Panda Crunch from The Salsa Collaborative

There’s nothing quite like meeting a new creator bubbling with promise and big ideas. Usually, these moments happen inside a restaurant — last fall, this one happened to be in a suburban backyard. This is where I met Nikki and Brian Podgorski.

The duo had been hard at work with The Salsa Collaborative, making hot sauces and salsas, when a chef/friend invited them to enter a backyard cooking competition, where they would compete against chefs at full time and food professionals. “I couldn’t believe they even invited us,” Nikki said.

Not only did they put on a good performance, but they won it all, thanks in part to an otherworldly bun that Nikki spent two days baking and had only recently invented: Brissant.

Since then, life has been going pretty fast for these two. Nikki eventually quit her day job and they started using the kitchen space at St. Paul’s Dark Horse to make their products. Now The Salsa Collaborative sells the Brissant, a glorious enriched dough that’s part croissant and part roll, in their space at Dayton’s Departments. And their product line has expanded to include Panda Crunch ($12), which takes up space on your pantry shelf.

It’s a chili crunch, which has a condiment moment, but this one is made with gochujang, a red chili paste used in Korean cuisine that offers a deeper, richer flavor with a mild heat. This sauce doesn’t tear the roof off with a single spoonful, but it’s a crisp, flavorful spice that begs to be spooned over eggs, dipped in ramen, tossed in mayonnaise and slathered on sandwiches – the possibilities are yours to create.

I recently ran into the couple again, this time at a restaurant. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder with some big names in our local culinary world, cooking up a dish that Nikki called “my life on a plate.” Coconut sticky rice is wrapped around a braised short rib, steamed in banana leaves and served with a herbaceous Cambodian steak sauce. Plus, the Panda Crunch sat like a thunderous ruby ​​gem, bringing it all together.

Buy it direct online or take an afternoon to browse the Dayton Market and host your own designer meeting. (Joy Summers)

700 Mail Nicollet, Mpls.,;

O’Shaughnessy Distilling Co. Honey Whiskey Glazed Steak Bits.

I’ll admit I’m not a huge fan of whiskey, but one way I’ll happily consume the spirit is in the form of the delicious sauce on these succulent tenderloin tips, served in the whiskey lounge of the still shiny and new O’Shaughnessy Distilling Co.

The tender meat is served swimming in a glaze made with local honey and O’Shaughnessy’s signature Keeper’s Heart whisky. And at $13, it’s a hearty “small plate” that can easily replace dinner if you wisely use whatever bread you have available to mop up that velvety sauce.

The Lounge, in the booming restaurant district in Minneapolis’ Prospect Park neighborhood, is a gorgeous place to grab a few of those small plates from chef Austin Bouchard, and dare I say leafy cocktails at vegetable base, designed by food and beverage director Pip Hanson. And you’re not limited to whiskey drinks here. The Allium Smash ($12), made with O’Shaughnessy’s Guard & Gate gin, pink vermouth, lemon, seltzer water and – yes – chives, was garden-fresh and, thankfully, never didn’t leave me with onion breath. (Sharyn Jackson)

600 Malcolm Ave SE., Mpls.,

Birria Tacos from Los Ocampo

Los Ocampo opened its first location in 2003, and since then the family-owned business has grown into a mini local chain of taco stands and full-service restaurants serving up Mexican dishes reminiscent of what you’ll find in different parts of the country.

One place is close enough to my home that our family has become addicted to tacos and horchatas on weeknights when we’re too exhausted to cook. As it happens with restaurants like this, I got my order and rarely stray. That is until last week when I noticed birria tacos on the menu.

Birria originates from the Mexican state of Jalisco, where the meat is cooked in a broth of cumin, adobo, garlic and roasted brick red chili peppers. Traditionally, it’s a tough meat that needs a low, slow time to relax and unwind in the liquid.

Los Ocampo’s version is a gorgeous plate of meat, sauce and muy rica cheese ($14.99). Corn tortillas are filled with meat and grilled until the cheese becomes gooey in the middle and crispy on the edges. Dip the taco into the rich soup of consommé served alongside, making sure to fish out any stray strands of beef and bits of cilantro, and let that juicy goodness permeate every bite. It is a rich, warm and comforting food.

Los Ocampo locations: 615 University Av. W., St. Paul; 1751 Suburban Ave., St. Paul;

Cheese platter at Barley + Vine

The first time we tried to get into this charmer in Lakeville, the wait was over an hour. On a windy Wednesday. So we came back the next night – with a reservation – and learned that the previous night’s special was half price bottles of wine and $8 cheese platters. That explained the crowd.

We may have missed half price bottles of wine, but the house glasses were $4.50 that night and luckily the cheese platters weren’t going anywhere.

As someone who believes cheese makes everything better, this was the perfect way to start the evening. The menu features a selection of eight cheeses from a variety of local, regional and global manufacturers. Diners create their own boards with three or five cheeses ($12.95 or $18.95). We stayed close to home and chose Stickney Hill Dairy Mild Goat Cheese from Cold Spring, Minnesota, AmaBlu from Caves of Faribault just down the highway, and Aged Cheddar from Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in Theresa, Wisconsin. . We have chosen well. The goat cheese was soft and mild with just a slight flavor, a perfect introduction if you’re trying to convince a picky eater to try goat cheese. The two-year-old cheddar had a pleasant nutty taste and was packed with flavor unlike some supermarket staples. However, the blue cheese, assertive without being overbearing and just the right amount of crumbly, stole my heart. All of them will make appearances on my shopping list.

Homemade baguettes and a mix of dried fruits and nuts complement the cheeses. And, if you order too much cheese (if you do), leftovers are also a great start for the next day’s meal at home. Our lovely waiter even added more baguette slices; I just wish she would have thrown in the big board, too. (Nicole Hvidsten)

17516 Dodd Blvd., Lakeville,

The East Coast during a Passover popover at Cecil’s

Passover runs through Saturday night, and the holiday has a specific set of dietary guidelines that I’m loosely following this year. For me, that means forgoing sourdough bread and loosely adhering to traditional kosher guidelines — no mixing meat and dairy, primarily.

Cecil’s, St. Paul’s classic Jewish-style deli, is one of the few restaurants in the Twin Cities that goes the extra mile for the holidays. No, corned beef is not kosher, and yes, I may have sat next to a guy who ordered salami and cream cheese over matzo. But if you’re kosher, then Cecil’s is a great place to dine while on vacation, along with Crossroads Delicatessen in Hopkins, Mort’s Deli in Golden Valley, and the three Yum! Kitchen and Bakeries.

Cecil’s Passover menu includes fried matzo, chopped liver, lox and onions, flourless brownies and — a favorite — matzo meal popovers. Although they’re made with ground matzo rather than flour, the egg buns simulate regular bread well enough to stand up to one of Cecil’s many sandwich options for an extra $2.99. I substituted a popover on the East Coast sandwich ($12.99), with a simple filling of cold sliced ​​corned beef and coleslaw that pairs perfectly with hot, crispy fries.

Popovers and the rest of the Passover menu are only available while supplies last for the next few days. And after Passover, the sandwich is also excellent on bread. (S.J.)

651 Cleveland Avenue S., St. Paul,