If you happen to be near the St. Thomas campus on Cleveland in St. Paul's Merriam Park and catch a whiff of worldly flavors, you know you're edging ever nearer to the 128 Cafe. The cozy bistro at the base of an apartment building has long been known for ribs (still some of the best around.) However, since Max Thompson took over ownership and expanded the menu beyond the cheese plate and Cesar salad, food fans have taken notice.
In the summer Thompson and his crew run a brisk lunch business out of the restaurant's food truck, but beginning about a month ago, they brought the midday service to the brick and mortar location.
The menu is made up of dishes to please everyone from student-visiting grandparents with conservative palates to the adventurous kimchi revelers. While the dishes change with availability, season and chef's inspiration, on a recent visit there were burgers set into a tender brioche bun served with fresh butter lettuce and a kicky sauce. Rotating soup specials might be a rich tomato broth served with a mini grilled pimento cheese sandwich, luscious chicken broth seasoned with tomatillos, cilantro and tortilla strips or a smoky, rich trout "chowda."
Thompson has worked locally, as part of the opening kitchen team at Butcher and the Boar as well as along the East Coast in New York; Boston, and he attended school in Colorado. All of those flavors and influences find footing in his dishes. A Korean rice bowl is layered with an expertly seasoned soft-boiled egg, funky-as-you-wanna-be house-made kimchi, robust mushrooms, bean sprouts, herbs, pork belly and drizzled with a creamy, spicy sauce. Each spoonful yields a new and intriguing flavor combination. Jess Flemming at the Pioneer Press declared, "We want to eat it every day."
One of the best bites on Thompson's opening menu was an other-worldly pate and those flavors can be found again inside the banh mi sandwich, along with pickled vegetables, tender roast pork and spicy mayo on a flaky crusted baguette.