Road Food: Minnesota Missions
Lake Superior Smoked Fish
There is an assumption that both can and should be made about driving the North Shore, with the Chippewa National Forest on one side, and the incredible blue-on-blue of the Lake Superior horizon on the other: If there isn’t smoked fish in your cooler right now, there either was or will be. Slow-smoking lake trout, herring, and whitefish plucked from Superior’s chilly waters is a North Shore tradition, as is eating it while ogling that big blue beauty. You’ve got a few ways to experience this one. Both Russ Kendall’s Smoke House in Knife River and Lou’s Fish House (lousfish.com) in Two Harbors represent the roadside, hole-in-the-wall, grab-and-go contingent—at Russ’s, they famously wrap your purchase in newspaper. Northern Waters Smokehaus (northernwaterssmokehaus.com) in Duluth and Dockside Fish Market (docksidefishmarket.com) in Grand Marais are more upscale operations with more amenities, so you can enjoy your smoked fish in a wrap, chowder, or salad.
New Ulm boasts a 4,000-pound statue of an ancient German hero, a four-story glockenspiel that springs into action thrice daily, and an impressive rate of lederhosen ownership per capita. We’re just guessing on that last one, but still—you know there’s gotta be a restaurant serving some killer brats around here. That would be Veigel’s Kaiserhoff (kaiserhoff.org), run by a Veigel since opening 75 years ago. The sauerkraut’s homemade, and the brats are crafted by nearby Deutschland Meats, which also supplies Veigel’s with landjaeger (pronounced LAHND-yay-ger), the brat’s lesser-known (yet no less delicious) juicy, spiced, beef-pork cousin. If you’re doing the grilling, both the Cash Wise and Hy-Vee in New Ulm sell house-made landjaeger and brats. In either case, be sure to enjoy with a locally brewed Schell’s. Prost!
Since buying or selling Minnesota walleye is illegal, eating it is generally a DIY affair—but sometimes you want to skip the whole waiting-for-hours-on-the-lake business and eat some dang fish. Fortunately, Minnesota’s Red Lake Band of Chippewa inhabits its own sovereign nation, so the rule doesn’t apply to its commercial walleye operation. The Akina Red Lake Fishery (redlakewalleye.com) sells its fish online and also supplies restaurants including The Thunderbird Lodge (thunderbirdrainylake.com), located on Canadian-border straddling Rainy Lake’s southern shore since the 1930s. The Thunderbird’s secret breading and tartar-sauce recipes have been handed down through generations. And if you do happen to turn up the perfect combo of patience/skill/guidance/luck required to pluck walleye out of Rainy Lake yourself? They’d be happy to work their magic on your personal catch.
It’s time to stop the ironic admiration and put your money where your mouth is. The next time you’re driving past Austin, carpe diem. Swing on in and eat SPAM in the very town that gifted it to the world. The options are impressively long. Start your linen-napkin, house-cut prime-rib kind of dinner at The Old Mill (oldmill.net), for example, with SPAM Dunkers (regular or pepper-flavored). Or try the SPAM and pineapple pizza at Steve’s (stevespizzamn.com), a longstanding local pie slinger. Pull up a stool at B&J Bar and Grill (bandjbarandgrill.com) downtown for the charbroiled SPAM burger that’s acted as the finale to many a visit to the SPAM Museum (spam.com/spam-101), half a mile away (which only sells SPAM in cans). Short on time? Grab any of four SPAMtastic menu items at the local Culver’s (culvers.com). If you need more suggestions, the local visitor’s bureau (austinmn.com) keeps a list.
You know what makes the trip along that gorgeous stretch of Mississippi-hugging Great River Road? Pie at the Smiling Pelican Bakeshop in Maiden Rock or the Stockholm Pie Company (stockholmpiecompany.com), on the Wisconsin side in Stockholm. How about the best well-earned indulgence along the pretty Root River Trail in southern Minnesota? Pie at The Aroma Pie Shop (thearomapieshop.com) in Whalan. And if you’re confident in your Minnesota citizenship, you’re also well-aware that it’s all but law that visitors stop for pie when traveling along the North Shore. We’re partial to the North Shore Berry Crumb at The Rustic Inn (therusticinncafe.com), the Bumbleberry at the Pie Place Café in Grand Marais (thepieplacecafe.com), and, on the way up, the coconut cream at the Park Place Café in Braham, home of the annual Pie Day festival, which takes place on August 1 this year (pieday.com). Sensing a pattern? The road to so many great day-trip destinations holds a pie-pusher offering a quick leg stretch and a delicious home-baked slice, with a side of local ambiance. All you have to do is apply the brakes and eat up.
Arguably the most admirable quality of the friendly neighborhood meat markets sprinkled about the state is a solid commitment to abundance. Cooler space willing, they are ever-ready to decorate your vacation with meat: thick-cut honey bacon and maple links at breakfast; cheddar- or cranberry-spiked summer sausage and shaved roasts for lunch on the boat; steaks, burgers, and brats gussied up with wild rice, jalapeños, and such for the grill, plus jerky to tide you over between mealtime-meats. Among our long-standing favorites: Schmidts in Nicollet (schmidtsmeatmarket.com), St. Joe in St. Joseph (stjosephmeatmarket.com), Greg’s in Hampton (gregsmeats.com), McDonald’s in Clear Lake (mcdonaldsmeats.com) and Thielen Meats in Pierz (thielen-meats.com).
Cooking roughly 70 gallons of anything over an open flame is more art than science, which only adds to the booya mystique. Any given pot generally starts with a trifecta of meats (chicken, beef, and pork), an assortment of vegetables (cook’s preference), and a top-secret combination of herbs and spices. Honestly, though? What’s in the pot usually doesn’t matter as much as what’s happening around it: the hours upon hours spent outside, fire-tending and stew-stirring with a giant paddle, and the hungry crush that comes to dunk saltines, swig a beer, and rub shoulders amid the crisp fall air. No wonder many a small-town celebration and fundraiser has a booya kettle at its heart. The World Championship Booya Cook-Off , in South St. Paul each October, sets you up for the possibility of booya’s most magical combo: plentiful and delicious.
Take dehydrated whitefish and rehydrate it with lye (yep, that’s right, the active ingredient in drain cleaner), and there you have it: Scandinavia’s most detested import. Yet despite lutefisk’s much-maligned reputation—the jiggly fish jell-o has been called “the world’s largest chunk of phlegm” and “the afterbirth of a dog”—its popularity remains strong. According to the database at lutefiskloverslifeline.com, there are at least 121 Minnesota restaurants, churches, lodges, senior centers, and other groups serving lutefisk. Ground zero is the annual holiday-time feed at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis (asimn.org). That’s because those who eat it know lutefisk’s best-kept secret: It doesn’t taste as bad as it sounds, especially when doused in melted butter or cream sauce and enjoyed in the company of other lutefisk lovers.