Food roundup: brisket, biscuits and bubbly

Updated 2/6/2014

From the pages of critic Rick Nelson’s dining-out diary, a peek into three noteworthy newcomers.

Ham and Cheddar on a buttermilk biscuit at Empire Coffee and Pastry in Minneapolis.
Courtney Perry

Twin Citians were fortunate that the Chef Shack was a pioneering force in the local food truck movement, because standard-setting proprietors Lisa Carlson and Carrie Summer instantly fostered a high set of expectations.

Now that they’ve settled into a bricks-and-mortar iteration of their flourishing mobile business — they’re calling it Chef Shack Ranch, a nod to the menu’s truck stop-esque roots — the couple continue to demonstrate how to present accessible and reasonably priced fare without compromising on quality or originality.

Fans of their truck will recognize the magazine-cover-worthy bison burger, the fabulous black bean-sweet potato tacos, the super-indulgent French toast and what are easily the pinnacle of the mini-doughnut universe, each tender and pudgy little orb of fried dough twinkling in sugar and punched with cinnamon and cardamom.

Carlson is taking advantage of her new kitchen’s additional breathing room by expanding her short menu.

At the top of the list is an audaciously delicious play on the Southern meat-and-three tradition, with a heaping helping of mouth-melting pulled pork, a slab of smoky, fall-apart beef brisket and a zesty, snappy-skinned sausage, served on a platter with a handful of like-minded side dishes. It’s served in $15 (hefty) and $25 (ginormous) portions, and the results scream “hitmaker.”

Carlson slips that pulled pork and brisket into a number of other winning dishes, including a nachos platter and a smartly appointed brunch hash. She also doesn’t neglect vegetarians, particularly with a lovingly rendered jumble of rice and roasted vegetables dressed in a nuanced curry sauce.

Order a salad and it’s immediately obvious that you’re in good hands. Carlson reinvents the Caesar with a formula-bending flurry of flavors and textures (the secret ingredients are kale and quinoa), and the results are astonishingly tasty and lovely to look at.

And for those in the mood for chicken wings, Carlson does not disappoint, with a version that’s meaty on the inside, outrageously crispy and sneakily spicy on the outside. It helps that she’s using — as is her practice — first-rate product; in this instance, well-raised birds from Kadejan in Glenwood, Minn.

Summer’s desserts are similarly simple and scrupulously prepared — a dreamy chocolate pot de crème, a luscious, lavender-kissed vanilla custard — and they land in the $5 range. Perfect.

Here’s what’s so easy to appreciate about this place: Carlson and Summer effortlessly erase any doubt that words like organic, sustainable, seasonal and local can be uttered in the same breath with affordable. That they are warm, hospitable presences in their dining room is another plus.

Like their truck, the Ranch is a counter-service setup, one that’s squeezed inside a near-caricature of 1980s design. The funky little building has been home to so many restaurants that I’ve lost count, and Summer has valiantly tried to camouflage its shortcomings with a liberal amount of elbow grease and what feels like a lifetime of flea market finds.

Look for a short list of (mostly) locally brewed beers. A slim selection of wines are priced at a no-nonsense $5 per glass, $18 per bottle. Coffee is handled with care.

In a word: Go.

3025 E. Franklin Av., Mpls., 612-354-2575, Open for dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Thu.-Sat., open for brunch noon-4 p.m. Sun.

A baker returns home

Here’s another reason to give thanks: After working in Chicago restaurants and bakeries, pastry chef Amy Kelsch has moved back to her hometown, teamed up with her sister Chrissy, outfitted a former Skelly service station and launched Empire Coffee + Pastry.