When I first learned of the concept behind the newly opened North Loop Galley food court, I took it for granted that soul and authenticity—however those two slippery terms are defined—weren’t going to be part of the package deal.
The North Loop Galley space was opened by the national Galley Group in late 2019, and it’s clean and well-lighted to the point of sterility. To boot: it’s parked in a neighborhood that has become a byword for stylish young bougie living fueled by international design trends and fat wads of currency.
And yet: There is a vitality crackling behind the scenes of all four of North Loop’s food concepts that seems to jump out from behind their counters. Much to my joyful surprise, none of these spots feel like they’re cranking out food units to make their margins—all of them seem to have been crafted by people who legitimately love food, for diners who legitimately love food, too.
While all four concepts are similarly fast-ish, reasonably expensive (expect to pay about $20 for your meal, including drink and tip), and current to the point of trendiness, they arrive at those destinations via different roads.
Ono Hawaiian Plates is Hawaiian-born chef Warren Seta’s attempt to share his home state’s signature flavor with a people who up until now haven’t known what they’re missing. Soul Fu brings American Southern fare together with Southeast Asian food. Thigh Times Birdhouse is a novel and timely attempt to brand and celebrate chicken thighs by chef Jared Brewington (of the former Funky Grits in South Minneapolis) and his wife Jennifer. And Wrecktangle Pizza may be the most ambitious effort yet to bring Detroit-style pizza (thick, rectangular, and crispy on the outside, tender on the inside) to Minnesota.
All of these concepts lean forward into where an educated observer might guess that tastes are heading. But while the food is undeniably trendy, it’s also largely rooted in existing traditions and it generally succeeds on those terms.
To begin with, the crown jewel of our visit: As far as raw value-for-the-dollar goes, the Luau Bowl at Ono Hawaiian Plates ($15) must surely rank well against anything else out there on the market at large. The plate arrives laden with enough ahi poke to make for a small poke bowl elsewhere (perceived value: $9), enough Kalua pork to pass for an entree (perceived value: $11), and a lovely scoop of mac salad (perceived value: $3) to boot. This is a plate that’ll feed a seriously hungry person or two light eaters and make them happy in the process—everything we tasted was properly seasoned, balanced, savory, and compelling. We wanted to just tuck into this stuff until exhaustion.
The only regularly available SPAM musubi that we’re aware of in the metro is the excellent stuff at United Noodles, so we felt compelled to see if Ono’s version ($3) gave the local originator a run for its money. It did, in fact. The United Noodles version is sort of a big SPAM nigiri roll: a fat, seared, heavily seasoned plank of SPAM roped firmly onto a bed of seasoned rice. The Ono version, by contrast, is more like a nori seaweed eggroll, the rice and SPAM encased in a chewy, earthy tube of plant material. The seasoning is a little lighter than the United Noodles version, but it’s balanced and compelling, and we happily finished every bite. Bonus points to Ono for serving their SPAM musubi warm (as does United Noodle). One could eat lunch happily at Ono for $6–$9 by simply scarfing two or three of these meatily delectable treats.
The top-of-the-menu pizza at Wrecktangle is the Shredder ($12), and no wonder—it’s approachable, it’s gregarious, but it still has an edge. The beautifully cupped little pepperoni slices that top its puffy-yet-crispy squares of pizza are its visual hallmark, but the inclusion of pickled chilis and whipped Cry Baby Craig’s hot sauce-kicked honey gives it the acid and heat it needs to be more than just a meaty nap in a cardboard box.
The Greek-a-Leek ($15) commits to its theme with a vengeance, bringing together gyro-seasoned sausage bits, kalamata olives, pickled leeks, lush full-flavored feta cheese, and mint leaves served (adorably) one per square. The classic combo worked as you’d hope, with the leeks and olives cutting into the rich fattiness of the cheese and the earthy meatiness of the sausage. Meanwhile on the texture front: the Detroit-ness of the pizza presents a beautiful contrast—crispy crust vs. tender, doughy interior—making every bite a tactile playground.
The restaurant is sort of fighting a headwind with its Bahn Migo sandwich, a banh mi-meets-carnitas twist on a banh mi with an avocado cream sauce. You can find a good banh mi sandwich out in the wild for considerably less than $10, and sometimes as low as $5—these days consumers will be familiar with the quality product available at the likes of iPho, Quang, or Ha Tien. Soul Fu’s $13 Bahn Migo had a dry, bland overall character that would have been greatly improved by some zippy, full-flavored pickled veg—the underpowered, finely sliced carrots sprinkled into this sandwich didn’t accomplish much. Nothing is gained with this act of culinary fusion, and quite a bit is lost.
A similar lack of balance carried through into the restaurant’s Fu Wings ($11), which boasted a pleasantly crispy texture and a deeply spiced exterior, but lacked the acidic zing or bite that could have come from a variety of different condiments including a conventional hot sauce like Frank’s. The creamy garlic sauce that was drizzled atop the wings instead brought a richness that was redundant with the meat itself—a little bit of contrast could have gone a long way here.
Four Wribs (bone-in chicken thighs presented to evoke BBQ ribs) go for $12 at Thigh Times Birdhouse. The admittedly rib-textured thighs might feel overpriced on their own, but we ordered ours slathered in a Hot & Spicy BBQ sauce that is one of the most skillfully balanced, outright delicious sauces we’ve tasted in many months. Both fiery heat and rich, deep sweetness were strongly present and in equal proportions, making the chicken beneath absolutely irresistible.
The Thigh Times Kids Combo ($7) is just about everything you can ask for in terms of a restaurant kids meal, minus, perhaps, a serving of fruit and/or vegetables. The two Tato Tenders (crispy potato-breaded chicken tenders) had a clean, chicken-forward flavor and distinctly crispy coating that we liked and our six-year-old freakin’ loved, and the restaurant’s unusual wedge-meets-potato-chip hit the spot with a mix of chewy, crispy, and tender textures.