There's absolutely no way I can be completely objective about what I'm going to write, so I'm not even going to try. Food on the road is important, not only just while you're in the car (where I survive on granola and whatever tea I've brewed in my cup), but for when you get to your destination--or while you're en route. I've spent the last two weeks up north with my parents, seeing my grandmother, hanging out with my sisters, brother-in-law, and my amazingly awesome niece, C., who turns four months old on Saturday (though her father has forbidden anybody to round up her age, so she's still three months old). I can't stand it. I just adore this kid.
While I was down in Minneapolis with C. and her entourage, I was privy to M. teaching his daughter one of the important tenets of culinary wisdom in his world. We had brats on the grill (for us carnivores) and grilled veggies for K2 and K3. And as C. was sitting on K2's lap, M. held up the mustard bottle so C. could focus on it. "Only mustard goes on tubular meat." This is not-negotiable. Ketchup never goes on tubular meat. (I found out later that this is from the show Ed.) I flagrantly ignored that, since I like ketchup on my tubular meat. Apparently, though, chili is okay, as a text message to M. would reveal, though I wonder how he feels about things like sauerkraut and relish. Hm. But the moral of the story is that some things are sacred.
Since I was only home for a couple of weeks, I wanted to hit all the hot spots of dining on the Hwy 34 corridor. I couldn't get to all of them, but I made a good dent. I will start my love-fest in Detroit Lakes, with dinner at Speakeasy. (There's one in Moorhead as well.) It's mainly Italian in cuisine, but it doesn't feel like it needs to limit itself if it wants to do something else. The decor is pure 1920s speakeasy, all dark reds and blacks and Art Deco prints on the walls. My mother had their Blackened Chicken Rigatoni, which I would adore too, if it didn't have red peppers in it (which cause me migraines, so I avoid them). On this particular occasion, my father decided to have a Caesar salad, with chicken, and sun-dried tomatoes. I honored my Rut. I have a huge rut when it comes to this place: their beef stroganoff is to die for. Sometimes I consider ordering something else (like their calzones, which are amazing--they're not listed on the dinner menu (they're on the lunch menu), but you can still get them)--but what's the point of having a rut if you don't continue with it? The meal is served with a small fresh loaf of bread, with stunning garlic butter. I usually get the salad to go with my stroganoff, but this time, I was craving their minestrone (which was spelled Minnestrone on the chalkboard out front...Minnesota Minestrone, maybe?). Their minestrone is richly flavored, full of vegetables, potatoes, zucchini, and beef. The service has always been attentive and the servers I've encountered in the recent past all have personality, rather than the robots you see at other places. I always get a kick out of them. Maybe it's the hats. But the meal we had was stupendous, as expected, and I can hardly wait until I'm home again and I can have some more stroganoff.
Then we head east to Dorset, which is between Park Rapids and Nevis. This is the Restaurant Capital of the World and it's got the most restaurants per capita of anywhere, or so I've heard. It's also easy to tell the tourists from the locals here, because the name is pronounced DOR-sett. FYI. Dorset is also conveniently set on the Heartland Trail, which is the first Rails to Trails bike trail in Minnesota, and it's a really great bike trail that goes from Walker to Park Rapids. I grew up three blocks from it, back in the day. I've got some great memories of it. But there's so much to eat in Dorset, from ice cream at the Dorset House (with its old-fashioned soda fountain, where my favorite is their ice cream sodas)--but the Dorset House really is another complete story for another time. The General Store has really amazing stuffed French toast. I haven't been to La Pasta, but I hear it's good. The Dorset Cafe has famous broasted chicken. And then there's Companeros. The owners, Rick and Laura, used to babysit me when we lived in Laporte, so they've known my parents a long time. If you wan't seriously authentic Mexican food, this isn't the place. But the food here is so wonderful that I don't even care. Some people don't like their salsa--I really do. I usually mix a little of what they call Hot into the Mild and that hits it right for me. Dad always asks them to bring out the Really Hot stuff. If you don't get a strawberry margarita, you're missing one of the great wonders of the world. I like them non-alcoholic. So, so good. And my rut here is the chimichanga. Beef. With beans and rice. For me, this is There Is A God kind of food. I've learned, though, that the portions are generous enough that I ask for a to-go box right away, I cut my chimi down the middle, and I put half of it away so I don't gorge myself. But it's tough. Otherwise, I won't have room for dessert. And their fried ice cream--or their Mudballs--are so good that you don't want to make yourself uncomfortable before you get to them. That defeats the purpose. The fried ice cream is not terribly unlike that found elsewhere in terms of composition and preparation, but the Mudballs...those are a scoop of ice cream, rolled in Oreos, and then covered in strawberries. When we went--it was my mother, father, and grandmother--we got one fried ice cream and one Mudball to share between the four of us and that was exactly enough food. Here's the thing about service at Companeros. The waitresses are not hired as waitresses. Young to old, they get hired on as bus-people and they have to work their way up. You don't immediately start as a waitress. This means that the waitstaff knows this restaurant like the back of their hands, because they've done everything from refill chip baskets to learning the ins and outs of the menu to even simple things like learning the layout of the restaurant and kitchen. The staff here is superior. They do not take credit cards, so know that before you go.
And the third of my dining triumvirate this trip was last night. Again, it was Mom, Dad, and Gram, and we went to the Brauhaus, which is on Hwy 34 between Nevis and Akeley. I used to babysit for the owners' kids, once upon a time. Gabi is from Germany, so they're seriously authentic. See why I have no illusions towards objectivity? (To continue that theme, we ran into my mother's second grade teacher and a baby shower for the local principal, which included lots of people we knew, including one of my English teachers.) My parents' rut is for the Euro-Goulash, so that's what they got; Gram got the Rinderbraten (roast beef), which was so tender it screamed in fear at the motion of her fork, and I shared Mom's goulash. But usually my rut is just to get the spaetzle, the red cabbage, and a hard roll. This might be, with out much doubt, my favorite food in the whole world. The spaetzle is just the right consistency, the beef gravy is rich and not too salty, the red cabbage shredded to a good size for eating (and won't slop you in the chin) with the right balance of sweet and tangy. Gram is completely in love with their carrots, which are also drool-worthy, for good reason. I didn't try Gram's roast beef, but the goulash was its perfect peppery self without being to peppery. I'm not a big fan of pepper, but this is just enough to wake your tastebuds up, in case they weren't paying attention. Their desserts are also really great, though I haven't had dessert there in a long time. The staff is dressed in classic German outfits and is spot-on. They also do not accept credit cards.
There are a lot of dining options, should you find yourself in Northern Minnesota. Which, of course, you should.