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.

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.

India Palace in Fargo: A Spicy Dish With A Curious Disclaimer

Our first visit to India Palace, Fargo’s newest Indian restaurant, brought tears of joy and tears of pain to my eyes. I wished it hadn’t taken us so long to get here.

Since moving to Fargo, we’ve been quite loyal to Passage to India. We dined at Karma, once, and found it bland so we stuck with what we knew. In the Twin Cities, there are at least five India Palaces, several of which are part of a local chain. I was initially concerned Fargo’s India Palace also a part of a chain, but from what I can tell, it’s not related. In January 2013, Eric Daeuber wrote a review of India Palace that was published in the Forum. He spoke well of the food and service, but the following description stuck in my mind:

“When tradition demands something more like the Indian food your Midwestern mother used to make, the popular Chicken Tikka Masala brings a kind of comfort food familiarity, and a little smoke, to the table.”

Despite the fact that Daeuber gave India Palace’s food a four star rating, I couldn’t move past the comical mental image of picturing my own Midwestern mother cooking Chicken Tikka Masala. She never ate Indian food and avoided anything spicy. It would have been dreadful. Recently, a friend and chili-head assured us the food was spicy and well-prepared, so we visited on our next date night.

On this Saturday evening, we were warmly greeted and seated immediately. We ordered a couple Indian beers and our server expertly poured them into fancy beer glasses. For dinner, we chose a few orders of garlic naan ($2.99/order), raita yogurt sauce ($1.99), Paneer Masala ($10.99) and Dhamaka Balti with lamb ($14.99), a style of dish described as being cooked in a special pot with white wine, tomatoes, bell peppers and onions and seasoned with cumin, coriander, cassia bark, and ginger. Most curiously, the following disclaimer accompanied this particular Balti dish:

*Very HOT! Prepare for an explosion in your mouth.  

Woah. An explosion? We had to try this.

The Dhamaka Balti with lamb was wonderfully spicy. Despite the fact that I was weeping tears of pain and sweating profusely, I was really happy. Completely giddy on the rush of endorphins released by the hot peppers.

The Paneer Masala was milder than the Dhamaka Balti, but it was still notably spicy and both dishes were laced with chunks of hot peppers.

Those who aren’t fond of heat can certainly order dishes mild. Spiciness aside, the sauces had compelling flavors from which the heat did not detract. I also appreciated that the Balti dish contained a generous amount of tender lamb. Both entrees came with a plate of fluffy basmati rice fragrant with a subtle, warm spicing.

We sopped the curries up with the garlic naan that was blistered and soft in all of the right places and cooled them down with raita yogurt sauce. Both were respectable versions of themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In conclusion, we were thrilled with our first visit to Fargo’s India Palace. Our meal wasn’t cheap, but it was flavorful and thoughtfully prepared, the curries were appropriately filled with their respective proteins, and the service was warm and hospitable. Most exciting of all, they actually make spicy food spicy. I was getting bored with turning to Buffalo Wild Wings to satisfy my spicy food cravings.

Kudos to India Palace for bringing the heat.

Date Night in Fargo: Cork’ n Cleaver

For this weekend’s date night we wanted to try something new. We’ve overheard a couple acquaintances mention the Cork’ n Cleaver, a restaurant that’s been open for 40 years. Also, we recently saw its steak featured in Fargo Monthly’s newest issue, 50 Tasty Eats that provides photos of each dish and ideas for future dining experiences.

We visited Cork’ n Cleaver for an early dinner. Upon arrival, we were warmly greeted by the hostess and seated immediately. The relatively large interior is cozy and dimly lit and we admired the warm fireplaces. We had a hard time getting comfortable because the section in which we were seated was lined by a vent that pumped cold and hot air. The mirror-covered wall by our table was smudged and I smelled Windex mist when a staff member wiped down adjacent tables.A server quickly took our drink orders and carded my husband since he ordered a beer. He willingly obliged. Minutes later, someone from the bar stopped by our table and firmly asked Jake to show her his ID, again, before she would bring him the beer. He began to explain he just showed the server his ID, but shrugged it off and pulled it from his wallet again. I wonder if she didn’t believe the server who originally took his drink order.

Everyone receives this crusty sourdough bread with honey butter. It was freshly baked and pleasantly sour. This is the best bread I’ve tasted in Fargo-Moorhead.

Then, we ordered a whole artichoke to share as an appetizer. For entrees, Jake ordered a sirloin steak with a baked potato and opted for the salad bar while I ordered the evening’s catfish special with wild rice pilaf and the salad bar. I had read in this same Fargo Monthly issue that the Chef enjoys cooking Cajun food and is willing to accommodate requests for spicy food, so I ordered the fish extra spicy.

The salad bar was a fun touch though it wasn’t particularly memorable. I bypassed iceburg lettuce that looked to be discolored around the edges and chose romaine and spinach instead. The bar offered pasta salad, potato salad, and typical toppings like pickled beet slices, shredded cheese, hard boiled egg, peas and baby carrots. The croutons did not appear to be homemade and I passed on what appeared to be processed tropical fruit cocktail. I did enjoy the salad dressings which the restaurant says it makes from scratch.

I’ve always wanted to eat a whole, steamed artichoke and was excited to see it on the menu. Since this was our first one, we have nothing to compare it to. We enjoyed peeling back the leaves and nibbling their fleshy ends. The little ramekin contained what tasted like plain mayonnaise which tasted better when we added juice from the lemon wedge. It provided some needed acidity.

Jake’s steak arrived juicy and cooked to a precise medium-rare. It had a nice beefy flavor and wasn’t gristly, though I felt it lacked seasoning. Jake enjoyed the baked red potato that came with sour cream and butter. The insides were especially creamy since it was of a waxy variety, but I missed the crispy, salted skin I love most about traditional, starchy baked potatoes.


My catfish special consisted of two baked or broiled fillets sprinkled with Cajun seasoning. The fish was cooked through but its texture was waterlogged and I longed for some sort of crust or sear. The seasoning level struck me as just right and the tartar sauce tasted homemade, but the lemon wedge was dried out. The accompanying wild rice pilaf was mushy and tasted like something that would come from an Uncle Ben’s box. All things considered, this special seemed overpriced, not only because it was executed poorly, but because I know catfish isn’t very expensive. Then, we packed up my leftovers to go so we could make a movie showing.

All in all, the service wasn’t unfriendly, but it wasn’t exactly warm and a little inattentive, with the exception of the lovely hostess. The highlight of the meal was the complimentary sourdough bread, though we also enjoyed the artichoke and appreciated they cooked the steak to a perfect medium rare. Considering that we spent nearly the equivalent to a dinner at Mezzaluna, I can’t say we’ll make an effort to return. The meal cost $70, not including tip, for two entrees, an $8 artichoke, one draft beer, and a Shirley Temple. If you want water, you may have to ask for it, as it was not automatically served to us this evening.

My First Taste Of The Red Pepper: From Grand Forks To Fargo

Around here, The Red Pepper is kind of a big deal, bordering on legendary. Red Pepper is known for their take on Mexican food including tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, and grinders that are deli sandwiches topped with taco meat. According to their website, they source local beans and bread, purchase meat ground by a local company, and make their sauces daily.

The original Red Pepper opened in Grand Forks, ND over 35 years ago and has since expanded into two additional locations. Red Pepper has been making headlines in Fargo since last summer when they began to scout for locations. Their soft opening on March 16th was highly anticipated and word quickly spread via the newspaper and social media outlets. The author of Grand Forks Gourmet, Grand Forks’ most frequently updated food blog, mentions Red Pepper offers late hours and is popular amongst intoxicated college students. This author’s not crazy about Red Pepper’s food, but acknowledges how it holds a special place in hearts of its devoted fans. Red Pepper’s rumored to serve a notorious Garbage Plate of which the leftover toppings left on the counter are collected and placed on top of a tostada.

My curiosity was piqued and I wanted to experience The Red Pepper for myself.

On the first day of Red Pepper’s soft opening, the line was out the door. I waited for 20 minutes before going home. The inside of the store was chaos where people were squished like sardines. Because there were no line markers, no one really knew which way the line moved and this encouraged a lot of cutting, or what we referred to as “budging” in grade school. People arrived by the vehicle-fulls and let their families into line. This wouldn’t have been such a big deal if the line moved, but it really hadn’t.

Within my 20-minute wait, I only moved ahead about six steps. I was especially puzzled that I hardly saw anyone leave with food, despite the fact that there were only a small amount of tables, one of which remained empty. While the mob wasn’t entirely friendly, it wasn’t entirely hostile. The woman behind me told me how much she liked Red Pepper’s food with so much sincerity that some of my building frustration melted. I returned two more times within the next week and a half during non-meal times, but the line was still out the door. Nearly two weeks later, my husband begged me to try again and pick up cheese tostadas and this time, the line was shorter.

I ordered three cheese tostadas ($1.65 each), a whole Everything Grinder ($8.99), and a four-ounce cup of hot sauce. Then, I waited. Each order took quite a while to complete and I assume this is because the employees are still getting used to the food preparation processes. As far as I could tell, nothing was being cooked freshly, just assembled. I noticed a hot food holder containing items like beans and taco meat, a cold sandwich station, heated drawers that held chips, and four microwaves, double stacked. The doorway to the kitchen lies just out of sight and I caught a glimpse of corn starch boxes perched high atop a shelf.

Employees offer those who dine-in and order sandwiches the option of having them heated. I observed this means microwaving them for exactly 20-seconds. Oddly enough, the tostadas I ordered were not heated. They were topped with cold cheese and wrapped, as is. Since it looked like the microwave was Red Pepper’s only active heating apparatus, I decided to just let Jake decide whether or not he wanted to microwave them at home.

From start to finish, I was out the door in about 20-minutes. There had been approximately six people ahead of me in line when I arrived, and, by the time I left, the line had become longer. The service was very pleasant, though slow.

Let’s discuss the tostadas, first.

These just weren’t very good. A crunchy corn tortilla topped with cold cheddar cheese and scribbled with a mild, red sauce. I am still stunned by the fact that the tostadas aren’t heated. A toddler could assemble these. They are like a terrible, lazy version of nachos and a questionable value at $1.65 each.

I enjoyed the sandwich more.

The Everything Grinder was huge enough to provide a me-sized person multiple meals. It was filled with cheap-tasting and slimy ham, salami and turkey deli meats, luke-warm taco meat, shredded cheese, shredded iceburg lettuce, mild red sauce, and a white sauce that reminded me of ranch. I microwaved it for exactly 20-seconds for the most authentic experience. All in all, it wasn’t bad. I dunked each bite into a copious amount of the hot sauce whose heat level was somewhere between Frank’s and Tabasco. In fact, I consumed about three ounces of the sauce while eating only half the sandwich.

The most questionable part of the sandwich was the taco meat. While I liked its flavor, its temperature was neither hot nor cold upon examining it before microwaving. Having recently passed my ServSafe food handling certification, I wondered at what temperature this substance was held (cold food must be kept at 41℉ or below and hot food at 135℉ or above). For the record, I felt completely fine after eating the food.

I find the Everything Grinder’s tastiness increases with a cold, Mexican beer.

Red Pepper still remains an enigma to me. I suppose it’s like any other type of comfort food. People just like what they like. Some foods feel nostalgic if they are associated with positive experiences or memories, while others connect to one’s perception of home. I did not grow up on The Red Pepper’s food, nor does it correspond with any of my memories. So, my first taste of the grinder was pleasant enough, but didn’t strike me as anything I would go out of my way for, while the cheese tostadas struck me as downright heinous.

That being said, I seek out some of my favorite comfort foods even though they aren’t the best versions of themselves. I love many of these foods for their imperfections, such the Chinese take-out of my childhood. So, while I can’t understand why the restaurant’s line is constantly out the door, I kind of can.

To each, his or her own.

I Tried Cafe 21′s Vietnamese Banh Mi Sandwich

This past week’s spring break was a good example of how even the best laid schemes can go awry.

One morning, I planned to drive to the Twin Cities to visit a some friends. My last solo trip was interrupted by a blizzard and all of the major freeways surrounding Fargo-Moorhead were closed. This happens, here. They actually close the freeways.

I was desperate to go to the Twin Cities. Spring break’s fluctuating weather left me stir crazy. Plus, I felt guilty for mistaking the date of a get-together I initiated. My friends were kind to rearrange their schedules and I wanted to attempt the drive. With nothing more than a soda and a backpack, I drove east on I-94, even though it had been closed earlier. I figured that as a seasoned Midwesterner with new tires, the roads couldn’t possibly be that bad. After all, the MN Department of Transportation traffic map categorized the roads as challenging and I am usually up for a challenge.

The road becomes icy and I witness a frightening car accident when someone pulls around my car to pass me. They whiz past me and I watch as they begin to spin in circles and tumble into the ditch. For the first time in my life, I call 911. I panic and my hands shake so hard I can barely hold the phone. The dispatcher keeps asking me to better describe my location and I can’t. Finally, someone tells me they found my location from my phone. By the time I turn around at the next exit, the police and tow truck are at the scene and it looks like everyone is OK. I drive home going 45 miles an hour, even though a plow has already sanded the road. Cars and semis pass me, clearly frustrated, and I don’t care because they didn’t see what I just saw.

I spent my last weekend of spring break at home. Sitting on and brooding in my wanderlust.

On a nicer day, I returned to Cafe 21 to try the Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches they only serve at lunch. To my knowledge, these are the only regularly offered banh mi sandwiches in Fargo-Moorhead. I have found cold cut banh mi sandwiches at the Asian market but they look like they are imported from the Twin Cities. I’m not a fan of the mysterious deli meats and feel some of the freshness is lost in transit.

We’ve previously enjoyed a couple dinners at Cafe 21, especially liking their fresh spring rolls and spicy ramen. I found their version of pork bulgogi to be less spicy and sweeter than the fiery versions my favorite Twin Cities Korean restaurants serve, but I’d still order it again. On this weekday, I ordered two banh mi sandwiches ($7 each) to go. One for me and one for Jake, who unsuccessfully tried to order one on our first visit. Cafe 21 only offers a roasted pork variety, but this happens to be my favorite. The server kindly brought me a glass of water as I waited for my order and 15 minutes later, I was on my way home.

Each sandwich was packed with a serving of french fries and small cups of ketchup and soy sauce.

I found a lot to like about this sandwich. The pork had a satisfying savory flavor. There were a lot of sweet and sour pickled vegetables. Strands of fresh cilantro and jalapeno. A glistening of mayonnaise and, best of all, a thick smear of pate. It looked like banh mi’s I have loved and tasted like banh mi’s I have loved.

Unfortunately, I felt the size was a little small and the bread was too hard. The bun was overly toasted and crunchy like a crouton. I sustained minor damage to the roof of my mouth. In the Twin Cities, the typical roasted pork banh mi is a slightly larger in size and typically costs around $3.75-$4. This is Fargo, though, and I realize banh mi sandwiches are rarer and the food costs higher.

The flavors were spot on and the fillings were fresh, but that bread. Overall, a good effort.

Two Happy Hour Bites: Highbrow & Lowbrow

How many times must I laud the virtues of Mezzaluna’s happy hour?

Obviously, not enough. Mezzaluna is literally my favorite place to be between the hours of 4-6 p.m. The atmosphere is always cheery and carries a Great Gatsby vibe.

They make some of the best fancy cocktails in the city (along with Monte’s and Maxwells) and at happy hour, a handful of them are discounted at $7. Not quite your typical $1.50 draft beer, but they are creative and well-balanced. For lightweights like me, one is plenty. Jake always gets the Thai coconut cocktail. I brave the $3 beer of the evening or choose the Apple Manhattan. Both are strong enough and never too sweet.

Plates of happy hour food are also $7. The appetizers run $12-$13 outside of happy hour and don’t seem to be smaller portions. We usually order the overflowing cheese platter, the M Burger, or fish and chips with mushy peas. On our most recent visit, we deemed the dish of creamy polenta with four, prosciutto wrapped shrimp as our new favorite. Crispy shrimp tails rule.

I enjoyed the seared scallops with purple Thai rice and red coconut curry, $13. This particular appetizer is not discounted at happy hour. The scallops weren’t large, but they were caramelized and free from grit.

Dempseys is sort of a dive off the main drag in downtown Fargo. Dark wood and booths with high backs. It’s like a divier version of The Local, an Irish-themed pub in Downtown Minneapolis. Entertainment may include karaoke, blackjack, and pull-tabs. Once, we walked into a Kentucky Derby party filled with ladies wearing fancy hats. Plus, there’s free popcorn.

My friend who used to deal poker at Dempseys mentioned that as the evening wears on, the bar becomes more rowdy and prime for people watching.

On weekends, the bar offers food from the lovely Bertrosa’s Cafe such as their Chicago-style hot dogs or hot beef sandwiches. Otherwise, the menu is limited to typical bar foods like pizza and pickled egg baskets. They always offer Betrosa’s spicy beer cheese soup, the only (and the best) version I can stomach.

On a Tuesday evening, we ordered $1.50 pulled pork sandwiches, a Tuesday happy hour special offered between 4-9 p.m. We had all been expecting sliders but received full-sized sandwiches. The meat was tender and moist. I poured the small cup of coleslaw on top of the meat and munched away.

Seriously. They do. $10 for five jumbo shrimp and sinus-singeing cocktail sauce.

Who would have known?

The sight of a shrimp cocktail on Dempsey’s menu smacked of “one of these things is not like the other.” This would normally steer one away from ordering it.

We thank our friend for taking one for the team. Now we know.

Date Night At Cafe 21: Eel Sushi, Spicy Ramen & Pho

A couple weeks ago, I mentioned visiting Cafe 21, a new restaurant in Fargo serving Japanese and Vietnamese dishes. We visited Cafe 21 soon after reading a positive review on FMFare, a new blog written by a fellow Fargoan.

In typical Jake and Jen style, we left for dinner after work on Friday and were in bed by 8:30 p.m. Because we’re awesome like that.

Cafe 21 is located in the same, covered strip mall as Leela Thai. It seems to have replaced Yuki Hana, a restaurant that served Japanese and Korean food. Our friends said Yuki Hana may have served Fargo-Moorhead’s only version of Bi Bim Bap, and a respectable one at that.  Too bad we never visited Yuki Hana before it closed.

I ordered a bowl of spicy kimchi ramen soup, $6, along with an unagi (eel) sushi roll $9. The server informed me the ramen also came with an egg. Jake chose an appetizer of fresh spring rolls, $5, and a beef pho, $8.

After ordering, our server offered us complimentary bowls of miso soup. I passed on my own bowl and tasted Jake’s instead. This version of miso soup tasted much better than most  we’ve tried at other Asian restaurants. It was also a little sweet. The miso swirled in delicate clouds without being gritty. I almost wished I hadn’t passed on my own bowl, except I knew I would have been too full for my entree of soup.

The spring rolls were stuffed with fresh vegetables, roasted pork, and shrimp and served with a thick, sweet dipping sauce laden with chopped peanuts. I would normally consider the sauce too sweet, except that it contrasted nicely with the savory, roasted pork. Jake thought the spring rolls were too heavy with lettuce, while I liked that they resembled salad. Sometimes I feel some restaurants overload their spring rolls with rice noodles, which I find redundant when they are wrapped in rice paper.

My eel sushi roll arrived as an appetizer with the spring rolls.

I noticed the eel sushi and sashimi were the most pricey fish options. That being said, I liked the flavor of the eel in this sushi roll. The portion size was also large. There wasn’t necessarily a lot of eel in each piece of sushi, but it didn’t taste fishy and the texture wasn’t mushy. Not the best unagi I’ve ever eaten, but far from the worst. The sushi rice was slightly warm and loosely packed and the rice grains appeared smaller than what I’ve typically seen in sushi.

I really enjoyed my bowl of spicy ramen in kimchi broth. For my tastes, the broth was pleasantly spicy which I seldom find.

I’m not sure if the ramen broth was scratch-made or from a mix, but I’m guessing there was a bouillon component to it. I added a little hoisin and soy sauce to balance out the flavor. The carrots and broccoli were fresh and cooked al dente.

Plus, there’s the egg. I loved the egg. When I make spicy ramen soup packs at home, I also add fresh vegetables and egg. Whether or not the soup was completely scratch-made, it’s darn tasty. It’s also a steal considering it’s size, inclusion of fresh vegetables, and the scrambled egg. I quickly ate the small dish of kimchi that came with the soup, and added the shredded cabbage to the ramen soup. This is a bowl I’d order again.

Jade Dragon is no longer the only place in Fargo-Moorhead to order pho. Cafe 21 offers both a chicken and beef version (FMFare spoke highly of the chicken pho). Jake enjoyed his bowl of beef pho. He said it was no Pho 79, but liked it better than Jade Dragon’s because the broth had more flavor and depth, to which I agreed. The bean sprouts, jalapeno, and Thai basil garnishes were also fresher and more plentiful.

In contrast, I liked the beef better at Jade Dragon. I prefer pho with thin, raw beef slices  placed in the hot broth. Cafe 21′s beef pho is prepared with slices of beef brisket and springy meatballs. Jake said he would return for this bowl of pho.

Lastly, we split flan, $4, for dessert.

The creamy custard was covered with fresh kiwi and caramel sauce. The caramel sauce had a toasty, almost burnt taste to it and before we knew it, we were haggling over the last bite.

During our Friday evening visit, this new restaurant was turning over a steady stream of customers. The entrees seemed to lie in an expected price range, while many items were of a surprising value.

When we first ordered, Jake had his heart set on a bahn mi sandwich and learned they are only offered at lunch. Cafe 21′s menu only lists a roasted pork variety and it costs $7. This price is high by Twin Cities standards, but when you’re (possibly) the only restaurant offering bahn mi’s, I suppose you can charge whatever you’d like. Plus the food costs here are higher than the Twin Cities’. As we were walking back to our car, I noticed a microwave sitting in front of the main window facing the parking lot.

This was one of those happy dining experience were everything just tasted really good. All of the dishes were prepared with fresh ingredients and thoughtfulness. The service was also warm and appropriately attentive.

We’re thrilled to see another restaurant in Fargo-Moorhead serving Vietnamese options and wouldn’t hesitate to return. Especially for their bahn mi at lunch.

Food-Related Odds and Ends

Enjoy these food-related odds and ends from my winter break.

Jake’s grandma passed away this weekend so we will head to the Twin Cities for the memorial service next weekend. When we return, winter break will end and culinary class will resume.

Ole and Lena’s Pizzeria, Westacres Mall, Fargo, ND
A blog reader recommended the original Ole and Lena’s in Rothsay, MN, about a half hour away on I-94 towards Minneapolis. There is a smaller version at the mall’s food court.

I enjoyed a piece of plain, cheese pizza. The crust had nice texture. Firm where it was supposed to be firm, chewy where it mattered, and floppy in all the right places. It also tasted a little sweet. The slice was large and was topped with high quality cheese. Perfect for when I’m craving Cosetta’s-style pizza.

Citizen Cafe, Minneapolis, MN
During Christmas week, I met a friend for dinner at Citizen Cafe. She mentioned the restaurant’s commitment to locally sourcing ingredients. I arrived a little early and the staff was more than happy to let me pause at a table and sip a glass of wine until she arrived.

Our server brought a complimentary bread basket. The bread was served warm and accompanied by soft, whipped butter and a mysterious, vegetal/nutty spread.

We both ordered the portobello sandwich which was affordable at $9 (add .75 for goat cheese). The mushroom, onion, roasted red pepper, and squash were cooked nicely and the balsamic provided tang. The ciabatta was toasted and tender. Following the large holiday meals I had recently eaten, I ordered the sandwich without goat cheese, which I immediately regretted.

Sandwiches come with fruit, coleslaw or homemade potato chips. I ordered the chips and they were cut into thin, unseasoned waffle crisps. Overall, the restaurant had a wierd vibe. Not unfriendly, but maybe reserved or curious.

Nelson Bros., Clearwater Travel Plaza, Clearwater, MN

On our drive back to the Twin Cities, we wanted to grab a non-fast food lunch. A blog reader once recommended the deli sandwiches at the Clearwater Travel Plaza along I-94.

I found the sandwich counter next to the bakery. The ordering system initially struck me as slightly overwhelming. I think I expected to order from a larger menu of set sandwich combinations, but the deli encourages customers to pick their own bread, meat, cheese and sauce. Sort of like Subway. Eventually, I noticed a small sign advertising sandwich combinations.

I ordered chicken salad but discovered I got tuna salad in the car. Fortunately, I like both equally. The tuna salad was a little wet, but tasted fine. The vegetables were fresh and there were many to choose from. I liked the spicy mustard sauce and the bread was notably fresh. I ordered Jake a creation involving roast beef and horseradish sauce and was pleased.

All in all, the deli serves large sandwiches for about $6. Ideal for those who like to customize, but putzier for those who are in a hurry or don’t feel like making a lot of decisions at that moment.

Hi-Ho South, Fargo, ND
I stopped by to satisfy a casual burger craving on New Years Eve Day. I ordered a California burger with grilled onions and the works and onion rings to go.

The onion rings were hot from the fryer. Crispy, not greasy, and wonderfully salted.

I liked everything about the burger except the actual meat patty. I’ve read Hi-Ho chooses not to season their meat and it tasted bland. It was tightly packed, finely ground, and dry. However, the bun provided enough support, the vegetables were fresh, and sauces nicely applied. Service was fast and friendly. Too bad about the meat.

Cafe 21, Fargo, ND
A fellow Fargo food blogger, FMFare, discovered a new Asian restaurant serving Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese foods. Cafe 21 seems to have replaced Yuki-Hana, a Japanese/Korean fusion restaurant. They serve pho and might be the only restaurant who makes bahn mi. The Asian and American Market sells bahn mi from the Twin Cities in their refrigerated section. I tried one once, and thought the freshness got lost in transit.

We enjoyed spring rolls, spicy ramen with vegetables and egg, eel sushi, beef pho, and flan. Fresh and affordable. Friendly service. Would not hesitate to return.

My only suggestion: Do something about the microwave prominently displayed by a large window facing the parking lot. But more on this dinner later.

A New Knife Set
Jake’s uncle is active and successful in the Minneapolis-St. Paul restaurant business. He generously gifted me with this metal suitcase O’ Wustoff knives. He said someone had done the same for him when he began his culinary career.

I just bought a diamond steel so I can try to maintain them. There are two layers of knives and cooking tools such as a zester, channel knife, melon baller, and sewing needles. There are even a couple keys to lock the whole thing up.

We bought Dexter Sani Safe knife sets for class. The handles may be safe, but not particularily sanitary. They are indented with tiny grooves that prevent slippage but trap debris. In class, it’s not uncommon for students to grab knives from cutting boards while the owner’s back is turned. Knives and other tools are borrowed, never returned, and run through the dishwasher.

These will never see the light of class.

An Ice Cream Maker
Our good friend gave us her ice cream maker. She only used it once and just never got into it. I am excited to give it a whirl.

Thank you for your dining suggestions. They are always appreciated!

Highs And Lows At Basies

On date night, we got in a fight about Chili’s.

When I get hungry, I get mad. For as long as I can remember, anger and hunger have always walked hand in hand. The whole world splinters into obstacles that stand between me and food. And all I can think is “why are you preventing me from eating?”

This is why I stared at Jake with curiosity when he, not I, became angry-hungry. Normally, he is the even-keeled one, but on this evening, he became angry-hungry just short of a Hulk smash. Or tears.

We headed towards the West Acres mall with Jake fuming behind the wheel. As we drove past the  usual chain restaurants, we observed full parking lots and people waiting for tables on benches outside in the cold. I didn’t want to pick the restaurant until he started veering towards Chili’s. Then I started to care.

I really didn’t want to eat at Chili’s. I’ve only been there twice. The first time was bad while the second time was fine, albeit completely deep fried. I whined and pouted. I threatened to walk to a different restaurant. Jake was just hungry. He used to eat at Chili’s with his family growing up and thought I was entering food snob territory. Then, we both felt bad and he veered into Basies Restaurant and Lounge. I’m still now sure how we went from Chili’s to Basies, but at least we were seated immediately.

Basies is located in the Ramada Plaza Hotel. Jake once enjoyed a meal here with coworkers. At first glance, the restaurant’s appeared banquet hall-ish and a live band was performing a mix of country, blue grass and lounge music. The music was loud, but just short of drowning out conversation.

We don’t frequently dine at restaurants that sell food a la carte. This is why I agonized over my dinner selection and became stuck between an $8 salad or a $7 vegetable side. All I wanted was some protein and a small side of vegetables. There weren’t many options that combined both, besides pasta, a dinner salad or a three course meal that included a dessert I didn’t particularly want. I ordered the appetizer of bacon wrapped scallops, $15, with the side of asparagus and Hollandaise sauce, $7. Jake chose the three course dinner option, $48, that included his choice of a house salad, an entree of fillet mignon with asparagus and mashed potatoes, and his choice of dessert, creme brulee.

Jake ordered artichoke dip to start.

The large ramekin of dip was served with plenty of grilled bread. The flavor of the dip tasted well-balanced, even with the melted cheese, and we enjoyed it’s slight kick of heat.

Our server walked by with a bowl of creamed spinach. He said there was a kitchen mix-up and asked if we wanted it for free, adding he hated wasting food. We gladly accepted.  I’ve never eaten traditional steakhouse creamed spinach and this version seemed a little different. It was more like sauteed spinach in cream, rather than the thicker, casserole-like variety. I often saute spinach like this at home, so I enjoyed the dish. It was nicely seasoned and the cream tasted of garlic, though I could have done with less of the sauce. Still, it was free and generous of our server to offer it to us.

After the dip, our server brought us a bread basket. The warm rolls were crusty and came with honey butter. We didn’t dig too deeply into the basket so we could leave room for the entrees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My scallops were large and tasted fresh. They were cooked nicely and free of grit. I scraped most of the mustard-caper sauce from the scallops. It didn’t taste bad, but struck me as heavy and I really just wanted to taste the scallops.

I also scraped most of the Hollandaise sauce from the asparagus. Again, it wasn’t that the sauce tasted bad, but it just seemed too rich. Between the artichoke dip, creamed spinach, and creamy sauce on the scallops, I had reached my threshold.  I yearned for some lemon.

The asparagus spears may have been steamed. The were a little dry, unseasoned, and the bottom of the stems were woody. I felt annoyed that the kitchen forgot or didn’t know they were supposed to remove the woody ends from a seven dollar side of asparagus.

On the other hand, Jake’s asparagus fared much better.

The asparagus spears accompanying his steak were seasoned, lightly grilled, and free of woody stems.

His steak was cooked to the requested medium rare. It was tender, nicely seasoned, and scented by the cedar plank on which it sat. We really enjoyed the garlicky mashed potatoes which struck a nice balance in texture and seasoning.

The creme brulee struck me as odd.

Our server asked if we would like the bottom of the creme brulee heated or cool. He also offered us a choice of plain, raspberry, lime, or blueberry-flavored sugars to be bruleed table side. We chose half plain and half raspberry.

After he bruleed the ramekin with a tiny torch, the sugar still glowed. I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to let the sugar continue to burn. I blew them out and extinguished the rest of the glowing embers with my finger tip. Unfortunately, the sugar didn’t exactly melt. One of the best parts of eating creme brulee is cracking the thin, glassy sheet of sugar that forms after it’s torched. The sugar on this creme brulee was too course to melt. It remained in crunchy, burnt granules. The custard didn’t taste bad, but its texture was firmer than I like.

In summary, the dinner ranged from hits to misses. The artichoke satisfied any guilty pleasure cravings, and Basies can clearly cook a steak. Despite the number of hits, there were enough inconsistencies to make me question the value of our meal.

How often does an a la carte restaurant actually deliver on a $10 Caesar salad? Or a $7 side of mixed vegetables?  What’s the true value of a $48 three course meal if the dessert is badly executed? If a restaurant charges $8-10 for vegetable sides, they’d better be close to perfect. Otherwise, maybe the restaurant should just serve some veggies with the entrees.

The service was pleasant and the live music was fun. Between sets, the band sat down to enjoy dinner with who appeared to be their families. I wouldn’t turn down an invitation to return to Basies, especially on someone else’s dime, though I wouldn’t rush back for dinner. However, it could be a pleasant spot to enjoy live music, spend a happy hour, or share appetizers.