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Monday, February 10, 2014

Minneapolis Fire

From the Vault Dept.: I got a lot of mileage out of a train trip I took to Minneapolis in 1990, spending a week with friends when a show I was supposed to appear in fell through. I wrote about the Summit Brewing Company, and the piece below accompanied an account of the train ride, and here’s another piece about my Sri Lankan meal.


IN MANY RESPECTS, Minneapolis is the American equivalent of London. There's that river, first of all, the country's largest, splitting the metropolitan area in two. The other side is called St. Paul, of course, and maintains a fairly autonomous identity. But each of the cities also is made up of a cluster of component villages.

Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
Those villages are both the outposts of old and the ethnic enclaves grown up in recent decades. Minneapolis and St. Paul have a cultural diversity in all senses of the word: many cultures are gathered, and an active artistic life reflects an awareness of this variety.

So do the restaurants. During a week-long visit, I dropped in on Vietnam, Mongolia and Sri Lanka along with the more familiar outposts from Texas and Northern Italy.

Although these cities are smack dab in the middle of a midwestern area settled by Scandinavians and Germans, the metropolitan area has attracted an ethnic mix as varied as those restaurants suggest. Yet there's a wide-eyed friendliness about the people in the cities, something so awfully accessible that it's hard to think of the place in metropolitan-area terms.

There isn't the killer bustle of Manhattan. There's none of Chicago's second-city huckstering. You get a sense that city planners actually plan, and that people take great pride in their surroundings.

Minneapolis considers itself the more progressive of the two. It has the newer buildings, for example. Like a couple of fussy siblings, each has staked out a wardrobe of its own. St. Paul doesn't believe that a style need go out of fashion, and does maintenance and repair. Minneapolis is more of a mall-shopper, eager to try on the latest.

One of which is the Nicollet Mall, a tree-lined street of handsome shops with enclosed walkways sailing above the pavement to protect its inhabitants from the blistering winter winds that blow off the Mississippi. Opened 23 years ago, it was part of a successful downtown revitalization program.

Despite the area's double-duty as banking center for much of that part of the country and capital (St. Paul) of the state, there are a lot of young faces on the streets thanks to a strong university presence – there are over 20 colleges and universities.

Tourist attractions abound, but they grow from the context of the area. The area's history – it went from logging center to what was once the country's largest grain-processing area – is celebrated in museums and in the buildings themselves that still remain. Culturally, there is the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra on one side of the river and the equally-renowned St. Paul Chamber Orchestra on the other. Tyrone Guthrie founded one of the country's finest repertory theaters here in 1963, which is now joined by many similar groups, most notably the Cricket Theatre in downtown Minneapolis, an organization devoted to the promotion of new works.

For me, however, the real test of an area is in the restaurants it has to offer. Writer Calvin Trillin complains about visiting an area in search of a good meal and being hustled by the city fathers to the “Casa de la Maison House,” the tacky please-everyone joint all cities suffer.

I didn't find that in Minneapolis, but I did meet my culinary undoing. It wouldn't have been so bad were I not so boastful, but, when faced with the many unusual ethnic places, I let it be known that there was no food too spicy for my taste.

Which is why I was taken to the Sri Lankan restaurant called, simply, Sri Lanka Curry House, downtown on Hennepin Avenue.

Good curry should complement the item being seasoned. It's not a one-stop sauce. The owner, Heather Balasuriya, also supervises the kitchen and ensures an exacting standard which is detailed in her cookbook, Fire and Spice.

Each of the spicy items on the menu is available in varying degrees of heat. I ordered a mixed seafood preparation at its hottest. “Are you sure you want to do this?” my friends asked.

Balasuriya came out of the kitchen. “Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked. I assured her it would be no problem. Veteran of chili and anything vindaloo, I was ready. “You may regret this,” she told me. “You may also regret this tomorrow.”

It's important to note that the food she serves is delicious. I sampled some of the other plates and found that a little zing only accentuates the delightful freshness. Then I dug into my curry.

Like the best spicy food, the torment arrived only after I'd had a chance to chomp a couple of mouthfuls. Then it hit hard. My lips and tongue didn't go merely numb – they went into shock. I didn't simply perspire – water flowed from every pore on my face. I was stunned. I could say nothing.

“How is it? Good?” This from a wiseguy companion.

Determined not to let them see me suffer, I finished my plate.

Chili peppers release a chemical that eventually offers a sense of well-being to the spicy-food fan. But, as the owner explained, you really have to work your way along the intensity scale before you're ready to enjoy food at the hottest end.

For me, this was a metaphor for the twin cities themselves. Don't go there with bossy demands and unreasonable expectations. The place offers a friendly enough welcome that, once you sample it, you'll be hooked. You'll go back for more. It'll get better each time.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 25 August 1990

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