Whirlwind Tour: St. Cloud is the most underrated dining city in Minnesota

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This Whirlwind Tour was underwritten by the Visit Greater St. Cloud. The Growler retained editorial control of the content.

St. Cloud is the most underrated dining city in Minnesota. This college- and healthcare-focused urban area of about 120,000 people is a 75-minute trip from the Twin Cities metro area—far enough to be a trek, but not far enough to take “destination” status.

But in the process of driving past St. Cloud, travelers pass up one of the earthiest, least pretentious, most satisfying dining scenes in the state.

While visiting, we ate Somali pastries and street tacos; we tried a classic popover larger than we imagined possible; we sipped elevated tea and wolfed down a fantastic chicken tinga burrito.

On our visits, we encountered gray-haired ladies playing cards in the foyer of quilting mega-store Gruber’s, and wise-cracking waitresses slinging hash browns and pots of weak diner coffee at spots like Brigette’s. We rubbed shoulders with customers of East African heritage watching the doings of Turkey’s parliament at Hormud’s Market or the ins and outs of presidential impeachment at Somali Cafe. And we talked with the mother-daughter team at the Spice of Life tea shop talking about their farm-grown ingredients, and how a connection with the farmer down the road led to a relationship with the ultra-luxe restaurant Demi in Minneapolis.

The good eats of St. Cloud that we tracked down are scattered throughout the city and in the neighboring community of Waite Park. The next time you’re in town, seek them out—they’re worth the trip.

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Getting to the restaurant in Hormud’s Market was a legitimate journey. First, we walked through small aisles crammed with dates and ghee and various sacks of grain, groping our way toward a fairly dark corner in the back left-hand side of the shop. Then we passed through a small hallway, emerging into a tiny room—no more than a counter and three two-top tables, with a massive television broadcasting the proceedings of the Turkish parliament. The menu has numbered entrees, but our order turned into a free-flowing discussion where our original concept (injera with our beef suqaar) was edited by our host into a slightly modified order (chapati instead of injera.)

And the food? We can’t imagine it being better than what we received, which was a large, supple piece of beautifully browned, slightly sweet chapati flatbread, kicky herbal green sauce, and a beef-plus-onions-plus-green-peppers stew that had tremendous savory depth and tender, evenly cooked meat. We paid $12, but we easily received two portions of delicious food, making this a stellar value.

3360 Division Street, St. Cloud | 320-217-8686

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An earnest, hard-working diner is a thing of beauty, and by that measure, The Place is truly a sight for sore eyes. We chatted with owner Zach Okerstrom about the work he’s done to refresh the restaurant’s menu and it really paid off on the plate. We eagerly watched him assemble our pair of Breakfast Burritos ($7 for two), which were actually assembled more like chorizo-driven breakfast tacos. There’s something about seeing quality chorizo sizzling on a griddle that ignites the appetite like little else.

Even more intriguing is the restaurant’s signature filled pancakes. We ordered a single Bavarian cream pancake ($5) sort of expecting a puffy doughnut-like assemblage to awkwardly roll off the flattop. But no: First a disc of batter goes down, and then, as it starts to cook, a few zig-zagging lines of pastry cream that give the pancake just a hint of silky richness after it’s finished and on the plate. Subtler than we bargained for, and better, too.

413 9th Avenue N, St. Cloud | 320-259-6931

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Breakfast at Brigitte’s Cafe isn’t anything fancy, and that’s legitimately great. Our apple pancake ($6) was big, tender, chewy, and covered in a mildly sweet apple syrup—somewhere between apple butter and maple syrup, plus an attractive dollop of real whipped cream. And our Mini Debbie assorted breakfast shotgun blast ($9) featured a piece of bacon, a sausage, a pancake, hashbrowns (for a $1.70 upgrade on the base price), toast, and an egg, and all of them were clearly made from scratch from good ingredients. The bacon was properly chewy and crispy, the sausage was rich and tender with a satisfying snap, and the hashbrowns had that crunchy-soft exterior-interior thing going on.

Casual service and a bunch of old dudes hanging out with each other (and pots of coffee) in the main dining room made this place a legitimate scene.

42 32nd Avenue S, St. Cloud | 320-252-0955

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Hospitality is on point at the clean, modern Nori Cafe (temporarily closed), where we ordered and greatly enjoyed our Somali tea ($1) and our chai ($2.50), both of which offered spicy milky sweetness. The chai was similar to but more intense than the Somali tea—sweeter, with a greater spicy intensity and more of a dairy presence.

We tried a couple of pastries at Nori Cafe, too—a tasty, classic savory sambusa ($1.50) and something called a mashmash ($1.75). Chewy, beautifully browned, gently sweet and surprisingly substantial, the mashmash is a Somali pastry we hadn’t seen before but will seek out from here on in. They’re an ideal match for spiced tea, and their springy texture is a delight.

(Read the Growler’s April print edition for a profile of the proprietors of Nori Cafe.)

510 25th Avenue N b4, St. Cloud | 320-774-3010

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Lunch for us at Somali Cafe was a grand helping of beef kay kay ($10), a dish that consisted of remarkably tender and chewy noodles laden with earthy beef, onions, and green peppers. It’s good as is, and remarkable when mixed with a liberal dose of the herbal, moderately spicy green sauce available by the bottle at your table. Our sambusa ($1.50) was incredibly crispy and equally pleasant, with a surprisingly light, delicate filling that was offset with bits of barely-cooked onions. We’ve had sambusas (and samosas) that tend toward the greasy and heavy—this thing was featherlight by comparison.

119 E St. Germain Street, St. Cloud | 320-259-0413

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The cheerfully absurd name of Waffle It compelled a visit, and we’re so glad that we took the time. This surprisingly capacious breakfast spot speedily serves up proud, golden, crispy, buttery yeasted waffles with a real point of view, and at $5 a pop (with about nine different flavored syrups at your table to choose from), they’re a stellar low-cost breakfast option. Our bacon, egg, cheese, and mini waffle breakfast sandwich was similarly priced and a low-key treat, with even the egg waffled so that it was pockmarked with little squares.

As an added bonus: the shop’s proprietor / host / chef was so thoroughly cheerful and welcoming that we’d surely come back every week if we lived in town.

2018 Veterans Drive, St. Cloud | 320-774-3665

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House of Pizza is a local institution, and between its two locations (one quite centrally located), charmingly old-school painted exterior murals, and easy-to-use menu, it’s no mystery why it has done well. Our 10” pepperoni pizza ($11) was right out of a 1990s high school cafeteria, but in the best possible way—the cheese was rich and fully flavored, and the pepperoni were well-distributed under the cheese, but the overall uniformity of the pizza and cooked-just-to-melting nature of the cheese made for a safe-to-the-point-of-dull eating experience.

If you or the kids “just want pizza for lunch” this will fill the bill. And here’s a culinary hack for you: order a pepperoni pizza at House of Pizza. Do not eat it. Bring it home, refrigerate it. When dinner time rolls around, fire up the broiler in your oven, and broil it for about 4-6 minutes, until the cheese is browned and caramelized. The added depth of flavor and chewy, crispy texture elevates this workaday pizza into something legitimately worth craving.

19 5th Avenue S, St. Cloud | 320-252-9300

733 Pine Cone Road S #200, Sartell | 320-258-9300

Sartell, MN 56377

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The lamb gyro ($6, $8 with mediocre fries and drink) at NY Gyro wasn’t precisely what we expected—the meat was crumbled, rather than sliced. Regardless, we dug the sandwich, which featured warm, pliable pita bread, and our choice of toppings (we went with tomatoes, lettuce, and tzatziki sauce). The meat was a bit dry but boldly seasoned with warm, Mediterranean spices and the addition of sauce made for a balanced and enjoyable gyro overall.

850 University Drive S, St. Cloud | 320-281-5533

3316 3rd Street N, St. Cloud | 320-774-2577

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Anton’s is a community pillar, and it’s easy to see why—this log-constructed supper club on the Sauk River has been slinging food under one guise or another since the 1920s, and the decor inside is thick with bric-a-brac and very much log cabin-meets-wagon train (including Naugahyde covered wagon-themed booths that resemble nothing we’ve ever experienced before).

The restaurant spotlights its popovers, and having tried them, we’re on board—the popover that came with our pan-fried walleye ($14) was about the size of a cat, and it was light, chewy, mildly sweet and savory and absolutely delightful. The walleye itself was a little less impressive—a more aggressive sear would’ve created some textural and flavor contrast that this otherwise pleasant but mild-to-a-fault dish could’ve used. Under-seasoned rice pilaf and wax beans didn’t provide a lot of support.

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The chicken almond stuffed popover ($12) came listed under the salad section of the menu (chicken salad… right?) and it was similarly soft-spoken but ultimately quite enjoyable. There’s a distinct almond flavor and a mild sweetness that complements the chicken, and the quality of the popover elevates the whole dish.

2001 Frontage Road N, Waite Park | 320-253-3611

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We’ve had some enjoyable almond croissants over the years—even when these pastries come off as a bit gritty and overly sweet (as so many do) they’re usually pleasant enough to munch on while sucking down a hot cup of coffee. The outright delicious almond croissant at Backwards Bread ($4) is a comparatively refined and elegant member of its tribe—almost more of an almond cookie-meets-croissant situation, with none of the grit or paste that is so typical of the treat.

The caramel pecan croissant ($3.50) wasn’t quite as elegant since we hit the shop near the end of the day and the caramel filling was far too stiff and solid, making it more like a caramel candy awkwardly encased in a roll, rather than a unified whole. That said: the caramel itself was top-notch, and minus the bread coating, was a tasty treat. Our one savory treat, a wild rice, rosemary, and thyme batard ($4) was tailor-made for accompanying soup, with its chewy texture and all its herbal, earthy charm.

3360 Southway Drive, St. Cloud | 320-493-8254

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Val’s Rapidserv is the one St. Cloud place that everyone in the Metro seems to know, and for good reason—this charming little shack is serving classic, delicious 1970s-era American fast food at modern-day McDonald’s prices. Our banana milkshake ($2.40) was less of a banana thing and more of a store-bought banana pudding thing, creamy and artificial tasting in a mellow and utterly pleasant way. It was sweet enough, but not cloying, which is a difficult balance to achieve.

Our cheeseburger ($2.10) was a one-for-one with a McDonald’s cheeseburger in terms of proportions and sensations, but it tasted—for a lack of a better word—considerably more “real.” The meat in particular had more depth and flavor, which transformed and improved the experience. And our fries ($2.40) were absurdly good, skinny and crispy with a serious kick of real potato flavor and a lightly spiced umami depth to them, plus an adequate amount of salt.

One last thought about Val’s: the guy working the counter was ABSURDLY friendly and helpful. Just ridiculously so. Our mood improved several degrees as a direct result of interacting with him. When’s the last time you said that about a fast food joint anywhere?

628 E St. Germain Street, St. Cloud | 320-251-5775

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After visiting Waffle It, we popped by the Good Earth Food Co-op right next door, and loaded up on dried fruit and malted milk balls for the week to come. This is very much a classic co-op from Days of Yore (no modern, redesigned, Wedge- or Seward Co-op-esque concept here) but it’s clean, nicely curated, and full of healthy options, plus a sandwich-focused deli and house-made frozen soups.

2010 Veterans Drive, St. Cloud | 320-253-9290

What makes a great burrito? The folks at Bravo Burritos seem to have a pretty good idea—word-of-mouth on this spot was uniformly excellent and the chicken tinga burrito ($8.45) we ordered was uniformly delicious. From its tender, pliable flour tortilla (a rare find) to its deeply flavored, mellow, balanced, compelling filling, this is a burrito that truly rewards your attention.

68 33rd Avenue S, St. Cloud | 320-252-5441

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The team at the Spice of Life Tea Shop present visitors with a dazzling wall of tea blends and can produce custom blends on the fly, to boot. This is no mere cookie-cutter tea business, either—many of the blends include local and/or seasonal and/or house-grown ingredients, meaning that you can, for example, sample tea blends that include ingredients as novel as dried cornflower petals, blue mallow blossoms, or blackberry leaves.

We tried a sticky rice Pu’er ($2.85 for a cup) and found it satisfyingly earthy and dank, and enjoyed the bright complexity of the Up North Blend (which featured dandelion root, slippery elm bark, Chaga mushroom powder, burdock root, juniper berries, and brandy oolong, $2.85 for a cup.) Spice of Life has a relationship with Demi in Minneapolis, so the next time you’re indulging in a multicourse feast in the North Loop there’s a good chance you’ll taste a little bit of St. Cloud in the process.

820 W St. Germain Street, St. Cloud | 320-240-2050

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The beef and meatball pho ($10) at Viet Tien Market (temporarily closed) sports a pretty off-the-rack broth—a bit sweet and star anise-driven, but not in any way offensive. What’s lovely about this dish is the beef, which comes medium rare in ultra-thin, shabu shabu-style slices that cook in the broth right before your eyes. The meatballs were equally delicate, incredibly thin slices of large meatballs rather than the rubbery spheres you often stumble upon in similar soups.

And while our spring rolls ($5) were forgettable, our grilled pork banh mi ($6) was memorable for all the right reasons, sporting a terrific balance of heat, pickled veg, and unctuous, charred, full-flavored meat on a crispy, crackling baguette roll.

311 3rd Street NE, Waite Park | 320-200-2925

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The tacos at La Perla Market are just what you’d hope for when you hit a little front-of-the-grocery store restaurant in a small city like St. Cloud—faithful, by-the-numbers street tacos, with tender meat and a nice balance of corn tortilla to onion to cilantro to meat, with several salsa choices for customers looking for an extra punch of heat and flavor. We tried the asada and al pastor ($1.85 each) and enjoyed both.

707 2nd Street S, Waite Park | 320-203-1284

vert 4colorAs Greater St. Cloud’s tourism marketing organization, Visit Greater St. Cloud is happy to promote all of the fun, safe, unique things to do here. This includes spreading the word about the great places to stay, amazing attractions to visit, and fantastic places to dine, shop, and drink. We encourage all to travel safely, support small business, and stay curious. For all of your travel needs in Central Minnesota, we are here when you’re ready. Visit us online at visitstcloud.com, or on Facebook/Instagram/TikTok.