Monday, September 18, 2023

Eating BIG in Minneapolis (and beyond)

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties
- Exploring the North Star State

I took an end of the summer road-trip up to the Minneapolis area at the end of August. The purpose of this trip was to soak up as much summer as possible and I chose this part of the Midwest due to two things. I would be able to do some outdoor stuff and also get some good food. Minnesota has lot to offer from an outdoor perspective and Minneapolis just might be the second best food city in all of the Midwest. I listed it third behind Chicago and Detroit but second place could go either way in that one. I hadn't visited the Twin Cities since 2016 so it had been awhile and it had been even longer since I had visited in the summer which is the best time to go for obvious reasons. Here's where we ate... 

Sights from Minnesota 

Al's Breakfast 

Our first stop is one of the 2004 winners of the James Beard ‘Americas Classics’ award. Al’s Breakfast in the Dinkytown neighborhood is the type of spot I typically like to check out while traveling but I hadn’t made it here on my previous trips so I made sure to fix that up on this one. The 14 seat diner sits on the University of Minnesota campus and is probably the most iconic eatery in town so be prepared to wait in line. It took about 30 minutes for me to get in but it was student move-in week so lots of college kids and their parents were also planning to eat there. I got the José which is real deal hash browns topped with homemade salsa, cheddar and two perfectly poached eggs. Since 1950. 

The José at Al's Breakfast 

Owamni by The Sioux Chef 

If Minneapolis wasn’t so far I would’ve tried Owamni much sooner. The 2022 James Beard winner of the “Best New Restaurant” award wasn’t the only reason I decided to roll into the Twin Cities but it was one of the main reasons I wanted to roll thru. It’s ran by Chef Sean Sherman, a Oglala Lakota chef who only cooks with ingredients used before the arrival of the Europeans. So no wheat, flour, dairy, cane sugar, black pepper etc. It sits in a slick space along the Mississippi River and it’s considered the most prominent indigenous kitchen in the country. First up was Tepary Bean with pickled walleye, green beans, red onions and tostadas. Think of it as a mix between refried beans and hummus. It was the perfect starter on a very warm day. Moving on I was told the corn chowder is one of the most popular menu items so I ignored the fact it was 90° out. It too was really good, especially the fried wild mushrooms on top. I tried two of the taco offerings including the bison asada with pesto and guajillo salsa which was good if a bit dry but the corn taco blew me away. It was a flavor bomb of maíz starting with heirloom blue corn tortillas spread with a sweet corn jam topped with fried corn, popcorn and micro-greens from the Mississippi. This was as unique of a taco as I’ve come across in a long time. All in all this meal will be considered when I round up the best bites of 2023 in December. 

Lunch at Owamni

Union Hmong Kitchen

Minneapolis and St. Paul are home to the country’s largest Hmong community so I got some Hmong food while there (but I missed out on some Somali food this trip). I ended up doing that at the Union Hmong Kitchen which is part of a food hall near Target Field. The Hmong sausage platter hit the spot on a hot day. Hmong sausage is similar in flavor to other SE Asian sausages though it tends to be a bit drier than the others from my experience with it. But it worked well when wrapped up with the purple sticky rice, Khao Sen rice noodles, pickled veggies and the lettuce that comes with it. 

Hmong Sausage Platter at Union Hmong Kitchen 

Oro by Nixta Tortilleria

I always search out the best Mexican food and Nixta looked like a worthy stop. It’s an heirloom tortilleria that has a dinner spot next door where they serve a menu revolving around masa. The Molotes are little torpedoes of fried masa that come stuffed with picadillo and dressed with lettuce, Mexican dry aged cheese, salsa tatemada, and crema. I don’t think it would be possible to elevate the classic crispy taco any further than this dish did. I also got a killer veggie taco made with bok choy, huitlacoche - black beans, salsa macha, and pickled veggie relish. It’s a shame that Chicago really doesn’t have a spot like this when it comes to the heirloom tortilleria portion of the business so I brought a couple packs of their corn tortillas back with me. They're thick with a nice corn perfume. 

Dinner at Oro by Nixta

Pumphouse Creamery 

The Midwest might be the best region for Ice Cream. I’ll hear arguments from the Northeast but that’s about it. I found Pumphouse Creamery searching for the areas best ice cream and there was a Reddit thread with lots of mentions for the fruit flavors. I tend to prefer fruit when it comes to ice cream and gelato so I decided to check them out. All of the fruit flavors are made with local fruit from nearby farms including a blend of honeyberry and raspberry crisp of which ice cream dreams are made of.

