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

 

That Lavender Inn billboard needs to go March 9, 2015

AWHILE AGO, A READER tipped me off to an outdated billboard along Interstate 35 bypassing Faribault.

Finally, on purpose, I traveled that stretch of interstate specifically to see this billboard off the northbound lanes:

Not the best photo, but snapped at interstate speed passing by.

Not the best photo, but snapped at interstate speed passing by.

Now imagine you’re a traveler. You’re hungry. You see the sign for the Lavender Inn Restaurant. And bonus, there’s an art gallery. So you take Exit 59.

But then you can’t find the darned place. You see a bank and a liquor store, restaurants, hotels and other businesses in the area, even a housing development. But the Lavender Inn? Nope. Not even along Lavender Drive.

By this time you are frustrated, not to mention hungry and disappointed. You had your heart set on dining at the Lavender and perusing art.

I wonder how many times this scenario has happened. The Lavender Inn has been closed for a long time, although I can’t find the precise date of closure.

But in January 2003, long-time sole owners Gaylen and Bebe Jensen, who opened the eatery first as a drive-in in June 1960, sold the property to investors. Eventually, the restaurant, which was, indeed, painted a distinct lavender hue, was torn down, replaced by business and housing developments.

Why, then, does the billboard remain posted along Interstate 35? Its presence misleads travelers.

For those of us who remember the Lavender, though, the sign jars memories of Faribault’s finest dining establishment. I ate here perhaps less than a dozen times in a restaurant that evolved into a supper club. Remember supper clubs? Folks drove from all over to dine here on Saturday evenings and on Sundays after church.

The Lavender had its regulars, including Rotarians who met here monthly. For My husband and me, this marked a place to celebrate on the rarest of special occasions given the cost of a meal in this fancy setting.

I remember the gallery rich in gilded frames and fine art and big game trophy animals from Gaylen Jensen’s African safari hunts. It all seemed rather foreign to me. And perhaps therein was part of the appeal, along with cloth napkins.

In the digital archives of Northfield’s Carleton College I found a KYMN radio jingle for the Lavender Inn, advertised as “a portrait in fine dining…an original in dining.” It’s worth a listen (click here).

Perhaps the Lavender Inn roadside ad ought to be archived somewhere as an important part of Faribault’s restaurant history. And then replace the sign with an attention-grabbing billboard welcoming visitors to Faribault’s historic downtown.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

For the love of cheese curds January 19, 2015

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I’M A BIG FAN of local mom-and-pop restaurants. I prefer to eat at a place that’s distinctly home-grown as opposed to chain anything.

The Curdy Stop, Redgranite, Wisconsin.

The Curd Stop, Redgranite, Wisconsin.

On my last trip through central Wisconsin, I spotted a new eatery, The Curd Stop, in Redgranite, west of Oshkosh. I love the name of that community and how Wisconsin State Highway 21 curves right through the town.

How the building looked as an ice cream shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, May 2014.

How the building looked as an ice cream shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, May 2014.

In the past, the lavender hue of an ice cream shop, once housed in this building, always grabbed my photographic attention.

The Curdy Stop up close.

The Curd Stop up close.

But this time I noticed the building had been repainted a muted brownish red and was sporting signs about cheese curds. That’s so Wisconsin.

Time did not allow my husband and me to stop at The Curd Stop this trip. But, after checking out the eatery’s Facebook page, I’m determined that we will dine there sometime.

The menu promises farm to table fresh food that’s locally sourced.

For example, on Fish Fryday, you can dine on freshwater Lake Michigan yellow perch from Two Rivers, one of my favorite Wisconsin communities.

Order up The Curdy Classic and you’ll get locally sourced beef with Wisconsin artisan cheese tucked inside and melted on top.

Given the name, you can expect most menu items to include cheese curds or some form of cheese. And I do love cheese.

The restaurant promises that “all menu items are handcrafted fresh, not frozen.” Just how I like my food.

