Go ahead, exit the freeway on your way Up North. You'll discover crawfish étouffée, smørrebrød, knishes, rhubarb fritters and many other tantalizing and memorable eats between St. Cloud and Fargo — and perhaps add a new destination or two to your traditional summer trek.
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North Dakota's largest city makes for an ideal weekend getaway, for all kinds of reasons.
For starters, there's a breakfast-and-lunch restaurant that's worth the four-hour drive from the Twin Cities, and then some. At five-year-old BernBaum's, spouses Brett Bernath and Andrea Baumgardner animate the surprising common ground between his Jewish culinary roots and her Icelandic heritage. A passion for lamb, smoked fish and pickled vegetables are just some of the overlaps, and the results are impressive.
Their story is best told in a tale of two knishes. Although both make full use of Baumgardner's obvious gifts with puff pastry, one follows the traditional potato-caramelized onion route while the other takes advantage of the ever-evolving bounty of local farms. For the latter, I lucked into a mix of kale, leeks, asparagus, spring peas and a burst of garden-fresh greens that will forever alter my previously formulaic view of the knish.
But so much impresses, whether it's the sublime brisket, the vegetable-laden chicken soup with matzo balls, the creamy scrambled eggs with velvety lox or the cardamom-perfumed blintzes garnished with lingonberries. Then there's my new favorite egg sandwich, an ingenious mashup of shakshuka and toad in the hole made with focaccia, one of the many top-flight breads that come out of this busy kitchen, including gotta-have bagels.
"We think of ourselves as a kind of traditional New York deli with a Scandinavian influence and a farm-to-table tradition, and that couldn't have been successful here 20 years ago," said Bernath, a Fargo native. "But Fargo is transitioning from a big small town to a small big city. It's definitely a boom town."
It sure is, and sparks of culinary energy are everywhere. Witness Block 9, downtown's sophisticated new mixed-use complex, which includes the just-opened Jasper Hotel (from the company behind the Hewing Hotel in Minneapolis' North Loop) and its high-design restaurant, Rosewild.
There are global influences, too, from okra soup at A&E Liberian Restaurant to tofu bánh mì at Pho D'Licious. Trend-seekers can dig into Nashville hot-style fried chicken sandwiches at Brew Bird and small-batch ice creams at Silver Lining Creamery. The third-wave coffee movement is alive and well at Youngblood Coffee Roasters, there's an oyster bar at Beer & Fish Co., and the fun-loving taproom circuit is exemplified by Wild Terra Cider.
Although tourists can remain happily occupied in the city's compact, lively downtown, one reason to venture farther south is chef Ryan Nitschke's spirited cooking at Luna Fargo. My highly satisfying dinner — a knockout roast chicken with porcini mushrooms and English peas, tender gnocchi enriched with spring onions and fiddleheads, a dazzlingly composed beet salad — did not sync with the generic strip mall setting.
Across the Red River, Nitschke — teamed with Luna Fargo owner Nikki Berglund — is also the force behind Sol Ave. Kitchen, preparing an eclectic, moderately priced collection of well-prepared street foods (dumplings, rice bowls, tacos) in festive surroundings.
Its next-door neighbor, Junkyard Brewing Co., is one of two Moorhead breweries — the other is Swing Barrel Brewing Co. — that merit attention. Then there's the city's nostalgia-soaked (since 1949!) Dairy Queen, the place to indulge in Lemon Lime Misty Slush Floats, Peanut Buster Parfaits or Oreo Blizzards. The patio's "World's Largest Dilly Bar" — a 12-foot sculptural tribute to the soft-serve treat invented on the premises 66 years ago — is an ideal Instagram backdrop.
In a place that seems to be universally shortened to "DL," it's all about the lake view, restaurants-wise.
Which makes sense, because the shoreline around beautiful Detroit Lake is peppered with a half-dozen food-and-drink destinations that capitalize on their near-the-water locations.
They all have their perks. El Loro Mexican Restaurant offers maximum sunshine and a value-priced menu, and at Holiday Beach Bar & Grill the beach is within reach-out-and-touch proximity. Bonuses at the great-looking Hub 41 include an ice cream scoop counter and a slick second-story terrace. At Lakeside Tavern & Brewery, the dockside setting and house-brewed beer are major draws. And while the water views are slim at Zorbaz, the let's-party patio's sprawling scale provides plenty of fresh-air opportunities.
Still, nothing bests the Fireside. A lakeshore staple since 1948, this well-maintained property has a looker of a dining room and a cozy, welcoming bar. A beaut of a patio is surrounded by an emerald green lawn and shaded by enormous trees; guests can arrive via boat, too.
Chef Cory Wolfe's menu modernizes the supper club framework: pan-fried walleye, steaks with all the trimmings (potatoes prepared five ways, a scallops surf-and-turf option), charcoal-grilled salmon, superb onion rings, deviled eggs, wedge salads, gigantic shrimp cocktail and other scrupulously prepared fare.
The best day to explore the thoughtful, California-centric wine list is Wednesday, when bottle prices drop 30%. And when it comes to cocktails, lead bar man and operating partner Michael "Setty" Setterholm starts with 18 variations on the martini.
Meanwhile, food, as always, remains a leading sociological yardstick. Greater Minnesota's changing demographics are on full display on the Main Street of nearby Pelican Rapids, where a population of about 2,500 is supporting two Mexican restaurants — Taqueria Chavez and Taqueria Escobar — along with La Mariposa Market, a Mexican grocery store.
Timing is everything, right? Social media posts from the Fabled Farmer were sparking hunger pangs, but upon arrival I discovered the daytime cafe was on a two-week pause. Next time.
Fortunately, Töast had recently opened. Six years ago, Tessa and Ben Schierer (he's the city's mayor) launched Union Pizza & Brewing Co. in a former Domino's, making pizzas with naturally leavened dough and firing them up in a wood-burning oven. When the adjacent storefront became available, they decided to open this breakfast-and-lunch ode to the Danish open-faced sandwich.
It's a great idea that's nicely executed. The menu starts with a build-your-own option (with two dozen toppings) but also includes several house specialties. All the components of a meatball dinner — slices of boiled potatoes, a creamy gravy, tangy pickled onions and a bright cucumber salad — make an appearance, and there's a gorgeous stack of velvety smoked salmon, asparagus and a hard-cooked egg with a wonderfully semi-gelatinous yolk.
Another standout piles hearty rye bread with firm pickled herring, radishes, thin-sliced ham, one of those perfectly cooked eggs and a tangy curry-infused rémoulade. Some breads are baked on the premises, while others come from Falls Baking Co., another Fergus find.
Falls Baking owners Scot Erickson and Traci Kromenaker should bottle the scent coming out of their ovens. Not only are they baking baguettes, boules and specialty loaves, but they also celebrate our state's obsession with the 9-by-13 pan via diet-busting bars, including lemon, raspberry, date and turtle varieties. Expertly made graham crackers have "s'mores" written all over them, and the biscotti and scones are all right on the money.
The shop is also a retail outlet for Terroir Chocolate, easily the city's top export. Heck, these chocolate bars are one of the state's most notable artisan food products, period. They're the handiwork of Kristin and Josh Mohagen, who skillfully fashion small batches of cacao beans into chocolate. They skip high-fructose corn syrup, soy, emulsifiers and other mega-manufacturer no-nos, and the distinctive flavors range from lavender to pepper flakes to locally sourced maple syrup.
From a dining perspective, this quaint lakeside municipality (population 700-ish) is an ideal Up North resort town, partly because of its back-in-time quality. Rather than being riddled with Anywhere, USA, chains (OK, there's a Dairy Queen), the cute and energetic two-block main drag is peppered with mom-and-pop outfits suiting a wide range of tastes.
Grab and burger and a beer at the Rusty Nail. For a more ambitious meal, get a table at the Battle Lake Boathouse, or at Stella's Bistro + Wine Bar, which has an appealing pair of outdoor seating venues and is adding a pizzeria.
Parents can fuel a sugar high at Granny's Pantry, a sweet-tooth magnet that makes its own fudge, stocks zillions of penny candies and scoops several dozen flavors of Kemp's ice cream. Kids of all ages will marvel at the inventive cookie dough novelties at Smackin' Cakes, and Falls Baking Co. has a small outlet for picking up sweets (oh, those cranberry-lemon scones!) and breads.
Start the day with pancakes, French toast, omelets, homey baked goods and other breakfast favorites at the cheery Lake Ave Cafe. There's even a food truck, the adorable Coffee33, a cleverly converted camper that specializes in coffee beverages (the beans hail from the first-rate Duluth Coffee Co.) and smoothies.
Mike Rakun, chef/owner of Mill Valley Kitchen in St. Louis Park, Mill Valley Market in Minneapolis and Benedict's Morning Heroes in Wayzata and Rochester, opened Longtrees Woodfire Grill in April. It's easy to see why.
His wife, Abby, grew up in the area, and his father-in-law, Rob Thompson, owns the building where longtime tenant Doolittles Woodfire Grill recently departed.
"But I also saw an opportunity," he said. "I felt there was a void in the market. One thing led to another, and here we are."
Rakun has handsomely renovated the space, opening up the kitchen and giving a showy wood-burning grill the front-and-center treatment ("It's the mack daddy of wood-fired grills," Rakun said with a laugh).
The intoxicating aroma of burning oak is the sensory salutation that greets diners in the parking lot. That grill inserts a mouthwatering smoky flavor into double-cut pork chops, delicate trout, succulent salmon, thick-cut rib eye steaks and an ever-changing host of just-harvested vegetables — asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, garlic scapes, ramps — from nearby farms.
A main attraction is the rotisserie chicken. The top-quality birds are raised a few miles down the road in Glenwood, and after they're brined and rubbed with herbs, Rakun adds a hint of apple wood smoke. The results are spectacular, with crispy, salty-herbal skin and juicy, plentiful meat.
More highlights include wild rice-walleye cakes, locally made grilled sausages and well-conceived appetizers and side dishes, along with a sharp cocktail list, a bargain-minded happy hour and attentive service. It looks like Rakun has another hit on his hands.
