LAST CALL TO TORI ST. PAUL

A scene: Last Thursday. Walk into Tori Ramen on West 7th Street in St. Paul. John Keenan, the bartender/manager, behind the bar is experimenting with a ranch/vodka mix in tubs of whipped cream to accompany raw veggies for dipping – people love carrots and ranch, he says. Why not make it alcoholic?

(The experiment started out as a more dodgy ranch-tini cocktail — called But Is It Spicy? — a tribute to Minnesota’s palate and our nationally known love of ranch dressing).

This kind of scene is not unusual; that kind of energy and creativity is found most nights at Tori. But – while the staff may not take themselves too seriously, the quality of food and service always strives to be the opposite: chef/owner Jason Dorweiler (above, behind the bar) has received numerous accolades, and Tori is consistently voted one of the best ramen shops by Twin Cities customers.

Photo by Mike Varouhas

The menu continues to grow and evolve. Seasonality matters too: handcrafted products from vendors like Wild Acres, Hafa, Kadejan Market, Larry Schultz and Dragsmith Farms make Minnesota one of the most exciting places in the world for local food (when the weather permitting, of course). .

It is sophisticated food and drink accompanied by a fuck it, have fun attitude that allows a certain freedom and promotes creativity both in the front and the back of the house. As Maddie Saldin, host/server/bartender/everything necessary says, “I’ve never had so much freedom anywhere else I’ve worked. There is a respect for the staff – we were hired for a reason. We know what we are doing. There’s no need for…micromanagement.

This duality is best exemplified by the late-night menu: Tori After Dark starts at 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, where, as per the statement above, it’s as much about what you get as when. you get it; it’s as much about the quality of the product as it is about the fact that you can have something to eat after midnight. Dorweiler understands, like any veteran of the service industry, the need to feed local restaurant workers or those coming off a shift at a nearby hospital.

Photo by Mike Varouhas

“That was a big part of why we wanted to do this,” he says. “There’s no reason you can’t find good food late at night -“

“Who decided that we all had to have dinner at 7:30 p.m.? It doesn’t work for everyone.

It all started when he, John Keenan and Chef Simon Meyer were talking after dinner a few months ago. Tori After Dark only started out as a hypothetical – What if? What if we ate late at night? What if we offered these menu items?

WHAT IF THEY HAD THESE NAMES…?

Photo by Mike Varouhas

Grab the Give Me Some Goddamn Wontons (Please) ($8) – classic fried wontons filled with cream cheese, one of the most popular menu items (Minnesota locals love their wontons almost as much as the ranch) . They are so popular that Tori runs out several nights. Angry customers always ask for them with a dash of Minnesota Nice™…please.

Photo by Mike Varouhas

Strip Club Fried Rice ($11) was inspired by Meyer’s time in Los Angeles: there was an old chef with a cart parked outside the strip club where he worked as a cook. Everyone (drunk or not) lined up for what came to be known as Strip Club Fried Rice. The Tori version has a pile of rice thrown in the oven to limit the fat, topped with herbs and green onions, salsa verde and a poached egg.

Photo by Mike Varouhas

You’ll also find tartare (bison or tuna, depending), brazenly named You Should Call Her, made bulgogi style with minced black radish ($15), chicken thighs or mushroom tacos ($11), tempura-fried Korean dogs ($8) that land somewhere between a corn dog and a stick of mozzarella, spicy, deep-fried “dirty choy” bok choy ($6), and lots of kimchi and fresh herbs to add to everything/everything.

The full ramen menu is also available. And the full vegetarian ramen menu, not an afterthought either – not just to cater for the meatless, but with as much love and care as the opposite.

The bar is stocked with just a dozen spirits – no wasted bottles gathering dust waiting for someone to order a rum and coke – leaving room for John’s constant experimentation and ideas, and makes for a well-curated mix of drinks that are both familiar and completely new.

Different from the dinner menu – where craft cocktails like the spicy Little Bird margarita (a nod to the Pajarito next door) and a version of a Gibson with fermented mushrooms reign supreme – Tori After Dark offers things like the party in Fukushima ($11), a neon tropical concoction of Keenan’s invention full of floating Swedish fish — and the PBR and Lime ($4), which tastes, ostensibly, of Froot Loops and comes in a plastic cereal bowl with a milk straw attached Millennials might remember the 90s.

Last call — around 12:45 p.m. when the bartender rings the deafening brass gong to the right of the rail — is a good time for a Mouth Full of George, simply a $7 shot of Casamigos tequila (founded by George Clooney, of where the name) to end the night. If you’re up this late on the weekend, you should at least have a good time.

Photo by Mike Varouhas

What was recently known mostly as a sleepy town, St. Paul is coming to life and meaning, building a cultural and nightlife district with an energy that hasn’t been seen in the capital in decades. This stretch of West 7th Street deserves a lot of the credit. Tori joins Pajarito next door, breweries White Squirrel, Emerald Lounge, Waldmann and Bad Weather, Keg and Case Market – plus OG stalwarts like Mancini’s, Degidio’s, Keenan’s, Joe & Stan’s finding new life as they represent the 7th west of (very) old. And the closer you get to Xcel – home to 7th Street Truck Park, Patrick McGovern’s, Tom Reid’s and the brand new Wild Bill’s, plus the upcoming Apostle Supper Club and False Eye Doll Voodoo Lounge – the wilder it gets.

But Tori is in a class of its own: a welcoming place and a safe space where creatures of the night can relax and eat something; dispelling stereotypes of late-night crowds, it’s not a sloppy place where drunken patrons would vomit or throw up as fast as a smile. It’s bigger on the inside than you might expect looking at it from the front, and there’s a certain elegance to the space that only grows after a couple of glasses or two of sake. There is a calm to be found beneath the neon lights and pulsing music. Through the comforting smell of kimchi and savory broth. A warmth and immediate familiarity that seem increasingly rare to find at any time; what feels like a family awaits you in an old train car on West 7th Street.

Tori Ramen and Tori after dark
603 7th Street W, St. Paul, MN 55102

This article was originally published in The heavy table. Subscribe to the Heavy Table newsletter on Patreon here.

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