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.
Riding around Minneapolis, it's cold. People on the street, braced in down and leather like strange winter armor, squinch faces against the north wind. They look wholesome and hip at the same time. I think it's the coats.
Our next stop is Nye's Polonaise Room. Featuring gold lame booths, Flintstones-meet-Jetsons lamps and a piano bar, this place is a funky shrine to Liberace if ever there was one. Lunch is not the best time to visit. Last call is probably a better time, for ice cream drinks and piano music.
After Mayslack's, I'm not too hungry. "What do you have for dessert?" Our waitress is slim and gray-haired. "Just ice cream and sherbet," she says, somewhat adamantly. "No pastries of any kind."
I order the Polish sausage and sauerkraut. Amy sticks with Diet Coke. She's smart. She's already warned me about the food here.
Before you can say Frederic Chopin, a plate is plunked in front of me. My first response is to flee. This is the ugliest food I've ever seen. The German potato salad looks like an unmentionable special effect, if you know what I mean.
I struggle down a few mouthfuls, but everything is awful. The sausage is thoroughly irredeemable, even with genuine Polish mustard. As soon as we can get our waitress's attention, I pay the bill and we slink out. I should have gone with vanilla ice cream--that's very Minnesotan, isn't it?
At the wedding that night, more folks give me eating suggestions. Al's Breakfast, in Dinkytown near the University of Minnesota, sounds like a good bet. I go there the following morning with Amy and her friend Pat Collins, a former U student. Pat tells me Dinkytown was Bob Dylan's old hangout back when he was still Bob Zimmerman. In fact, on our way to Al's we cross Southeast Fourth Street of "Positively 4th Street" fame.
I'll tell you, Dylan missed out if he didn't get out of that blowin' wind and down some java at Al's--this place is cool. Phone Al's and this is how they answer: "Al's Breakfast. Eighteen stools. Open till one." What else do you need to know? This gem of a breakfast spot is the size of a narrow mobile home. When our trio arrives, all eighteen stools are occupied, so we join the line of waiters against the wall. You don't have to take a number at Al's. When a stool is vacated, it goes to the person who's waited longest. Multiple stools together take more doing: You have to wait till they free up, then ask everyone to slide down. Amazingly, they will.
I love this place. Foreign currency and a picture of Wayne Newton are tacked on the walls. The music is big band and standards. The coffee is good and the service is quick. There's even comedy. When a single stool opens up, the guy behind the grill shouts, "One single, solitary seat. Time to reconsider that relationship."
Most importantly, the food is great. Amy's buttermilk pancakes are huge and doughy and wonderful. Pat's and my omelettes are browned, gooey and hot. This is the kind of place I collect. If Phoenix had one, I'd be a regular.
After breakfast, we stroll around the campus. At Pat's suggestion we slip into a bar to see the end of the Vikings-Bears game. Afterwards, we're sorry we did. The Vikings blow it in the last minutes, which bums out Amy and Pat. One thing I learn quickly about Minnesotans: They love their sports teams.
Later that night, a Minnetonka orthodontist accompanies me to dinner at Murray's, home of the "Silver Butter Knife Steak.~" Murray's might best be described as the Durant's of Minneapolis. It's been around for decades, unchanged by time or current fashion. Everyone I speak to says it's classic. The place where people have always gone to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries or for drinks and dinner with business partners. From the neon sign outside to the black coatdress uniforms of the waitresses, it is a monument to life in the Twin Cities before wild rice soup.
We order the double sirloin for two ($56.50, with a half-bottle of wine included) and eye the gold taffeta curtains draped around the room. Our appetizer of sauteed walleye, a Minnesota favorite, arrives shortly. Walleye is a mild fish with a firm texture. Unfortunately, Murray's drowns the medallion-size pike nuggets in a heavy cream sauce flavored with rosemary. For the salad course, my accomplice has chosen the standard iceberg and tomato deal. I go native and order the Jell-O salad. You know what? It's pretty darn good--for Jell-O. My individual mold has three layers: cherry and orange with cream cheese in between. I like it.
Salt is a big ingredient at Murray's. We receive salty crackers, salty breads and finally, a salt-encrusted steak, which as my accomplice points out, is not butter-knife tender. She's right. It's a little stringy, but flavorful and perfectly done. Fresh green beans and a baked potato are also fine.
There's no way either of us can finish our steak. Large portions would definitely seem to be Minnesotan. Yet I manage to convince my accomplice to share a piece of Murray's Angel pie with me. I'm glad she says yes. Sour lemon filling sits atop crushed meringue and is topped with whipped cream. It's delightful. A perfect end to the meal.
Back at the hotel, I mull over my Midwestern experience. True Minnesotan cuisine is simple. Garlic beef, a ham-and-cheese omelette, Jell-O. I'm not knocking the reintroduction of so-called regional ingredients, but it's too self-conscious to be real. Real Minnesota cuisine is white people's food founded in farm kitchens. It's so basic as to be taken for granted, like air.
Next time I visit Minneapolis I'll be sure to hit a church fair or somebody's cousin's wedding. Wanna lay bets I find more Jell-O than wild rice?
Pepitos, 4820 Chicago Avenue, Minneapolis, (612) 822-2104. Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday.
Mayslack's Polka Lounge, 1428 Northeast 14th Street, Minneapolis, (612) 789-9862. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Nye's Polonaise Room, 112 East Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, (612) 379-2021. Hours: 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Al's Breakfast, 413 14th Avenue Southeast, Dinkytown, (612) 331-9991. Hours: 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Sunday.
Murray's, 26 South Sixth Street, Minneapolis, (612) 339-0909. Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Monday through Friday; 4 to 11 p.m., Saturday; 4 to 10 p.m., Sunday.
Thanks to Prince and the Replacements, I know what Minneapolis sounds like, but I don't know what it tastes like.
This thing should be called a pizza enchilada. A spicy- pork soft taco is also laughable.
This is the ugliest food I've ever seen. The German potato salad looks like an unmentionable special effect.
The guy behind the grill shouts, "One single, solitary seat. Time to reconsider that relationship."
Murray's might best be described as the Durant's of Minneapolis. It's been around for decades.
Real Minnesota cuisine is white people's food founded in farm kitchens. It's so basic as to be taken for granted.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.