Restaurant review: Colossal Cafe

RICK NELSON | Updated 1/30/2013

St. Paul eatery is now a flavorful neighborhood dinner destination.

Of course I was eavesdropping, and wouldn't you know it? The diner seated at the table immediately to my right seemed to be reading my mind.

"I wish this restaurant was in our neighborhood," she sighed to her companion.

I wanted to lean over and say, "I'm with you," but that felt like crossing a personal-space boundary that causes anxiety among Minnesotans.

We were all enjoying another satisfying meal at St. Paul's Colossal Cafe. If that sounds familiar, it's because the restaurant's Minneapolis sibling (the name is tongue-and-cheek, as the place is seriously tiny) has been serving up some serious short-order breakfast-and-lunch fare for, what, six years?

The Tinucci family -- John and Carrie and their daughter Elizabeth, proprietors of the long-running Tinucci's in Newport -- bought the place from founder Bess Giannakakis in 2010. While preserving much of what made the Colossal so special -- the yeast-driven flapjacks remain the best-selling a.m. dazzler that they've always been -- they've also made considerable improvements.

Their most ambitious moment came late last year, when they moved into St. Paul's St. Anthony Park neighborhood, adding much-needed elbow room, beer and wine and, most important, dinner service. The result? The jack-of-all-trades destination that should be within walking distance of every Twin Citian.

The retaurant's motto, "American scratch cooking," isn't a shallow marketing ploy, it's the real thing, from baker Jason Ermer's well-made breads to chef Andy Lilja's vibrant, flavorful cooking.

Lilja sticks to his locavore instincts -- his past gigs included a tenure at Heartland -- while managing to hover in the neighborhood cafe price spectrum. He will never be able to remove the über-succulent, teasingly smoky pork ribs from the menu, they're that hypnotizingly good. Those in search of a simple chicken dinner have an oasis here, with a generous portion of crispy outside, juicy inside bird and all the right (roasted fingerlings, butter-drenched sauteed spinach) trimmings.

Snappy grilled shrimp are the stars in a build-your-own plate of tacos, although a tangy slaw of fennel and red cabbage and warm jolts from grilled jalapenos are a close second. Pillowy gnocchi is pure comfort food, fulfilling anyone's elemental fix for tomatoes, basil and Parmesan. Those in the mood for a steak can have one, expertly grilled.

Sandwiches, served with a veritable mountain of hand-cut, just-past-golden fries, do not disappoint. Whether he's piling thin-slices of ultra-tender pork tenderloin into a soft torpedo roll and dressing it with rosemary-infused aoili, or going overboard on the crisp, smoky bacon in a category-killing BLT, or making what might be the best turkey sandwich in the 651, Lilja is doing what neighborhood cafes should do but often don't, and that's specialize in reliably fresh and interesting food at plain-old-Tuesday-night prices.

HCM Architects has cleverly transformed a former clinic into a warm and stylish neighborhood hangout, the room's tans and browns complemented by an open-timbered ceiling. Service is sorority-rush friendly.

Sure, a few quibbles. Desserts are just so-so, and for a kitchen capable of producing a first-rate scone, the cinnamon rolls are curiously dull.

But the Colossans have a knack with flour and butter, because the tender, crumbly buttermilk biscuits are first rate, and the jewel of the restaurant's small grab-and-go case is, without question, the beautifully made par-baked chicken pot pies.

As for dinner service at the Minneapolis Colossal, don't hold your breath. "People do ask," Elizabeth Tinucci said with a laugh. "I try to explain that we hardly have enough refrigerator space for our breakfast food."

COLOSSAL CAFE

★★ 1/2 out of four stars Where: 2315 Como Av., St. Paul, 651-797-4027, www.colossalcafe.com Hours: Breakfast and lunch served 7 a.m.- 3 p.m. Tue.-Sun., dinner served 4:30-9 p.m. Wed.-Sat.