Restaurant review: Bright, new menu items from Northstar

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From the July 17, 2014 edition

Northstar Cafe likes being ahead of the curve. When its first iteration opened 10 years ago in the Short North, except for a limited few bars/restaurants, the area was by no means a safe bet dining destination. Or, really, all that safe.

There were other attributes for which Northstar stood out then — especially as a casual eatery — that everybody takes for granted nowadays: bold flavors, scratch-cooking, local and organic sourcing, veggie-friendly menus (starring the best meatless burger known to foodkind), smart architectural style and thoughtful drinks.

Maybe less ahead of the curve has been Northstar’s audience, including me, who tend to frequent the place for their old favorites. This occurred to me while visiting the original Northstar recently, and noticing newer menu items. One of them turned out to be pretty damn good, and the other became my instant new favorite.

The BBQ Pork Burrito ($13), which I was told has been on the Short North branch’s menu for at least a year-and-a-half, was the pretty damn good one. Its fistfuls of high-quality Niman Ranch pork were swathed in a sweet barbecue sauce with a neat little kick to it. Playing nice with piggie were plenty of brown rice, fresh avocado, sauteed onions, roasted red peppers and finely shredded cheddar cheese. This pleasingly zesty gut-bomb comes with tortilla chips and Northstar’s feisty roasted salsa.

This brings us to Northstar’s killer version of Pad Thai ($14), i.e. its newest menu item, and my new favorite. Though equipped with piquant-tamarind-sauced rice noodles and enriched with hacked egg, plus lotsa crunchy chopped peanuts, it’s otherwise not really traditional — there’s no detectable fish sauce or shrimp. Also unlike trad pad Thai, where your veggie expectations don’t much exceed bean sprouts, Northstar’s colorful and healthy rendition is strewn with a scorched cornucopia of haricot verts, broccoli, corn, red cabbage and red peppers.

What’s more, Northstar’s smoky, sweet, spicy and tangy pad Thai tastes different with practically every wow-inducing bite. Other dynamic flavor contributors to this two-meal sized portion include basil, cilantro, sauteed sweet onions and lime.

Is this pad Thai ahead of the curve? If you love bold, spicy and healthy foods, I strongly suggest you come in to decide for yourself.

Photo by Meghan Ralston