I’m not a big steak eater. I’m not vegetarian either, but, the steakhouse is not exactly a highly accessible restaurant for a college student like myself. However, visiting the Best Steakhouse for our final installment on Lunch on the Avenue felt like a homecoming to an old relatives’ house. The distinction isn’t lost on me that after seven weeks of lunching across food originating from four different continents, our last stop was a purely American outfit. And, being received by the warm welcome of Greek owner Mike Hatzis solidified everything University Avenue is about. Even one of the more “American” fares has a touch of international flavor. The final Lunch of the Avenue series and my attendance of the Unify University parade raised questions to carry down University Avenue, as the construction edges its way to its final phases.
But first, the steak. For Mike and the Best Steakhouse, that process has been steeped in over twenty-five years of experience, and it’s expressed both in how the orders are asked for quickly, cafeteria-style, and, the swift ignition of fire and meat on the grill that comes soon after. I ordered the steak and shrimp, and along with a large cut of steak fillet and five breaded shrimp, any steak order comes with a baked potato, two pieces of texas toast, and a side salad. The steak was rich, tender, and just simply totally worth stuffing myself silly. I don’t have much experience with steak, especially with steak specialty restaurants, but if you don’t need the cloth napkins, and you don’t mind a little sass with your service, the Best Steakhouse more than meets any steak needs. In fact, Mike and his wife are simply part of the attraction, knowing the faces behind one of the longest running businesses on the avenue.
As I drove our group back to Macalester’s campus, I began to reflect on what we had attempted to accomplish with the program. There were goals, with the most significant being introducing the Macalester community to these businesses and their importance in the community. I still have my concerns that not all of the needs of the businesses will be met, as I perceive a slight disconnect between all of the new that is coming onto University Avenue and what has already been there.
Perhaps I’m just a nostalgic person. But, my thoughts were confirmed by my visit to the Unify University Parade. I was able to witness the parade, comprised of businesses, church and community groups, families and supporters triumphantly march across University Avenue. It was a small crowd who were there to simply spectate, but, the group was strong. This was especially evident when, at the Open Mic gathering at the vacant Old Home factory site, Chili Lor, a community organizer with Center for Hmong Arts and Talent, spontaneously breakdanced during a drumline performance. It was the true voice of the avenue, different communities coming together, which is what happens every day. I just hope that people continue to notice.
The writer,a guest blogger for St. Paul SPOT is Harry Kent , currently a senior at Macalester College, and a student employee at Macalester’s Civic Engagement Center. Prior to that time, he was a community outreach coordinator and eventually, serving a brief stint as Office Manager of the University Avenue Business Association.
NOTE: The writer,a guest blogger for St. Paul SPOT is Harry Kent , currently a senior at Macalester College, and a student employee at Macalester’s Civic Engagement Center. Prior to that time, he was a community outreach coordinator and eventually, serving a brief stint as Office Manager of the University Avenue Business Association.
This week’s Macalester Lunch on the Avenue installment offered more than just an opportunity to sample some of the finest Chinese cuisine in the Twin Cities. Much like owner Patrick Chen’s intricate presentation, this lunch was about the passion expressed in the voices of the Avenue our group heard.
Macalester’s Civic Engagement Center invited top staff members from the Asian Economic Development Association (AEDA), director of community engagement Nancy Pomplun and executive-director Va-Megn Thoj, to offer some insight on the problems from LRT construction affecting the businesses along the avenue. While their descriptions centered on the experiences of Asian businesses, the difficulties could certainly be attributed to the rest of the University Avenue businesses that have endured the brunt of the construction in front of their buildings.
Va-Megn and Nancy discussed many issues, whether the vibrations affecting electrical equipment, including medical screening machines costing thousands of dollars in lost appointments to confusion with business signage for those who do not read English well.
However, while AEDA is a small organization, they have worked hard to meet the needs of these businesses during tough times using all the ingenuity and resources they can muster. Part of this includes their holistic approach to account for the difficulties businesses have faced. AEDA has collected not just quantitative data in terms of the financial setbacks the construction has caused businesses, but qualitative as well.
Interns have visited businesses and recorded owners’ testimonies of the personal toll from the stress related to LRT construction. One business owner has been afflicted with heart complications caused by the strain of trying to keep their business going. Other businesses have had to sell off personal goods to ensure their business survives construction in hopes of thriving once the Green Line begins running.
AEDA is collecting all of this information to petition the Federal Transit Authority to include these personal stories as evidence to include spiritual aspects of human impact in their environmental impact assessments. Our group was captivated by the level of detail and effort AEDA is willing to make to capture the full picture of this transitional phase, and how the impact on businesses is much deeper than just lost customers and dollars. I never would’ve claimed that lives are on the line during the construction of the light rail, but, livelihoods certainly are.
That is why the words of manager Patrick Chen’s interpretation of Szechuan cuisine rang with even more clarity and understanding. Chen described his philosophy on the specific use of spice and spiciness for his dishes to our group. For example, the chilies he includes in the Chung King Chili Shrimp don’t overwhelm the palette as much as delicately cover the tongue with a comfortable heat, the flavor standing over the intensity. Chen elaborated on the difference between eastern and western views of spiciness, with the west more likely to overpower, and, Szechuan flavors specifically tasting with more subtlety.
Chen’s vision echoed the ideal image of the east end of University Avenue, recently branded Little Mekong by AEDA. The area pays tribute to the merchants who would come to the river to create a vibrant community through the selling of their goods. The work and passion of Patrick Chen honors that same spirit and it shows in the food he expertly crafts, and, the people who work hard to protect the dreams of these craftsmen.
For more information on AEDA and the Little Mekong initiative, visit littlemekong.com or aeda-mn.org
Que Nha Restaurant; culinary notes and University Avenue musings from Macalester’s civic engagement programPosted: August 6, 2012
Guest blogger: Harry Kent
Looking upon the construction cacophony of University Avenue, it is evident that the avenue is undergoing major changes, even for a street that is used to such shifts. It is exciting to daydream of what exciting initiatives will drive the avenue forward via the new light rail. However, it feels that what is currently on the avenue is being overshadowed. Recent efforts to bring attention to the plight of businesses affected by the construction disruptions have certainly helped, but, there’s more than just giving businesses a meal or two during this difficult time.
My name is Harry Kent and I am currently a senior at Macalester College, and a student employee at Macalester’s Civic Engagement Center. Prior to that time, I was a community outreach coordinator and eventually, served a brief stint as Office Manager of the University Avenue Business Association. There, I learned about the difficulties the businesses were going to face with the light rail, and I worked to warn them about the effects and to try and lighten their burden by seeking political support and funding. The biggest perspective I gained was how hard these businesses were working to maintain their livelihoods, and, how the businesses that took a chance on the dangerous environment in the 1980s helped make the light rail a relevant possibility. And yet, in my opinion, planners and politicians have been unable to give the proper respect to the sacrifices that these businesses made, which made the light rail a viable idea in the first place. The fact that there are still scars from the era of disinvestment makes their contribution just as valuable. And yet, the businesses have continued to fight and prosper during difficult times.
That is why, at the Civic Engagement Center, I have worked to formulate a contribution that honors the history of the Avenue, and the work of these businesspeople. Every Thursday this summer, the Civic Engagement Center has invited Macalester College community members to lunch on University Avenue at an independent restaurant to show our support of the work of these businesses. We have the lunches to educate the Macalester community of the difficulties the businesses have been facing, and to encourage them to make return visits, or sample other restaurants. We don’t dine to simply lament over the difficulties these businesses face. Our goal is to demonstrate and to act on our desire to support some of the hardest-working businesses in the Twin Cities. The avenue has attracted fantastic interpretations of Thai, Vietnamese, Eritrean, and Chinese cuisines. Other excellent and affordable restaurants sprinkle the avenue. And, of course, how could I forget to mention The Best Steak House.
This past week, we visited Que Nha Vietnamese Restaurant, a pleasant cafe located in the Brownstone Model Cities building. The dining room is brightly colored and adorned with intricate pictures and silk dresses.
The dining room is brightly colored and adorned with intricate pictures and silk dresses. The food options are just as vibrant, as the menu is dotted with unique options, along with comforting favorites.
Our gang of nine opted most often for the bun dishes, the rice noodle salads that quench the thirst for cool in the summertime heat. Student worker Danait said it was the perfect mix of light fare that filled her up. Political Science professor Adrienne Christensen chose to liven up the visit to one of her favorite restaurants, opting for a sizzling rice beef hot pot. The rice charred evenly and smoothly on the cast-iron pot, and the meat weighed in well in the rice’s flavor. I opted for a similar option, as I sampled goat for the first time at a Vietnamese restaurant with the goat hotpot. Chocked full of Napa cabbage slices, and accompanied with a plate of egg noodles, the goat gave the broth a thicker accentuation of dark, meat flavor, and the meat itself was tender and rich to eat.
The wait for the food was a bit longer than preferred, but, we soon learned the other primary waitress called in sick, so, we were grateful for the valiant efforts of the solo waitress. She was grateful for our patronage and implored us to come back, and I see no reason why we wouldn’t fulfill her request.
So, we are helping businesses and they provide us great food. The best part of this project is you never can tell who really gets the better end of the bargain.
Que Nha Restaurant
849 University Avenue
If you would like to know more about the Macalester Civic Engagement Center, you can visit their website.