Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Part II from Wanamingo: Lunching at Area 57 March 22, 2016

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A signature classy black awning showed us we'd found Area 57.

Area 57 Coffee Cafe lies in downtown Wanamingo, Minnesota, population around 1,100.

“JUST GET THERE BY 2,” Peggy Ryland advised.

There is Area 57 Coffee Cafe, an eatery that is anything but your typical small town Minnesota restaurant.

Located in the heart of Wanamingo, which sits along State Highways 60 and 57 (thus the name), Area 57 possesses a hip and urban feel. It’s totally unexpected in a farming community with a sprawling John Deere dealership on the west edge of town and grain bins at the north end of Main Street.

Ryland, who is from nearby Cannon Falls and who runs a custom embroidery, design and printing business in Kenyon, recommended the eatery when my husband and I stopped by her shop on a Saturday morning. We were on a day trip to wherever and were seeking a good place for lunch. Peggy assured us Area 57 fit our requirement of great homemade food as she praised the soup and sandwiches, the coffee selections and the pie.

A signature black awning and classy lighting grace Area 57.

A signature black awning and classy lighting grace Area 57.

With Peggy’s notations that the restaurant is small, busy and closes at 2 p.m. on Saturdays, we hurried through two thrift stores in Kenyon and then aimed east 10 miles to Wanamingo. Once downtown, we easily found the non-descript brick Area 57 building with the black awning, just as Peggy described.

Wanamingo's source for a burger and a beer.

Wanamingo’s source for a burger and a beer. This eatery rates good reviews on Trip Advisor.

Across the street we simultaneously spotted JB’s Tavern’s sign advertising Great Burgers and Cold Beer. I observed Randy’s hesitation as we walked toward the place with soup and sandwiches. I knew he was thinking burgers and beer. I suggested perhaps we’d need to dine separately. We did so years ago while in Henderson. But this time he obliged and accompanied me to Area 57.

Although a small eatery, Area 57 had plenty of space when we dined there on a Saturday around noon.

Although a small eatery, Area 57 had plenty of space available for us around noon on a recent Saturday.

Once inside, I knew we’d made the right choice. I liked the setting—the sage walls accented by black wainscoting, the comfortable cluster of cozy chairs around a free-standing fireplace, the chalkboard beverage board, the artful travel décor…

A welcoming spot inside the cafe to read, visit and/or relax.

A welcoming spot inside the cafe to read, visit and/or relax over a cup of specialty coffee.

I felt welcomed here. At home.

The daily specials are posted at each table.

The daily specials are posted at each table.

Perusing the menu before ordering at the counter, I eventually settled on the special of the day, half a Rachel sandwich with a cup of soup. I chose tomato soup with roasted red pepper and Gouda over beer cheese soup. Randy ordered a Philly Beef and Cheese sandwich, an atypical choice for him given the sauteed green peppers and onions. He assured me he could eat green peppers.

There are plenty of specialty coffee choices.

There are plenty of specialty coffee choices.

There isn’t a single burger on the menu. I later learned that Area 57 doesn’t want to compete with the bar and grill across the street in serving burgers. That’s small town nice.

My Rachel sandwich served with red pepper tomato soup, chips and a pickle.

My Rachel sandwich served with red pepper tomato soup, chips and a pickle.

Service was quick. My smoked turkey and sauerkraut sandwich oozed with melted Swiss cheese, the flavors blending well with the house dressing. It paired nicely with the tomato soup, a customer favorite. Randy liked his Philly sandwich and the accompanying chips. He didn’t even pick off the peppers or onions.

The homemade pies, like this Oreo cream, were mighty tempting.

The homemade pies, like this Oreo cream, were mighty tempting.

I contemplated dessert, eying pie choices like Oreo, coconut and banana cream in addition to mint chip and other over-sized cookies and Area 57’s bestselling homemade dessert, raspberry bread pudding with whiskey sauce. In the end, I decided I was just too full for a sweet treat. Next time.

A few doors away sits Wanamingo Meats.

A few doors away sits Wanamingo Meats & Catering.

Other menu items such as Crunchy Ranch Chicken with Strawberry Salad, Chipotle Chicken and Cheddar Panini with soup and more sound tasty. Area 57 is also known for breakfast. Omelette selections include a Farmer’s Omelette made from three eggs, cheese and fresh vegetables. That’s fitting for a community centered around agriculture, with Wanamingo Meats and Catering and grain bins within eyesight of Area 57 Coffee Cafe.

Area 57 is open 12 hours on weekdays. This artsy travel and time-themed setting is staged inside Area 57.

Area 57 is open 12 hours on weekdays. This artsy travel and time-themed setting is staged inside Area 57.

FYI: Area 57 is open from 7:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. Monday – Friday and from 7 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Saturday.

Check back tomorrow for my third post in this six-part “from Wanamingo” series. I’ll tell you about this community’s connection to a well-known hymn.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Delighting in the unexpected at a Pine Island cafe June 18, 2015

IT WAS WELL AFTER THE NOON HOUR on a Saturday. I was hungry. And we were still too many curving miles away from our destination of Pine Island in southeastern Minnesota.

I needed something, anything, to settle my immediate need for food. I unzipped my purse, scrounged for two peppermint Life Savers, unwrapped them and then dropped one into my husband’s hand and popped the other into my mouth. This would tide me over until I could get real food into my empty stomach.

Driving along Pine Island's busy Main Street, I notice a meat market and a Subway. I was looking for a small town cafe.

Driving along Pine Island’s busy Main Street, I notice a meat market and a Subway. I was looking for a small town cafe but was semi distracted by the historic architecture.

Finally, we rolled into Pine Island from the west backroads, not from U.S. Highway 52, the crazy busy four-lane that connects St. Paul to Rochester and bypasses this rural community.

The Rainbow Cafe is among businesses housed in historic and architecurally interesting buildings.

The Rainbow Cafe is among businesses housed in historic and architecturally interesting buildings.

Simple and lovely signage above the front door.

Simple and lovely signage above the front door.

The sandwich board menu that drew me inside. I like to see menus before entering an eatery. And since I don't have a smart phone, this street side listing is helpful.

I like to see menus before entering an eatery. Since I don’t have a smart phone, this street side menu listing is helpful.

Now, where to eat. We drove through the downtown scouting for a place, finally settling on the Rainbow Cafe. The outside sandwich board advertising a variety of unique selections not typically found on small town diner menus drew me to this eatery.

My Prime Rib Sandwich.

My Prime Rib Sandwich.

The Rainbow did not disappoint. I ordered the grass-fed Prime Rib Sandwich with a bowl of Cream of Artichoke Soup. Randy chose a Cuban Pork Sandwich (with a delicious smoky taste to the meat) and fries. Both arrived promptly and piping hot. I like my food hot. And I always appreciate quick service.

First I enjoyed a bowl of Cream of Artichoke Soup.

First I enjoyed a bowl of Cream of Artichoke Soup.

The creamy soup would have been even better, though, with additional and larger chunks of artichoke. And both Randy and I agreed that our sandwiches, although definitely savory and filling, could have done with less mayo on mine and less mustard on his.

That said, I would not hesitate to return here because many menu items, like the Organic Blueberry Pork Sandwich—slow-roasted organic pork, blueberry and arugula on ciabatta—and the free-range Chicken Apple Sandwich and other lunch choices sound delectable.

On the cafe’s Facebook page, I noted this recent dinner offering: Grilled pork chop with pea vine macadamia pesto, bacon and chile roasted broccoli and kohlrabi over green garlic confit mashed potatoes.

The Rainbow features locally-sourced (from places like the farmers’ market) and (sometimes) organic food with an ever-changing seasonal menu. I welcome that approach in a small town restaurant where the usual lunch offerings often lean toward your basic burgers and fries or chicken/fish sandwiches with minimal creativity. You’ll find burgers at the Rainbow. But lots more, too. Among the salad listings is a Roasted Beet Salad that I’d like to try sometime.

The dessert menu and water served in a wine bottle.

The dessert menu and water served in a wine bottle.

The waitress tempted us with a dessert list. But we were too full to indulge.

Uncluttered decor with clean lines and those dangling stones define the interior decor.

Uncluttered decor with clean lines and those dangling stones define the interior.

Besides the appeal of creative and tasty food choices, the Rainbow Cafe presents a soothing environment in which to dine. Granted, we ate there at past peak meal time. But I think even at its busiest times, diners would feel comfortably relaxed in this minimalist setting. Randy and I were a bit curious about the stones dangling from the ceiling beside tables. I forgot to inquire. My guess: They are related to the concept of Fen Shui.

From my seat, I had a good view of beautiful historic buildings and Main Street.

From my seat, I had a good view of beautiful historic buildings and Main Street.

We purposely seated ourselves next to a front window, for the light as much as the view of Pine Island’s Main Street which sees a steady flow of traffic. Cross carefully. We did exactly that after finishing our sandwiches and setting out to explore this town of some 3,300 only 18 miles from Rochester.

FYI: The Rainbow Cafe, 212 South Main Street, is open 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday; from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. for Sunday brunch; and is closed on Mondays. This post is based on our dining experience in May.

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OTHER DINING OPTIONS:

Borgy Boyz appears to be a popular pizza place which also serves wraps, salads, sandwiches and more.

Borgy Boyz appears to be a popular pizza place which also serves wraps, salads, sandwiches and more.

I really like this signage. Signage counts with me.

I really like this signage. I’d like to know the history behind the name.

On a few drive throughs along Main Street, I saw a number of folks hanging out outside this sports bar. I don't care for sports bars, so did not consider this a dining option.

On a few drive through along Main Street, I saw a number of folks hanging out outside this sports bar. I don’t care for sports bars, so did not consider this a dining option. It seemed a popular place, though.

Because I know everyone has different tastes, such as a Wisconsin resident who didn’t find cheese curds at the Rainbow Cafe (so our waitress shared), there are plenty of other options like Borgy Boyz Pizzeria & Cafe, which looked busy; the Pine Island Sports Bar; Cathy’s Catering and Cafe; and Better Brew Coffeehouse.  I’m sure I missed a few places.

The Rainbow Cafe serves mozzarella sticks. Not quite Wisconsin cheese curds. But then this isn’t Wisconsin.

FYI: If you missed my first post on Pine Island, click here to learn more about this southeastern Minnesota community.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

BBQ at its best in Nelson, Wisconsin September 2, 2014

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WISCONSIN MAY BE KNOWN for its cheese. But one small Wisconsin town is noted for both its cheese and BBQ. That would be Nelson, Wisconsin, across the Mississippi River from Wabasha, Minnesota.

Nelson Cheese Factory serves as a destination for Wisconsin and imported cheeses.

You can't miss the vibrant exterior of B & B Barbeque in Nelson, Wisconsin.

You can’t miss the vibrant exterior of B & B Barbecue in Nelson, Wisconsin.

And just down the street at 208 N. Main, you’ll find J & J Barbecue, a mom-and-pop restaurant serving Southern style BBQ that’s mouth-watering delicious.

Love this sign at the order counter.

Love this sign at the order counter.

Owners Jim and Laura Grandy, Minnesota natives who once lived in South Carolina, have perfected their smoked meats and their specialty mustard-based BBQ sauce.

J & J features hickory smoked meats.

J & J features hickory smoked meats.

The tantalizing smokey aroma will draw you off the highway into this one-of-a-kind joint as much as the BBQ and mustard hue exterior and signage promising the best ribs on the river.

My Southern BBQ Pork Sandwich served with savory baked beans and potato salad.

My generous Southern BBQ pork sandwich served with savory baked beans and potato salad.

While my husband and I didn’t try the ribs on a recent lunch stop, I ordered the Southern BBQ pork sandwich and found it simply superb. Randy chose a wrap—Carolina pulled pork with blue ribbon coleslaw tucked inside—a choice I found tasty, but he didn’t. I wondered why he was ordering a wrap because that isn’t his style and he doesn’t like coleslaw. But he felt pressured to order at the walk-up counter, the one negative part of our dining experience. When you’re new to a restaurant, you need time to study the posted menu.

I love the unique and kitschy interior.

I love the unique and kitschy interior.

On that particular Thursday, a steady steam of customers stopped to dine in or carry out Styrofoam trays packed with BBQed goodness.

You'll find more than BBQed meat here.

You’ll find more than BBQed meat here.

I’d highly recommend J & J BBQ. Just, please, don’t do as one grandma, overheard asking her grandson, “Would you like the chicken tenders or a hot dog?” I wish she’d encouraged him to try the fabulous BBQ.

Walk past this sign and into the next room to enter the bar area. On the other side of that you will find a gift shop, Laura's Place.

Walk past this sign and into the next room to enter the bar area. On the other side of that you will find a gift shop, Laura’s Place.

FYI: J & J Barbecue is open Wednesday and Thursday from 10:30 a.m. – 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 10:30 a.m. – 8 p.m.; and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. The restaurant is closed on Monday and Tuesday.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Dining at the Red Hill Royal Cafe April 3, 2014

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The Red Hill Royal Cafe sits along Wisconsin State Highway 21 in Coloma.

The Red Hill Royal Cafe sits along Wisconsin State Highway 21 in Coloma.

MY HUSBAND AND I EXCHANGE  glances as we enter the Red Hill Royal Cafe in Coloma, Wisconsin, around noon on a Friday.

The charming lunch counter. Three other customers arrive at the diner after us.

Dining at the charming lunch counter. Three other customers arrive at the diner after us.

Except for a couple seated in the main dining area and a man at the lunch counter, the place is empty. Usually not a good sign.

We may have turned around and walked out if not for my hunger and my desire to eat at a local restaurant rather than the chain across the street.

My Philly steak sandwich.

My Philly steak sandwich smothered in cheese.

So we stay. I order a Philly steak sandwich. Randy chooses a cheeseburger and fries.

The jukebox brings back memories.

The jukebox brings back memories.

As you would expect, lots of familiar oldies.

As you would expect, lots of familiar oldies.

If the jukebox had been working, I would have selected a song.

If the jukebox had been working, I would have selected a song.

While waiting, we reminisce over the non-functioning jukebox, 45 rpm records visible inside.

A photo of a photo showing The Royal as it once appeared.

A photo of a photo (shooting through glass, so excuse the quality) showing The Royal as it once appeared.

We also study historic photos and information on the wall. The Royal Cafe building was relocated to this hilltop spot from downtown in July 1987 after Wisconsin State Highway 21 was rebuilt on the edge of Coloma.

Quirky yard art outside the cafe.

Quirky yard art outside the cafe.

But on this Friday nearly three decades later, not even the location along this busy highway that cuts across central Wisconsin from Tomah to Oshkosh draws in diners.

Friday specials.

Friday specials.

Business has been slow all winter, the waitress tells us. And not just here, but everywhere. Been too cold, she explains. That I can understand after arriving here from cold, and much snowier, Minnesota.

A generous portion of fries served with a cheeseburger, which Randy termed good, but "a little greasy."

A generous portion of fries served with a cheeseburger, which Randy termed good, but “a little greasy.”

To our satisfaction, we find the Red Hill Royal Cafe’s food to our liking. I’m no food critic, but my tasty Philly steak arrives piping hot on a toasted bun. Ditto for Randy’s burger. He shares his generous portion of fries.

A tabletop scene.

A tabletop scene.

I limit my fry intake as I want  a slice of homemade pie. Rarely do I order dessert out, but I decide to treat myself.

That is not to be. Although pie is listed on the menu, it’s a seasonal item reserved for the busier warmer months when folks are drawn to the region’s lakes, the waitress shares.

I am disappointed.

But there’s always next time. And next time should be pie season.

© Copyright 2014 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

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:52 PM
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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

 

One last chance to dine at The Historic Highland Cafe in southeastern Minnesota November 16, 2012

YOU SHOULD ALL know by now, if you’ve followed Minnesota Prairie Roots for any amount of time, that I’ll dine at a home-grown restaurant any day over a chain. I appreciate uniqueness and creativity and all those good qualities that typically define independent ownership.

In two days one of those delightful, mostly undiscovered by the general population, rural eateries closes.

The unassuming front of The Historic Highland Store & Cafe.

And that saddens me because I only found The Historic Highland Store & Cafe in October and ate there with my husband for the first, and last, time. (You can read all about that experience, and why this cafe is closing, by clicking here.)

On Sunday, November 18, owner Vicki Starks Hudson and crew will open for the final time in the historic 1894 wood-frame building along Fillmore County Road 10 southeast of Lanesboro in unincorporated Highland. It’s about an 80-mile drive for me, so I won’t be heading back for another meal. Not that I don’t want to do so.

The special of the day will be a roast beef dinner featuring real mashed potatoes, gravy and carrots and a side organic spring mix salad. How enticingly Sunday dinner at Grandma’s house comforting does that sound? And you’ll get all of that home-cooked goodness for only $8.99. Be sure to thank long-time faithful cook Sharyn Taylor, Vicki’s mom.

The breakfast my husband ordered when we dined here in October included two organic eggs, multigrain toast, hashbrowns and kielbasa. I photographed his plate after he broke the egg yolks.

You can also order soup and sandwiches or breakfast all day, hours being from 8 a.m. – 3 p.m.

A sunny front corner of the restaurant showcasing the vintage tables and chairs.

Not only is the food wholesome and homemade and delicious, but the atmosphere—with its original worn wood floor, wood-plank walls, lunch counter and hodge-podge of 1940s/1950s Formica and chrome tables and vinyl chairs—sets the scene for a relaxed and homey dining experience. Pure retro.

The absolutely fabulous lunch counter.

Now, if you dine there on Sunday and the place charms the bobby socks right off your feet and you are looking for an investment or a business to run, the building is for sale. Or it will be, in the spring after Vicki’s husband finishes some exterior updating.

On a Monday afternoon in October, the Highland Cafe was a popular dining spot.

But before then, you can also do a little shopping in this building which originally housed a general store. Vicki and her family had originally planned on opening a consignment shop upstairs. But they didn’t and now have some merchandise—mostly women’s clothing and home items—to sell.

Sale hours will be from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. on Black Friday, November 23; 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Sunday, November 25; and 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. on Monday, November 26.

The Historic Highland Store & Cafe is closed on Saturdays as the building serves as the ministry site for the Seventh Day Adventist Highland Chapel.

FYI: Click here to reach The Historic Highland Store & Cafe website.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Healthy & hearty dining at the retro Highland Cafe in southeastern Minnesota October 22, 2012

A side view of the Historic Highland Store and Cafe.

FROM THE EXTERIOR, a side view of the Historic Highland Store and Cafe in unincorporated Highland in rural Fillmore County, Minnesota, presents a mishmash of angles, work in progress and a corrugated metal roof that seems more fitting for a machine shed than a restaurant.

Face on, the front facade is rather plain and unassuming, until you aim your focus upward to the weathered wooden sign: “Highland Store est. 1894.”

The unassuming front of the Highland Cafe.

That single simple sign hints at the treasure you’ll discover once you step inside this combination cafe, mini-store and Seventh Day Adventist mission outreach next to County Road 10.

A vintage pop sign and a neon OPEN sign next to and on a front window.

Enter this historic building in Highland and you just have to stop and take in the novelty of this place which once served as a general store in this strong agricultural and tourism region of southeastern Minnesota.

A dining room overview with a mini gift shop tucked in the back.

The cafe’s charm and good, home-cooked and healthy food draw not only locals, but tourists/users of the area’s state recreational trails and regional diners from Rochester some 50 miles to the north and west.

My husband and I have come here for lunch early on a Monday afternoon in early October while on a day trip to view the fall colors. We prefer one-of-a-kind small-town cafes to chain restaurants and are thrilled with the unique, down-home atmosphere we discover at the Highland Cafe. It’s as if we’ve walked into the kitchens of our childhood, minus the red-and-white checked linoleum floor.

This is the scene near the front of the dining room where vintage tables and chairs are drenched in sunlight on an October afternoon. This is the kind of spot where you can read a book, work on your laptop or chat it up with the locals or others.

This eatery features the original wood floor topped by a mix of 1940s and 1950s vintage laminate chrome-legged/edged tables and chairs that set the mood for casual dining. There’s nothing matchy, matchy perfect about the décor here and that unpretentiousness suits me perfectly.

The absolutely fabulous lunch counter.

If you prefer to dine at a lunch counter, you’ll find one of those, too, painted in the most unexpected eye-jolting red that contrasts with the dark wood floor and cream-hued wood plank walls.

The main menu offers plenty of healthy choices.

The Highland Cafe, you’ll discover, is as much about the casual country atmosphere as about the food. You’ll read words like organic, multigrain, no sugar, soymilk, super antioxidant and fresh on the whiteboard main menu. You’ll also find comfort foods, like real mashed potatoes and gravy, along with fresh vegetables harvested from the cafe garden out back.

Troy Starks hustles behind the lunch counter toward the kitchen.

Even once mostly meat-and-potato eating local farmers have come around to eating healthier, says Troy Starks who on this Monday is waiting tables while his sister, cafe owner Vicki Hudson, is shopping for groceries. It took some time and convincing, but those stolid farmers are now sometimes ordering the cafe’s super oxidant salads.

The hearty breakfast my husband ordered, even though the hour was well past breakfast: two organic eggs, multigrain toast, hashbrowns and kielbasa. He broke the egg yolks before I photographed his meal.

While my husband and I await our orders—his a plate of breakfast foods and mine a chicken salad sandwich and a bowl of corn chowder—I strike up a conversation with R.J., dining alone at the table next to us. He’s eating a burger. Turns out young R.J. farms just up the road and sells his grass-fed, antibiotic-free beef to the cafe.

When I point out to R.J. that he’s paying to eat the beef he sold to the cafe, he shoots back with a quick-witted, “Well, at least I know it’s (the beef) good.”

My meal: a chicken salad sandwich and tasty corn chowder.

Good and filling most assuredly define the food here. I wished I wasn’t too full to order a slice of pie or bread pudding or a piece of apple crisp for dessert. But I am. Next time…

And this, dear readers, is where I originally ended this post, which has been sitting in my draft box. Now I must add to this story because cafe owner Vicki Hudson announced to me in an email on Friday that the cafe she purchased five years ago will be closing just before Thanksgiving.

Her mother Sharyn Taylor, the cafe’s chief cook, is “getting tired and will not be up to working another year, so we are closing our doors,” Vicki writes. “…we are going to turn the upstairs into a bed and breakfast and then sell it as a combination bed and breakfast and cafe. It would not be the same without my mom and I feel she has done a tremendous job the past five years.”

Vicki continues: “Maybe there will be someone out there interested in carrying on.”

There. If you are interested in carrying on the fine tradition of the Historic Highland Store and Cafe, preserving a piece of southeastern Minnesota history and more, contact Vicki. Honestly, don’t you just love this unique small town dining spot? I do.

The dessert menu on this particular Monday in October.

FYI: The Historic Highland Store and Cafe is located along Fillmore County Road 10 southeast of Lanesboro in unicorporated Highland. Hours are from 7 a.m. – 3 p.m. Monday-Friday, closed Saturdays and open from 8 a.m. – 3 p.m. Sunday, until just before Thanksgiving.

Yes, the cafe is closed on Saturdays because the building also serves as a ministry for the Seventh Day Adventist Highland Chapel with Sabbath school beginning at 9:30 a.m. followed by an 11 a.m. church service and vegetarian potluck. Bible study is also held at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays and is open to all.

For more information about the Historic Highland Store and Cafe, click here to reach the cafe’s website.

After the lunch rush, Troy Starks and his mom, Sharyn Taylor, sit down to relax and chat. Sharyn is the cafe’s cook.

A comfy and cozy front corner of the cafe.

Even early on a Monday afternoon, the cafe is fairly busy. Occasionally local Amish dine here, intriguing tourists who come to this region of Minnesota. None were here on the Monday we visited. We were told that young Amish women have also worked here on occasion in the kitchen. And at least one  did not show up for work one day, having left the Amish order to “go Englisch.”

The art market and health and beauty aids department behind the dining room offers an eclectic mix of merchandise.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Scenic and “touristy” Door County, Wisconsin October 11, 2012

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DOOR COUNTY, WISCONSIN.

I’d heard so much about it—”touristy,” fish boils, “you’ll love the small towns,” wine, cherries…

To be honest with you, I wasn’t 100, not even 50, percent certain I wanted to visit this northeastern Wisconsin peninsula cozied by Green Bay on the west and dwarfed by massive Lake Michigan on the east.

I am neither a woman who enjoys shopping or masses of people. So a one-day trip to Door County did not come without a bit of trepidation.

One of many Door County shops, this one in Egg Harbor on the western side of the peninsula.

What I discovered is this: Yes, lots of people visit this scenic tourist destination, but not so many on a Friday in early October that I felt overwhelmed. And, yes, the western side of this peninsula could definitely be classified as “touristy,” because, after awhile, the endless wineries, antique and gift shops, candy stores, etc., all begin to blend together.

Collectibles for sale at Peninsula Antique Center near Egg Harbor.

You can only sample so much wine, flavored balsamic vinegar, flavored olive oils, cheese spreads and cherry salsa before you become disinterested. Fortunately my traveling companion husband and second daughter agreed that by the time we reached Fish Creek, we’d sipped enough wine, sampled enough oil and vinegar and salsa and cheese spreads, but no sweet stuff, thus requiring a stop for a shared truffle and shared fudge.

A winery truck parked in Egg Harbor.

I must interject here that we were pleasantly surprised to find Door County wines to be reasonably priced—the ones we purchased being around $10.

After stopping at numerous shops, it was time for a break and a little lunch at Julie’s Park Cafe & Motel in Fish Creek, conveniently located next to the Peninsula State Park entrance. I ordered the day’s soup special of fish chowder while my husband ordered an 8-ounce burger topped with bleu cheese and the daughter chose a chicken sandwich topped with onions and cherries.

My bowl of fish chowder was burn-the-roof-of-your-mouth hot, but bland in taste and appearance. Is this typical of fish chowder? I don’t know given this was my first time eating fish chowder.

I wish I could tell you our food was over-the-top delicious. But my daughter had to search for the cherries in her sandwich. I found the fish chowder bland. The burger was good, my husband said, but too much at eight ounces, the only burger size available. The thin, dry fries were more like shoestring potatoes than fries.

Scrumptious Door County cherry pie from Julie’s Cafe.

As disappointing as two of our three main menu choices were, Julie’s Cafe redeemed itself with the generous slice of tart Door County cherry pie we ordered and shared. No visit to Door County should come without a purchase of something “cherry,” whether wine, salsa, dried or fresh (when in season) cherries or, most recommended by me, cherry pie, even if it was $5 a slice.

No one was spitting cherry pits into the strong cold wind when we stopped at Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery at Fish Creek.

I’d love to visit Door County during the cherry harvest and inquired as to when that might be. Our vibrant and friendly waitress at Julie’s Cafe did not know, which surprised me.

But then I suppose you could say I wasn’t exactly the most prepared tourist either, approaching Door County with the attitude of “we’ll stop when we see something we want to see.” That seemed a workable plan for a first time visitor.

Even on a bone-chilling cold and windy day, vendors were set up streetside in Egg Harbor.

Door County, though, deserves much more than a quick no-itinerary one-day trip. It deserves careful planning so you see beyond the storefronts, drive beyond the two main routes—42 on the more “touristy” western side and 57 on the less populated rural side—and discover all this lakeside land has to offer. For it was the glorious, natural beauty of this place which most charmed us.

Scenic Whitefish Dunes State Park on the eastern side of the peninsula.

Glorious autumn colors as photographed by Miranda Helbling from Eagle Tower in Peninsula State Park at Fish Creek on the western side of the peninsula along Green Bay.

Scenic Egg Harbor.

TO READ A PREVIOUS POST about Door County, click here to see photos of Peninsula State Park.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling