Church Lunch Confidential: St. Paul's Wednesday lunch buffet
Lunch in a church basement might not sound all that enticing, but the weekly lunch at St. Paul Central Presbyterian is a staple for the folks who work within four blocks of the corner of Cedar and Exchange. Every Wednesday a combination of staff and volunteers for the church roll out a family style serve-yourself meal for a minimum donation of $7 (though no one is turned away for lack of funds).
But, does this church lunch live up to the hype? Or is it only worth it if you're already in the area?
Central Presbyterian Church started its Wednesday community lunches to serve construction workers who were putting up the new Minnesota Public Radio headquarters in 2005, but soon it became a destination lunch for people from all around the city. Now every Wednesday a bunch of ladies from the Minnesota Department of Health, some folks from Minnesota Public Radio, and the administrative team from McNally Smith College of Music descend upon the side door of the church at approximately 11:41 a.m. waiting for the doors to open at 11:45. (Word to the wise: If you miss that first rush, wait until 12:05 or you'll be standing in line on the steps deciding if you like how the food smells.) Once you get in the doors, a volunteer takes your $7 (many pay more to help the church's mission) and you head into a short two-sided buffet line.
Church lunch regulars can count on two soups (or an entree and a soup), a salad, bread, and a dessert. Folks with dietary restrictions can get a vegetarian-friendly salad and soup, plus items that are gluten-free and labeled as such. The ambiance is what you might expect for a buffet housed in a church basement, but head chef Barb Westman and her team serve up a meal so tasty and hearty, you'll forget about ambiance altogether.
The weekly menu is posted online here, though we think it's more exciting to simply try your luck. Here's what was available on a recent visit:
Shepherd's Pie Soup
The meat in the soup was delicious, like a very smoky pot-roast, and there was plenty of it in each ladle, but there were no potatoes. The soup revealed one of the pitfalls of going with the two-soup option at this church lunch: You might wind up wanting that same soup flavor, just in a more filling, non-soup format. We ended up jonesin' hard for a serious plate of shepherd's pie.
The Curry Cauliflower Apricot Soup
Reading the words "curry cauliflower apricot soup" on the menu might bring a lot of anxiety to the mainstream soup eater. Indian-inspired dishes can sometimes fall short of expectations, wielding the strong spices of Indian cuisine without the hearty vegetables and meats that make those spices come across properly. This soup was a pleasant surprise, though, as the curry flavor came across both in the body of the soup and in the finely diced cauliflower. The apricots played a mild supporting role, which was for the best because too much more would have overpowered the dish.
The Arugula, Kale, and Golden Beet Salad
For those who don't like arugula and can't fathom why anyone would eat raw kale, this salad is like getting caught in a battle of the bitter greens, praying you get a good splash of dressing and beets in each bite. But the mix worked well and spoke to one of the church lunch's strong suits: gently nudging the palate boundaries of its guests.
Whole Grain Bread
The church bakes their own bread here and the result is a cut above what you will find at a lot of restaurant tables in the Twin Cities. It's hard to beat a slice of crusty bread to go alongside a piping hot bowl of soup.
Bacon Bread Pudding
When you visit the church lunch, the desserts are non-negotiable, and you'd better grab one of the buffet's sweet treats early in your trip, or you might miss your chance. The bread pudding is expertly prepared and the bacon isn't used in that overdone, hipstery kind of way, but rather as a well-placed savory note amidst sweet cinnamon deliciousness.
Our verdict: St. Paul's church lunch is all its cracked up to be -- an awesome middle-of-the-week treat for an affordable family-style meal.