“Wisconsin never tasted so good,” according to The Curd Stop.

If any of you readers have dined at The Curd Stop in Redgranite, I’d love to hear.

Do you have a favorite home-grown eatery? Tell me why and give them a shout out here.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Oh, the places I should have visited in Lake City July 19, 2012

A side street in the downtown business district of Lake City Minnesota.

SO…YOU DRIVE into a town you’ve never been to and you and your traveling companion wonder where to eat, what to do, which places to visit.

How do you decide?

Trust the locals? Trust your instincts? Just start walking and see where the sidewalk leads you?

I suppose those thoughts run through any visitor’s mind upon arrival in an unfamiliar community. To my list I add the decision of what to photograph, made easier by ownership of a DSLR camera. As long as I have space on my CF cards, and a patient husband, I keep shooting.

Then back home, upon review of those images, I can see the places I missed because of time constraints or another restaurant chosen or a business closed for the day and I have visible reasons to return.

Here is photographic evidence for returning to Lake City, a southeastern Minnesota Mississippi River town my spouse and I recently visited on a way too hot summer afternoon in early July.

I’m not a boater, nor a swimmer. But the water still draws me close to gaze upon, to appreciate, its mesmerizing beauty. Next trip back to Lake City, my husband and I need to find a park along Lake Pepin where we can simply sit and enjoy the water or perhaps stroll along a beach. That treeline across the lake/river is Wisconsin.

The Lake Pepin Pearl Button Co. antique shop features a little nook of a room off the spacious main shop area, exterior pictured here, in which I need to spend more time poking around. Poke, poke, poke.

The entry to Bronk’s Bar and Grill angled into a downtown Lake City street corner caught my attention. Was this once a movie theater? No matter, Bronk’s claims “the best hamburgers in Lake City” made from only local fresh meat. Anyone eaten here?

Unfortunately, Rabbit’s Bakery was closed on the Tuesday I was in Lake City or I surely would have stopped in here. Any business with “Rabbit” as part of its name naturally draws me to it given I graduated from Wabasso High School, home of the white rabbit. This photo was also encouraged by my husband who once (and still occasionally) called one of my sisters Rabbit. Love the graphic.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Lunch at the Viking Cafe June 15, 2011

The Viking Cafe in Fergus Falls.

“We r eating at the viking café in fergus falls,” I texted.

“Oh boy,” she texted back.

Oh, boy, indeed.

Typically I don’t text while dining because I consider such phone usage rude. But my husband and I had arrived in this western Minnesota community within the hour and I wanted our three kids to know we’d gotten there safely. I figured the Viking message would amuse them.

Only the middle daughter, who lives in Wisconsin, texted back. The second daughter was busy with a wedding and the teenage son opted to ignore the message.

We didn’t explore any other noonish eating options in Fergus Falls. When we drove downtown, I hadn’t even mentioned the Viking to Randy. But my spouse spotted it and pulled into the one available parking space practically in front of the restaurant.

It was only then that I told him I had read about the Viking in Tasty Foods along Minnesota’s Highways. This was meant to be.

Kim Embretson confirmed our decision. I had never met Kim until that moment, when I stepped from the car, saw him strolling toward us and figured he looked like a local.

“Is that a good place to eat?” I inquired after approaching him and learning that he was, indeed, from Fergus Falls.

Kim praised the Norwegian-American restaurant, suggesting we try a daily special such as the meatloaf, hotdish or a pork or beef sandwich and the homemade soup. He got me right then and there. I’m a soup lover. The vegetable soup sometimes includes rutabagas, something typically not found in veggie soup, Kim said.

And when I asked about sites to see and things to do in Fergus, Kim pointed us to the wine and panini bar, The Spot, across the street; to the art fair around the corner; to the Kaddatz Galleries in the next block; to the river walk; and, because I asked, to the kitschy otter statue in Adams Park. He even gave us specific directions to the park and directed us to the metal goose sculpture at the Otter Tail County Historical Society.

Fergus Falls tourism people, Kim rates as a fine, fine spokesman for your community. He gave us more details than I’ve written here. Every town should have someone so enthused about where they live.

As a side note, he also cheered the Roadside Poetry Project, which was the specific reason we traveled to Fergus—to see my winning poem splashed across four billboards.

The well-marked Viking Cafe, established in 1967.

I was getting downright hungry, so we thanked Kim for his suggestions and walked toward the Viking Café, which has been around since 1967. Prior to that, another restaurant was housed in the building beginning in the 1930s or 1940s, depending on your information source.

Enter the Viking and you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.

The view, once you step into the Viking Cafe. The lunch counter is on the right. A viking ship is suspended from the ceiling. Swords and shields adorn the walls in a viking-themed decor.

Two rows of ramrod straight wooden booths define this long, narrow eatery anchored on one side by an old-fashioned lunch counter. The place even has a candy counter, for gosh sakes, and an oversized bubble gum machine tucked into a corner next to the coat/hat racks.

Napkin dispensers and salt and pepper shakers sidle up next to ketchup bottles on tables.

Stools line the lunch counter stretching nearly the length of the cafe.

A Norman Rockwell print hangs on the wall by the coat racks and bubble gum machine right inside the cafe entry.

An old-fashioned candy counter at the front of the viking-themed restaurant.

Primary restaurant seating is in these vintage wooden booths.

Waitresses hustle to booths at an almost frantic pace, taking orders and delivering our food in the short time it takes me to circle the room once snapping pictures. Randy has ordered the meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy and a side of peas with a mini strawberry shortcake for dessert. I’ve selected a bowl of vegetable soup and a roast beef sandwich on whole wheat bread slices.

I’m typically not a fan of meatloaf, but even I like the meatloaf sampled from Randy’s plate. We agree that his food and my soup, which includes a homemade dumpling, and my sandwich qualify as  simple, good comfort food at reasonable, reasonable prices—$6.40 and $6.95 for our respective plates.

Our food: meatloaf with mashed potatoes and vegetable soup with a beef sandwich.

But it’s the atmosphere, more than the food, which I appreciate about the Viking on this Saturday. From the wooden booths to the well-worn tile floors to the viking décor to the lunch counter, especially the lunch counter stools, this café evokes simpler days. You cannot help but feel better for having eaten here, having experienced this slice of Americana where a cell phone feels so much out of place.

Menus are stacked on a counter below a shelf of viking decor.

Another view of those lunch counter stools, looking from the back of the cafe toward the front.

Looking from the back of the cafe, which is semi dark (for photos), toward the front.

CAFE BONUS: If you need to use the facilities, you will have to walk downstairs to the basement. That’s where I discovered this little gem, at the bottom of the stairs. I think this piece of memorabilia should be moved upstairs, where the dining public can view, maybe even use, it.

A character reading machine which apparently reads your character based on your weight, or something like that.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

WARNING: Proposal would erode Minnesota’s Freedom to Breathe Act April 11, 2011

WARNING: Cigarettes are addictive.

WARNING: Tobacco smoke can harm your children.

WARNING: Cigarettes cause fatal lung disease.

WARNING: Cigarettes cause cancer.

WARNING: Cigarettes cause strokes and heart disease.

WARNING: Smoking during pregnancy can harm your baby.

WARNING: Smoking can kill you.

WARNING: Tobacco smoke causes fatal lung disease in nonsmokers.

WARNING: Quitting smoking now greatly reduces serious risks to your health.

 

I didn't need to search long or hard to find these cigarette butts. Two were tossed into one of my flowerbeds by a neighbor. I found the third in the street by my house.

Just as Minnesota legislators are considering proposed changes to the state’s Freedom to Breathe law, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is finalizing plans to modify warnings on cigarette packaging and advertising.

Following requirements of The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, the FDA has proposed that cigarette packaging and ads bear one of the above nine warnings along with a matching colorful graphic.

The shock value of the proposed graphics—like a toe-tagged corpse and a mother blowing smoke into her baby’s face—are an effort to make a powerful impact on the smoking public. Enough to make a smoker stop smoking.

The final graphics will be selected by June 22 and the warnings must be in place on all cigarette packages sold in the U.S. and in cigarette ads by October 2012.

As a nonsmoker, I’m all for this move to prevent, reduce or stop smoking.

However, I don’t support proposed legislation in Minnesota that would once again allow smoking in bars under specific conditions. Not that I frequent bars, but bars and restaurants are often interconnected, so this matters to me.

The plan basically would allow smoking in bars if a ventilation system is installed to remove the smoke. In bars connected to restaurants, the bar must be walled off with a door separating the bar and restaurant.

Come on. A door will not keep smoke from filtering into a restaurant. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t need smoke served with my meal.

I make no apologies for my strong stand against smoking and my intense dislike of cigarette smoke.

I’m also honest enough to admit that, in my youth, I tried tobacco products on several occasions, enough to realize smoking wasn’t for me.

My dad became addicted to cigarettes when he was in the military, serving on the front lines during the Korean Conflict. He preferred Camel cigarettes. Sometimes he also rolled his own.

My dad, a smoker for many years, first exposed me to cigarettes. Once he even let me puff on his Camel. Now before you start calling him an irresponsible parent, consider this.  He knew I’d cough and sputter and spit and never want to touch a cigarette again. He was right. Eventually he gave up smoking but never quit chewing snuff.

Although I never took up smoking, I was addicted to candy cigarettes as a kid. But candy cigarettes were as popular as Bazooka bubble gum back in the 1960s and no one thought anything of subtly encouraging kids to smoke via those chalky white sticks with the red tips.

As for the few Swisher cigars I smoked in my mid-20s, I offer no excuse except my ignorant, youthful stupidity. I bet many smokers who are now habitual tobacco users wish they’d never started.

If you’re a smoker and want to smoke in the privacy of your home, then go ahead. Just don’t invite me over because, physically, I can’t tolerate cigarette smoke.  I’ve had numerous bad experiences with cigarette smoke.

Back in the early 1980s, I worked for a southern Minnesota daily newspaper that allowed smoking in the office. I came home every night smelling like I’d been in a bar all day. My clothes reeked. My skin reeked. My hair reeked. I remember complaining, with several other nonsmokers in the office, about the smoking. Nothing changed, because the news editor smoked. She didn’t care. So what if the copy editor sat outside the conference room during the weekly staff meeting because he couldn’t tolerate the smoke? I wish I had joined him instead of breathing the toxic air. So what if the news editor should have been more considerate given the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act passed in 1975? None of that mattered.

My second worst experience with smoking occurred several years ago at a Winona hotel. The manager tried to pass off a smoking room as a nonsmoking room. The instant I walked into the room, I smelled cigarette smoke. The mobile air purifier that was running on high and the lack of a sign on the door stating that this was a nonsmoking room confirmed my suspicions. When I went to the front desk and demanded a nonsmoking room, the manager denied that he had given me a smoking room. I didn’t believe him. My nose and lungs don’t lie.

My other notable smoke experience also involves a hotel, this one at a southwestern Minnesota casino. I was there attending a cousin’s wedding reception. Although the hotel room my family booked was supposedly smoke-free, the odor of cigarette smoke filtered from the smoke-filled hotel lobby, halls and casino into our room. I barely slept that night because of the tightness in my chest caused by the smoke.

So, Minnesota legislators, listen up. Listen to representatives of The American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association and Clearway Minnesota, all of whom have been at the State Capitol opposing the proposed changes to Minnesota’s Freedom to Breathe Act.

Consider the 83.9 percent of adult Minnesotans (according to results of the 2010 Minnesota Adult Tobacco Survey) who do not smoke. Please keep our Freedom to Breathe Act intact and smoke-free.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling