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

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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

 

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

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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.

 

Pizza & beer on a Saturday night in Kilkenny January 26, 2013

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I SUGGESTED WE STOP for directions at the corner gas station.

“How hard can it be to find this place in Kilkenny?” my husband responded.

He was right. Kilkenny, population around 150, in Le Sueur County, runs only a few blocks in all directions. Surely we could find “the bar on top of the hill with the really good pizza,” per our friend LeAnn’s recommendation.

Atop the hill in Kilkenny by the water tower, we found the Liquor Hole.

Atop the hill in Kilkenny by the water tower, we found the Liquor Hole.

Just up the road from Bud’s Service, we found the Liquor Hole.

I expect in warm weather, the front patio is a popular dining and drinking spot at the Hole.

I expect in warm weather, the front patio is a popular dining and drinking spot at the Hole.

We arrived Saturday evening as the last wisps of daylight faded, enough time for me to snap a few outdoor shots before entering the Hole.

Inside we found your typical small town restaurant/bar—pool table in the corner, stools ringing a horseshoe bar, neon beer lights blazing, televisions blaring, opened pull tabs littering the bar top, smokers stepping out to light up a smoke…

A section of the dining area.

A section of the Liquor Hole.

No pool players yet early on a Saturday evening.

No pool players yet early on a Saturday evening.

Be sure to follow the bar's pool rules.

Be sure to follow the bar’s pool rules.

Lots of neon beer signs.

Lots of neon beer signs.

But there were a few surprises, like the homemade wood sign announcing Kilkenny’s inability to afford a town drunk and a fat-bottomed girl print I refused to photograph.

Kilkenny bar humor posted below the Bud Light sign.

Kilkenny bar humor posted below the Bud Light sign.

And when Randy asked for a Schell’s FireBrick beer, the bartender/owner looked at him and said, “Come on, this is Kilkenny.”

Alright then. We both ordered a Nordeast to go with our $11 House pizza topped with sausage, pepperoni, Canadian bacon, onion, mushrooms, green pepper and green olives. And just for the record, the pizza is not entirely homemade. The crust is pre-made. I asked.

The Liquor Hole's House pizza.

The Liquor Hole’s House pizza.

None-the-less, the pizza was thick and tasty, loaded with cheese and was delivered on a cardboard round with several small paper plates, plastic forks and a half-inch thick stack of napkins, most of which we used.

“Cuts down on the dishes,” Randy joked as he observed the disposable tableware.

But we didn’t mind. After all, in the bartender’s words, “This is Kilkenny.”

A last shot of the Liquor Hole before we got into the car and drove 15 miles back east to Faribault.

A last shot of the Liquor Hole before we got into the car and drove 15 miles back east to Faribault.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Cheers to the Stone Cellar Brewpub in Appleton, Wisconsin January 18, 2013

I DIDN’T REALLY WANT pizza for lunch. But our daughter insisted that this place—the Stone Cellar Brewpub in Appleton, Wisconsin—served the best pizza. Or so she’d heard.

Turns out that evaluation was spot-on correct.

I’m no food connoisseur. But when a pizza can match, even surpass, the savory goodness of the thin crust pizzas from Basilleo’s, a 45-year pizza restaurant in my community of Faribault, Minnesota, I’m sold.

The Stone Cellar did not disappoint and, in fact, left my husband, Appleton resident daughter and me raving over the spicy New Orleans pizza topped with andouille sausage, chicken, shrimp, red onion, red peppers and Cajun spices.

The beer part of the business is on the right, the restaurant part through the door on the left.

The beer part of the business is on the right, the restaurant part through the door on the left.

We complemented our lunch time pizza with glasses of seasonal pumpkin spice and Stonetoberfest beer brewed on the premises in the Stone Arch Brew House. This is the site of Wisconsin’s oldest continually running brewpub established in 1858 by German immigrant Anton Fischer.

