Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

What’s lacking in many small town Minnesota restaurants September 9, 2015

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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A produce vendor photographed last week in downtown Pine Island, Minnesota. He was selling tomatoes, sweetcorn and melons.

A produce vendor photographed last week in downtown Pine Island, Minnesota. He was selling tomatoes, sweetcorn and melons.

IT’S THAT TIME OF YEAR in Minnesota, when farmers’ markets overflow with fresh produce, when backs of pick-up trucks are packed with fresh fruits and vegetables and parked on street corners, when gardens are yielding their bounty, when honor system roadside stands pop up.

Some of the garden-fresh vegetables I got from my brother a few days ago.

Some garden fresh vegetables from my brother and his wife who live on a rural Minnesota acreage. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

There’s nothing like the heft and scent of a homegrown muskmelon, the juiciness of a just-picked watermelon, the sun-ripened taste of a vine fresh tomato, the earthy flavor of carrots pulled from Minnesota soil. Nothing you can buy in a grocery store compares to homegrown.

I appreciate those who are tenders of plants. I have neither the sunny space, or even the sincere desire, to grow a garden. But I do love to eat garden fresh produce.

The Amboy Cottage Cafe, across the street from the grain elevator along Amboy's Maine Street.

The Amboy Cottage Cafe, across the street from the grain elevator along Amboy’s Maine Street. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

On a recent overnight get-away in southeastern Minnesota, I was hoping my husband and I would find a restaurant that embraces seasonal cooking. I so tire of menus that feature only burgers and fries, fish, chicken sandwiches and everything deep-fat-fried. Rare is the restaurant in small town southern Minnesota that serves anything beyond that defined menu. Two exceptions that I’ve discovered are The Amboy Cottage Cafe in Amboy and the Rainbow Cafe in Pine Island. Both focus on local, seasonal fresh ingredients for their home-cooked offerings.

In less than two hours, we were feasting on Bill's sweetcorn; garden fresh potatoes purchased last week from another roadside vendor; and smoked pork chops bought fresh at a local grocery store meat counter.

This meal grilled at home included smoked pork chops and fresh potatoes and sweetcorn purchased from a roadside vendor. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I crave tasty and unique and interesting choices in restaurants. I want made-from-scratch fresh food, not food pulled from the freezer and tossed into a deep fat fryer or microwave.

A homemade sign indicates the produce available.

There are so many sources for garden fresh fruits and vegetables in rural Minnesota. This sign is posted at Twiehoff Gardens in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Especially disappointing was a salad that accompanied a sandwich I ordered in a rural restaurant. The shredded iceberg lettuce was topped with pale, tasteless tomato slices. How difficult could it be, I wondered, to purchase Minnesota grown tomatoes or to pot a few tomato plants outside the restaurant’s back door? Or to choose Romaine lettuce over iceberg. I can’t recall the last time I purchased iceberg, but it’s been years.

My incredible raspberry chicken salad.

One of the best restaurant salads I’ve ever eaten in a small town (or anywhere): a raspberry chicken salad served at The Amboy Cottage Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

So many options exist for creative and delicious salads.

Are you, like me, often frustrated by the lack of creative fresh food choices in small town restaurants? Have you found an eatery that cooks outside the standard Minnesota menu box? I’d like to hear—your recommendations, your frustrations, even your thoughts on why so many rural Minnesota restaurants stick to burgers and fries and, you know, the usual.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling