When you enter the suburb of Woodbury from I-94, one of the first things that strikes your eye is the city’s profusion of chain restaurants: Five Guys, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Perkins, Little Caesar’s, and so on, from strip mall to shopping center to apartment complex.
But like most metro suburbs, once you drag a fingernail across the veneer, a more interesting and independently driven restaurant picture emerges. Mexican, Vietnamese, and even Japanese noodle options are available for the more resourceful diner, and they reward guests with tastes worth seeking out.
Working within the long, proud tradition of quality strip-mall Mexican food, Machete Cocina Mexicana offers tacos, burritos, and burrito bowls. But the heart of the menu is the machete ($12), a roughly arm-length, freshly made corn tortilla stuffed with queso fresco, avocados, onions, corn, and various fillings—our waitress recommended that we try either flor de calabaza (pumpkin blossoms) or poblano peppers. We tried the poblano version and found it to be: A) freakin’ massive, and B) delicious. The tortilla is that ideal chewy / crispy balance and the fillings are rich and creamy. A little heat and tang improves this already enjoyable dish; it can easily be finished off with just a splash of the house salsa that’s already on the table.
We tried the taco al pastor “Mexican-style,” with cilantro, onions, and radishes on corn tortillas ($2.75) and thought it held up well even when compared to its counterparts on Lake Street and Central Avenue in Minneapolis. The meat was tender and crispy with a deep spice profile, the tortillas were hot off the grill, and the dice and proportions of the toppings were absolutely on point. (The level of polish makes sense when you discover that Machete Cocina Mexicana is a project of one of the co-owners of the well-regarded Los Ocampo franchise.)
At Duc’s Vietnamese and Chinese Cuisine we leaned into the Vietnamese side of the menu knowing that if you offer Chinese cuisine as a second choice, it’s to court cautious diners; if you offer Vietnamese, it’s because that’s what you know and love as a chef. The restaurant’s beef and meatball pho ($9.25) was calm and soothing, with an understated broth that whispered star anise rather than screamed cinnamon and sugar. The beef was sliced razor-thin and the meatballs were as mellow and pleasant as the broth they swam in. If you like your pho mild, you’ll be in heaven; if not, there are immaculately clean containers of hot sauce and hoisin on the table that you can add to your heart’s delight.
Duc’s Spring Roll ($2.65) and Egg Roll ($2.65) both did what they were supposed to do, the former fresh and tender and tasty when dipped in the accompanying sweet and smoky garlic-soy sauce, the latter ridiculously crispy with a soft-spoken chicken and carrot-driven interior.
During a weekday lunch, Duc’s was sleepy and calm while its colleague Thanh Truc was near capacity and buzzing with energy. Our Thai Tea ($3) was a fine example of its sort, moderately sweet, pleasantly astringent, and nutty without being syrupy or tasting artificial. Our Grilled Pork on Rice ($8.50) was barebones but compelling. The meat had a seasoning thing going on that reminded us more of Chinese-American than Vietnamese-style pork, but no matter—it was tender and nicely charred, and once hit with a mix of sriracha, hoisin, and nuoc cham, it was full-flavored and soothing.
Alas, Ramen Station won’t be going toe-to-toe with Zen Box or Tori 44 anytime soon—the broth in its Champon Ramen ($10.50) was unctuous but not particularly flavorful, and the noodles were strictly workaday. The ramen’s braised pork was a noteworthy highlight, however—rich and fatty without being tough, with a flavorful exterior.
We saved the most venerable for last: Ronnally’s Pizza claims to be Woodbury’s oldest restaurant and has been in business since 1973. Sure enough, it and its black vinyl tablecloths have that wonderful “really old but super legit” patina that places like Brianno’s in Eagan and Jakeeno’s in Minneapolis attain by outlasting the competition without compromising their ingredients or cooking. The pizza would have been an obvious choice, but we’re always on the hunt for a good hot dago, and Ronnally’s Pizza serves theirs ($9) with an optional garlic cheese toast upgrade for just $1. We weren’t disappointed—the bread was thick, crunchy, and deeply toasted without being burned; the sausage patty was dense, mildly spicy, and well-seasoned; and the sauce was tangy and strongly herbed without suffering from an excess of sugar. The optional pepperoncini on the side should be mandatory, as the peppers’ acid and heat cuts right through the meat, cheese, and bread and balances the dish.
Machete Cocina Mexicana: 803 Bielenberg Drive, Woodbury, MN 55125, www.machetecm.com
Duc’s Vietnamese and Chinese Cuisine: 783 Radio Drive, #100b, Woodbury, MN 55125, www.ducsrestaurants.com
Thanh Truc: 2230 Eagle Creek Lane, #300g, Woodbury, MN 55129, www.thanhtrucrestaurant.com
Ramen Station: 1960 Donegal Drive, #15, Woodbury, MN, 55125, www.ramenstationmn.com
Ronnally’s Pizza: 1560 Woodlane Drive, Woodbury, MN, 55125, www.ronnallys.com