Let’s get something straight. Fargo, the Coen brothers’ movie, was mostly filmed in Minnesota. You know where Fargo wasn’t filmed? Fargo, North Dakota.
But good luck mentioning Fargo, the city, without acknowledging its Hollywood moment 25 years ago. In fairness, Fargo milks its 15 minutes, having installed a replica woodchipper recalling the film’s notorious finale outside its visitor center. (The original is located indoors with a fake leg protruding from the top.)
As fans, this was our first stop. But we devoted the rest of our time on the ground to exploring the real Fargo—one of vibrant museums, inspiring boutiques, and thriving restaurants.
The Plains Art Museum, for instance, showcased an impressive collection of traditional and contemporary work by Native American artists, including Star Wallowing Bull, an Ojibwe-Arapaho member of White Earth Nation in Minnesota. We bought tickets to a matinee show at the Fargo-Moorhead Opera and caught an indie film at the Fargo Theatre, an Art Deco cinema with an original Wurlitzer pipe organ. At the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead, just over the Minnesota state line, we gaped at the Hjemkomst, an exacting reproduction of a ninth-century Viking burial ship built by a middle school guidance counselor, as well as a full-scale replica of the Hopperstad wood stave church in Norway.
Shopping in downtown Fargo presented more adventure. Unglued was like a brick-and-mortar Etsy, selling hand-printed greeting cards and small-batch apothecary goods. The White House Co. was a sweet-as-can-be vintage store trading in Pinterest-worthy planters, brass spoons, ceramic salt cellars, and everything pink and twee.
Like those other twin cities we all know and love, Fargo and Moorhead boast a multiplicity of innovative dining options. At BernBaum’s, Brett Bernath and Andrea Baumgardner could just serve New York-style bagels, potato knishes, and chocolate rugelach and call it a day. Instead, the couple puts a fresh spin on classic deli fare, dreaming up delicious rule-breakers like a vegan Reuben sandwich made with roasted beets, smoked carrots, and cashew cheese, or a “BLT” gussied up with crackly gribenes (fried chicken skin), kicky zhug sauce, and a schmear of mango harissa.
Over at Luna, chef Ryan Nitschke serves the kind of seasonal, progressive cuisine we never expected to find in a drab strip mall with a liquor store, nail salon, and tombstone dealer. The mains rotate often; count your blessings if he’s serving his unctuous lamb bacon soup or juicy Amish chicken thighs with farro and burrata. The only thing Nitschke regularly makes are chive-and-cheddar popovers—a starter so popular, they sometimes sell out by 5:30 p.m.
Forever at the service of our stomachs, we also enjoyed the steamed momos and Nepali thali at Everest Tikka House in Moorhead; flaky, beefy sambusas at no-frills East African restaurant Rugsan; and the rattlesnake-rabbit sausage and salty pretzels with hot beer cheese at Würst Bier Hall. For breakfast, we ordered thick-cut toast smeared with jam from Youngblood Coffee Roasters; for dessert, an old-fashioned Monkey Tail (chocolate-dipped frozen banana) and butterscotch Dilly Bar from the Moorhead Dairy Queen, a franchise darling since 1949.
The breweries and bars also proved next-level. Wild Terra set up its cidery and taproom in a converted 19th-century stable. The light-flooded, greenery-filled space was the perfect spot to parse the fruity, funky, spicy nuances of a cider flight and split creative vegetarian dishes like jackfruit tacos with pickled cactus and grilled queso fresco.
Our top picks for hopheads were Drekker Brewing Company (try the juicy-tart People Eater, a sour beer made with Thai basil and a boatload of blueberries) and Junkyard Brewing Company in Moorhead, which has achieved cult status for experimental beers like its pineapple-infused milkshake double IPA. Swing Barrel Brewing Co. just opened in Moorhead as well.
And five minutes to the south: Harold’s On Main, a hip cocktail bar with ties to a group of musicians. Harold’s pays tribute to the now-closed Ralph’s Corner Bar with $3 Hamm’s pints and Heggies pizzas, although its striking interior is very now with pine green vinyl booths and a graphic black-and-white striped floor.
Our penitence for all that gluttony was a brief stay in Grand Forks, 90 minutes north of Fargo. There we rented cruisers from the Ski & Bike Shop to ride the gentle sloping hills of the Greenway, a 2,200-acre greenspace with towering oaks and more than 20 miles of multi-use trails. One point of interest along the way was the somber monument commemorating the 1997 Red River flood; the water crested at 54 feet, devastating the greater Grand Forks and East Grand Forks communities.
Though the Red still strikes fear into the hearts of many locals, we were encouraged by Jim Grijalva, University of North Dakota law professor and founder of Ground Up Adventures, to tackle it head on. Last summer marked his fifth season renting kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards from Boathouse on the Red, a duo of bright blue shipping containers parked just off the Greenway.
After burning sufficient calories in a tandem kayak, we rewarded ourselves with a bag of Chippers, the chocolate-covered potato chips that made 71-year-old chocolatier Carol Widman’s an essential stop. This was followed by a feast at Safari Market, one of three East African restaurants catering to the area’s tight-knit Somali and Kenyan communities. The hilib ari (goat meat with rice) and camel soup (served only on Fridays and Muslim holidays) were excellent. Come breakfast, a Nutella and strawberry/banana crepe from French Taste, a stand founded by ambitious UND marketing student Warren Sai, was delightful in its warm, gooey simplicity. We also dug the eclectic, adventurous plates at Ely’s Ivy, because where else in North Dakota can you chase pickle dip and a kangaroo loin with a festive tiki cocktail?
For one last study in contrasts, we went from scouting the edgy contemporary works at the North Dakota Museum of Art to rooting from the bleacher seats at the River Cities Speedway, an oval dirt-and-clay track hosting deafening races with NOSA outlaw sprint cars, NLRA late models, and Wissota street stocks and Midwest modifieds. We didn’t know what any of those things meant either, but still had a rip-roaring good time as chunks of dirt flew at our laps.
And that’s the thing about this neck of North Dakota—come with a blank slate and it’s impossible not to have a good time.