Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Looking for the “best of” places to dine in small towns & two recommendations April 10, 2018

Sapporo Ramen in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.

 

MY FIRST AND ONLY ATTEMPT ever to eat with chopsticks happened nearly two years ago at Sapporo Ramen in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I tried to position my fingers like my son demonstrated, to clamp the slippery ramen noodles between thin sticks and then maneuver the food to my mouth. I failed.

 

A ramen dish at Sapporo Ramen, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.

 

I was hungry. A spoon would work just fine, thank you.

I’ll admit, I haven’t had all that much exposure to ethnic foods. Choices are limited here in Greater Minnesota, the name tagged to any place outside the Twin Cities metro. Typical restaurant fare around here is standard American. Any ethnic restaurants are primarily Mexican.

 

One of my favorite burgers, the Strawberry Hill Burger, served at Fielder’s Choice in Northfield, Minnesota. The burger features peanut butter, strawberry jam, pepperjack cheese and bacon. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I often wish we had more creative choices in dining. But the reality is that folks seem to like the usual burgers and fries, chicken sandwiches, deep-fried fish, the occasional steak—familiar foods to Minnesotans.

 

The Amboy Cottage Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.

 

Because of cost, I don’t dine out all that often. So when I do, I want something different, something I can’t prepare at home, something tasty and fresh and definitely something made from scratch. When I think about really good food that I’ve eaten at Minnesota restaurants, two places pop to mind—The Amboy Cottage Cafe and The Good Life Cafe.

 

My incredible raspberry chicken salad. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.

 

Spaghetti with homemade meatballs and sauce. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.

 

Homemade blackberry pie. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.

 

Five years ago Randy and I ate at the Cottage Cafe in Amboy south of Mankato. We specifically stopped in this small town to dine in the 1928 cottage style former gas station. I’d read about the great homemade food. There I enjoyed the best salad ever—raspberry chicken—while Randy had spaghetti with homemade meatballs and sauce. Both were superb as was our shared slice of blackberry pie. I need to revisit this restaurant.

 

My Chicken Wild Rice Hotdish with salad and bread on the side from The Good Life Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2017.

 

Some 4.5 hours to the north in the tourist community of Park Rapids I found another hometown restaurant that served up one memorable dish. That would be The Good Life Cafe and the Chicken Wild Rice Hotdish. I loved the creamy, savory flavor of the hotdish (casserole to those of you not from Minnesota), so comforting and delicious on a cool and rainy September day.

How about you? What do you look for when dining out? Tell me about a favorite restaurant and/or meal. I’m especially interested in hearing about restaurants in small (Minnesota) towns.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Appreciating the details in Amboy, Minnesota February 6, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:00 AM
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AS A WRITER AND PHOTOGRAPHER, I notice details.

Details define, set a mood and/or a scene, comprise the whole.

A shot of Amboy's Maine Street with the Amboy Cottage Cafe on the corner to the left.

A shot of Amboy’s Maine Street with The Amboy Cottage Cafe on the corner to the left.

During a brief visit to Amboy in rural southern Minnesota this past July, I noticed details which create a memorable community.

One of the first things to catch my eye as we drove into Amboy.

One of the first things to catch my eye as we drove into Amboy.

From the vivid painted wooden quilts displayed against a garage

Urban Oil, named after the local Urban family.

Urban Oil, named after the local Urban family.

Just because

Just because I love this building and that name, a second shot of Urban Oil, Inc.

to Urban Oil, a rather amusing name for a service station in a rural setting (note that the station is named after the Urban family),

You'll find an abundance of garden art at The Amboy Cottage Cafe.

You’ll find an abundance of garden art at The Amboy Cottage Cafe.

to the garden art at The Amboy Cottage Cafe, details abound.

I appreciate signage,

Signage on the old grain elevator, now Grainspace LLC, and no longer an operating elevator.

Signage on the old grain elevator, now Grainspace LLC, and no longer an operating elevator.

old

Signage outside The Amboy Cottage Cafe.

Signage outside The Amboy Cottage Cafe.

and new.

Sweet handcrafted sweaters at Acorn Studio.

Sweet handcrafted sweaters at Acorn Studio.

An Acorn Studio display.

An Acorn Studio display.

Inside Frame It Arts & Antiques.

Inside Frame It Arts & Antiques.

And I appreciate the care businesses take in showcasing their wares.

The tag line, “Founded by Rail and the Plow, Growth Through Innovation,” found on the city website, seems fitting.

Looking down Maine Street in Amboy.

Looking down Maine Street in Amboy.

Amboy is one sweet small town.

FYI: To read a previous post on Amboy click here. To read my story about The Amboy Cottage Cafe, click here.

Check out Amboy’s Facebook page by clicking here. 

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Amboy: A thriving community in rural Minnesota February 5, 2014

Looking down Maine Street in Amboy, Minnesota.

Looking down Maine Street in Amboy, Minnesota.

FOLKS IN AMBOY understand the importance of building their community’s future, of distinguishing their town as a destination in rural Minnesota.

Merchandise displayed inside Oak Knoll Angoras' Acorn Studio. Lisa Lindberg, who owns The Amboy Cottage Cafe, owns this with her mother, Maria Lindberg.

Merchandise displayed inside Oak Knoll Angoras’ Acorn Studio. Lisa Lindberg, who owns The Amboy Cottage Cafe, owns this with her mother, Maria Lindberg. The studio sits just down the block from the cafe.

On a brief visit last July to Amboy, population 535 and located 20 miles south of Mankato, I discovered an inviting Maine (yes, that’s the correct spelling) Street defined by sturdy old brick buildings, quaint shops, a one-of-a-kind cafe, and a deep appreciation of history and the arts.

An artsy display inside Frame It Arts & Antiques, 112 East Maine Street.

An artsy display inside Frame It Arts & Antiques, 112 East Maine Street.

This is my kind of small town, one focused on showcasing local talent and history and all that makes Amboy a great community.

Signage on the fence at The Amboy Cottage Cafe lists downtown businesses.

Quaint signage on the fence at The Amboy Cottage Cafe directs visitors to downtown businesses.

Business owners and others clearly work hard to draw visitors off U.S. Highway 169 onto Maine Street. The Amboy Cottage Cafe initially drew my husband and me here for lunch while en route to Worthington in late July 2013.

Yarn for sale at Acorn  Studio.

Yarn for sale at Acorn Studio.

Afterward, we poked around in several downtown shops before heading out. We were short on time, or we would have explored more.

You'll find lots of businesses open in downtown Amboy.

You’ll find lots of businesses open in downtown Amboy.

Amboy deserves a second look, a few hours of time to check out the businesses and the rest of the town. In rural Minnesota, this community seems determined to survive and thrive, building on its strengths.

Amboy's Maine Street features mostly well-kept old brick buildings.

Amboy’s Maine Street features mostly well-kept old brick buildings.

The visually welcoming Sweet Cicely, a boutique offering fine gifts and natural health products.

The visually welcoming Sweet Cicely, a boutique offering fine gifts and natural health products.

Details like well-kept buildings without boarded up windows, pots overflowing with luscious flowers, welcome banners on Maine, a general overall tidy look and more visually impress.

Lisa Lindberg saved this old gas station from demolition, moved it onto a corner of Maine Street and restored it for use at The Amboy Cottage Cafe. The cafe features made-from-scratch food and draws diners from all over the region.

Lisa Lindberg saved this old gas station from demolition, moved it onto a corner of Maine Street and restored it for use as The Amboy Cottage Cafe. The cafe features made-from-scratch food and draws diners from all over the region.

And then there are the old buildings which have been saved, like The Amboy Cottage Cafe, once a gas station.

A group also saved the old elevator, now Grainspace LLC.

A group also saved the old elevator, now Grainspace LLC, located across the street from The Amboy Cottage Cafe.

Across the street, the old elevator, slated for demolition, was purchased by a group and is now being restored for use as an arts venue and community gathering spot.

This depot was moved into Amboy from Huntley and now serves as a welcome center for those attending the town's annual Arts 'n' More Festival.

This depot was moved into Amboy from Huntley and now serves as a welcome center for those attending the town’s annual Arts ‘n’ More Festival in September.

The Amboy Area Community Club is supporting restoration of an old depot relocated here from nearby Huntley.

An old country schoolhouse was moved into town, restored and is now an historical education center and site of special community events. The 1901 Dodd Ford Bridge, on the National Register of Historic Places, will be preserved. A historic home houses A Walk Back in Time bed and breakfast while another, Que Sera, serves as a retreat center.

Currently, a project is underway to convert the former Amboy Middle School into “The Junction,” a multi-purpose community building. (Click here to learn about that.)

Work in progress last July at this beautiful old creamery just off Maine Street.

Work in progress last July at this beautiful old (former) creamery just off Maine Street.

Although I didn’t check out all of these places, I saw enough to appreciate Amboy and the gumption of the folks who live here. They seem a determined bunch—determined to keep their community thriving in a time when all too many small towns are dying.

FYI: Click here to read my previous post on The Amboy Cottage Cafe. Please check back for one more post with photos from Amboy.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Fantastic “from scratch” food at The Amboy Cottage Cafe February 1, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 4:00 AM
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MADE FROM SCRATCH with local meats, dairy and fresh produce (whenever possible) using recipes passed down through the generations.

Sound like your kind of food?

Mine, too.

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

The Amboy Cottage Cafe, snugged into the corner opposite the old grain elevator along Amboy’s Maine Street.

This past summer, my husband and I lunched at The Amboy Cottage Cafe, a charming 1928 cottage style former gas station turned eatery tucked into a corner of Maine Street (and, yes, it’s Maine) in the farming community of Amboy.

A snippet photo of downtown Amboy, Minnesota.

A snippet photo of downtown Amboy, Minnesota.

I love this place as much for its uniqueness and ambiance as for the food. Opened 13 years ago by Lisa Lindberg in this town of some 535 in Blue Earth County in rural southern Minnesota, this cafe is definitely worth the drive.

Lunch at The Amboy Cottage Cafe.

Lunch at The Amboy Cottage Cafe with tables for two and tables for many.

On the other end of the cafe, more diners enjoyed lunch on a July afternoon.

On the other end of the cafe, more diners enjoy lunch on a July afternoon.

At lunch time on a Friday in late July, the place was packed. We invited a couple from Mankato, 20 miles distant, to sit at our table so they would have a spot to dine.

An assortment of table styles and mismatched china make diners feel right at home.

Diners feel right at home in a cafe that features a variety of table styles, mismatched china and fresh garden flowers (during the summer months).

The Cottage Cafe possesses that neighborly kind of intimate feel in a space that’s family dining room/kitchen cozy. Come here for breakfast and you can order a “For the Farmer in You” plate of two eggs (any style and these are locally-produced eggs), three slices of smoked bacon, multi-grain toast with pancake or hash browns, and orange slices.

Spaghetti with homemade meatballs and sauce.

Spaghetti with homemade meatballs and sauce.

My incredible raspberry chicken salad.

My incredible raspberry chicken salad.

On this day, my husband ordered a platter of spaghetti and meatballs while I chose the raspberry chicken salad. We both rated our food as outstanding.

We couldn't pass on the homemade blackberry pie.

We couldn’t pass on the homemade blackberry pie.

With an approach of using fresh local ingredients, whole grains and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, this cafe offers an array of healthy foods, although you will find sweet treats like caramel rolls, pie and raspberry bread pudding among the offerings. Be assured, though, that you’ll sink your teeth into homemade breads and a pie crust made from Grandma Maria’s recipe. I’ll vouch for the pie as Randy and I shared one incredible slice of blackberry pie.

Plenty of healthy options on the menu.

Plenty of healthy options on the menu.

From seasoned coffee-rubbed steak, wild Alaska salmon and olive chicken to burgers, sandwiches, soups, salads, specials and more, you’re sure to find something on the menu that pleases your palate. I had a tough time choosing from the enticing made “from scratch—like your grandmother” selections.

Don’t expect to order fries cooked in a deep fat fryer. The cafe doesn’t own a fryer and uses real butter and canola and olive oils in cooking.

See what I mean about this place? How many kitchen restaurants ban deep fat fryers?

The day's specials and other offerings noted on a menu board.

The day’s specials and other offerings noted on a menu board.

That all said, I’m neither a health nut nor a foodie. But I try to eat healthy and I know good food, really good food, when I taste it. And I tasted it—really good food—at The Amboy Cottage Cafe.

Another couple dining at the cafe graciously allowed me to photograph their raspberry bread pudding.

Another couple dining at the cafe graciously allowed me to photograph their raspberry bread pudding.

FYI: The Amboy Cottage Cafe is currently celebrating its 13th anniversary and is offering a free piece of caramel apple or raspberry bread pudding to diners this weekend. I would expect the place to be packed.

Reservations are taken.

Reservations are taken.

You may want to call ahead (507-674-3123) for reservations if you’re driving from any distance. And I’d suggest that anytime, not just this weekend.

My husband, Randy, exits The Amboy Cottage Cafe on a Friday afternoon in July.

My husband, Randy, exits The Amboy Cottage Cafe on a Friday afternoon in July.

Winter cafe hours are from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. Sundays, from 6 a.m. – 3 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 6 a.m. – 8 p.m. Thursday, and from 6 a.m. – 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The cafe is open on Mondays only during the summer.

Click here to reach the cafe website, and here to reach the Facebook page.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Purchase a personalized homemade mug for $100 entitles you to free coffee.

Purchase a personalized homemade mug for $100 and you get free coffee every time you visit the cafe.

Catch up on the latest in Amboy via the quarterly Red Cow Gazette, funded by the Amboy Area Community Club.

Catch up on the latest in Amboy via the quarterly Red Cow Gazette, funded by the Amboy Area Community Club.

Loved our waitress' red tennies.

Loved our waitress’ red tennies.

Flowers and garden art define the exterior.

Flowers and garden art define the exterior.

I took time to smell, and photograph, the roses outside of the cafe.

I took time to smell, and photograph, the roses outside of the cafe.

I spotted this bottle art behind the cafe. Evening diners can bring their own

I spotted this bottle art behind the cafe. Evening diners can bring in their favorite alcoholic beverage to have with a meal. There is no corking fee.

A final parting shot showcases the white picket fence surround this former gas station now turned European style eatery.

A final parting shot showcases the white picket fence surrounding this former gas station now turned European style eatery.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling.
All photos were taken when we dined at the cafe in July 2013. Watch for more photos from Amboy, a community with a strong arts presence and more.

 

Forever rooted to rural Minnesota September 13, 2013

Rural, barn and bins

RURAL MINNESOTA LONG AGO claimed my heart. It is the place where I grew up, the land I love, the connection to earth and sky and elements that, despite more than three decades of living in town, has never vanished.

Rural, roof collapsing

I’m rooted to the land and I find myself often longing to turn onto the gravel driveway, to swing open the creaky barn door, to follow the corn rows.

Rural, barn with windmill

I ache for the days when I lived on the farm. Sunset and sunrise unbroken by buildings. Wind rustling. The heady scent of freshly-mown alfalfa. The rich earthy smell of the land at planting time and harvest. Wagons brimming with corn. Quiet. Stars studding the blackness.

Rural, barn quilt

Today I still claim rural Minnesota—in my memory, through the lens of my camera, in the words I write. And that is my solace, the road I follow back home.

FYI: These edited photos were taken earlier this summer in the Vernon Center/Amboy/Truman area of southern Minnesota.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling