Minnesota's roads are paved with culinary riches, and traveling them can yield delicious results. This installment of our Iconic Eats series shines the spotlight on can't-miss foods outside of the Twin Cities area.
Maps were drawn, discussions were heated and readers weighed in. Drastic cuts were made, last-minute substitutions were granted. The final list was whittled down to 35, and it's an eclectic one: small-town meat markets and bakeries, burgers and shore lunches, sashimi tacos and gumbo. Some have been around for a century, earning iconic status along the way; others made a big splash right out of the gate and became instant icons. All are worth seeking out on your next road trip. (Or, in some cases, ordering online pronto.)
Look for the last of our Iconic Eats series, which revisits hallowed restaurants throughout the state, on Thanksgiving. We'll serve up a slice of nostalgia right alongside the pumpkin pie.
Classic wild rice burger from Fitger's Brewhouse. Inside this historic brewery is an always-bustling restaurant with one of the best vegetarian burgers around. Fitger's wild rice burger is a hearty mix of Minnesota's favorite grain topped with cheddar cheese, garlic mayo, sprouts, tomato and red onion. The recipe is a closely guarded secret and the flavor is pure North Woods satisfaction.
Cinnamon roll with cardamom frosting from Duluth Grill. The Duluth Grill has forever changed the dining landscape in the Zenith City and created a local food destination just a hop off the interstate. Jockey for a breakfast seat and experience this plate-sized cinnamon roll filled with cinnamony gooeyness tucked into pillowy dough and dripping with cardamom icing.
Sashimi tuna tacos from New Scenic Cafe. Much has changed at New Scenic Cafe since Scott Graden took over this North Shore destination in 1999, but not the sashimi tuna tacos. At the time, the raw tuna, avocado and wasabi were a revelation. Now each bite is bracing, beautiful comfort on the shore of the greatest of the Great Lakes.
Spirit Lake Native Farm Maple Syrup. There's a rich backbone and smooth sweetness in pure maple syrup, and the best you can buy in the state comes from Minnesota's first people. Spirit Lake carries on the ancestors' wood-fired tradition. Look for Spirit Lake Native Farms at the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO) farmers markets in Duluth through early fall or check their website.
Sausage pizza from Sammy's Pizza. Minnesota loves a skinny-crust pizza and Sammy's is the best of its kind. The Perrella family has been tossing these thin-crusted, folded-around-the-edge pies for 60 years. Topped with fresh tomato sauce, a thin layer of cheese and knobs of Italian sausage studded with fennel seed, it's an outstanding square-cut pizza experience.
Smoked cisco from Russ Kendall's Smoke House. The best kind of shore lunch is a lap filled with white butcher paper and fragrant smoked fish from Russ Kendall's. This little shop on the edge of historic Hwy. 61 serves up a variety of smoked fish, but on rocky edge of Lake Superior, it's best to go local. Grab a sleeve of saltines and a can of cold beer to round out the meal.
Fish dinner from Angry Trout Cafe. Eat the rainbow at this North Shore legend. Plates at this Grand Marais Harbor cafe are a work of art, chock-full of local produce and fish straight from Lake Superior. If you're a fried fish-and-chips person, that's an option. But a beautifully grilled fillet served with a nest of Parmesan and hazelnut-topped pasta, or a shiitake mushroom and wild rice pilaf and a lovely salad, can make one truly appreciate the bounty of northern Minnesota.
Burger, fries and a malt from Gordy's Hi-Hat. It's not summer until Gordy's Hi-Hat opens. People drive for miles to this stand, which has been around since 1960, for burgers, skinny fries and blended chocolate malts. It just closed for the season, but put it on your must-do list for summer 2023.
Hot air from Canelake's Candies. Founded in 1905 by the four Canelake brothers, this Virginia candy shop continues to be a throwback to another era with a wide selection of sugary delights. Opt for the Hot Air, also known as sponge candy: a puffy, caramelly sugar concoction dipped into chocolate that collapses onto your tongue with each bite. Online ordering reopens in November.
Potica from Sunrise Bakery. Up on the Iron Range, if you're lucky enough to know the right folks during the holidays, cookie trays often come with a few precious slices of homemade potica. For the rest of us, there is Sunrise Bakery, which has been stretching and rolling this warmly spiced, nutty sweet bread for generations. Available inside the family-owned bakery or online.
Caramel rolls from Tobie's. For generations of city dwellers, Tobie's has been a cabingoer's rite of passage. We'd pile out from the unbuckled way back in anticipation of the sweet, swirled goodness baked up inside this diner. Years later, even when we're the ones in the driver's seat, it's a sticky sweet reward for making it this far.
Pie from Rustic Inn. There's a not-so-subtle rivalry among pie lovers along Hwy. 61. Betty's Pies has name recognition going for it, and national shipping on Goldbelly, too. But while busloads of visitors fill Betty's parking lot, people in the know go to Rustic Inn for the rotating list of cream, crumb or fruit pies. Readers like Christine Bettendorf wrote in to agree: "We tell people to go to Betty's Pies so we can eat our fill at Rustic Inn."
Uffda Zah from Sven & Ole's. There was a small panic when Sven & Ole's Grand Marais building went on the market earlier this year. But the business, which has been slinging pizzas (and bumper stickers) since 1982, is sticking around for now. That applies to its frozen pies, too, which have made their way to stores as far away as the outskirts of the Twin Cities. Go all in with the signature Uffda Zah, with Italian sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, black olives, green peppers and onions.
Pasties from Paul's Market For some Iron Rangers, there's an unbreakable rule that a proper pasty must contain rutabaga. Paul's Market delivers with a crust that envelops a hearty beef pasty mixed with root vegetables, including that necessary tang of a rutabaga. Have them shipped from October-April and order extra to satisfy year-round cravings.
Throwback treats from Dairy Queen. This historic DQ has been churning out treats since 1949 and is the birthplace of the Dilly Bar, which is why that should be the first treat on your list. But you can't go wrong with other throwbacks long gone from mainstream DQ menus, like the Chipper Sandwich, Mr. Maltie or Monkey Tail, all made by hand in the charming seasonal corner shop.
Red Lake Wild Rice. The Red Lake Nation is the only cultivated wild rice that's grown and harvested by a Native American-owned company. (You'll taste the difference over the mass-produced varieties.) The nutty flavor that bursts from the toasted shells is woodsy, savory and a major upgrade from traditional grains. Harvested near Canada, this wild rice can be shipped across the country. Order year-round at redlakenationfoods.com.
Lefse from Carl's Lefse. While the lefse we love is almost always homemade, for some, only a trip to Carl's will do for sheets of their "Norwegian Maid" potato crêpes. "Our Fargo relatives go to Hawley for lefse at Carl's," said reader Katy Halverson. "It is always a wonderful treat for the holidays." See lefse-making in action at the bakery, which supplies the Fargo-Moorhead region, or call for shipping.
621 Hobart St., Hawley, 218-483-3469
Malt from the MinneSoda Fountain. When two farmers and brothers from Park Rapids traded the hand plow for an ice cream scoop, a small-town tradition was born. Now, 100 summers later, the seasonal scoop shop and deli on Park Rapids' charming Main Street might not look the same — the brothers traded up from the original marble countertops to Formica after World War II — but the 1950s-style parlor is still known far and wide for its floats, sundaes and, especially, rich old-fashioned malts made with hand-scooped hard ice cream.
Gumbo from Krewe. Mateo Mackbee and Erin Lucas ditched Minneapolis for central Minnesota, where they operate a farm and bakery in addition to the New Orleans-inspired restaurant that opened just two years ago. The old-style gumbo, a recipe from Mackbee's mother, became an instant classic. The thinner-than-usual broth is packed with pool-raised shrimp from Willmar and Wisconsin-made andouille sausage, rooting it firmly in the Midwest.
Rusk from Lindstrom Bakery. The 80-cent Scandinavian doughnut may have been called out by Food & Wine magazine as the best in Minnesota, but this longtime bakery's top seller is actually rusk, the Swedish biscuit akin to cinnamon toast. Owner Bernie Coulombe perfected a labor-intensive version of the delicacy that epitomizes that hygge feeling. "When people head south for the winter, it's nothing for them to come in and buy 20 or 30 bags," she told the Star Tribune last year. "They fill their luggage with it."
Small-town meat markets. Stepping into a butcher shop, especially those where a perfume of smoked meats hangs in the air, is always a thrill. We have three favorites. Bacon is a must at Thielen Meats, where the aroma wafts through the parking lot. At McDonald's Meats, there are stacks of road-trip-ready meat sticks. And at Zup's up in Cook, the back of the grocery store stocks the Up North delicacy of porketta, coated in dry Italian seasonings ready for the grill. The best small-town bites often come wrapped in white butcher paper. Thielen Meats, 310 N. Main St., Pierz, thielen-meats.com; McDonald's, 8601 Main Av., Clear Lake, mcdonaldsmeats.com; Zup's, 1500 E. Sheridan St., Ely, zups.com
Scones from StoneHouse Coffee & Roastery. "Your list really must include the scones made and sold by StoneHouse Coffee & Roastery," wrote reader Laurie Greeno. They come in a variety of flavors — Greeno's favorites are the cherry almond raspberry and mixed berry white chocolate — and are "to die for" when fresh from the oven. "People come from miles around, just to score a scone or six." If a trip Up North isn't imminent, don't worry. They sell the mix online.
25346 S. Main St., Nisswa; 24052 Smiley Road, Nisswa; 14540 Dellwood Drive, Baxter
Herring from Morey's Seafood Markets. Few people have a casual relationship with herring; you either love or detest those little chunks of pickled fish. Morey's caters strictly to the love camp, with more than a dozen varieties and flavors. They have the traditional wine and cream sauces, but don't be afraid to get experimental with lingonberry, Cajun and creamy smoky bacon. Never one to avoid a controversial fish, Morey's has your back for all your lutefisk needs, too.
Fritter bread French toast from Nelson Bros. Restaurant. This popular stop in Clearwater Travel Plaza, right along I-94, has expanded over the years from small-town cafe to destination eatery and bakery. If you don't have time to sit down for a meal of fritter French toast, by all means grab a loaf of the fritter bread — available in apple, raspberry, blueberry and cinnamon — from the bakery and make your own at home.
Johnnie Bread from St. John's University. The hearty bread, a mix of rye and wheat flours, has been a staple at the university since the Benedictine monks who founded it started making it in the 1800s. Today, students (not monks) turn out thousands of loaves each year. Buy freshly baked loaves in the campus bookstore (go early, they often sell out), or take home a mix and re-create the magic at home. Both baked loaves and mixes are available online, too.
Popovers with honey butter from Anton's. The family of Anton and Lorraine Gaetz has owned this sprawling restaurant along the Sauk River since 1973. Anton's boasts more than 75 types of scotch, but the real draw? Giant popovers. Served with every entree and available on the side for just $2.50, popovers are also the top selling takeout item — the kitchen can turn out hundreds a day. Add a dollop of honey butter and you have popover perfection.
Burger from Val's Rapid Serv. It's like a taste of the past, with prices to match. The tiny abandoned service station was converted to a restaurant more than 60 years ago and still looks the same — in a very good way. The menu is reliably delicious: burgers, fries and more than 20 varieties of shakes. Spring for an order of salty, crispy fries — they're heaped into a white paper bag and make for a fun excavation game when digging to unearth the burger beneath.
Gabby Burger at Estelle's Eatery. This scratch kitchen with a seasonal menu captured the heart of Harmony and beyond when owner Matt Brown's daughter, Gabby, was diagnosed with cancer before her first birthday and passed away shortly after she turned 2. Gabby's memory is woven into this gem of the Driftless Area, and the one-of-a-kind burger is named after her. It's topped with bacon, blackberry jam, jalapeño relish and Gorgonzola cheese. Just try to eat it with a dry eye.
Spam De'Melt from Kenny's Oak Grill. A family-run diner for more than 50 years, Kenny's is almost as much of an Austin icon as Spam, the canned lunch meat that's produced in the city. Kenny's leans into its hometown history by putting its own Spam creations on the menu. The Spam De'Melt might be the best use of that spongy pork loaf: It's sliced and stuffed into a grilled cheese, along with bacon and sour cream. After a visit to the local Spam Museum, this will take care of any cravings for cubes of ham.
Raspberry custard turnover from Martha's Eats & Treats. "You have died and gone to heaven with this one," said reader Nancy Brown about Martha Schuetzle's Dundas cafe. There are quiches and soups for lunches, but Brown starts with the raspberry custard turnover. Crunchy on the outside, pillowy and buttery on the inside and no scrimping on flavor and fillings, she buys three when she can. "One for me, one for my husband and one to eat in the car because I can't wait."
Kolacky from Franke's Bakery. They call Montgomery the Kolacky Capital of the World for a reason. This family-run bakery has been churning out the Czech fruit-filled pastries since 1914, and while they now have flavors like jalapeño cream cheese and blueberry, nothing beats the original flavor trifecta: apricot, prune and poppy seed.
Burger from Tendermaid Sandwich Shop. The signature riff on Iowa's Maid-Rite loose-meat sandwiches has been winning over fans at this adorable little burger and malt shop since 1938. Crumbly hamburger meat imbued with tangy, rich juices is served inside a squishy white bun with a variety of toppings. Heed the warning: "The spoon isn't for the milk shake, it's for the burger."
Doughnuts from World's Best Donuts and Bloedow Bakery. Whether you're in the state's northernmost reaches or near the southeastern border, you can be sure there will be doughnuts. Two of the best: World's Best Donuts has been turning out traditional cake doughnuts and stretched out and fried "skizzles" in Grand Marais since 1969. About 330 miles south, beloved Bloedow Bakery has kept Winona supplied with imaginatively filled bismarcks since 1924. Minnesota's doughnut love comes fried, fluffy and full of history.
World's Best Donuts: 10 E. Wisconsin St., Grand Marais, Bloedow Bakery: 451 E. Broadway St., Winona
Beef commercial from Bump's Family Restaurant. People travel great distances for the restaurant's specialty, and they should. The stick-to-your ribs meal is a white-bread sandwich of slow-roasted turkey, pork or beef served amid a heap of mashed potatoes and smothered in gravy. Served up with a smile since 1987, the top seller is nostalgia on a plate. It's also scratch cooking at its finest.
Prime rib at Wiederholt's Supper Club. Wisconsin gets all the credit for supper clubs, but Minnesota's no slouch. Take this classic, now in its fourth generation of family ownership. It checks all the supper club boxes: Old Fashioneds, relish trays, rolls, salad (or cottage cheese!), potatoes and most important, prime rib. Get the well-seasoned large cut and use the leftovers, if there are any, for stellar next-day sandwiches.