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For a couple of glorious months last year, Duluth had two extraordinarily good restaurants in one short stretch of Superior Street: Sound and Martha’s Daughter. I am still mourning Sound, which was my favorite restaurant in the city while it lasted. Now Martha’s Daughter has closed its doors. A well-publicized struggle to pay liquor licenses and other tax obligations probably contributed to scaring customers away—I was there on a recent Friday night and for fifteen minutes my two year old daughter and I were the only customers in the building. It’s a shame because the food was straight-up delicious.
The good news is that rather than surrender entirely, the restaurant has retreated to its roots as a pop-up. I respect this move because it acknowledges the dance between a restaurant and its community. Chef Nyanyika Banda has a lot of devotees (including me) who admire the food she turns out and have shown up to eat it multiple times. It’s gracious of her to keep some cooking going locally and far less abrupt than when a restaurant slams the door shut and says “closed for good”.
And yet, a pop-up is a fragile thing. We have to go while it’s there. This is the business equivalent of a last call—your time is short. Specifically, you’ve got until May 5, which is when Banda is hitting the road to do events in Madison, Minneapolis, Massachusetts, and San Francisco. For those of you who chirp “we’ve been meaning to try that ramen!” it’s time to slurp or get off the pot.
I recommend you slurp. The last dish I had there was extraordinary, an adjective I don’t use often unless I am marketing something. It was a big heaping pile of ddeok, chewy Korean rice cakes that were glutinous like Japanese mochi, and tofu. And no, neither of those ingredients sound very good to me either. Let me describe the magic Banda had to apply to make this delicious:
Lots of smushed garlic. Oil. Burning chili heat. A hit of acid—this reminds me a lot of sambal, that hot Indonesian condiment Banda wields with such effect on her famous dumplings. But it gets better. The dish was absolutely larded with Sichuan peppercorn. If you haven’t had this delightful spice, drive to Minneapolis right now. If you have, I don’t need to describe the tongue-numbing, tingling, almost cold heat it provides. I’ve never tasted something with more ELECTRICITY than I felt here. And for the record, the dish also had chunks of bacon.
It’s not like I fell over dead for everything I’ve eaten there. I’m probably not a subtle enough person to really “get” the corn cakes, which to me were just sort of soft and cold. And a peanut butter noodle dish tasted a lot like noodles and peanut butter without a whole lot else. But the hits outnumber the misses. Housemade dumplings, fragrant with basil oil, are the Platonic ideal of potstickers, the kind of dish that you originally mean to share but then order a second one of. Fish is flaky, tender, not overcooked. The famous tacos, with crema, picked onions, and mustard seeds, pop in your mouth.
We all get the kind of world that we create. As a kid, you don’t realize how fragile a business is. A good friend still sort of expects the St. Louis of his childhood to be exactly the way he remembers it. To a lesser extent, most of us project like this. But the restaurants we visit live, the restaurants we don’t visit die. You get what you build. Martha’s Daughter is doing a farewell tour right now. I recommend we send them out with a bang.
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