WHERE SNOWBIRDS DARE

The first day of fall has come and gone. As leaves pile up in other parts of the country, license plates in Arizona change color as well. Drawn like moths to a flame, visitors motor Southwest in droves. Depending on your point of view, their presence is a boon or a bane. The restaurant and hospitality industry certainly loves them.

The visitors' plates are predominantly Midwestern, and among them Minnesota tags are legion. They start to show up now and disappear at the end of April. Minnesotans love their state; they just hate the weather there. But they've taken a shining to the Valley of the Sun and this makes me feel bad: While migrating Minnesotans make efforts to acquaint themselves with Phoenix, I know little or nothing about Minnesota--or the Midwest, in general, for that matter. I once spent a week in Cleveland, but to true Midwesterners, eastern Ohio doesn't cut it. So when I receive an invitation to a wedding in Minneapolis, I view it as an opportunity to do a little field research. A chance to study the natives in their native land. Thanks to Prince and the Replacements, I know what Minneapolis sounds like, but I don't know what it tastes like. I'll have a sense of purpose while sojourning in the land of the loon.

Yet skepticism marbles my mostly enthusiastic reception. My quest for what is quintessentially Minnesotan, food-wise, comes under attack almost immediately. "Well, you won't find it in restaurants," insists one wedding guest. "Lutheran church fairs, yes. Restaurants, no. It's just not there."

And the proud Twin Citians want me to visit the latest yupscale bistro touting regional cuisine with ingredients like wild rice, squash and lingonberries. But I leave places like this to the New York Times and Esquire. I'm in search of what's real and true.

It occurs to me that I might gain a better understanding of the Midwest by trying one of the city's favorite Mexican restaurants. Obviously it's not going to compare with the best of Phoenix, but in an odd way I think it will help me understand what Minnesotans like to eat. I've been told Pepitos is "good," so I head there after landing.

I place my order, sip a Wisconsin sparkling water and munch on a few chips. The chips are pre-fab and the hot sauce is horrendous. It's hot--as pur eed tomatoes bolstered with red chile seeds are wont to be--but bland. Where is the cilantro, the oregano? Looking around at the dark wood and latticework, I imagine Pepitos used to be an Italian restaurant. One bite of my cheese and onion enchilada assures my guess is not far off. This thing should be called a pizza enchilada. A spicy-pork soft taco is also laughable. It's more like a huge, open-ended burro stuffed with pork, chopped lettuce and tomato. Tacos de Juarez would come as a revelation to Pepitos regulars. I could go on, but I won't. Now that I know what they consider good Mexican up here, my search for what is truly Minnesotan can begin in earnest.

Amy Klobuchar, a local attorney and fellow wedding guest, serves as my guide. Her dad Jim writes a column for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. In the summer he leads groups of bicyclists through the northern wilderness. Amy's task is less physically challenging, but no less harrowing.

For instance, our first stop is Mayslack's Polka Lounge, known for its garlic beef sandwiches. You can smell the garlic from the parking lot. Against her better judgment, Amy brings me here for lunch. After all, she has a date for the wedding we are attending at five o'clock.

From the outside, Mayslack's looks like the typical corner saloon of older, colder civilizations. Inside, the floor is tiled and the high ceiling is composed of pressed tin. A bar runs the length of one side, dark wood booths with individual coat hooks occupy the other.

A man in an apron asks for our order. When we tell him we need menus, he says accusingly, "You haven't been here in a while." He brings us menus and Amy asks him if he is Stan Mayslack, the owner. He looks at us funny. "I am now," he says. "I bought Stan out. I'm a different kind of Stan." Dieters and garlic-conscious individuals can order fractions of sandwiches. I request one-half of the Original Roast Beef. Amy orders a quarter of a mushroom burger. While we wait, free enterprise enters the bar. "Three pounds of Armour sausage for seven dollars," a man in a cap shouts repeatedly.

Small dishes of coleslaw are delivered. Garlic and celery seed dominate this mixture. I warn Amy to go easy for her date's sake. She thanks me. And I'm sure her date thanked me. As college football crackles from the tavern's TV, our sandwiches arrive. Partial cloves of garlic speckle my steaming roast beef, which is served open-faced on a juice-soaked pumpernickel hamburger roll. It's huge and potent--I cannot possibly finish it. Amy's burger also hints of garlic, though we can't see it. I'm impressed by the unexpected fresh mushrooms which top her burger.

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