I took my children to Midtown Global Market and instead of trying sambusas or tamales or jerk chicken, they begged for a burger. So much for a culturally diverse palate.
"Where's the regular food?" asked my 8-year-old son as he stood trapped between the falafels at Holy Land and the sesame chicken at Pham's Deli. "It's all foreign."
Well, actually, it's all Minnesotan, if you embrace the idea that our state cuisine reflects the cultures that have made this place home.
You won't find a chain restaurant in this indoor marketplace, which opened in 2006 in the former Sears, Roebuck complex on East Lake Street in Minneapolis. It's filled with ethnic retail shops and more than two dozen restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores with food from the Caribbean, East Africa, Vietnam, the Middle East, Italy and Mexico.
Taking a stroll through the market is like "going around the world in 20 minutes," said market coordinator Kim Hanna.
The market was bustling with a couple of hundred people when we stopped for dinner on Friday family night with our three children. The market also draws parents with children to its weekly Wednesday preschool programs and kids' cooking classes in the market's new kitchen space.
We wandered around to get a sense of what was available. The big photos of entrees at Pham's Deli convinced my 5-year-old daughter that she might like spring rolls and fried rice. My sons veered toward Andy's Garage, which serves hamburgers, fries and malts. We've eaten there before and liked it, but this time, perhaps cruelly, I told the boys I wanted them to try something new. They protested.
"I want a hamburger," repeated the 8-year-old, as he reluctantly followed his dad into the line at Holy Land. Each restaurant has a few of its own tables, but my daughter and I opted to sit in the middle of the market near the entertainment — a guy with a guitar playing "Oh Susanna."
At the table next to us, Kristina Reynertson and her two young girls were finishing tamales from La Loma Tamales. Empty cornhusks were scattered on the table.
"This is our initial snack," Reynertson said. "Everyone got tamales, and we're all happy."
The St. Paul mother likes the market because the casual atmosphere makes it easy to entertain children. "Last time, we came with friends," she said. "It's also a great place to socialize while you have your kids along."
As we talked, her husband, Jeff Chermak, arrived with the main course — mahi mahi tacos and grouper on a platter from La Sirena Gorda. It looked delicious and no wonder — owner Alfonso Menendez was a former manager the seafood restaurant Oceanarie.
My husband showed up seconds later with our meal. He got a falafel sandwich for himself and compromised with the boys, ordering a hamburger to split, along with a rotisserie chicken and gyros in pita, which my 11-year-old tried for the first time and loved.
When he had licked the last yogurt sauce from his fingers, he asked if he could take out his yo-yo. I said sure and sent him to a clear space between tables.
Reynertson was right. The market is kid-friendly in the extreme. When my 8-year-old started doing suction experiments on his tongue with a straw, I asked him to stop, but I didn't blush or look around to see who noticed. Who cared? He drifted off to push buttons on a nearby Minnesota tourism kiosk. My daughter polished off an entire spring roll and then asked to dance.
"I want to go do what the other kids are doing up there," she said.
I escorted her around the tables to the stage where she joined 20 or so kids bouncing to the music.
Dessert presented another opportunity to sample the market. Reynertson bought her daughters one of the luscious cupcakes displayed in the case at Salty Tart owned by Michelle Gayer-Nicholson, a finalist for the James Beard Award for Best Pastry Chef last year. I tried a flan from Manny's Tortas, which was very good but not the tender, melt-in-your-mouth custard I was craving.
My children were enamored with the huge candy selection at La Fiesta in America, a shop that that also sells pinatas, jewelry and T-shirts like the hot-pink one that proclaimed, "Bonita Mami.
We didn't have time to browse the many other ethnic shops, but we admired their offerings as we walked by. You can buy Hmong handiwork, Swedish textiles, East African rugs, Indian saris, Kenyan woodcarvings and Tibetan "singing bowls."
On our way out, my 11-year-old son said he'd like to come back — next time with another family.
"I liked that there were little individual restaurants," he said. "I think it's cool that one person could be eating Chinese and someone else could be eating Mexican. I also liked it because it's not fancy. I get really bored if I have to sit in a chair for an hour."
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at email@example.com or 651-228-5295.
What: Midtown Global Market
Where: 920 E. Lake St., Minneapolis
Info: 612-872-4041 or midtownglobalmarket.org
Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday
Target audience: Families who want more flavor than found at the mall food court
Crowd pleaser: Candy bins at La Fiesta in America
Avoid: Indecision on an empty stomach. Browse your options online before you go.
Tip: Park across the street up to three hours free in the ramp on 10th Avenue South, just north of Lake Street. Ticket validated with any purchase.