Photo by Katherine Harris
Restaurants are more than just businesses; they are places laden with emotional connections. This emotional attachment must be taken on when a chef decides to buy an existing restaurant and keep the name, as Max Thompson has done with the 128 Cafe.
For a long time, the basement restaurant decked in ’70s rec-room wood paneling has been a Merriam Park staple. Despite a total lack of any barbecue pedigree, it became known for its ribs. When Jill Wilson sold the spot to Thompson, it was fear of losing these ribs that caused much waxing, rhapsodically, among loyalists.
Worry not, the ribs are intact. But more to the point, the place has become important for more than just one dish. Thompson has a serious cooking resume that includes Café Boulud in New York and Craigie on Main in Boston. He’s relaunched The 128 Cafe with respect, keeping the paneling, with a few updates. Though he’s rightly holding on to a few menu favorites, it’s the potential in his food that truly makes this spot worth a second glance.
The new dishes are within the realm of neighborhood eating, but also playful and exciting. The Guinness-braised beef cheeks with pretzel-spätzle had a tangy “brusselkraut” that was all comfort, warmth, and zip. A balanced and refreshing shrimp and papaya salad had long beans, pickled tomatoes, grapefruit, and mint. And a simple beef barbacoa tamale came with a side of rich and dusky breakfast-thick drinking chocolate—what a match-up. An edgy dish might go as far as house kimchi supporting a soft little raw Kumamoto oyster, both swimming in a rich broth swirled with squid ink, but it doesn’t feel pushy for pushy’s sake. It feels like a real kitchen guy playing with his own stoves, checking the boundaries of his new world. You might want to pull up a fork. 128 Cleveland Ave. N., St. Paul, 651-645-4128, the128cafe.com