Local Honeyberry and Raspberry Crisp at Pumphouse Creamery 

Boomin Barbecue (Hudson, WI)

Our next spot is a bonus stop of sorts. According to Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor at Texas Monthly, you can find Minneapolis's best bbq in Hudson, Wisconsin (30 mins east). I guess the city made it a real bitch for Boomin Barbecue to operate its smoker thanks to stupid municipal laws and what not so they said f-ck it and moved their business to Hudson where they park said smoker in the lot and setup shop in the kitchen of Nova Bar. It's a great partnership and with the surrounding landscape it feels like you could be somewhere out west. I enjoyed a smoked beef and cheddar sandwich on special. 

Smoked Beef and Cheddar at Boomin Barbecue 

Meister's Bar & Grill (Stillwater)

I was falling in love with all the river towns on this trip. Stillwater is a lovely little river town that reminded me alot of Galena. It sits on the St. Croix River about 30 mins northeast of Minneapolis so it’s basically a suburb. We stopped in at an iconic German bar that sits in a residential neighborhood. Meister’s is a typical Wisconsin tavern that happens to be across the river in Minnesota. The kitchen is the grill behind the bar and the ground beef is supplied by a local butcher as are the brats. The signature Burgermeister is a bacon cheeseburger with fried onions and high quality bacon bits. Thick chunks of extra smoky bacon are mixed into extremely well melted cheese acquired by placing the top of a pan over the burgers when the cheese goes on - a very good bar burger. The brat comes in patty form and is squeezed in-between locally baked marbled rye with Sauerkraut and Swiss. All of this is fresh cut fries on the side shows this place still does things the old school way. Since 1948.

Lunch at Meister's Bar & Grill

Nelson's Ice Cream (Stillwater)

After lunch we went over to the historic Nelson’s for some ice cream. I’d heard they pack it on big here but was not prepared for what I was given after I ordered a small cup of rum cherry. I was convinced he had misheard me as this was easily enough ice cream for two and then some. I got a kick out of the kitchen sink they have outside so customers can wash up after eating as they give you so much ice cream there’s no way that some of it doesn’t melt and end up on your hands. Since 1923.

Cherry Rum (small) at Nelson's Ice Cream 

Bev's Cafe (Red Wing)

We drove down to the shoe making town of Red Wing one day for breakfast and also to get stuff from the farmers market which was said to be a good one and it was but it was also pretty small with no more than ten vendors on a Saturday. My love for regional food led us to Bev’s Cafe where they make gritwurst or gritzelwurst as it was called in the German butcher shops of the upper Midwest way back when. It’s a mix of pork meat and oats and or barley and it’s very similar to Cincinnati’s goetta. Not bad but it could’ve been crisped up a tad bit more and some seasoning wouldn’t have hurt it either.

Gritwurst at Bev's Cafe

Hanisch Bakery and Coffee Shop (Red Wing)

Bakeries are another one of the Midwest's food strengths. There seems to be a longtime bakery in pretty much every Midwest town. In Red Wing, Hanisch Bakery is that spot. It’s been around in one form or the other since 1961 when it started out as Pirius Bakery. They have a ton of stuff on offer so I went ahead and asked the lady behind the counter what the most popular donuts were and I ended up with a couple Long Johns stuffed with cream and also a couple or the cherry donuts. 

Donuts at Hanisch Bakery and Coffee Shop

Kings Place Bar & Grill (Miesville)

I was able to add a few spots from Minnesota to my always growing Midwestern burger database. The second of them was King’s Place Bar & Grill in the tiny town of Miesville (Pop. 125). It’s a popular spot with bikers and often mentioned as the home to Minnesota's best burger. They offer more than 100 different options but me being a bit of a burger purist I went with the California Burger from the ‘King’s Originals’ which are the burgers that started it all back when it was just a small general store with a few burger options. It starts out with a 1/3 lb hunk of beef that’s lightly smashed on a small and always packed flattop, this place stays busy. It comes dressed with lettuce, tomato, and mayo on a lightly toasted bun. It was just about perfect which means it got a B+ on the burger grading scale. This means it was very good and gets honorable mention status among the country's best burgers. 

California Burger at Kings Place 

House of Coates (Coates)

Final stop on the mini Minnesota burger tour took us to another tiny town called Coates (pop. 161) about 20 mins northwest of the previous stop. The House of Coates is the type of bar you tend to find in the upper Midwest in that its an outdated place that caters to the motorcyclers in the summer and to snowmobilers in the winter plus thirsty people passing by all year. It’s got a very Northwoods feel with a tended to pull tab booth inside and a fantastic neon sign outside. They’re known for half pound burgers including the Swanee which is a bacon cheeseburger with fried onions and a side of pickles plus a cup of blue cheese dressing. We weren’t asked how we wanted it cooked so I guess medium is standard which is better than well done but not as good as medium rare so that was my only complaint about an otherwise formidable bar burger. That's it for this trip. 

Swanee Burger at House of Coates

See ya next time @chibbqking

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