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

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23 Responses to “What’s lacking in many small town Minnesota restaurants”

  1. That was one mouthwatering Pork Chop there.. Hmmm, Hmmm, Hmmm.

  2. Almost Iowa Says:

    I couldn’t believe it…. with vast fields of onions, carrots and lettuce in plain view, a waitress plopped a plastic container of “coleslaw” on my plate.

    The least they could do is serve fresh farm eggs and local bacon/sausage for breakfast. That would be a good, and easy place to start for year-around freshness. We get eggs and meat from our relatives – and it is exceptional.

  3. Littlesundog Says:

    Here in Oklahoma it’s very much about unhealthy, fried Southern food. I still think much of our food choices stem from an unhealthy America, and convenience. It’s so much easier for busy families to stop at the drive-thru and get fast food. But, I can report that in some “touristy” areas (OKC’s Bricktown area, or some of the rural wineries) we are beginning to see bistro’s and some more upscale restaurants boasting rural produce and a healthier menu. For me, it’s kind of like buying “Made in the USA”. Why wouldn’t we look for and frequent restaurants that boast rural produce? Why wouldn’t we ASK for that when we stop at any restaurant? If enough people ask or suggest it, owners may begin to offer better choices. The Amboy Cottage Cafe sounds like a rural gem. That salad looks terrific!!

    • You make some absolutely excellent points. My guess is these restaurants serve what the locals will eat. But, as the population ages and changes, these eateries likely will need to change too and offer better and healthier homecooked choices.

      Rare is it that I eat at a fast food restaurant. Once a year, maybe twice.

  4. Marneymae Says:

    I’d eat at the Rainbow Cafe in Pine Island in a heartbeat!
    What a fantastic menu!

  5. Convenience and feeding the masses and going with what sells and makes money. I have read articles that state the average dinner plate size when eating out is between 11 to 13 inches and more shocking is that some places you eat at you do not even know you just consumed about 2 sticks of butter – YIKES! What really burns my biscuits is when you know a place serves way too much food for one person and you have to pay to share it or take it home, really!

    I need a fork to partake in the delicious salad above – YUM! I love my fruits and veggies and miss having a veggie garden in my back yard.

    Happy Day – Enjoy 🙂

  6. Mmmm plastic containers of runny coleslaw. Kidding!!! Small towns are slow to change anything.

  7. Sweet Posy Dreams Says:

    I hear you. What’s up with the pale, tasteless tomatoes in restaurants in the summer?

  8. Beth Ann Says:

    We also frequently dine at places that tout fresh locally sourced veggies, meats and fruits and they are definitely our favorite places. I think the trend is going that way so maybe your experiences will change over time. I agree—sometimes you just want something different than the age old burger and fries. Chris uses the Yelp app a lot to find our eateries and that usually has good reviews and tips as to where to go to get what we crave.

    • I never order a burger as I don’t eat them. I do think you’re right in that restaurants may begin changing what they serve as the trend now is toward more locally-sourced and healthier food. Yelp would be helpful, I’m sure. But this girl does not own a smartphone.

      • Beth Ann Says:

        You can use the Yelp app on your computer as well so a bit of pre-planning can be done as well. We have usually had pretty good luck using it but I need to be better at leaving reviews. I used to be really good at that but have slacked off lately.

      • Of course, duh. Problem is we don’t much plan ahead. Whatever town we end up in, that’s were we dine.

  9. readsu Says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your words …I so tire of menus that feature only burgers and fries, fish, chicken sandwiches and everything deep-fat-fried.
    This is not just SW MN as I live in a small town up north and really that is only the choice on the menus in any of the neighboring towns.too. and only foods people like to order. Preparing foods with local seasonal ingredients just doesn’t happen. I have found it challenging to find recipes to post on my food column that people will read and then try but I still aim for seasonal healthy ingredients..
    Yes using fresh ingredients are healthier but in the end for resturants they just see it as more costly.

  10. readsu Says:

    Merci Merci Merci


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