If there’s one word that sums up the Twin Cities restaurant scene in 2023, it’s bloom. This was a year that seeds planted during (or even before) the early pandemic came to life: Pop-ups went permanent, dreams took shape as markets and cafes, and takeout operations flourished into full-service restaurants. If, in 2024, the restaurant world looks poised to return to pre-pandemic levels of activity and buzz, we owe that to those who tended their gardens amid highly imperfect conditions, contending with inflation and a bumpy labor market but still forging ahead. Here are some of the Cities’ best and brightest new restaurants, bars, pop-ups, and more, from an opening time frame between roughly October 2022 and October 2023.
Oro by Nixta: Restaurant of the Year
Chefs Gustavo and Kate Romero have radically changed the meaning of corn in the Cities’ restaurant scene, transcending hybridized sweet yellow cobs and industrial harina and serving corn that is earthy, fibrous, even ferric, its kernels big as gold coins. If expanding their tortilleria and takeout operation Nixta into full-service restaurant Oro was a leap of faith, they took it because they’re the greatest corn evangelists around, and their mission — helping to preserve Mexico’s 59 remaining heirloom corn varieties, threatened by cheap U.S. imports and industrial masa production — was too important to allow otherwise. Nationally, Oro is part of a wave of restaurants making heirloom corn the star of their menus (and yes, it’s making a difference), and locally, it’s serving masa dishes that rarely grace Twin Cities tables elsewhere: tlayudas as broad as a sun hat; blue corn chochoyotes; crispy soft-shell crab folded up in Nixta’s thick, springy tortillas. Those moles, velvety and dark and laced with cinnamon, bind the menu into one seamless whole.
Marty’s Deli: Best Damn Sandwich
Marty’s Deli made its name on its focaccia, the hand-baked, salt-flecked, soft-as-a-cloud bread that fueled Martha Polacek’s sandwich pop-up for two years during the early pandemic. But moving into a sunny storefront in Northeast gave her the space to create the New York-style deli Marty’s was always destined to be, one stocked with capers and egg salad and giardiniera. Polacek’s egg-meat-cheese-hashbrown-collards combo rocked the breakfast scene this year, and her classic sandwiches, with their expert layers of briny meats, bright pickled vegetables, and creamy aiolis, have remained as popular as ever. But Marty’s has also proved to have one of Minneapolis’s most dexterous seasonal menus, featuring sandwich specials stuffed with fried chicken of the woods mushrooms or late-summer heirloom tomatoes; serving sides of corn chowder and polenta cake with rhubarb; and doing frequent local collaborations (like an Animales pastrami egg-and-cheese). Those chocolate olive oil cookies, the weeks that they appear, steal the entire show.
Lito’s Burritos: Best New Pop-Up
Lito’s, the new Chicano kitchen nestled in Richfield’s El Tejaban restaurant, started a small breakfast revolution with its hefty, LA-style burritos. Miguel Hernandez road-tripped around Orange County to craft his menu, gathering intel and inspiration from roadside restaurants he found along the way. The resulting burritos, whipped up in the kitchen of his family’s restaurant, are stuffed with beef birria and queso blanco; chorizo and potatoes crisped in chile de arbol; and, in a true moment of Califorcana, steak with guacamole and French fries. (They’re wrapped in a crunchy cheese crust upon request, a nod to famed LA pop-up Lowkey Burritos.) Hernandez serves a number of other Chicano dishes too, from asada fries to birria tortas, all accompanied by his sister Diana Hernandez’s nutty mazapan frappuccinos, horchata cold brews, and mochas laced with Oaxacan chocolate. These burritos are one-of-a-kind in the Cities — and Hernandez keeps building on the concept, smoking whole briskets for weekend brunches and pouring mimosas.
Hi Flora: Best New Bar
Many bars around town have gotten serious about mocktails in recent years, but Hi Flora took a bold leap on a no-proof menu and merged it with the nascent THC trend, creating a bar program that’s truly unique in the Cities. Chef Heather Klein explores what euphoria there is to be found in new-agey bottled nonalcoholic spirits, but also in plants: the limb-loosening effects of kava root in a tart, punchy lemonade; smoked juniper THC tinctures; electrifying caffeine elixirs; and woody chaga nightcaps laced with tree sap. There’s something wild and enthralling about her vegan food menu too, which is built on nuts, grains, vegetables, and foraged mushrooms and augmented by masterful dupes of nacho cheese (cashews), fried chicken (maitakes), and chocolate mousse (avocado). Plus, she’s the only local chef throwing down a whole Lion’s Mane mushroom steak, big as a ribeye and marinated in a tangy beet brine. And Hi Flora’s fun, offbeat events — from drag brunch to pizza and blunt nights — are infusing new life into the corner of Lyndale and 26th.
Indigenous Food Lab: The Visionary
It’s no secret that North American Indigenous food has emerged as one of the Cities’ defining cuisines in recent years, and Indigenous Food Lab — led by chef Sean Sherman of Owamni and the staff of the nonprofit North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS) — made huge gains for accessibility when it opened at Midtown Global Market this year. The cafe menu is simple and quick-serve, but it’s almost revolutionary when you consider the rarity of slow-cooked bison birria, maple-glazed smoked whitefish, and the full assemblage of the Three Sisters (corn, tepary beans, and squash) in your paper to-go dish; iced chaga lattes or brewed cacao in your cup. Revolution is part of the idea: NATIFS has its sights set far beyond the Lake Street location, with intentions to expand to other cities and replicate its model to advance Indigenous food sovereignty across the country. In the meantime, Indigenous Food Lab is chugging away here, hosting visiting chefs like Freddie Bitsoie in the test kitchen and offering classes on everything from seed saving to ethnobotany — moving the dial from hegemony to sovereignty one čhoǧíŋyapi sandwich at a time.