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


The Merlin Players deliver an evening of laughter in Faribault via “Barefoot in the Park” February 24, 2018


MORE THAN EVER, I need laughter. I need to sequester myself in a place without media, without any hint of what’s happening outside weather-wise or world-wise. I need to laugh in bursts of untethered delight.

That happened Friday evening inside the darkened historic theatre at the Paradise Center for the Arts, 321 Central Avenue, in downtown Faribault.

There, The Merlin Players opened “Barefoot in the Park,” a romantic comedy by Neil Simon set in a New York City brownstone in February 1963. There I found the delight I craved, I needed, I longed for in recent days. I laughed. Free. Full. Joyous.

This six-person cast presented a stellar performance of this story about newlyweds settling into their apartment and into married life. A drop-in mother-in-law, a quirky and friendly neighbor, a telephone repairman and a delivery man round out the cast.

What most impressed me, besides the acting, was observing just how much these performers love working together. In one scene, mother-in-law Ethel Banks (played by Susan Dunhaupt) and neighbor Victor Velasco (played by Carter Martin) started laughing. Not as part of the script, but at lines in the play and the audience reaction. It was one of those moments that drew us all in. Unscripted. Pure and full laughter rolling through the theatre. Until the pair could pull themselves together enough to continue.

After the show, at an opening night reception, Martin was overheard saying he didn’t expect they would have a “Carol Burnett moment.” He was referencing the superstar comedian who sometimes also laughed so hard she paused in performing.

Faribault is fortunate to have a semi-professional theater company based in our community and one which draws such talented performers—like the leads in this play, professional actor Paul Somers and Sydney Place Sallstrom. Matt Drenth (the phone repairman), in his buffalo plaid shirt, also brought plenty of humor to the performance as did Gary Hoganson with his minor delivery man role.

All in all, “Barefoot in the Park” gave me exactly what I needed on a February evening in Minnesota. Laughter. And a few hours secluded in the darkness of a theater, away from the real world, real life.

FYI: Other performances are set for 7:30 p.m. February 24 and March, 1, 2 and 3. A matinee showing is at 2 p.m. February 25.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


“Sweet Land, the musical” proves as memorable & moving as the film October 13, 2017

The program cover from Thursday evening’s performance of “Sweet Land, the musical.”


SEATED ONLY ROWS from the intimate stage in an historic Faribault theater, I felt part of the set, part of the scene, part of the story that unfolded before me in “Sweet Land, the musical.”

What a gift to see this St. Paul-based History Theatre performance right here in my community, in the late 1800s Newhall Auditorium on the campus of Shattuck-St. Mary’s School. I appreciate that History Theatre, through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, is touring this show in Greater Minnesota. Even though I live only an hour from the Twin Cities metro, I don’t attend theater there due to cost and, well, the hassle of driving and parking. Tickets for the Faribault performance were only $20.


A promo from the “Sweet Land” film website.


I walked into Newhall Auditorium with high expectations. Ali Selim’s independent film “Sweet Land,” upon which the musical is based (and rooted in Minnesota writer Will Weaver’s short story, “A Gravestone Made of Wheat”), rates as one of my all-time favorite movies. Filmed in my native southwestern Minnesota prairie, the setting of wide skies and land, naturally draws me in.

But it is the challenges faced by German immigrant Inge Altenberg, come to America in 1920 to marry Norwegian farmer Olaf Torvik, that make this story memorable and especially relevant today. As I listened to character Pastor Sorenson warn, “She (Inge) is not one of us,” I reflected on how we welcome, or don’t welcome, immigrants to Minnesota.


Faribault native Ann Michels in the lead role of Inge Altenberg alongside Robert Berdahl as Olaf Torvik on-stage at the History Theatre. While the movie was filmed in the Montevideo area of southwestern Minnesota, the musical sets the story farther north in the Park Rapids/Hubbard County area. Photo courtesy of the History Theatre.


I was especially pleased that the History Theatre performance did not deviate from the film storyline, following it right down to the cup of coffee brewed by Inge and which the pastor declared too strong for his liking. Details like these are important because they connect with the audience in a relatable way.

