddenly pulsing with blood meals and coconuts.
What? Why? Well, here’s the deal: 200,000 years ago, modern humans evolved, and immediately began groping for their cell phones. Not finding them, they spent 150,000-odd years eating nature and dying young; for the first two-thirds of the Paleolithic era humans usually died before their 30th birthday. Then came the Upper Paleolithic Revolution when folks figured out how to turn rocks into flint arrows and axes—the first disruptive technology, especially to the big, tasty megafauna of the time. Hereabouts, the North American Paleo-Indians ate all of the 9,000-pound mastodons stomping around the Great Lakes. In Europe, the latter Paleos domesticated some of the wild 3,000-pound aurochs, those massive mega-cattle famous from the cave paintings at Lascaux, and ate the rest into extinction, along with the steppe bison. Once all the megafauna were digested, we had to invent agriculture, in which evil “grains” forced us to be less than “bikini-ready for cruise season.”
Certainly some will argue that before agriculture there were very few humans, and nowadays there are 7 billion (and counting!), but those madmen likely roam around eating blooming onions, eggnog lattés, and stuffed-crust pizza, and resemble Lon Chaney instead of Uma Thurman and Kobe Bryant, both of whom are associated with a paleo diet. (Other celebs attached to paleo include: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Chris Pratt, Grant Hill, Jessica Biel, Megan Fox, Miley Cyrus, and Snooki!) Boiled down, the modern paleo diet is about eating grass-fed meats and wild-caught fish, uncaged eggs, non-starchy vegetables, and fruit, while avoiding all grains, dairy, legumes, and processed foods. In Minnesota today, paleo is everywhere, if you know how to look for it.
Agra Culture, which now has three locations, has all paleo menu items helpfully marked with a “P.” The Arugula Detox salad is paleo, and actually pretty darn perky and tasty, with spicy little radishes uniting with the peppery arugula in contrast to the fat avocado and sweet beets and fresh apples. Other paleo dishes at Agra Culture: broccolini (nicely charred, fresh and spicy, with chili flakes), truffled mushrooms (tender and lovely), applesauce (thick and healthy), cauliflower tabbouleh (minced cauliflower is to paleo as tofu is to vegan—omnipresent), and every sort of protein from grass-fed beef (paleos avoid corn-fed animals, believing the meat is unhealthy) to wild salmon. It even has a paleo pudding (chia seeds) and a paleo cookie made from coconut and coconut sugar, and it’s darn yummy! (Are you thinking: Getting sugar out of coconuts is well beyond the technology of cavepersons. Are you thinking: How are these prehistoric ovens powered, by a smart-alec bird running fast on a treadmill, in the manner of the Flintstones? Well then, congrats! You’re the kind of buzz kill who will never dine successfully with Snooki. Don’t you have a statistics reading group to join?)
The local restaurant serving the best of the last remaining North American megafauna, the bison, is The Third Bird. Chef Lucas Almendinger serves a bison steak that comes out remarkably fragrant, tender, buttery, and wild-strawberry red. He serves it with wood-grilled mushrooms, and the whole thing is a very Minnesota paleo plate, in the best way. Similarly, Heartland in St. Paul is as close as you can get to a foraged dinner without foraging: steelhead trout with red wine–braised sunchokes, a red wattle pork chop with Brussels sprouts, and the fattest and most lush heritage pork ribs you can imagine.
Of course, part of the paleo explosion stems from the biggest about-face in the history of American nutritional advice. Around 1980, the USDA and all standard American nutrition advice was to limit fat, especially saturated fat, like butter and bacon. Yet, obesity boomed. Then, in the last 15 years, everyone from the National Institutes of Health to the USDA has been amassing evidence that consuming fat has little to do with heart health, and so fat is back. That’s part of the reason the local steak-house scene is on fire.
It’s also why you can put together a grass-fed paleo meal at Burch Steak & Pizza Bar or a paleo snack on pig ears and roasted marrow bones at Libertine. But ears and marrow are just the tip of the animal, as it were. Offal—the hearts, livers, and other nutrient-dense organs that wolves and lions eat first after a kill—are also a big part of paleo eating. (Blood meals and coconuts, folks.) Seeking a great many hearts, one night I called ahead to the The Strip Club Meat & Fish, the St. Paul grass-fed steak and chophouse, to request some. Chef J.D. Fratzke threw together a mélange of duck hearts, duck livers, and duck gizzards with vinegared onions and peppers, which he said was inspired by books he’s read on Israeli street food and Middle Eastern cuisine: It was unbelievably fantastic, silky, and zesty, with every bite different. Also, it made me feel like I could jump over a building, and solve a thousand math problems. My dinner date and I left talking about the strangeness of leaving a big meal feeling like this, energized, and not sleepy.
The paleo diet finds a lot of followers who come to it for the health effects. Foxy Falafel in St. Anthony Park has a little-known paleo menu these days. It was created, in part, because owner Erica Strait has an autoimmune disease, and she’s seen firsthand the benefits of following a diet called the Autoimmune Protocol, which overlaps with paleo. Most days the restaurant serves a garlic ginger organic chicken bone broth, as well as salads topped with its house-made meats, like chicken, lamb, or turkey, prepared in different Middle Eastern influenced ways.
Of course, all of the aforementioned restaurants serve mainly non-paleos. To find the one restaurant in Minnesota where paleos are, in fact, not just the majority but everyone in the joint, one must drive north to Paleos. It opened in an unlikely strip mall in Lino Lakes last October, and the first time I mentioned it to one of my most city-hipster friends she told me she’d already heard lots about it—from her friend who ran an LGBT CrossFit studio. We drove north and discovered paleo cocktails! (Get the bloody mary, it’s wonderfully dry; skip the fresh watermelon slushitini, the dash of coconut sugar didn’t make it taste anything like a slushitini ought to.)
Paleos was clean and new, bedecked with giant color photographs of a primal landscape undamaged by agriculture, and absolutely jam-packed. I tried most of the menu. The appetizers are all pretty bad (pallid Ahi tuna, dull wild-caught shrimp) except for a very nice fresh guacamole, served with veggie sticks. The burgers were the hit of the night, beautifully blackened grass-fed beef patties, served bare on a plate, but vibrating with truly good flavor. I tried one topped with almond butter and a fried egg, and it tasted way better than that sounds—though you probably have to be a working mastodon-tracker to finish the thing. The burgers come with a choice of side, I tried both the cauliflower puree (consistency of mashed potatoes) and the cauliflower “rice” (consistency of loose broken rice) and can honestly report they were OK fine. (Take a pass on the pistachio-crusted pollock, which tasted like it lived and died in a steam table.) Paleos even had a few desserts—brownie bites made with ground dark chocolate and dates were delicious, and almond bars were serviceable—served in tiny portions, as befits a diet that tries to avoid sugar. Finishing my meal at Paleos, I sheepishly must confess: Once again I felt like a million bucks.
In fact, after dabbling in paleo for a few weeks, it confounds me to admit I’m very close to a convert. I still find the paleo phenomena silly, with its cult of coconuts and its ahistorical fantasy of a prehistory when everything we currently like to eat actually existed. (Fact: Paleolithic wild carrots were stubby and chewy roots; Paleolithic apples were nubs; Paleolithic grapefruits didn’t exist, they’re hybrids that came about after thousands of years of Chinese orange cultivation. I could do this all day.) Silliness acknowledged, whenever I spent a day eating paleo I felt nothing but great: energized, alive, just zippy. Intellectually, I still think the main thing actual Paleolithic people did was die of infectious disease and famine. Then again, I’m the sort of unlovable cynic who watches Game of Thrones and notices the sexy wenches’ plastic surgery. But I can now honestly report I believe real Paleolithic folks died young, and I also wish there was an Agra Culture or a Paleos in every airport. So I suppose I’m a typical American—I want to be a vaccinated person living in a heated house driving 80 on the highway, and a caveperson, too. And I’m not alone, as the hundreds of currently available paleo apps for tablet and smartphone nicely proves.
Agra Culture, 2939 Girard Ave. S., Mpls., 612-315-3349, agra-culture.com; Burch Steak & Pizza Bar, 1933 Colfax Ave. S., Mpls., 612-843-1515, burchrestaurant.com; Foxy Falafel, 791 Raymond Ave., St. Paul, 651-888-2255, foxyfalafel.com; Heartland, 289 E. 5th St., St. Paul, 651-699-3536, heartlandrestaurant.com; Libertine, 3001 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-877-7263, libertinempls.com; Paleos, 566 Lilac St., Lino Lakes, 763-231-7350, paleos linolakes.com; The Strip Club Meat & Fish, 378 Maria Ave., St. Paul, 651-793-6247, domeats.com; The Third Bird, 1612 Harmon Pl., Mpls., 612-767-9495, thethirdbirdmpls.com