As a longtime restaurant critic for Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, I've spent years researching the best restaurants, bars, and assorted treats that the Twin Cities have to offer. Because of this, I'd like to say I know the dining scene better than just about anyone else. But something I've learned during my time here is that this is not an easy place to understand, especially when it comes to food.
While many coastal dwellers consider us part of the Midwest, we're not so sure. There's been a lot of talk recently about throwing off that term in its entirety, because, well, we are really far away from Ohio. Right now, we are toying with "The North," "The Far North," "The Deep North"—anything that gets the point across that it's different up here. Very different.
The clichés of the Deep South are well known—kudzu, biscuits, romance, and a harmonica issuing a lonesome tune from behind the magnolia blossoms. But what are the clichés of the Deep North? You can find what few of them we agree on in the film Fargo: plaid wool, big parkas, and the immensely complex and layered idea of "Minnesota Nice." Sometimes we mean it as: "Everyone's so nice." They'll stop and change a tire on the roadside for a stranger. (True!) Sometimes we mean it as: "Everyone's nice to your face, but keeps you at a chilly distance." (Also true!) Whatever it means in other spheres of life, when it comes to our dining scene, it's the first one: There's an unbelievable amount of support and interconnection among our chefs and restaurants. It's a friendly town, and tales of chefs sharing their farm sources, their bookkeepers, their sous chefs, even their fish on a Friday night, are legion. Why is everyone so Minnesota Nice? Maybe it's something that's in the endless water.
Land of 11,800 Lakes
Speaking of water, fresh water in Minnesota is more than the staff of life; it's a lifestyle. We have 55,000 running miles of lakeshore and riverfront. That's a real number, and please let it sink in. Consider the fact that California has just 840 miles of coastline, which, as we might say up here, is "nice for them." While the Minnesota license plate says we are the land of "10,000 lakes," the real number is actually some 11,800 lakes of more than 10 acres; 28,000 once you throw in ponds; and another 20,000 rivers and streams, as well as a vast coastline on the biggest freshwater lake in the whole wide world: Lake Superior. Fifty-five thousand miles! We have the highest per capita boat ownership in the nation. We have restaurants with dock slips; think drive-ins like for cars, but for boats. There are 30 bridges crisscrossing the Mississippi in Minneapolis and St. Paul alone. What does it mean to be in Minnesota? It means you are always on the water.
Because of that, our most important foods that any visitor must try are those products of our pure and productive inland water. One of those water foods, our native wild rice, is our pride and joy. Here, we hold wild rice in the same esteem as the Italians do their Parmigiano Reggiano. And I guarantee that our rice is unlike any other wild rice you have ever tasted. This wolf gray–colored rice has a sweet, pure taste, sort of like water and mineral held together by a veil of sugar. To me, it tastes like an oyster, without the fishy elements. The rice has been harvested by Native Americans here for centuries by bending the water grass plant over a canoe and hitting it with a stick, leaving the plant intact. Then, according to tradition, the rice is smoke-dried over a wood fire, resulting in a roasted, nutty flavor.
We Minnesotans eat our wild rice straight up, but we also enjoy it in wild rice soup, casseroles, and even wild rice muffins, which are among our signature culinary treasures. You can order our rice from White Earth, which harvests it on a reservation in northern Minnesota. All proceeds go toward supporting the reservation.
If you ever find yourself in the Twin Cities, be sure to tuck into a bowl of wild rice soup at The St. Paul Grill, the iconic, century-old hotel where politicians and business leaders hobnob—20 years ago, it was the literal smoke-filled room where the fate of the state was sealed, but, of course, we don't smoke inside anymore. The St. Paul Grill's wild rice soup is nearly as creamy as a buttermilk pie—probably because, if this 2002 recipe in the LA Times is to be believed, it's made with mostly butter and cream. You can thank our booming dairy scene for that. If you really want to make wild rice soup like we do here, get some Hope Creamery butter; it's from local, grass-fed cows and tastes sweet, pure, and fresh. I'd wager that it could compete with any butter in the country, or even in Europe for that matter. That's because the cows graze on green-grass pasture, which is as lush as any in Ireland, because, again, we have a lot of water. I was having dinner with a Napa Valley winemaker a few weeks ago, and he said: Coming from the drought, I look out the car window here, it's obscene, it's like you're rubbing our faces in it. We're sorry. But it's true: We have a lot of water.
All Fish, Big and Small
Of course, our nearly countless bodies of fresh water feed us in other ways, too. It's hard to describe the number and variety of freshwater fish we eat to someone who hasn't grasped our whole 28,000-lakes-and-ponds, 55,000-miles-of-lake-and-riverfront situation, but picture all that water, and now factor in that it's all full of fish. Let's do this by ascending order of their size, beginning with the tiniest—smelt.
We are particularly fond of smelt—the freshwater fish we eat whole, like sardines. But they're nothing like sardines. They're sweet, light, and almost buttery. We enjoy them in little bites, deep-fried and served in a paper cone with lemon or tartar sauce. If you're not drooling right now, you're not from around here.
Saint Dinette makes the best smelt in town—so crisp they crunch, so meaty they're a meal. Saint Dinette is the second restaurant by the grass-fed-beef evangelist Chef J. D. Fratzke (his first is a steakhouse called The Strip Club), and it's a spare and elegant space in a newly renovated 19th-century warehouse in downtown St. Paul. In addition to the stellar smelt, I also love that the restaurant overlooks the all-local St. Paul farmers market, where everything must grow within a 150-mile circle drawn from that point on.
At another restaurant bordering the St. Paul market, Heartland, Lenny Russo does magic stuff with the next size up in local fish—flat panfish, like sunnies and crappies. ("Crappie" rhymes with "hoppy," so get your fourth-grade mind out of the gutter!) Heartland is also a big, stylish space in a renovated warehouse, and, on any given night, you can order local panfish cured, in chowder, or straight-up pan-fried. Russo makes more of an effort than anyone else in Minnesota to source local foods: He's got Italian roots, and has made his life's work showing he can create a Minnesota cuisine as deeply connected to this place as, say, a Piedmontese chef is connected to her own land. The best way to appreciate Russo's efforts is to sit down for one of Heartland's three-course flora and fauna menus. You might have elk in the fall, chokecherries in the summer, and, always, wild rice and fish.
If you're really lucky, you'll hit Minnesota during the late-summer herring run. These are lake herring, sometimes called ciscoes, and they're all straight from Lake Superior, one of the cleanest big water sources in the world. Herring are harvested here from April through fall, though it's the late-summer harvest we look forward to the most. That's when the flesh of the fish is so sweet and light, it's more delicate than sole. Compared to ocean herring, lake herring are lighter and more tender, though, looking at the two side by side, most eaters would guess they're the same small, silver fish. Pan-fried, deep-fried, and sautéed are the most popular ways to eat lake herring, and the bright-orange herring roe is served like any caviar would be: on a local Old Dutch potato chip, with a smear of Alemar Bent River Camembert if you're really living large. If you can't make it for the herring harvest, do the next best thing and get some smoked lake herring straight from the fishermen at Dockside.
The next biggest fish is our beloved local trout, and it's especially fantastic at Lucia's, one of our pioneering locavore restaurants—a place that's famous among us locals for keeping the food understated. A whole trout might be simply sorrel-stuffed and pan-fried, or basted with brown butter and thyme until it crackles. Founding chef Lucia Watson is a crack freshwater fisherman, and she credits her destiny as a chef to a childhood spent fishing on Rainy Lake.
Watson retired a couple of years ago, and the restaurant—generally regarded as the Chez Panisse of Minneapolis—is now run by Ryan Lund, who has the same deft, light hand that Watson did. He runs a tight crew: great bakers, great relationships with farmers, a small producer–focused wine list, and dedicated servers who have been at it 20 years plus.
Finally, we arrive at our biggest local fish—walleye. Walleye is our Angus steak, our Berkshire heritage hog. It's the big prestige fish people eat when they're feeling flush. We like it in a preparation we call a "shore lunch"; that is, the way you'd eat it after you caught it, pan-frying it on a campfire set up on the lake or river shore. All the old-school supper clubs have walleye. If you want the definitive taste of Minnesota's past, you should order the Ritz cracker–crusted walleye at Jax Cafe, open since 1933. It's mind-bending to consider how many Minnesotan anniversaries and birthdays have been celebrated over this big old crispy, buttery fish.
Make Room for Ducklings
Let's talk duck. I am not in the least bit biased, and I will fight you to the death defending the simple fact that we have the best duck in the country. Why? Because we have all the lakes. When you think of a duck, you think of a lake, right? Right. That's us. Now, when a duck on a lake senses winter is coming, it starts to put on fat, fat, and more fat.
Minnesota ducks are the Kobe beef of duck. Our ducks go to 11. Chef Steven Brown, at the magical little restaurant Tilia, is especially gifted with them. He can sear a duck breast till it's as red as a strawberry, as winey and fragrant as a northern Syrah, as tender as a firm custard.
Ask me to name the best duck dish I've had in the Twin Cities and I'd be at a loss. I would, however, mention the smoked duck hearts at specialty butcher Clancey's; the confit duck legs in the cassoulet at Heartland; that seared duck breast at Tilia; the roasted duck breast at St. Paul's Meritage (totally different from the seared duck breast at Tilia, don't be ridiculous, it's meatier, a ribeye to Tilia's filet mignon); and the duck-fat fries from the food truck Neato's.
Another thing about Minnesota ducks: We are also home to America's best foie gras producer, Au Bon Canard, the country's only free-ranging, all-outdoors traditional foie farm, run by a Frenchman who realized that Minnesota was God's country for ducks. Every chef in the cities wants ABC's creamier-than-cream foie, and to get it, you have to serve the duck, too; that's only right. If you put a gun to my head and made me pick the best foie in the cities, it would be the terrine at Meritage. Chef Russell Klein has impeccable French credentials—he worked for several years at New York City icon La Caravelle—and his use of God's-duck-country duck in French ways is spectacular.
A Native American Foodway
Sacred Native American sites dot the Twin Cities, making it something of an American Stonehenge. Franklin Avenue, a big street near downtown Minneapolis, marks the path of the sun on its vernal equinox. Indian Mounds park, in St. Paul, is the home of 2,000-year-old sacred domes of earth that are nothing but breathtaking to behold; they arc and leap to the sky. Native peoples, especially the ones we today call the Dakota and the Ojibwe, place their Garden of Eden in a couple of significant water places here—in the land and islands at the meeting of the Mississippi and the Minnesota rivers, especially. Sometimes we Minnesotans are mocked for acting like this green and watery spot is the center of the world—but it just might be.
The very map of the cities speaks to the fact that modern life in Minneapolis lies on a native foundation: Hennepin, the main avenue in the cities, is the route native tribes used to get from their winter fishing grounds on the Mississippi River, where the water freezes least and where the mills all got planted, to their summer fishing grounds on Lake Calhoun, to which the city is considering returning its original name, Bde Maka Ska.
There aren't all that many places to sample native foods in the Twin Cities. But you can often find Chef Sean Sherman, the Sioux Chef, an Oglala Lakota who makes truly Minnesotan food from the Tatanka food truck he runs for Little Earth, the country's only urban housing community for native people. Sherman himself has a finer-dining background, but the food on the Sioux Chef's truck is chiefly distinguished by its reliance on a purely North American foodshed—sunflower seed oil instead of olive oil, sumac instead of lemon, prickly ash berries instead of black peppercorns.
Food from the Tatanka Truck, to a Minnesotan, evokes certain parts of the land around here: Bison and sunchoke speak of the prairies on the western side of the state, where buffalo roamed and there are fields of sunflowers to this day. Manoomin salad, made with wild rice and smoked lake trout, is the pristine northern lakes turned into a salad. Cedar stewed rabbit, with a jus made from native chokecherries—they're like cherries, but more coffee-like and tannic, with a huge pit—is the very flavor of the hardwood forest.
An Embarrassment of Riches
This is just a start to understanding Minneapolis and St. Paul. We didn't even touch on the Juicy Lucy—we put our cheese on the inside of cheeseburgers, like the cream filling in a cupcake—try the first ones invented at Matt's. And, for Pete's sake, get the fried onions. We didn't cover our rich flour history—though never forget we are the birthplace of Wheaties, Cheerios, Betty Crocker, Bisquick, and the Poppin' Fresh dude. And if you come here, please go to Pizzeria Lola, one of America's best pizza spots, and Patisserie 46, run by the guy who's so good at baking, America made him captain of the competitive pastry team that we send to France to participate in the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie.
Oh, and since I'm a restaurant critic, it would be kind of ridiculous if I didn't at least mention our restaurant scene, from the Italian food served in historic red-sauce treasures like Cossetta's (open since 1911) to the playgrounds of newfangled red-sauce hipsters, like the fried-pizza kings at Mucci's. And no visit to the Twin Cities would be complete without a stop at the country's best beer-pairing restaurant, the Brewer's Table, at feisty hometown hero Surly Brewing Company.
I've spent my whole adult life exploring the Twin Cities through the lens of food, and one thing I can definitively tell you is this: You could sooner fit all of Paris into a little guide like the one I'm writing here than you could the Twin Cities. While I think I've given you a partial explanation as to why this place is different from anyplace else, I've hardly scratched the surface. All you really need to know is this: We're a bunch of big characters, like Prince and Bob Dylan, Louise Erdrich and the Coen Brothers, living on the water, far away from everything else. We eat well. Very well. And we'd be happy to share with you if and when you decide to come.