I’m no beer connoisseur either. But I’m always up to trying specialty craft beers. While I wasn’t crazy about the taste of pumpkin in beer, it seemed the perfect choice for an October lunch, early October being the time my husband and I were in Appleton visiting our daughter.

Had I been aware of Stone Arch’s Houdini Honey Wheat beer, made with pure Wisconsin honey, I may have sampled that instead. The beer is named after magician Harry Houdini, who wrongly claimed Appleton as his birthplace. Houdini was born in Budapest, Hungary, and, in his early youth, lived for four years with his family in Appleton. (Click here to read my earlier post about the Houdini exhibit at The History Museum at the Castle.)

The exterior of the Between the Locks Mall, where the Stone Cellar Brewpub and Stone Arch are located along with other businesses.

The exterior of the Between the Locks Mall, where the Stone Cellar Brewpub and Stone Arch Brew House are located along with other businesses.

Beer and pizza aside, I love the location of the Stone Cellar Brewpub along the Fox River canal system (which that first brewer, Anton Fischer, helped construct) and the old stone building itself.

Go through the doorway on the left and follow the steps down into the Stone Cellar Brewpub.

Go through the doorway on the left and follow the steps down into the Stone Cellar Brewpub.

To reach the restaurant, you descend into the deep darkness of what is appropriately termed the “Stone Cellar.” I prefer windows and natural light while dining. But this closed-in space with thick stone walls presents the right comfortable feel for a brew pub with a long-standing history in the Fox River region.

A bonus to this whole dining experience comes with the restaurant’s efforts to offer locally-grown, seasonal, gluten-free and (sometimes) organic foods, aiming to offer healthier menu choices. You’ll find much more than pizza here, including the usual salads, burgers and sandwich offerings for lunch and a more extensive dinner menu.

There you go. If you’re ever in Appleton, I’d recommend dining at the Stone Cellar Brewpub.

Walk through these colorful front doors...

Walk through these colorful and detailed front doors…

...into the entry of the Between the Locks Mall.

…into the entry of the Between the Locks Mall.

FYI: To learn more about the Stone Cellar Brewpub, 1004 S. Olde Oneida St., Appleton, Wisconsin, click here. 

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

I’ll skip the sushi April 18, 2011

WHAT FOOD IMAGES pop into your mind when I say “Japanese restaurant?”

Rice? Vegetables? Sushi?

That’s the extent of my Japanese culinary knowledge.

But that will change with the opening of a Japanese restaurant in my mid-sized Minnesota town. I noticed a sign last week in an empty strip mall space along State Highway 60 in Faribault advertising this new restaurant.

A Japanese restaurant is opening in the strip mall in the 600 block of Fourth Street/Highway 60 in Faribault.

Although I don’t eat out all that often and once tried homemade sushi, promptly spitting out the wrapped raw fish and rice, I appreciate another dining option in my community.

We have plenty of fast food and pizza places and restaurants that serve traditional American fare.

We have several Mexican restaurants (like Gran Plaza Mexican Grill and El Tequilla Family Mexican Restaurant) and a Mexican bakery.

Baked goods at a Mexican bakery (once at the center of controversy because of its exterior paint color) in downtown Faribault. The bakery has changed ownership since I took this photo.

Faribault also has three Chinese restaurants, a Somali eatery and a recently-opened Thai restaurant (that I have yet to patronize, but about which I’ve heard rave reviews).

The Southern China Cafe is among four restaurants in town serving Chinese food.

Banadir, a Somali restaurant, is located in historic downtown Faribault.

Now we’ll soon have Japanese cuisine to throw into the cultural mix.

To those of you who live in larger metropolitan areas, the opening of a Japanese restaurant may not seem like a big deal. But in outstate Minnesota, where our dining choices are more limited and where getting the locals to try something new, like God forbid sushi, this ethnic restaurant opening is worth noting.

I have no idea whether the new Japanese restaurant will serve sushi. But I expect it will.

