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Books and a Bite: Pairing the Best Local Bookstores with the Ideal Lunch

New books read over tasty eats is a true afternoon delight.

A book from Moon Palace and fajitas from La Alborada Market? Why not?
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The first thing I remember reading was an ad for free Whistle Pops on the backside of a Corn Pops box. I was four years old and I had an excellent source of seven vitamins and minerals soaking up skim milk in front of me, but I could not take my eyes off “The lollipop that sounds as good as it tastes.” It came in orange, grape, and strawberry.

Several decades later, I remain a sucker for gripping narrative. Drop a new Graywolf, Coffee House, or Milkweed title in my hands and I may forget to eat for a day or two. Fortunately, quality sustenance surrounds our beloved Twin Cities bookstores.

Last month, regional chapters of Book Twitter and Food Twitter descended on this tweet to share their favorite one-two punches for books and local lunches—the idea being that grabbing something to read and having a bite to eat is just a good way to spend a day.

I’m still scrolling my menchies for all the munchies and niche bookstores offered up, but I’ve gone ahead and trialed some notable combinations below.

Please consider these establishments and other hyperlocal alternatives for feeding body and mind whenever you feel like telling Amazon and Grubhub to eat shit.

Subtext Books + Afro Deli

 📚 I strolled into Subtext on a quiet Friday morning with a bag of used books. Sue, the owner, complimented my taste in reading material and offered a credit in exchange. While I browsed cookbooks, essays, fiction, and non, I sniffed out every single shelf-talker in the store. These folks take great care in making their recommendations. I left with a sizable stack, including a cheerful novel about a girl and a bear struggling to survive winter at the end of the world. If you ask me, Subtext puts St. Paul on the map.

 🐔 Hello, Afro Deli first timer here. I arrived before the lunch crowd and took my sweet time with the TV menu on the wall. I landed on their chicken curry, which they prepared with eggplant, bell peppers, carrots, and garlic, served over Somali rice. For garnish, a nice man ladled Tzatziki on top before adding thin slices of red onion and fragrant heaps of bright green cilantro. This was a top-tier meal. I ate it greedily, stopping not when I was satisfied, but only when every grain of rice was inside me. I hope to return soon for their Veggie Stew.

Moon Palace + La Alborada

 📚 I was almost sad to shop inside Moon Palace instead of pedaling up to their adorable sunshine-yellow pickup window for another pile of books, but nobody actually feels sad inside Moon Palace. It’s a Palace on the Moon for Pete’s sake. Among its purple walls and endless towering shelves, I paced and scanned covers of every color. I did whatever it’s called when you injure your neck while tilting your head sideways to read the spines. When I spotted The Overstory by Richard Powers, a love story to trees I tore through in early 2020, I snatched two more by him and headed to the checkout. I don’t know if there’s a bookstore anywhere that better reflects its community and neighbors.

 🌯 Food writer and Heavy Table Founder James Norton blessed the group chat with this contribution: La Alborada Market on Lake Street. You can’t argue with bona fides like Norton’s. As I steered my dusty 2006 Grand Marquis through Lake and Hiawatha, I could nearly taste the burrito al pastor I planned to ingest. Halved and plated with fresh tortilla chips and a colorful array of salsas, the burrito was loaded with black beans, rice, tomato, onions, avocado, parmesan cheese, and greens. Washing it down with a half-liter of sugar-sweetened Mexican Fresca felt like climax and resolution inside my belly.

Paperback Exchange + Broder’s Cucina

 📚 Paperback Exchange dot com claims an inventory of 150,000 best-sellers and out-of-print oddities. The physical store looks and feels exactly how your basement might look and feel if places like Paperback Exchange didn’t exist. New and used books are stacked to the sternum on every surface. High on a shelf, a yellowed copy of the Pioneer Press announces, “The U.S. Puts 1st Men on the Moon.” The place is a maze, a tripping hazard, an enchanting throwback, and it smells faintly of vanilla. When I pried a beat-up copy of Jim Harrison’s Dalva out from a packed row, a portal opened to another time and dimension and I stepped through. Life is better here.

 🥪 Broder’s Cucina Italiana sits catty-cornered from the bookstore at 50th and Penn. Along with a frigid Coca-Cola and kettle chips, I ordered their South Jersey Hoagie because A) sandwiches are probably the easiest food to handle when you’re holding a book, and B) the genoa salami and capicola ham spoke to me. What they said was, “Eat us.” As I settled in for a picnic lunch at Minnehaha Creek near Nicollet Ave., an older fella walking his dog offered to sell me narcotics. High on hot peppers and hoagie dressing, I politely declined.

Half-Price Books + Cecil’s Deli

 📚 Workers at Highland Park’s Half-Price Books unionized in early 2022. That’s rad as hell. So is their wide-ranging selection. Meticulously organized, books fill two floors and span every genre. Want to read all the greatest baseball writing published by Sports Illustrated prior to 1991? Fuck Jeff Bezos.

❤️ Cecil’s Deli has been serving soups and sammies to St. Paul since 1949. My favorite food item is their Grilled Tuna sandwich. My other favorite food item is their Leonardo Da Vinci. They also have a Roast Beef Reuben, if you can believe it. Cecil’s Deli catered lunch on my wedding day, and if I have any say they’ll cater my funeral. I want to dance on their checkered floor and up the colorful tile walls. Their email address is still CECILSDEL@aol.com. May they never change a thing.

Magers & Quinn + La La Homemade Ice Cream

 📚 Some of y’all may have expected to see Magers & Quinn higher on the list. Here comes a curveball. Wonderful through and through, the best time to visit M&Q is late evening, not the lunch hour. Drop in after dark but not too close to closing—you don’t want to be a jackass. Consider going with your partner or other romantic interest. As you browse, imagine owning a bookstore just like this one. One with a coffee deal off to the side.

🍨 When it’s time, pay for their books and your books and trundle off for a scoop of Raspberry Honey or Fresh Strawberry. A night like this could lead anywhere, but if you fall asleep with a book in your hands, consider it a win.

Barnes & Noble + Panda Express, Taco Bell Express, Mall of America Hooters

Hey, you do you. Did you know you can buy Whistle Pops on Amazon?

The Leftovers

I’m stuffed, my bookshelves are bursting, and there’s still more to go around. Peruse the list below for several stellar variations on the theme, including some alternatives to a few places already mentioned. If I’ve missed any spots I shouldn’t have, please drop your superior knowledge in the comments.

  • Birchbark Books + The Kenwood – A massively popular recommendation, Birchbark is a personal favorite for books and gifts. We may have a very different list to discuss after I’ve eaten at The Kenwood.
  • Eat My Words + Mary Ellen’s Bistro
  • Milkweed Editions + Farmer’s Kitchen & Bar
  • Cream & Amber – A one-stop shop for books, bevvies, and snacks!
  • Next Chapter + Em Que Viet or St. Paul Cheese Shop
  • Boneshaker Books + Tracy’s
  • Black Garnet Books (Opening Oct. 2022) + Master Noodle
  • The Book House + Shuang Cheng
  • Red Balloon + Café Latte
  • Irreverent Bookworm + Hot Plate
  • Once Upon a Crime + Lu’s Sandwich
  • Mayday + Red Sea
  • Subtext Books + Ruam Mit
  • Highland Café + Half-Price Books
  • Magers & Quinn + Amazing Thailand