Archive for October, 2010

Market Barbecue (Eat Street)

I really like the bar at Market Barbecue.  It’s an open room, heavy on the wood, and it’s nearly always empty when I’m there.  Hockey on the TV.  I go with a friend who likes single malt Scotch, and the aroma of whatever fine hooch he’s drinking drifts all over.  Potent.

I prefer the Texas Beef Ribs, but the spare ribs are classic.  Pulled pork, well, they do it just right.

And yet, you know, even though I really like this place, like the location on Eat Street, like the beer and ribs, I just think it’s not the right atmosphere for barbecue.  I don’t know why.  It’s almost like the bar is so perfect for drinking that eating there spoils it.  So I end up saying something nice about it only to turn around and shrug, right?

You should eat there if you like barbecue.  You won’t be disappointed in the food at all.  And if you eat in a booth in the back, you won’t bring on the melancholy like I do in the front bar with my friends.  Hell, get it to go and eat at home, even.

Maybe it all comes down to the time of year I go.  I’m never in the mood for barbecue joints in the summer because I like to toss some ribs on the grill out back.  But once I put away the coals for the season, I immediately want more barbecue.  So I head on over when the wind picks up and the sky is gray.  I lose the coat and wait for the room to warm me over, then order an amber beer and sip til the ribs arrive.  And I’m sad.  Happy for the food, but still angsty, existential.  Why do I do this to myself?  And yet, it feels kind of nice, too.

I don’t know.  On second thought, wait until Spring to hit Market.  Leave the colder months to me.

Douglas Lodge for Breakfast (Park Rapids)

The mighty Mississippi River begins its journey in a calm lake tucked away in the woods, burbling over some well-placed rocks into a stream about, maybe, eight feet across.  It’s so different from what you see as it grows into a behemoth somewhere along the way.  Check this out: many vacationing parents let their kids use the source as a fucking wading pool, of course ruining any enjoyment you might get out of the moment.  Try to go when it’s not summer.

The lake is called Itasca, and it’s in Itasca State Park.  And in that park is an old-timey hotel and eatery called Douglas Lodge.  Small rooms, outfitted with antique beds and vanities from way back when, no TV, no wi-fi.  And at dinner, you can get some nicely fried fish, maybe a decent steak.  Try some of the Minnesota wines.  I’m not kidding.  They’re pretty tasty (but nothing serious.  Just drink it).

But what you really want to do is get your lazy back-to-nature ass up early and eat the pancakes.

The pancakes take up nearly the entire plate.  They’re just heavy enough, just thick enough, and they soak up the syrup like that’s the only thing it was ever designed to do.  It’s a beautifully textured syrup delivery system.

So good you’ll forget how weak the coffee is.

Douglas Lodge.  Breakfast.  Pancakes.  Your work is cut out for you.

Russ Kendall’s Smoke House (Duluth/Knife River)

I’m going to cheat a little and point you to Heavy Table’s listing for Russ Kendall’s.  If you’re this far up north, you should try some smoked fish.  And I hit Russ Kendall’s every time I’m up on the North Shore for some King Salmon.  Fine, fine stuff.

There’s something about it being right across the street from Lake Superior, too.  Always quiet when I’ve been.  Never busy (even though Andrew Zimmern apparently made it popular, as the HT post tells you).  Just a simple store, a display case full of fish, some odds and ends in coolers and on shelves, plus some cheese from around the area.

I just like standing in the parking lot eating what I’ve just bought right out of the paper wrapping with my fingers.  Smell the smoke.  Listen to the wind, the shore.  Especially good in a day with a light mist falling on everything.

They tell me the Whitefish is good.  Maybe I’ll try it.  For me, it’s the salmon that calls me back.  Best I’ve ever had.

New Scenic Cafe (outside Duluth, North Shore)

I actually didn’t eat at New Scenic Cafe.  I tried to, but they were real jerks to me and my dining companion.  First, there was no one there to greet us except some chef who wandered in, looked at the handful of people waiting for tables, and then wandered off again.  It took a while to get a table (in a mostly empty restaurant.  For lunch).  And once there, it took a longer while for a server to come over, give us menus and water, and say that she was really busy.

If she was, we didn’t see it.  She disappeared for at least twenty minutes.  She didn’t approach any of the other tables where there were diners.

So we had had it.  The menu was tiny, mostly sandwiches, and pricey.  And we were being ignored.  So we got up to leave.

And that’s when the server showed up and said, nastily, to our backs, “I told you I’d get to you.”

And I said, loudly, “You should’ve done it fifteen minutes ago.”

So whatever their food tastes like (and the local rags tell me it’s wonderful if you like expensive frou-frou shit), I could give a fuck.

HyVee Chinese (all over)

If you’ve been to a HyVee grocery store, you’ve probably seen their Chinese buffet.  It’s pretty damned good.  And that’s what I mean–there’s something about the fact that HyVee makes Chinese food that pleases me almost as much as a really good “authentic” joint would.  And in addition to the old standards, they’re willing to experiment with a dish now and then.

It’s comfort food.  And there’s nothing wrong with comfort.  Go in, grab a box from damn near any location, take it home, and smile.

That’s what eating is about.  I never feel I’m settling when I eat HyVee Chinese.  I feel I’m doing exactly what I want to do.

Why?

It occurred to me that there are plenty of other food blogs/site that cover Minnesota.  One of my favorites is Heavy Table.  Very wide array of flavors on that site.  A must read.  But also Twin City Eats (although that’s in transition due to the author’s move to Florida.  Still, check the archives), and of course CityPages’ Hot Dish.  And others.

Plus, our local magazines do a good job of covering the restaurant scene.

And hasn’t Guy Fieri and Anthony Bourdain done their television shows here?  Yes.  Yes they have.

So what can I add to the cacophony?

I don’t know.  But I do know that I enjoy eating.  I enjoy writing about the restaurant industry.  And I enjoy sticking it to the people who fawn over crap by writing about the places people actually eat.

Also, not being Guy Fieri, I won’t turn local neighborhood bars and dives into places with a three-hour wait.

For example, I thought Barrio and Bar La Grassa were okay.  Simply okay.  Not awful, but not worth the praise they’ve been getting either.  And I really dislike being told how to eat by the snooty “small plates/back to the farm” crowd, working exhaustively over tiny bites that I’m then supposed to be happy to pay six dollars for.  Six dollars for three bites of food is not cheap.  Especially when it feels like a lecture instead of food.

Feed me.  Don’t piss me off.

On the other hand, I’ve had a good time in Punch Pizza every time I’ve gone, no matter the location.  Come to think of it, same with Blackwoods, Arby’s, and Subway.  I’ve found places in shopping centers that no one pays any attention to where there’s a bustling crowd and consistent goodness.  I like this Italian joint named Valentini’s in Duluth because they weren’t pricks to us like the other place we tried to go, where we were told we needed a reservation even though their website said we didn’t.  Oh, and the food was solid.

Here it is: atmosphere.  I won’t compete with the blogs that tell you where all the buzz is.  I’m telling you where it’s not, where it never should be, and where you should still go for a meal anyway.

Got it?

Salsa a la Salsa (Eat Street)

Ah, yeah, a nice little place for Mexican food.  One that you usually don’t hear trumpeted about on the blogs or in the magazines around town.  Every time I’ve been to Salsa a la Salsa, it’s been good.  Just straightforward good.  Which is great.  One of the great things about the place is the location–a block off the Hyatt Downtown, right next to Market Barbecue (we’ll get to that one in a future post)–which puts in only a handful of blocks away from Masa and Barrio, two heavy hitters for Mexican/Latin food.  You can’t help but stumble across the place, as I did, and not want to go back.  You might try others, but you’ll be back here again, I swear.

I’ve had the carnitas, the carne asada, some enchiladas, tamales,  and chorizo.  The rice is solid.  The beans are solid.

I find myself drawn to places like this, the ones that feel right the first time you walk in.  Not a “hot spot” or a place where one might feel out of sorts.  When you slide into one of their booths, you know you can stick around for a while, watch the world pass by the front windows.  Where are they all going?  Who gives a shit?  I’ve got enchiladas and a bottle of Pacifico.  I’m just fine.