Cook St. Paul sprinkles diner standards with Korean spice

It's unlikely that you'll ever hear a hungry diner say "let's go to Cook St. Paul for Korean food." But that's really not the intention of Eddie Wu and Charles Cook, co-owners of this American-style diner serving breakfast, lunch, and a few Korean-influenced dishes in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood. As Wu explains it, he sees his role as mostly introductory, getting people who might not have otherwise experienced this fun, fermented, barbecued type of cuisine to try his interpretation of bi bim bop and then have the confidence to go and order it at places like Hoban, Dong Yang, or at Wu's somewhat accidental alma mater, Sole Cafe in Midway.

"I went in as an apprentice hoping to learn a dish or two from Kim (Firnstahl, chef and owner of Sole Cafe), and a few months later she was referring to me as the manager," says Wu. Not that he minded terribly. "It was a crazy crash course, but in my opinion Kim runs the best Korean restaurant in the Twin Cities."

From there, Wu set out to open a traditional Korean restaurant of his own, but the universe seemed to have other plans for him. After a series of attempts to start up a deli in Lowertown and a standalone specialty cake bakery with his wife, Eve (who is now happily using Cook's prep kitchen to make her incredible gluten-free whoopie pies and booze-soaked bundt cakes), Wu, a South St. Paul native, ended up partnering with Cook, the former COO of Cosetta's Alimentari. The two bought the space that was once home to Serlin's Cafe, a legendary St. Paul breakfast spot that had served the community for over 60 years.

There may be push-back over what seems like gentrification (adding a non-terrifying bathroom and putting organic meat and produce on the menu), but Wu and Cook have successfully maintained the spirit of the small-town diner, even keeping on some original staff members, while adding a dose of culinary integrity. Cook is making cinnamon rolls that are sized to share and oozing with icing, his own unique durum flour bread for French toast, and outstanding strawberry jam and spicy-sweet house hot sauce. They're getting pickled fiddlehead ferns from a chef at Heartland, duroc pork for their bacon, and farmers market greens for salads.

Wu's contributions to the menu include the aforementioned bi bim bop bowl, a dish he's adapted for the way Cook's patrons eat it: one component at a time, instead of all mixed together in the traditional fashion. He's also brought on a spiced burger with sweet radish relish and Korean spices; Korean pancakes, made from a gluten-free mixture of ground mung beans, green cabbage, and sausage that have a texture somewhere between a latke and a Colossal Cafe flapper; and the overwhelmingly popular short rib Benedict, a dish that seems to automatically soften the shouts of even the loudest naysayers. We agree that it was a successful take on this increasingly popular brunch menu item, especially the supreme tenderness of the beef itself and the use of Cook's homemade buns instead of standard English muffins. We would have liked it to kick us in the ribs a bit more, so to speak, but it's nothing a little squiggle of hot sauce can't fix. And the eggs were nicely poached on the Benedict, unlike the practically hard-boiled ones that came with the Korean pancakes. There is such a particular kind of disappointment to cut into a poached egg and not see that glorious yellow yolk pouring out. Fortunately, the cakes themselves were flavorful and fascinatingly textured.

In more traditional breakfast fare, the menu offers steak and eggs and build-your-own omelets with ingredient options like Fontina, ham, and spinach. The monstrous Frenchcake stack is traditional in ingredients, but wild in composition: House bread dipped in a slightly tangy custard and fried just short of crisp is served with over-easy eggs, bacon, and a hybrid breakfast brick of hashbrowns with a layer of pancake batter poured over the top. The sweet-salty combo was fun, but the thing we really look forward to about diner hashbrowns is that crispy golden surface area, which you get none of on this pancake — only the softly cooked shreds of potato. The cake part was fluffy and melty, but probably best eaten as a standard short stack.

Though they originally conceived Cook St. Paul as a quick-turnover breakfast spot, Wu says they've been doing much more business at lunch, where we had a better overall food experience too, thanks in no small part to Cook's chicken wild rice soup. Yes, it's a strange thing to have on a summer menu and admittedly an even stranger thing to order on a humid June day, but it wound up being an ideal bowl: creamy and thick but not gloopy, seasoned in layers but not overly salty, far from skimpy on the chicken, and full of wild rice cooked to retain its bite. We will most definitely be back for more of it — likely by the quart — in the fall.

"That soup is what got us our loan," says Wu. "Our banker was kind of old-school and wanted to try some of our food before giving the go-ahead. We gave them soup and a slice of cake, and that did it."

Their Monte Cristo sandwich — an already over-the-top diner classic — is next-level indulgent, essentially a ham sandwich stuffed inside a doughnut. The unconventional choice to add cream cheese to the mix seemed unnecessary until we smeared on house-made strawberry jam, the game-changing element of this dish. The mix of cheese and fruit acted like mock cheesecake inside the ham-sandwich-doughnut hybrid. We hear there's a similar sandwich debuting at the Fair this year and we can't wait to compare notes. Sandwiches come with an option of hand-cut fries or house-made chips, and you can't go wrong with either: Both are beautifully browned, salty, crispy, and fresh.

The restaurant closes at 2 p.m. during the week and 3 p.m. on weekends, but if you want to plan ahead and get something to take home for a hearty dinner, we recommended the blue-plate-special-like salt-crusted roast beef. Medium-thick slices are cooked through, but still tender with garlic, herbs, a holy heap of mashed potatoes, gravy-soaked slices of homemade bread, and wrinkly (in the best way) green beans. It's a Sunday supper to rival grandma's.

While there are still a few kinks to be worked out, on the whole Cook St. Paul is serving really good, scratch-made food in an approachable setting. It's a diner that respects its legacy but also ushers in a new, more flavorful era on St. Paul's east side.

"If we had moved in and set up shop as a hardware store, there would be customers who would still come in and demand pancakes," Wu laughs. "A good portion of my customer base are people who come in just because they've been sitting in the same spot, drinking coffee and reading the paper here for decades."

We have a feeling there will be a new generation doing the very same at Cook's St. Paul.