Performers also connected via music. A musician even stroked a cello (or maybe it was a bass; I’m uncertain) to mimic the moo of a cow during a barn scene. Music from a violin, piano and, surprise, an accordion, and more followed the storyline plot from fast-paced and dramatic to soulful and reflective.

I felt the intensity of emotions in Inge as she struggled to learn English, in Pastor Sorenson as his voice boomed suspicion from the pulpit, in Olaf as he battled to hold his feelings in check.

My nearness enhanced my experience, especially during a softball game when actors moved off the stage, so close their gloved hands nearly touched audience members. As the musical progressed, I saw sweat sliding down performers’ faces.

During an apple pie making scene, I almost expected the scent of cinnamon to waft through the theater. While it didn’t, I caught the nuances of the interaction between Inge and her neighbor. When Inge called the pie strudel, Brownie corrected her. “No, apple pie.”

That’s the thing about this story, this film, this musical—seemingly subtle exchanges prompt the audience to think, to ponder whether the coffee someone brews really is too strong or whether it is our reactions that run too strong.


FYI: “Sweet Land, the musical” is showing at the Sheldon Theatre in Red Wing at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 14, and at Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center in Worthington at 7 p.m. on Sunday, October 15, closing out the tour to communities in Greater Minnesota.

The lead actress role of Inge is played by Faribault native Ann Michels, who gave an outstanding performance to an appreciative hometown audience. The musical is part of the Fesler-Lampert Performing Arts Series offered at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School. This marks my first time attending a show here and you bet I’ll be back. The Vienna Boys Choir comes to the historic Faribault theater at 7:30 p.m. on November 16.

Special thanks to my husband, Randy, for gifting me with tickets to “Sweet Land” for my birthday.


Loving the settings & beer at these greater Minnesota breweries July 14, 2017

A flight of craft beer from F-Town Brewing in my community of Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


FIVE YEARS AGO if anyone had suggested I would drink (and like) craft beer, I would have laughed. I was only the occasional have-a-beer-with-your-pizza or on a hot summer evening type of beer drinker. And at that, I drank whatever mass produced beer the husband had stocked in the fridge.

How my tastes have changed. I can no longer drink beer that flows by the gallons into bottles or cans inside a sprawling factory. Those beers taste like water to me. Rather, I’ve become a beer snob, preferring hoppy IPAs crafted at small breweries.

I’ll be the first to tell you my preference for craft beer developed over time as an acquired taste. But once acquired, I was hooked, enough so that I, along with my husband, seek out craft breweries. These specialty businesses are an experience, not just a place to try new beers.


Reads Landing Brewing Company in Reads Landing, Minnesota.


Two recent road trips took us to Reads Landing Brewing Company (between Lake City and Wabasha) and to Imminent Brewing Company. They are distinctly different breweries, but both with excellent beer. And I don’t say that about every craft beer.

We almost missed the Reads Landing establishment in the same named unincorporated community along U.S. Highway 61 in southeastern Minnesota. The brewery sits at the base of a hillside, a train track away from the Mississippi River. Housed inside an historic 1870 former dry goods store, the setting hearkens to bygone days. As an appreciator of old buildings, I delighted in the location and the wide window view of the Mississippi.


Randy and I shared a sampler flight of Reads Landing beer.


With the exception of slow service on a weekday afternoon when the place wasn’t overly busy, I rate Reads Landing Brewing highly. Randy and I settled onto high chairs at the front window for a perfect view of the river and a slow moving train. Then we waited and waited until the bartender/waiter finally got off the phone, noticed us and then made excuses for his lack of attention. Thankfully, the house-made beers in the sampler flight and accompanying Bavarian Style Soft Pretzel Sticks with homemade beer cheese and mustard dipping sauces compensated for the inattention and left us with a mostly good impression of this brewpub.

Of special note is the Cap’n Amber beer, a beer into which Cap’n Crunch cereal is incorporated in the mash. All of the beers were to our liking; we’d recommend this beer and brewery.


The patio outside Imminent Brewing Company in Northfield, Minnesota.


Farther inland to the north and east in the riverside college town of Northfield, we checked out the recently-opened Imminent Brewing. I love this place, declaring to Randy that this was my absolute favorite brewery. Located in a former National Guard Armory garage, the brewery has an industrial look and a welcoming vibe. There’s just something about this place that seems particularly comfortable for anyone from a blue collar worker to a college professor.

The brewery also features an expansive patio. And, bonus, food trucks. On this particular weekday evening, Randy and I enjoyed arepas from Noris Cuisine. We didn’t stick around for the live music.

We shared a flight sampler of simply superb craft beers. We’ll be back, given the location some 15 miles from our home.

And we’ll be checking out Tanzenwald, the other new brewery in Northfield, sometime soon.

TELL ME: Do you drink craft beer and/or visit craft breweries? Share your favorites.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Take two: A second look at the film “Sweet Land” & immigration issues February 6, 2017


The letter Inge received from Olaf, in the fictional film Sweet Land.

She is not one of us. We speak a common language. We have a common background, a common culture. She is not one of us.

We have to be careful about this sort of thing…German nationals. German nationals engage in prostitution. They harbor dangerous political convictions. Are you aware of the Espionage Act of 1916?

English only in the church. English.

You’re German. It’s a bad influence. You’re German. It’s a disruption to my community. You make coffee that’s too black.

She makes good coffee, not like the women in church.

I was fearful of her differences, but I was hopeful she could join us on our path….Do not allow your good lives to be poisoned by these two.

This is German food?

No, just food.

You don’t have the papers.


Promotional from Sweet Land website.

LAST WEEK I REWATCHED Sweet Land, an award-winning independent film released in 2005. The movie, based on Minnesota writer Will Weaver’s short story, “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” and filmed on my native southwestern Minnesota prairie, rates as a favorite of mine.


Olaf Torvik’s home on the prairie. The film was shot in and around Montevideo, Minnesota.

I appreciate the early 1920s setting, the music, the story and, now, its relevancy to today. The above dialogue comes from Sweet Land, which focuses on the challenges faced by Inge Altenberg, summoned to America by Norwegian farmer Olaf Torvik. He expects a Norwegian mail order bride as do others in the community. But Inge is not Norwegian; she is German.

Thereafter, the conflict begins with “She is not one of us.”

The land and love shape the story.

The land and love weave into this story. Here Inge and Olaf dance on the prairie.

I won’t give away the plot, which includes a love story. But I will tell you that I watched the movie this time from a much different perspective, in the context of current day immigration issues in our country. Sadness swept over me.

Please watch this thought-provoking, conversation-starting film. It’s a must-see whether you make coffee that’s good, judged as too black or you don’t brew coffee at all. It’s still coffee.

FYI: Sweet Land, the musical opens April 29 at History Theatre in St. Paul. It runs for five weeks, Thursday – Sunday, until May 28. Will I go? I’d love to…

RELATED: Saturday afternoon a sizable crowd gathered on the Rice County Courthouse grounds in my community for a peaceful protest. Please click here to watch the video, Faribault, Minnesota Immigration Ban Protest 2-4-17, posted by Terry Pounds. Faribault is home to many immigrants and refugees, including from Somalia.

A photographic exhibit of refugee children who fled Syria, leaving everything behind, is showing at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. Photos for Where the Children Sleep were taken by award-winning Swedish photojournalist Magnus Wennman. In order to increase community access to the exhibit, the ASI is providing free admission on Wednesdays in February. The exhibit runs through March 5. Where the Children Sleep launches the Institute’s 2017 “Migration, Identity and Belonging Programming.”

Review © Copyright 2017 by Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Exploring La Crosse Part III: Eats & treats October 22, 2015

HOW DO YOU DECIDE where to eat in downtown La Crosse, Wisconsin? You don’t. You allow your daughter to choose the restaurant.

A coaster at The Old Crow. I love the simplistic design and minimalist decor.

A coaster at The Old Crow. I love the simplistic design and minimalist decor.

Last Saturday, searching for a place to eat lunch, Miranda’s eyes landed on The Old Crow, an American Gastropub. I was expecting the usual limited fare of burgers and other sandwiches. Instead, we found those and plenty of creative menu choices. Like a burger served between glazed doughnuts. I ordered the smoked bacon, chicken and cheddar flatbread. The daughter and husband both ordered sandwiches. We all liked our food, although getting our meals took awhile. Granted, it was the busy lunch hour and we’d waited 15 minutes to be seated.

My smoked bacon and chicken flatbread cheddar. I wouldn't expect anything less in Wisconsin.

My smoked bacon and chicken flatbread with lots of cheddar. I wouldn’t expect anything less in Wisconsin.

I’m not a fan of sports bars. Typically, I’ve found the food isn’t that great. Nor is the atmosphere. But lots of natural light pours in through large street-side windows at The Old Crow. It features minimalist décor. And, as you might expect, an excessive number of televisions. A Badgers’ football game distracted my husband from conversation. That’s the primary reason I dislike sports bars. I’m out to eat and engage in conversation, not watch football, basketball or hockey. But that’s me. Sports bars fit a need. At the table next to us, a contingent of Badgers fans wore red team attire.

For a sports-focused bar and grill, The Old Crow wins with me in both food and decor.

Antique Center of La Crosse, Ltd., 110 South Third Street

Antique Center of La Crosse, Ltd., 110 South Third Street, with 18,000 square feet of merchandising space.

Details, like this tiled exterior entry, added to the charm of Antique Center.

Details, like this tiled exterior entry, add to the charm of Antique Center. This building once housed Ganterts Furniture Company.

I spotted lots of Oktoberfest buttons. La Crosse recently celebrated its annual Oktoberfest.

I spotted lots of Oktoberfest buttons. La Crosse recently celebrated its annual Oktoberfest.

A small section of the first floor merchandise in this sprawling building.

A small section of the first floor merchandise in this sprawling building.

The store offers an extraordinary amount of merchandise.

The store offers an extraordinary amount of merchandise.

I spotted two vintage dollhouses, wishing I still had mine from my youth.

I spotted two vintage dollhouses, wishing I still had mine from my youth.

I was tempted by this poster because I love vintage graphics.

I was tempted by this poster because I love vintage graphics.

It's fun to look at the clothing and wish I was about 30 years younger than I am.

It’s fun to look at the clothing and wish I was about 30 years younger.

After lunch, we checked out the neighboring Antique Center of La Crosse, Ltd., doing our share to support this business housed in an old furniture store and spanning three floors. We didn’t even hit the basement. You could spend hours in this shop teeming with customers.

With this signage, you can't miss The Pearl.

With this signage, you can’t miss The Pearl.

The Pearl offers m

The Pearl offers many ice cream flavors and types of ice cream treats. The ice cream is homemade by The Pearl.

Even though a tad chilly, we ate our ice cream outdoors. We ordered white chocolate raspberry, maple nut and Cappuccino Oreo.

Even though a tad chilly, we ate our ice cream outdoors. We ordered white chocolate raspberry, maple nut and Cappuccino Oreo.

The old-fashioned look of The Pearl is its charm.

The old-fashioned soda fountain look of The Pearl is its charm.

This clutch of birds dipped their beaks into spilled ice cream outside The Pearl.

We watched this clutch of birds dip their beaks into spilled ice cream outside The Pearl.

The ice cream and candy shop is housed in the complex known as Pearl Street West.

The Pearl Street West complex houses the ice cream and candy shop.

But we had a schedule to keep and ice cream to eat. Not that we were hungry after the filling lunch at The Old Crow. Still, we could not leave downtown La Crosse without eating homemade ice cream at The Pearl Ice Cream Parlor. It’s a must stop, for the old-fashioned soda fountain atmosphere and the creamy ice cream. After that treat, I was ready for the 2 1/2 hour drive back home to Faribault.


CHECK BACK tomorrow for more from La Crosse. Click here to read my first post from La Crosse and click here to read my second post in this Exploring La Crosse series.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Exploring La Crosse Part II: Drinking & dining October 21, 2015

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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Turtle Stack Brewery, 125 Second Street South in downtown La Crosse.

Turtle Stack Brewery, 125 Second Street South in downtown La Crosse.

FROM PREVIOUS VISITS to La Crosse, Wisconsin, I don’t recall the downtown as crazy busy as last weekend. Friday evening we circled block after block after block trying to find a parking spot near a newly-opened brewery. Construction doesn’t help. But even without that, there seems an obvious shortage of street-side and other free parking spaces in this Mississippi River town.

The IPA I tried.

The IPA I tried.

Randy's flight.

Randy’s flight from Turtle Stack Brewery.

After finally securing parking, my husband, our daughter Miranda and I popped into Turtle Stack Brewery, one of La Crosse’s newest breweries. For a Friday evening, this sparse place with shiny wood slab tables supported by pipe was surprisingly quiet. Randy and Miranda ordered a flight of four brews while I selected a single sample. After tasting the beers—ranging from lager to ale, stout and IPA—we weren’t raving about any of them. Not that we are experts. But we’ve each tried enough craft beers to know when we really like a brewery’s offerings.

Buzzard Billy's

Buzzard Billy’s, 222 Pearl Street. It’s frustrating to see empty lots like the one next to Buzzard Billy’s with signs threatening towing if you park there and aren’t a customer of the business owning the space. And, yes, that’s a parking ramp. But we didn’t want to spend money for parking when we were already dropping a lot of money downtown.

From Turtle Stack, we headed around the corner for dinner at Buzzard Billy’s, a favorite of Miranda, who’d eaten there while attending the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. Normally I would not wait 45 minutes to be seated. But I determined that Creole and Cajun food would be worth the wait. So we secured our spot in line then crossed Pearl Street to check out The Cheddarhead Store, source of Wisconsin cow and cheese related merchandise including cheese.

Pearl Street West includes Cheddarheads, a Wisconsin gift shop on the right in this image.

Pearl Street West includes Cheddarheads, a Wisconsin gift shop on the right in this image.

Inside Cheddarheads you'll find lots of Wisconsin themes t-shirts like this one displayed in the window.

Inside Cheddarheads you’ll find lots of Wisconsin themed t-shirts like this one displayed in the window.

Another view of Pearl Street in historic downtown La Crosse. I love the old buildings and the signage here.

Another view of Pearl Street in historic downtown La Crosse. I love the old buildings and the signage.

Eventually, after also perusing Art—211 Pearl, in the same complex of businesses known as Pearl Street West, photographing some nightscapes and stashing my camera in the van, we headed back to Buzzard Billy’s with 15 minutes to spare.

Finally, we were seated in the noisy bar area, where waitresses, hands balancing large trays of food overhead, squeezed between standing room only bar patrons and tables. It looks like a disaster waiting to happen.

While I didn’t care for the bar dining spot, I loved the food. We all did. I chose a spicy Shrimp Creole. Miranda opted for a Crawfish Platter and Randy a pasta with Andouille sausage. Service was quick. It helped that we had our menu choices pre-picked and that I told the welcoming and friendly waitress I was really really hungry. She took our food orders to the kitchen before bringing beverages. Not long after, our meals arrived piping hot. I tried my first ever hush puppies and crawfish sampled from Miranda’s platter. I will confess here that I thought hush puppies were potatoes rather than corn meal. Can you tell I’m a northerner who’s not well-traveled?

Another dining option a half a block away from Buzzard Billy's.

Another dining option a half a block away from Buzzard Billy’s.

Hungry for pizza? This was a busy place.

Every college town needs pizza places.

I love this Prime Rib sign.

I love this Prime Rib sign.

Once my left-overs were boxed, we headed upstairs to walk through The Starlite Lounge, a 1950s cocktail lounge. Oh, how I wished I hadn’t left my camera in the van. The lounge is now on my list of places to patronize the next time I’m in La Crosse. This throwback setting of curving aqua couches and swivel chairs appears the perfect place to try my first ever martini.

Signage marks another La Crosse bar.

Signage marks another La Crosse bar.

No shortage of places to have a beer in downtown La Crosse.

No shortage of places to have a beer in downtown La Crosse.

Yup, another bar...

Yup, another bar…

The sophisticated Starlite Lounge seems out of place in La Crosse, known for its beer-focused Oktoberfest and downtown bars frequented by college students. But that’s OK. With so many drinking establishments, bars need to distinguish themselves. And let me tell you, there are a lot of bars in downtown La Crosse.

The Pearl, a quaint shop serving homemade ice cream.

The Pearl, a quaint shop serving homemade ice cream.

CHECK BACK TOMORROW for a look at another downtown eatery and an ice cream shop.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling