In Transit: From Fargo To Mason City, Iowa

I have to remind myself to take one day at a time, lest I go mad.

Last week, we packed our luggage and headed to Mason City, IA to explore our new hometown and begin the search for a house. Our drive south on I-35 triggered a lot of memories from my college years when I drove between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Waverly, IA countless times. The funny thing is that I never had the urge to pull off the freeway and explore back then. Now, that’s all I can think about as we pass quirky billboards and roadside attractions like the Spam Museum and tiny, country churches.

Although I hated the three and a half hour commute between Fargo and our hometown, Minneapolis-St. Paul, I enjoyed exploring the small towns along I-94. My husband’s usually in a hurry to go straight to our destination but agreed to stop for dinner.

I chose Freeport, MN, the small town with a smiling water tower. It’s also home to Charlie’s Cafe, a popular breakfast joint with a strong billboard presence. When I dined at Charlie’s last year, I felt drawn to the charming main street and wanted to return to Ackie’s Pioneer Inn, the interesting building next door. We hungrily eyed a supper club menu posted on the door, hoping for a meal.

The interior surprised us. For one thing, it was empty except for a small group of friends perched at the bar. It also smelled strongly of alcohol and not at all like food. The friendly locals told us they only served meals on certain evenings. As they directed us to their restrooms, a young man yelled something about falling spiders. I thought he was messing with us. My husband, who is typically even-keeled, emerged from the restroom unnerved because a spider had, indeed, fallen on his head.

The rowdy locals directed us to the Corner Pub down the street for burgers. The same young man who had warned us about spiders hollered an endorsement for their chicken.

The corner bar was also quiet except for a handful of locals and the menu was simple, consisting of fried appetizers and sandwiches. Jake chose a German burger with American swiss and sauerkraut while I went after a sloppy burger with sauteed veggies, bacon, and mayo, both with sides of crispy, crinkle cut fries. A friendly server took our orders and prepared our meals. She left a bottle of Thousand Island at our table and I put it on everything.

Weary travelers should never underestimate the power of a burger basket from a humble, small town bar. The patties were cooked all of the way through and nondescript, but the people watching was memorable. A couple of women celebrating a birthday were glued to the television mounted above the bar, closely following The Biggest Loser. A contestant fell off his bike and they laughed.

We now find ourselves in limbo as we live in hotels during the workweek and return to the Twin Cities to live with our parents on the weekends until we can buy our first home. Then, we’ll arrange to move the rest of our belongings down from Fargo and say a few more goodbyes.

It’s stressful and it’s tiring. We’re always in transit and there’s no definitive end in sight. Fortunately, everyone we’ve met in Mason City has gone out of their way to offer warm welcomes and extend their assistance.

Getting used to a new downtown. It’s quieter than Fargo’s.

 As my college acquaintance who lives here said, “It’s the Mason City way.” We’re grateful for this.

Our Favorite North Dakota Food & Beverages

After nearly two years, we’ve tasted a lot of Fargo-Moorhead, though there’s plenty we still haven’t tried. Here is our list of favorite dishes from Fargo-Moorhead (and beyond).

Savory Dishes

Parma Prociutto Wrapped Shrimp with Marscapone Polenta & Sun-Dried Tomatoes ($7 during happy hour, $13 full price), Mezzaluna, Fargo.
Happy hour is like magic at Mezzaluna. On Mon.-Fri. between 3-6 p.m., you can order some of the biggest, most beautiful plates of food for $7. Our favorite dish at Mezzaluna is this small plate of crispy prosciutto wrapped shrimp. High quality shrimp with crispy tails, tangy tomatoes, and creamy polenta drizzled with chunky pesto sauce bring us back to this dish again and again.

Red Curry Scallops ($14)Sarello’s, Moorhead
I didn’t expect to find better red curry at Sarello’s than I’ve at most Thai restaurants. The curry was surprisingly spicy and well balanced while the tender-crisp vegetables contrasted with the silky scallops. I enjoyed the sauce so much that I swiped my plate clean with my finger. Jake used the bread basket. Either way, you’ll find a way to consume all of the sauce.

An appetizer portion costs $14. This is a double portion we ordered to share with the table.

Fish & Chips ($14)Hodo Lounge, Fargo
I almost always order this dish when we dine at the Hodo Lounge or Sky Prairie Rooftop Lounge. Moist chunks of cod are coated in a panko breading and fried until crispy. The fish is always moist and noticeably fresh. I drizzle bites with malt vinegar or swipe them through flavored mayonnaises that have always been addicting, whether chipotle or curry-flavored. Plus, the fries are hand cut. This dish is spendy, but satisfying enough that I’ve ordered on our last few visits.

Wild Rice Burger

Wild Rice Burger ($9) & Bison Burger ($11), Hodo Lounge, Fargo
In addition to the Fish and Chips, our favorite Hodo plates include the Wild Rice Burger and Bison Burger. Again, these burgers are pricey since they’re served a la carte, but are consistently well-prepared.

The bison burger’s a juicy medium-rare and comes with fresh accouterments and spicy giardiniera. Diane, the editor of the High Plains Reader, recommended the Wild Rice Burger as one of her favorite dishes in Fargo and now it’s one of ours. Even my husband, who hardly ever orders vegetarian dishes, likes it enough to order it on occasion. Other dishes from the lounge menu have been hit or miss, but these three are consistently executed.

Dhamaka Balti with Lamb ($14.99), India Palace, Fargo
Fargo’s newest Indian restaurant wins for serving us the spiciest food we’ve tasted in Fargo. This particular curry came with it’s own disclaimer: *Very HOT! Prepare for an explosion in your mouth. Finally, we found the heat we were looking for. The prices here aren’t cheap, but the quality is high and curries contain an appropriate amount of proteins. 

We’ve also found the service at Passage to India hospitable and the food tasty, but it’s just not as spicy. Their curry sauces are richly flavored, but the meat dishes provide less value than the vegetarian. Their weekend buffet is above-average if you like that sort of thing. 

Spring Rolls ($5), Cafe 21, Fargo
We order these spring rolls each time we visit Cafe 21. They’re nicely wrapped and fresh. I like that Cafe 21 fills the rolls with a base of lettuce instead of rice noodles so they’re more like salad. You’ll also find small bits of shrimp and savory roasted pork. The peanut dip is rather sweet, but somehow it all balances out.

 

Beer Cheese Soup, Bertrosa’s Cafe/Dempsey’s Public House
Bertrosa’s serves the best beer cheese soup we’ve had anywhere. The cafe is hidden inside the Black Building along Broadway Ave. in downtown Fargo. Although it’s only open during weekday business hours, you can find this soup at Dempsey’s every evening. I find most other beer cheese soups too sweet, too thick, and/or too Cheeze Whizy, but not this one. It’s also a little bit spicy. At Dempsey’s, prepare for a carb-fest, because soup bowl arrives in a basket surrounded by bread and croutons.

We also like their hot, Chicago-style beef sandwich with horseradish sauce and extra hot pickled peppers.

German Sausage Chowder, Sanford Hospital Cafeteria, Fargo
Oddly enough, hospital cafeteria food makes the list. For my first year a half in Fargo, I worked in a neighboring clinic and often visited the cafeteria next door for lunch. Many of us took an early lunch when we spotted this soup on the menu and it ran out quickly. It’s made with a creamy broth (not the overly thickened kind), kielbasa, silky cabbage, and potatoes.

Hot & Spicy Tofu & Steamed Dumplings, Jade Dragon, Fargo
One of my last meals in Fargo was also one of the loveliest. Tender meat-filled dumplings steamed and served with vinegar infused dipping sauce and this stir fry made with fried pillows of tofu, scallions, onion and bell peppers cooked to an ideal tender-crisp. The sauce wasn’t extremely spicy but it had a kick. I also like that it wasn’t cloyingly sweet.

Pizza:

Pizza Nico
Our pizza delivery of choice is usually from Pizza Nico’s. They make homemade sauces as well as prepared meats like ham and barbecued beef. If we didn’t choose our own combination of toppings, we rotated specialty pizzas like the Buffalo, BBQ, taco and Hawaiian. Jalapenos are fresh and thinly cut.

Buffalo sauce is above average but the wings aren’t great. They’re coated in a crumb mixture and I think they’re baked. On the other hand, the sandwiches are great.

Rhombus Guys: Louisiana Saturday Night
I might make a few enemies saying this, but we haven’t frequented Rhombus Guys often because of its prices. They offer a lot of creative pizzas, though some are a little overwrought for my preferences. Then, our friend introduced us to his favorite pizza, the Louisiana Saturday Night. It’s topped with Cajun marinara, shrimp, sausage, red pepper, pepperocini, and and caramelized onion. A large will run you $25 plus tax and tip. Expensive, but memorably delicious.

Rhombus Guys does run some daily specials like half priced bottles and glasses of wine on Tuesday evenings.

Roasted Chicken & Basil Pesto Flatbread ($10), Maxwells, West Fargo
Maxwells might be the most expensive restaurant in Fargo. Their dishes are intensely flavored and beautifully composed, but also strike me as being overwrought for creativity’s sake. However, we are smitten with their flatbread appetizer that’s available in both the restaurant and bar. It’s a simple, yet harmonious combination of flavors melding fresh mozzarella, salty olives, sweet roasted tomatoes, and reduced balsamic vinegar. For $10, it’s amply portioned.

Sweets:

Anything from Nichole’s Fine Pastry
Nichole’s Fine Pastry smells like butter, just as it should. Sweet bakeries that don’t smell like butter make me nervous. I’ve never been let down by Nichole’s. Over the past couple years, we’ve tried many different treats like cranberry and brie-stuffed croissants, biscotti, quiche, constantly rotating cheesecakes, red velvet cookies, cannoli, and lemon tarts. Nichole’s also offers coffee shop beverages. I like their strong coffee, signature hot tea blend, and rhubarb iced tea.

Buttermilk Pie ($2/slice), Pumpkin Cookies ($1.18) & Chicken Pot Pie Soup ($3-4) at Josie’s Coffee Corner Cafe
In full disclosure, I worked at Josie’s for a couple months this summer until we had to get ready to move to Mason City, IA. I was given the opportunity to try many of their foods and found some favorites. I’d order them myself even if I hadn’t worked here.

We especially liked the buttermilk pie, a tangy custard with a caramelized top baked into a homemade pie crust. The pumpkin cookies are fluffy and more like cake, topped with a rich cream cheese frosting. They’re intense for people like me who prefer salty foods, but I enjoyed nibbling them a little at a time. Even though Josie’s is a bakery, it also functions as a busy little lunch joint where people order sandwiches and homemade soups. I especially liked the creamy chicken pot pie soup garnished with a handful of flaky pie crust leaves.

Coffee is freshly ground before brewing, as well as espresso. If you have a sweet tooth, look for Nancy’s special beverage creations on the chalkboard.

Drinks

Giant $5 Frosty Mug O’ Beer, Mango’s Mexican Grill, Fargo
Since you’re there, enjoy the complimentary chips and salsa. The food isn’t as authentic as you’ll find in larger cities, but it’s made with fresh ingredients and nicely seasoned, more so than the Mexican Village and Paradiso chains. Plus, it’s run by a family that treats you like family.

Favorite Martini: Maxwells and Monte’s.
The martinis here aren’t cheap at regular price, but they’re so expertly made that they’re worth it.

Favorite Cocktails: Mezzaluna
Mezzaluna manages to craft creative, yet well-balanced cocktails. All too often, I order cocktails that sound intriguing on paper, yet taste too weak, too sugary, or generally strike me as “meh.” This doesn’t happen at Mezzaluna. Bartenders are hospitable and just plain likable. A small selection of cocktails is available for $7 during happy hour and $9 full-priced. Haven’t met one we didn’t like. Plus, they’re happy to accommodate requests for equally refreshing non-alcoholic creations.

Beyond Fargo Mentions:

Neopolitan-stye Pizza, Sorbet & Gelato, Fireflour Pizza, Bismarck
Neapolitan-style pizzas with airy, blistered crusts baked in a wood-fired oven. Toppings range from La Quercia prociutto to arugula to Calabrian chili oil. The housemade gelatos and sorbets are really fantastic.

Jumbo Shrimp, Popovers & Frosty Mugs of Beer at Wilkin Drink & Eatery, Breckenridge, MN
This 100-year old eatery located about 40-minutes from Fargo along the main street in Breckenridge. Kind of like a pub and kind of like a supper club. Guests receive complimentary bowls of popcorn and popovers with honey butter. Has a unique character you won’t find anywhere in Fargo. We felt completely welcome as non-locals.

Jumbo Shrimp at Theodore’s Dining Room at the Rough Riders Restaurant, Medora, ND
The town of Medora is nestled into the badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It’s got a family friendly Wild West vibe in the summer and eerie stillness in the fall. I had a lovely meal in the hotel’s restaurant that included lobster-like jumbo shrimp.

Knoephla Soup & Rhubarb Pie with Meringue Topping at Home Plate Cafe, Fredonia, ND
To this date, Hot Plate Cafe’s knoephla soup and rhubarb pie are still the best versions of themselves that I’ve tried.


 

Breakfast Eggbake, The Lodge on Lake Detroit, Detroit Lakes, MN
One of my favorite parts of our stay at the lodge was eating squares of cheesy eggbake filled with various fresh vegetables (I doused mine in hot sauce). It’s complimentary with your stay. The view’s not bad, either.

Drinking Cans of PBR at the Crowbar, Sabin, MN
This cozy dive bar is located in the small town of Sabin, about 20-minutes from Fargo-Moorhead. You’ll easily find this bar on a corner along the main street, across from a towering grain elevator. The scene is composed of mostly locals, but we felt very welcome. There’s graffiti on the ceilings and a popcorn machine in the corner.

Order a dinner special from the blackboard or flip through the tattered menu. We were happiest with a burger basket, more specifically, the cream cheese and olive burger.

How Does One Goodbye To North Dakota?

On the second day of the North Dakota Bloggers and Writers Workshop held in Bismarck, my husband called with news. He had just found out we were getting transferred to Mason City, IA.

I was on a high from the previous evening’s food crawl through downtown Bismarck with Marilyn Hagerty and this news made me feel especially emotional during the North Dakota Tourism Department’s presentation. It featured photos of the state’s most beautiful places and encouraged us to look for stories to tell. I felt like I had just made new friends and finally connected with people I had only communicated with on Twitter. Talk about bad timing.

Now I’m left grappling with how to say goodbye to North Dakota. Two years ago, I remember sobbing about leaving my hometown of Minneapolis-St. Paul, pausing between tears to say, “But I love this city. Now, I feel the same way about Fargo. Oh, how I wish I could stay in North Dakota, but at least I know I have the ability to bloom where I’m planted. I’ve found a lot to be happy about here, just as I will in Iowa.

Our time here is short. Next week, we’ll visit Mason City for the first time and celebrate a family wedding in southern Minnesota. Any spare time will be dedicated to tying up loose ends, saying goodbyes to friends, and looking for a house. Still, I want take the time to say goodbye to North Dakota and am figuring out what this means.

Last night, we had a farewell dinner of sorts at Sarello’s. I met Sarah Nasello at the ND Writers and Bloggers Workshop and have been meaning to try their family’s restaurant. It’s funny how you just assume you’ll have more time. We enjoyed the type of meal that made us wonder why the heck we didn’t go there sooner.

Then there’s the fact that I will not return to culinary school at Minnesota State Community and Technical College this fall. I looked forward to learning how to work the fryer, break down a cow, and function in a supervisory role. This fall, I will think of my classmates and cheer then on from Iowa. I highly encourage anyone in the Fargo-Moorhead community interested in culinary arts to consider this program. It’s affordable, class sizes are small, and the teaching is high quality, but apply early because there’s always a waiting list. Students are accepted on a first come, first serve basis. You’ll have to deal with your fair share of slacker classmates and unusual behavior, but you’ll reap what you sow in terms of your education and connections with your peers.

I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface on exploring North Dakota. I had grand road trip plans for the summer and the reality is that I may only be able to choose one, at the most. Shall I head to German-Russian country and tour the local cafes and bakeries, Pembina Gorge, or Lake Mettegoshe and the Peace Gardens?

Do I return to the restaurants that serve my favorite dishes or try those we haven’t visited yet?

How would you say goodbye to North Dakota?

I’d love to hear your ideas.

An Epic Food Crawl With Marilyn Hagerty

I never expected that, “Oh my goodness, more drinks?” would be a recurring thought running through my head on Thursday evening. 

The 2013 North Dakota Writers and Bloggers Workshop hosted by the North Dakota Department of Commerce June 6-7th was propelled by a food crawl through downtown Bismarck with Marilyn Hagerty. Our plan was to wander to a few of her favorite restaurants in downtown Bismarck and mingle over tasting menus. No one, not even the event’s organizers, predicted the extent to which the restaurants rolled out their red carpets.

Last spring, when Hagerty’s earnest review of The Olive Garden in Grand Forks went viral, I might have had some snarky things to say. But I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and I didn’t like what I saw. I had become the very thing I despised the most in other foodies. Pretentious. The Olive Garden review was my first introduction to Hagerty’s THE EATBEAT column published in the Grand Forks Herald and I’ve looked forward to reading it each week, ever since. 

Wednesday is EATBEAT day and it’s the first thing I enjoy with my coffee in the morning. I’ve read Hagerty’s reviews from years ago in addition to those written during the past year and appreciate how they range from chain restaurants to small town cafes to Le Bernadin. They’re concise and never boring. By the time she appeared as a guest judge on Top Chef Season 10: Seattle, this new North Dakotan felt like a real North Dakotan and cheered on our hometown hero.

On this evening, we began at Pirogue Grille and enjoyed a four-course tasting menu created by proprietors, Chef Stewart and Cheryl Tracy. We got acquainted over baskets of crusty bread with soft butter, rhubarb cocktails, and smoky red wine, followed by beet salad, venison sausage and a walleye cake, and a rosy slice of bison. Many of us were tickled pink to taste our first morel and then there was dessert that thrilled even me, who typically prefers salty over sweet. 

A silky ball of ice cream coated in crunchy nougat floated in a boat of rhubarb soup. It was Willy Wonka whimsical and filled me with glee. I’ve never tasted anything like it and have come to accept I probably never will.

From Pirogue Grille, we wandered to Peacock Alley and I was nervous to find myself sitting near Marilyn. She graciously answered all of our questions, asked some of her own, and shared stories. Peacock Alley’s tasting menu was as extravagant as its décor. Think newly renovated stained glass windows and billowy tent-like ceilings. I wasn’t surprised to learn it’s popular amongst suited legislators. Our eyes and stomachs bulged upon sight of an eight-course tasting menu complete with drink pairings. 

I won’t try to describe each course, but many contained beef that was every bit as good as their National Food Service Beef Backer award implied. It proudly decorated the middle of our table. I knew I was in trouble when I started feeling full after the first course of Asian Nachos made with crispy wonton chips and beef short ribs. 


After the third, I considered waving my napkin as a white flag. By the final course, I giggled at my collection of drinks ranging from a Bloody Mary to an espresso Martini and managed to push down a frosty, sugarcoated doughnut with the chew of a beignet.

Our walk to Fireflour Pizza felt more like a waddle. Those who attended Fargo’s Street Fair last year may remember Fireflour’s pizza oven. Co-owner Kenny Howard showered us with marinated olives and four of their Neapolitan-style pizzas with airy, blistered crusts.

They reminded me of the Twin Cities’ popular Punch Pizza, except, dare say, bigger and better? We all stood up and raised our arms, trying to will more room into our stomachs. The evening ended as Howard passed around tiny cups of housemade gelato flavored like salted caramel and lemon.

What had originally been planned as a three-hour food crawl grew into four, and, over the span of a single evening, we left feeling like friends. Extremely full friends. I will always sitting on Fireflour’s sidewalk patio that cool summer evening listening to the trains passing. It was as lovely like Marilyn’s humility and inspiring like her confidence. In fact, I was humbled by the hospitality and warmth I found in the rest of the cohort, as well as the participating restaurants. I think her best piece of advice that evening was simply to be authentic, something that makes writers and non-writers, alike, stand apart. 

North Dakota’s rich with talented writers and bloggers and ripe with stories to tell. Come find us or try your hand at crafting some of your own.

Photo courtesy of ND Dept. of Commerce

You can read Marilyn’s thoughts on the workshop here.

IF YOU GO:

What: Pirogue Grille
Where: 121 North 4th Street, Bismarck
When: Tues-Sat, 5 p.m.-close
Info: http://www.piroguegrille.com/

What: Peacock Alley
Where: 422 East Main Avenue, Bismarck
When: Mon-Thurs, 11 a.m.-Midnight, Fri, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Sat, 10 a.m.-1 a.m., Sun, Closed (Kitchen open until 11 p.m. Mon-Sat)
Info: http://peacock-alley.com/

What: Fireflour Pizza
Where: 111 North 5th Street, Bismarck
When: Tues-Thurs, 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri-Sat, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Info: http://www.fireflourpizza.com/

Thoughts On RibFest 2013: Blooming Onion Redemption

RibFest is totally overpriced. It’s messy, the music features throwback bands, and the food is a gamble. But we all end up going anyway. Sometimes, more than once.

The prior weekend, they started inflating the gazillions of jumping contraptions and on June 5th, RibFest opened in all of its glory. The first band to play was Sugar Ray. Welcome to 1998.

My husband received a couple of free RibFest tickets at work and refused to use them on a Sugar Ray concert. We compromised by sitting on lawn chairs and listening to them from our balcony over beers. For as much grief as I give Mark McGrath, we had a wonderful time. The evening was refreshingly cool and there was no wind, a eerie rarity on this windy prairie. We watched the band leap back and forth across the stage and I only remember laughing at them once. It was one of those tranquil moments you want to save for later and revisit when life feels overwhelming.

We went to RibFest on Friday evening when Blue Oyster Cult was performing. To save a few bucks, we enjoyed a beer at Buffalo Wild Wings before hawking over $6 per beer at the event.

My husband and I shared a boat of jalapeno cheese curds before searching for ribs. These would be the best thing we tasted that evening. I don’t remember the vendor’s name, but it was generic and served curds at a few stations. 

Stringy cheese. Crunchy, greaseless coating, and large slices of jalapenos. What’s not to like?

We settled into the long line at the Cowboys Barbeque and Rib Co. from Weatherford, TX. Several of us have actually eaten barbecue in Texas and our friends chose this stand assuming they’d be good. To give you an idea about pricing, they charged $7 for three ribs. These weren’t Flinstones-sized ribs but regular pork ribs. We ordered a half slab, plus a sides of macaroni and cheese and baked beans, each of which cost an additional $3.

Honestly, everything on this platter was rather unappealing.

The ribs were tough and fatty. Their smoked flavor reminded me of the smell of mothballs. The barbecue sauce was fine if bland.

The mac and cheese and baked beans were scooped in measly portions that couldn’t have amounted to more than a half cup each. The macaroni and cheese was lukewarm with a weird, plasticy aftertaste and I had to really fish through the watery, bland bean liquid to find any beans. Looking back over my 2012 RibFest posts, I notice we unintentionally returned to the same vendor we visited last year with similar results. It came as no surprise this vendor didn’t win any awards.

I didn’t leave until I got my blooming onion. Our second visit to Ribfest 2012 was a disaster. We quickly abandoned my quest because the scary, drunk man who stood behind me at the ATM followed us to the event and tailed us as we wove through the crowd.

The onion petals were crisp and the staff actually took time to drain off most of the oil. The orange lava flow of sauce tasted sweet. I sprinkled the onion with various seasoning salts and passed it on when I began to feel sick.

I headed home as dark storm clouds formed and strong winds transformed the hot day into a bone-chilling evening. Blue Oyster Cult played on as I walked towards the exit, flinching as I stepped in a stinky, yellow puddle.

This is a Porta Potty-only event, ya’ll. It’s loud and crowded and dirty, but chances are you’ll probably return. We all do.

Reflecting On My First Year In Culinary School

Check out Simple, Good and Tasty for the last post in my Culinary Chronicles series this year.

My final update is different than the previous ones because it’s a list. A best and worst of list, to be exact. Learn more about my favorite and least favorite aspects of my first year in community culinary school. Overall, it was an unforgettable and enriching experience.

I’m getting ready to attend the first part of the North Dakota Bloggers & Writers Conference in Bismarck, ND. Our own Marilyn Hagerty is going to lead us on a downtown food crawl. You can find us on Twitter at #NDLegendary.

If you’re in Fargo-Moorhead this weekend, enjoy Ribfest. We had a blast watching Sugar Ray perform from our balcony last night. That’s gotta be a legendary experience in itself.

Driving South On I-29: From Fargo to Sisseton, SD

I drove south because I wanted to.

Not only did I drive south because I wanted to, but because I’ve never driven south from Fargo. I’ve driven west on I-94 to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, east to the Twin Cities, and north on I-29 to Mayville, but never south.

Consistent with Murphy’s Law, my day off started out with some literal and figurative gray clouds. I stopped at the dealership to get my oil changed. The mechanics recommended another $500-600 of recommended maintenance. I picked three of the five which still cost me over $200. Then, I drove south through the rain.

The storms disappeared an hour into the drive, so I pulled off the highway to explore Hankinson, ND, located minutes from the exit off I-29. I noticed a small drive-in restaurant along the main street and parked for a lunch break. At the Dakota Drive-In, one orders from those old fashioned windows with the sliding glass doors where the menu is posted. It offers a selection of ice cream treats, sandwiches, and every type of fried doodad imaginable. Customers can then choose from one of many picnic table nestled under an open-air roof, perfect for watching the sidewalk traffic pass.

I ordered the daily special featuring a California burger with a side of fried, crinkle-cut potato coins for $4.75. While I waited for my order, I used the restroom and returned to find I couldn’t locate my car keys. I rummaged through my purse a few times, just to be sure, and when I saw them sitting in the passenger seat of my locked car, I tried not to panic.

Fortunately, I had my purse and called AAA as inconspicuously as possible. My phone reception was terrible and the AAA representative had trouble finding my location. Eventually, she confirmed that help was on the way and would arrive in an hour. Had there not been a cheeseburger in my hand and the day not been so beautiful, I would have been so much more upset. I perched on the edge of a picnic table bench, ate my lunch, and waited. The smell of fried onions from other people’s orders drove me crazy and I wished I had chosen whatever they were having.

I noticed how the Dakota Drive-In functioned as a popular watering hole for the community. People came and went, from first-timers like myself, truck drivers, to families, alike. Most everyone seemed to recognize and warmly greet at least one other party and no one made me feel weird.

The burger and cottage fries, by the way, were fine.

The contracted AAA employee arrived as a group of children ran around my table, hurling precocious insults at each other. Within minutes, he unlocked my car and I jumped inside. I was in such a hurry to leave that I neglected to take any photos of my meal. I did, however, take a few photos of interesting buildings on the way to the freeway. Then, I kept driving south until the landscape changed and I reached the rolling hills near Sisseton, SD. I poked around until the weather started to scare me and then I went home.

St. Philip’s Catholic Church, Hankinson, ND

Franciscan Retreat Center, Hankinson, ND

Roberts County Courthouse, Sisseton, SD

Things I Tasted, Things I Made: From Lemon Cake To The Worst Beer Ever

Culinary school wrapped up a few weeks ago and I began working at a family-owned cafe and bakery. We’re allowed to sip caffeinated beverages and nibble sweets as we please and so I find each day an exercise in self-control. After bringing home pie two days in a row, my husband pleaded with me to stop bringing it home so frequently. We compromised on “Pie Saturdays.”

Life has moved faster than normal and I find myself cooking less, ordering in more, and increasing my caffeine intake. Our favorite local pizza joint Pizza Nico probably knows us by name and when I do feel like cooking, I turn to our favorite, reliable comfort foods. The weather’s been more reminiscent of fall than early summer, but this hasn’t prevented Fargoans from throwing grand picnics. We gladly trade our traditional date nights for evenings grilling and drinking cocktails with old and new friends.

Now that I’m more secure with my footing this summer, I’ve got a laundry list of road trips to take on sunny days I have off from work. Plus, there’s an Alley Fair in downtown Fargo this weekend and the North Dakota Blogger and Writer next week which includes an evening out with our own Marilyn Hagerty. I’ll return to Fargo in time to catch a whiff of Ribfest before heading to the Twin Cities. At the end of the month, my husband and I are both taking some time off to head to Southern Minnesota for a big, family wedding.

One day at a time. In the meantime, enjoy a few tastes and recipes from the past few weeks:

Sunday Supper Pizza
No matter how busy our week is, I enjoy preparing a Sunday supper. If Jake has a special request, it’s usually for one of our favorite comfort foods like Beef Stroganoff, pasta tossed with roasted vegetables, or homemade pizza. Most of the time, I spread the dough with olive oil muddled with fresh garlic, salt, pepper, and herbs. This time, I made homemade pizza sauce.

Pizza Sauce: Saute a small, diced onion and one clove minced garlic of minced garlic. Pour in a 12 oz. can of organic tomato sauce and simmer for as long as you can. I seasoned the sauce with salt, pepper, dried oregano, basil, and marjoram, a couple splashes of red wine, and enough sugar to even out the acidity. After several hours, it turned a rusty red and its flavor and texture concentrated.

We like this recipe for a thinner, flat bread dough. It reminds me of Broders’ Cucina Italiana flat bread. The Pioneer Woman’s recipe produced a crust that was fluffier and more substantial. I added about a tablespoon of sugar to the warm water and yeast mixture and allowed the dough to rise twice. Just as my culinary teacher said, allow the dough to rise once for flavor and twice for structure.

As far as toppings go, I splurge on high quality mozzarella. I’ve found it half as expensive at large retailers. Most any vegetable will do, however, you may need to roast or blanch some vegetables (like shaved potatoes) before adding them to the pizza. Our favorites include onions, shaved thinly or caramelized beforehand, roasted eggplant, hot pickled cherry peppers, thinly sliced raw radishes, and jalapenos.

Alice Waters’ 1-2-3-4 Lemon Cake
With my bakery stint, we don’t need any more access to sweets but since I had some extra time over Memorial Day weekend, I baked a cake. Earlier, I had enjoyed a dense slice of glazed lemon bundt cake from Nichole’s Fine Pastry and wanted to make my own version to enjoy at home with coffee. After scouring the Internet for lemon cake recipes, I chose Alice Waters’ 1-2-3-4 cake recipe and made a boozy brandy lemon glaze. You can find an adaptation of Waters’ recipe on the blog Sweet Talk Sweets.

The final cake is very simple and the tart lemon glaze sets it apart. It’s not a “Look at me, look at me!” cake, but satisfying, nonetheless. Our litmus test for a recipe’s success is measured by the amount of leftovers that remain in our fridge. If this is any indication, there’s a mostly empty cake pan in our fridge.

I essentially followed the recipe, but used sifted all-purpose flour instead of cake flour. I made the lemon variation and added the zest and juice from two lemons to the batter. This author of this recipe recommends using two tablespoons less of all-purpose flour in lieu of cake flour, but I added extra lemon juice instead. You could poke holes in the cake with toothpick to help it absorb extra glaze, but I was happy with slowly spooning it over the warm cake. For a really decadent treat, spread the glazed cake with a smear of Nutella.

Brandy-Lemon Glaze (Adapted from ChefJune’s recipe on Chowhound):
In a small saucepan, gently heat 1/2 cup of brandy, 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, the zest from one lemon, 2/3 cup powdered sugar and a pinch of salt until dissolved. Set aside to cool.

Worst Beer Ever: Rogue Voodoo Doughnut Bacon Maple Ale
My husband enjoys trying different craft beers. He’s especially got a palate for the hoppy and the bitter. One evening, he brought this variety home from Happy Harry’s, for kicks and giggles.

Now, this didn’t sound particularly great to me to begin with and I guessed it would be overly sweet or mapley at the worst, but boy, was I wrong. The smell, alone, was heinous. I like the aroma of snuffed-out candles and campfires, but feel Rogue took this note too far. Who wants to smell a burning forest in their beer?

The flavor was equally harsh and I literally spit out my first and only sip. I’m no Andrew Zimmern and couldn’t push its singed mulch flavor down the hatch. Even my husband couldn’t drink more than a couple sips and he’s basically morally opposed to leaving glasses of beer, unfinished. I’m all for culinary experimentation and whimsy, but it’s beyond me how anyone could have tasted this beer and green-lit it for purchase in good conscience. How do you sleep at night?

Smiling Moose Deli
On Memorial Day, we were in search of a casual lunch outing and settled on Smiling Moose Deli, one of the few places open in downtown Fargo. Plus, my husband insisted we dine somewhere were he could wear his matching track suit. Unfortunately, this ruled out the Beefsteak Club. The Smiling Moose is a fast-casual style chain that originated in Colorado and expanded its franchise to 19 locations. Two, alone, have opened in Fargo since we moved here a year and a half ago.

Smiling Moose is like Panera or a sandwich version of Noodles and Company. You order soup, sandwiches, and salad at the counter and a server delivers it to your table. Breakfast sandwiches are served all day, a fact I wish I had known the previous morning when I settled on a gas station biscuit at noon.

We ordered two sandwiches from the options marked as low-calorie: The Green Thumb, a warm sandwich with sauteed mushrooms, spinach, artichokes, roasted red peppers, black olives, swiss cheese and pesto mayonnaise and The Sidecar, a cold sandwich with turkey, roasted red pepper, lettuce, swiss and pesto mayonnaise. The large sandwiches were more like two large sandwich and came with dill pickle spears. They cost a little over $20 along with a hot tea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How these were low-anything is beyond me, considering the density of the bread and addition of cheese and mayo. All in all, they were decent sandwiches made with fresh ingredients. My hot veggie sandwich was certainly better than The Sidecar which was filled with standard deli meat. I liked that the restaurant’s service was friendly, it serves loose leaf teas, and sidewalk seating. However, our sandwiches were nothing we got too excited about, or go out of our way to eat. Considering the restaurant options we don’t have in Fargo-Moorhead, I’m not sure we need two Smiling Moose’s, but it’s an acceptable option for those who want a casual, sit-down experience that’s a step above fast food and more casual than full table service.

Make Your Own Sunny Dandelion Cordial

Several years ago, I took a 10-month course on herbal medicine. We learned how to make medicinal tinctures and salves from local plants, which entailed purchasing large quantities of strong alcohol and olive oil.

On the way to my first herbalism class, I rushed into a Minneapolis liquor store and madly scoured the shelves for 100 proof vodka. Not only was I unprepared for class, but I was running late. When I couldn’t find the alcohol, I frantically asked a staff member for help. The store’s supervisor watched me from the counter with a concerned look on his face. While I quickly examined the selection, a male customer shuffled over and purred, “Yeaaaa, you gonna hit it,” multiple times, while shrugging his shoulders and flashing his best, predatory smile. I remember feeling very confused. It wasn’t until after I left that it dawned on me how strange I must have seemed, even though my intentions were quite innocent.

Sometimes herbal medicine and the culinary world crossed paths with delicious results. This dandelion cordial is one of my favorite recipes from class. You can also find it in A City Herbal, a book about medicinal plants common to most urban communities. Now that spring has finally arrived in Fargo, try putting those pesky dandelions to use, but only harvest those grown in yards or land untreated by chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers.

The finished cordial has a flavor that’s hard to describe. It’s faintly floral and not exactly herbal, but unusual in the most pleasant way. Our favorite way to enjoy this cordial is in a refreshing summer cocktail. Simply add it to some tonic water along with a wedge of fresh lemon or lime.

Ingredients:
Vodka, 750 Ml bottle (I like Minnesota-made Prairie Organic Vodka)
2-3 cups dandelion petals
2/3 cup sugar
Rind from 1/2 a lemon

Instructions:

  1. Collect 2-3 cups of dandelion flowers from chemically untreated land. Do your best to remove the bottom, green part of the flower with a knife. This can be tedious, so just try to cut away as much green as possible. A little green won’t hurt.
  2. Add the trimmed, yellow flower petals to a clean glass jar or bottle.
  3. To the flowers, add the rind of half a lemon, 2/3 cups of sugar, and vodka.
  4. Shake occasionally and store in a cool, dark location for about 6 weeks.
  5. Strain through a funnel lined with cheesecloth back into your original vodka bottle or other glass receptacle.

A Tale of Two, North Dakotan Burritos

I’ve never been that into burritos. This month, I’ve eaten two and unsure sure why I have this sudden urge to order them. Here is a tale of two, North Dakotan burritos.

Juano’s
There’s no Chipotle in Fargo, let alone one in the state of North Dakota. Live in Fargo-Moorhead and want Chipotle? Drive two hours East to St. Cloud. I visited Chipotle’s website to double check. When I entered 55102, it replied that there were no locations within 100 miles. It suggested searching again with another city, state, or zip code, and then it added, “Or move.”

Or move? What the heck, Chipotle? Why would you say that?

We may not have Chipotle, but we have other casual/carry-out Mexican-themed chains like Qdoba, Panchero’s and Moe’s Southwest Grill. If you want to visit a local chain, there’s the newly opened Red Pepper location and Juano’s. Since one Red Pepper visit was enough for me, I headed to my nearest Juano’s location for a take-out lunch. A couple friends with similar tastes mentioned Juano’s offers their favorite Mexican food in the community. There’s a fancier sit-down location on Broadway in downtown Fargo and a few other quick-serve locations.

I don’t know if this is a company-wide special, but North Fargo’s Juano’s offered a $5 burrito wrap between 11 a.m.-3 p.m. This was a deal considering the rest of the menu hovered around $10. I filled my burrito with rice, black beans, ground beef, romaine lettuce, cheese, fresh cilantro, and their spiciest salsa. The ground beef was nicely seasoned. While may have considered it too salty, but I’m fine if foods push this boundary just as long as they don’t leap over it. The black beans had a texture more like refried beans which took away some of the burrito’s textural contrast and the salsa was less spicy than Chipotle’s hottest, but overall, this was a flavorful burrito.

I noticed Juano’s can also drench burritos in chili sauces. Juano’s downtown location offers its menu with prices on their Facebook page, though I can’t find an official website with information on their other quick-serve locations.

Paula’s Cafe (Steakhouse & Lounge)
On my day off, I headed up I-29 towards Mayville, North Dakota. I first visited Mayville in mid-March and made a note to return to Paula’s, a bustling cafe along the main street. There was just something about this cafe that fascinated me. I started following their Facebook page and admired their daily specials featuring good ole’ home cooking as well as photos of smoked meats. Mayville’s about 45-minutes from Fargo and I braved the windy drive on a dreary spring morning.

I parked along the main street and entered what looked like a diner equipped with an old fashioned counter. I asked a server where I should sit for lunch and she directed me to the dining room. I followed a sign instructing me to seat myself. Once inside the dining room, I passed a salad bar and searched for a smaller table for one. When I couldn’t find one, I chose a table in the back. The other customers appeared to be regulars who knew exactly what they were doing and I was confused. It didn’t seem like anyone had noticed I seated myself, so I went to the salad bar and asked a server about the protocol. I wondered if I supposed to eat the salad bar or choose from a menu. Everyone else seemed to be enjoying salads and I didn’t see any menus. I tried to explain that this was my first visit and I had no idea what I was doing.

The server responded by encouraging me to help myself to the salad bar, mentioning I could go back as many times as I liked. I thought it was odd that the salad bar was the only option offered for lunch. But since I was there, I filled a plate with vegetables, a toasted roll, and small cup of potato au gratin soup. When I reached my table in the back, I found some ladies congregating around my seat. At first, I optimistically wondered if they were going to join me, but when I noticed one woman grabbing towards my purse, I got the idea they were trying to move it elsewhere. I wondered where, exactly, they planned to place my purse, phone, and book. Anywhere except there, I suppose. A server noticed what was occurring and walked over to assist the ladies. I asked if I should move, but the server relied, “no” and helped them find a different, empty table.

I sat down to eat my salad and noticed others had beverages. I found a server and asked if I could have a glass of water and she came over right away with a large pitcher and a couple glasses. At this point, I felt rather sheepish about eating by myself. After a few minutes, I noticed others eating hot foods and asked if there was a lunch menu. She brought one over quickly, explaining the daily specials. I chose the beef burrito. Along with the salad bar, it cost under $9.

While I waited for my entree, I nibbled my plate from the salad bar which included the typical offerings. The salad was fresh, though some of the offerings were decadent. Macaroni salad laden with rich dressing and piping hot potato au gratin soup. It tasted like the boxed versions of potato au gratin I used to enjoy at my grandma’s house.

The beef burrito was generously-sized and covered with melted cheese and red sauce. It came with some shredded lettuce, diced tomato, a tube of sour cream, chips, and salsa. Although the salsa seemed canned or bottled, it carried a pleasant kick, along with the red sauce. The best part of the meal was the tender beef inside the wrap. It was a little smokey and fork tender. I don’t doubt that Paula’s knows their meats. In hindsight, I should have just chosen a burger. A local reporter spoke highly of the burger and I feel silly assuming the salad bar and beef burrito would make a healthier choice.

Finally, I don’t want you to get the idea that the service wasn’t friendly. The dining room was quite busy and once I landed on the servers’ radars, they showered me with “huns” and “sweeties.” I think the awkwardness can be more attributed to the fact that no one was used to new people who didn’t know what to do.

Solo dining is always an adventure. Especially for a young woman exploring small town cafes. Sometimes, I feel perfectly at home and other times, I feel awkward. Cafe 116 in Fergus Falls, MN and Harvest Thyme Bistro in Wadena, MN come to mind as being especially comfortable for a solo, female diner. This was one of the more awkward meals where I was especially aware that one thing was not like the other (that one thing being me, the non-regular). I felt the curious stares from the regular diners of the older generations, similar to my experience eating breakfast at Charlie’s Cafe in Freeport, MN. My husband and I have also had adventures dining together on the prairie. We remember feeling especially welcome at the Crowbar in Sabin, MN and quite the opposite at the Castle Rock Supper Club in Hawley, MN.

Being open to adventures means taking in the awkward along with the cozy. For me, the most anxiety-ridden experience is often walking into the cafe of a close-knit community, alone. However, it’s impossible to learn about or connect with others unless someone takes a chance and my favorite way to do this is trying the local food. I truly believe people are good at heart. . . even if they are trying to move me to a different table.