I hope Faribault area residents are daring enough to step outside of their safe pizza, burgers and fries, steak, batter-fried walleye, enchilada, lutefisk comfort zones to try Japanese food. Count me in the door to sample Japanese food, just not the raw fish sushi.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Grassroots dining: Church dinners are the best March 28, 2011

GIVEN A CHOICE of eating at a church dinner or dining at a restaurant, I’ll choose the holy place. I appreciate the good home cooking and fellowship that comprise church dinners.

So Sunday my husband and I headed to St. John’s United Church of Christ in Wheeling Township, about a 15-minute drive from Faribault, for a Lenten Soup Luncheon.

 

St. John's United Church of Christ is northeast of Faribault about two miles off State Highway 60 on Rice County Road 24 near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.

As soon as I stepped inside the fellowship hall attached to the old stone church and saw the spread, I regretted that I’d snacked on a doughnut at my church only an hour earlier.

This luncheon offered soups, salads, sandwiches and bars. A regular smorgasbord with nine salad and three soup options and, well, I didn’t count the varieties of bars but suffice to say any chocolate lover would have been happy.

 

Some of the bars offered for dessert. I tried the bar with the marshmallow topping on the back left.

Salads like tuna pasta, tangy rhubarb squares and 3-bean, and the spinach-strawberry I chose, awaited diners who could select plated salads and/or build their own.

 

Even the salad bar sign grabbed my attention. How cute and eye-catching and kitschy.

The plated and build-your-own salad bar fills two tables in the dining hall.

A few of the salad bar choices, including a tangy rhubarb square on the right in this photo.

After I’d selected my salad and placed it on a fancy silver tray, I headed to the kitchen where cooks were ladling potato-bacon chowder, hamburger vegetable soup and chicken noodle with dumpling soup from large roasting pans into hefty bowls.

 

The busy-as-a-beehive kitchen crew at St. John's United Church of Christ.

Volunteers were ready with roasters full of soups in the kitchen.

I started with the potato and eventually sampled the other two. The creamy and savory potato was my hands-down favorite, although I also appreciated the spicy kick to the hamburger veggie. I’ve never been big on chicken noodle soup or dumplings. The chicken soup is served at every Lenten Soup Luncheon the church hosts. Oyster stew and chili will be the other featured soups at the last luncheon from 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 10.

 

The Lenten Soup Luncheon sign posted by the kitchen. The final luncheon is from 11:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 10.

A diner's tray (not mine) that includes a bowl of chicken noodle soup with dumplings.

Church dinners are all about food and fellowship. I scored an invitation to visit a farm with a robotic milking operation while visiting with church members at my table.

Of course, no church dinner is complete without bread, so diners were offered an array of sandwiches. I inquired about the ground concoction on an open-faced sandwich, was told it was bologna and pickles, paused, thought, and picked it up. And you know, for someone who doesn’t really care for bologna, I liked the spread.

 

Plenty of sandwich choices like ham, tuna and, yes, even ground bologna and pickles were offered.

Except for lutefisk, I’ve never tasted a church dinner I didn’t like.

I notice and appreciate details like the lovely floral dishware. My husband and I learned that once you carry your food to your table on the fancy silver tray, you're supposed to take your plates and bowls off the tray and servers will pick it up for others to use. We even had big, hefty soup spoons for eating our soups. Now that impressed me.

 

There's no specific cost for the St. John's Lenten Soup Luncheon, which benefits the youth fellowship group, helping members finance mission trips and more. Cost for the meal is whatever you choose to donate. Just drop your money in the bucket before picking up a fancy silver tray at the salad bar.

FYI: Click here for more information about St. John’s United Church of Christ, 19086 Jacobs Avenue, located near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, rural Faribault. Watch for a future post featuring photos of the church interior and exterior.

PLEASE SUBMIT A COMMENT and tell me about a church dinner you enjoy and why.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling