BY DEBRA KEEFER RAMAGE
South 34th Avenue functions as a sort of Main Street for the tight-knit but diverse community around Lake Nokomis. The pandemic and economic disruption caused some closings but storefronts at the 34th Avenue and 50th Street hub and surrounding areas don’t stay vacant for long. Five years ago there was a quite different lineup of businesses on 34th Avenue and 50th Street, but the ones there now seem strong and popular.
The corner space (5001 34th Ave. S.) is a spacious restaurant with a three-season patio. Although we have fond memories of its previous incarnation, Al Vento, Casa Maria is proving to be a more than worthy successor, having gained a loyal following in the few years they’ve been there. Their hours are 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday for the bistro menu (no reservations, eat inside, take out, or delivered). Then there is a weekend brunch, a fancy fixed-price, five-course affair for $35 including beverages. The hours for brunch are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. They also serve a patio dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings, with the same hours but only by reservation.
Casa Maria’s bistro menu includes most of the Mexican favorites you would expect, as well as a few surprises and creations of their own, like the esquites (street corn), carne asada fries, and their own cauliflower and walnut chorizo for vegetarian choices. The patio dinner menu includes more formal fare, such as a 12-ounce rib eye carne asada dinner plate, a salmon dinner with almonds, fennel slaw and roasted pepper, and for dessert, a choice of churros with ice cream or flourless chocolate cake. The most interesting, though, is the brunch menu, which consists mostly of things you don’t find on other Mexican menus around here. They also have a full bar, with cerveza, vino and cocteles. These are available for an extra charge at brunch, and for half price between 4 and 5 p.m.
Farther down the block is a true newcomer – Crema Coffee + Cream. Open seven days a week in the morning and afternoon, they serve coffee for people who love coffee, and the usual adjacent drinks like tea, chai and steamers. They also have a small selection of delicious pastry items from Marc Heu Patisserie (often sold out by afternoon) and soft-serve gelato. It’s mostly a to-go place and quite tiny, but they have some Adirondack chairs (inside or outside, depending on the weather!) if you want to linger.
Between these two bookends of the block are Asa’s Bakery, which we covered previously, and a small private gym/studio. That would be Paddlesculpt, now known as Noko Strength, which is coming to its 10-year anniversary on 34th Avenue. They have added a few trainers and classes, and branched into virtual training during the pandemic (a few of these, particularly yoga, are still available) but founder Dori Johnson and crew have persisted and thrived.
A few blocks south, at 5501 34th Ave., is the Vegan East Bakery. This is not a full-service restaurant like the main Vegan East on Lyndale. There is no seating, and they carry only cakes and cupcakes and other baked dessert items, which you can buy online for pickup later or just purchase on-site. Their hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. In addition to all items being vegan, they have many gluten-free options.
Apart from restaurants and businesses, the neighborhood around 34th Avenue and 50th Street has a lot of the institutions that make a locale livable, such as churches, libraries, parks and multi-family housing. Two neighboring churches share a lot in common. Both are evangelical
protestant congregations, both are over 90 years old and were founded by Scandinavian newcomers and, most importantly, both have survived to at least 2023, in a time when churches are closing all around.
The first one is Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod, one of the more conservative Lutheran synods). Located at 3430 E. 51st St., their current pastor is Rev. Jared Yogerst. If you want to check this church out, I recommend starting with their Facebook page, which has months’ worth of live recorded services and the most up to date contact information. Faith hosts a number of weekly or monthly activities,
including AA and NA groups, a book club, a senior exercise class, and a Blind Ministry.
The second one is Riverside Evangelical Free Church, which is 116 years old, although not always at its present site at 3401 Boardman St. The pastor is Rev. Prince Lee, who has been there since 2007. Their website has lots of current activities on the calendar, including Wednesday night prayer and Bible studies, new member classes on Sunday mornings, and open court basketball on Saturdays!
A prominent multi-family housing complex in the neighborhood is the Nokomis Square Cooperative, for seniors aged 55 or better. This 220-unit co-op was built with help from the neighborhood association and another neighborhood Lutheran church in 1986, after nearly 16 years of planning and discussion. I have been there for community events or to visit friends who live there, and it is really nice – well-maintained, with lots of resident-led activities and beautiful grounds. If you or someone you know is in the market for senior housing, definitely give them a visit. They have a few units available now, but for some (like their scarce 3-bedroom
units), there is a waitlist.
A final institution I must mention is the wonderful local library – the Nokomis Branch at 5100 34th Ave. S. The Hennepin County Library system upgraded the hours and services of almost all of its entire portfolio of libraries! Nokomis is now open every day but Sunday for a total of 48 hours per week. This is a Very Good Thing.