"I would say that opening Benedict's in Rochester eased the fear and trepidation a bit," he said. "This place is just another 40 minutes in the other direction. It's fun to get out of the city."
Another chef with local connections is Matthew Jensen. He grew up just south of Alexandria, and after working in the kitchens of two top former Twin Cities restaurants — Vincent and Bayport Cookery — he headed back Up North. By 2013 he had taken ownership of a popular downtown lunch spot, and two years later he christened it La Ferme.
Because he's preaching the gospel of local-seasonal fare, the dinner menu changes weekly. That pace can quicken, depending upon what's coming off the farm that Jensen and his fiancée, Amber Aspengren (she runs the front of the house at the restaurant), operate about 20 minutes north of town. Where do they find the time?
"It's a crazy life," Jensen said. "We're always playing catch-up, but we wouldn't have it any other way."
The couple cultivate arugula, Japanese mustard greens, Swiss chard, kale, tomatillos, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, garlic, raspberries, "and just about every pepper you can think of," said Jensen. They also breed and raise sheep.
When I visited, the menu included chicken and beef, but the star was clearly a lamb loin, braised low-and-slow for 18 hours in red wine and a splash of maple syrup until the deeply flavorful, fat-laced cut nearly collapsed under the fork's weight.
Sweet, juicy strawberries, picked at nearby Country Blossom Farm, were the anchors of a dreamy salad that also featured salty feta cheese, roasted walnuts and splashes of mellow balsamic vinegar. They became the main event in a shortcake of gently crumbly oat flour biscuits layered with a hefty dollop of absurdly rich whipped cream. Lovely.
At lunch, Jensen flips to a counter-service setup, offering soups, salads and sandwiches ("It's crazy, there's literally a line out the front door," he said), and once a month he offers a five-course tasting menu; the next two are scheduled for July 21 and Aug. 18.
"I think if we had stayed in the cities we might have had it easier," said Jensen. "Then again, in the cities, restaurants are always popping up and shutting down. We've slowly been building a base, and it grows every year."
Before leaving Alexandria, make a point of stopping in on Rory and June Roers, who have operated Roers Family Bakery for a quarter-century.
Their business is an increasing rarity: an old-school Main Street bakery that fills its cases, six days a week, with a dizzying selection of handmade temptations. Rhubarb fritters. Cream puffs. Coconut cupcakes. Cake doughnuts gleaming with icing. Date-filled cookies. Gigantic frosted cinnamon rolls. The list goes on. What a treasure.
Although it technically isn't a drive-in — no carhops or menus equipped with two-way speakers — the 66-year-old Tip Top Dairy Bar could in every other way be easily mistaken for this beloved genre of roadside Americana. The menu certainly radiates a drive-in vibe, with burgers, chili cheese dogs and sloppy Joes, plus all manner of deep-fried delicacies and every conceivable permutation of soft-serve treats.
The experience is roughly 100 times more charming than a journey through the standard fast-food drive-through. There's a small dining room, but a preferable summertime option is making the quick trip — it's maybe eight blocks — to the lakeside picnic tables at Park Osagi.
After working for others in the Twin Cities, Mateo Mackbee and Erin Lucas — they're romantic and business partners — moved to this college town, became their own bosses and turned the place upside down with a restaurant, Krewe, and a bakery, Flour & Flower.
Krewe first. The year-old restaurant is built on memories. Mackbee's mother, Mary Mackbee, was raised in New Orleans, and the family recipes that she grew up eating — and later used to feed her children — are now the backbone of this remarkable destination.
All too often, there are lost-in-translation issues when commercial attempts at these glorious Louisiana traditions pop up in Minnesota. Not here. Many standards, meticulously prepared, are present and accounted for, including jambalaya with shrimp and andouille sausage, overstuffed po'boys and a gumbo brimming with crab, chicken and shrimp.
At a recent lunch, crawfish étouffée and a plate of smoked-turkey-boosted red beans and rice exemplified Mackbee's brilliant cooking, with each bite revealing layers of complex flavors. Here's a metric of Mackbee's well-deserved success: He's selling 400 oysters a week. That's a lot.
Flour & Flower is similarly impressive. Lucas clearly has an affinity for laminated doughs, turning out epic croissants and cinnamon-laced morning buns. Her less-is-more approach to pastries — a handful of blackberries popping with lemon, or a schmear of cream cheese topped with a raspberry-rhubarb pairing — does not disappoint.
She makes magic with shortbread cookies, teasing them with turmeric, rosemary, rose water and other less-than-conventional ingredients. Her crowning glory is pie, where intensely flavorful fillings are loaded into golden, butter-redolent crusts. (On the flowers side, there are smile-inducing bouquets from Pluck Flower Farm in Milaca.)
On Monday evenings, Mackbee and Lucas stage a market, inviting artists, artisans and musicians, and serve burgers, brats and Neapolitan-style pizzas. It sounds like a blast. Remember, there's no rule that says a road trip has to take place on a weekend.
Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib