After nine years of daily publication from February 2009 to June 2018, the Heavy Table is on hiatus.
Thank you Bite Squad restaurant delivery service for hosting the Heavy Table archives.
This is the end. And aside from our dire prediction early on we’re all still breathing. So after 91 restaurants, almost eight months and fourish miles on East Lake Street, we get to tick one final checkbox next to the last spot on our list. Can something be both a relief and a bummer? In our experience with wrapping up these Checklists, yes. Every time.
So what did we learn this time around? Hard as we’ve tried, we still can’t explain Dorilocos or the boundless enthusiasm of patrons at all-you-can-eat buffets. But we do have a much better understanding of what makes a great “sports plate.” And we know that if you fail to refer to a spit of al pastor meat as a “porknado” in your writeup, you will regret it every day.
We also learned that this street changes at a pace that is virtually impossible to keep up with. Over the course of our eight month journey a number of new places opened that we just couldn’t fit in. And sadly, some we visited shuttered. (Although perhaps none quite as tragically as when the Roberts Shoe Building—where Robert Pirsig wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—burned down, taking Marisqueria Mar y Tierra with it.)
East Lake Street is everything you want from a city thoroughfare. It’s an ever-changing hodgepodge of cultures, ideas and people. And the friction of these things bumping into each other gives the street an energy all its own. As though there’s a constant, low-grade vibration under the surface of the pavement.
Visiting these establishment across this diverse stretch of road has been an enriching, rewarding, and often surreal experience. It has also been a slog, a chore and sometimes a punch in the gut. But going through this (and other Checklists) with this talented, dedicated, fearless, crazy group of people has been a true honor and privilege. Here’s hoping we can find a way to do it again. — M.C. Cronin
This week’s checklist crew: WACSO, M.C. Cronin, James Norton, Becca Dilley
OTHER EAST LAKE STREET CHECKLIST INSTALLMENTS: Lake Plaza, Gorditas el Gordo to Pineda Tacos, Taqueria Victor Hugo to Safari Restaurant, El Sabor Chuchi to The Rabbit Hole, Midtown Global Market, Miramar to San Miguel Bakery, Mercado Central, Ingebretsen’s to Pasteleria Gama, La Alborada to Quruxlow, Midori’s Floating World to El Nuevo Rodeo, Urban Forage to Himalayan, Blue Moon Coffee Cafe to Merlin’s Rest, Hi Lo Diner to The Bungalow Club
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
The East Lake Checklist is the third Heavy Table illustrated travelogue to explore a major gastronomic thoroughfare in Minneapolis and/or St. Paul. The East Lake Checklist is the Heavy Table’s follow-up to our 55-restaurant survey of independent eateries on Central Avenue and our 72-restaurant series about restaurants on the Green Line. We’ll publish five-restaurant installments biweekly until we’ve documented every nonchain spot on East Lake Street between 35W and the Mississippi River. (We’re estimating 75 spots, but we’ll see how it shakes out.)
This series is made possible by underwriting from Visit Lake Street. Heavy Table retains editorial control of the series — as with Central Avenue and the Green Line, this tour will be warts-and-all.
“From the river to the lakes, visitors and residents can shop local and be social on Lake Street. More information at VisitLakeStreet.com.”
Hi Lo Diner
4020 E Lake St, Minneapolis
Not long ago, this place was an empty shell of a diner decaying off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Now it’s reborn right here on Lake Street where it’s buzzing with activity again. This feat could not have been easy or cheap to accomplish. Not many of these true diners remain. So you have to appreciate the dedication of those who put their souls into helping keep this uniquely American invention alive.
The Hi-Lo is beautifully restored, bright and full of life. Graceful art deco curves abound. Windows wrap around the space allowing morning light in to play off gleaming chrome, aluminum and mirrored surfaces. Aquamarine accents throughout add to the 1950’s vibe.
This is more than a recreation, though. It’s a true update of the classic diner that reaches deep into the menu. You can still order stacks of hotcakes and eggs over easy, yes. But there are also ice cream cocktails and donuts topped with fried chicken, syrup and gravy. Just don’t expect to get out the door by tipping your fedora at the server as you toss some pocket change on the counter like Humphrey Bogart. They’ve updated the classic diner prices, too.. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
It’s not often that we demand a doughnut for breakfast – it’s a lot to commit to, in as much as it’s a sugar-and-carb bomb that tends to stop your day dead in its tracks. And it’s just about never that we’d say: “You know what, with that doughnut? Yeah, throw some fried chicken on top, and some maple-bourbon syrup, and some spicy gravy.” And yet: The Gary Cooper Hi-Top at Hi Lo ($11) is weirdly perfect. The savory nature of the gravy grounds and fills out all the carby sweetness going on with the rest of the dish, and bite-for-bite it’s a pleasant experience. Still: Maybe split it? With two or more friends?
Our Potato Chip Omelette ($10) was stupid good. Don’t get distracted by the potato chips, which are just a minor garnish on an otherwise stellar dish. The key here are the green onions plus Top the Tater sour cream dolloped onto the omelette, which itself was elegant and cleanly made. Eggs plus green onions plus the functional equivalent of French onion dip equals really delicious; this is our new go-to for omelettes, and we’re not sure why everyone doesn’t serve them this way by default.
The Hi Lo Bloody Mary ($9) was a disappointment partially saved by a couple of grace notes. The bloody itself, although ordered “spicy,” was remarkably mild, fairly watery, and lacking any distinguishing notes (thickness of liquid, spicy heat, distinct and enjoyable booziness) that would endear it to guests. To Hi Lo’s credit: the drink arrived with a snit (a tiny bottle of Miller High Life, perfect for this application) and an absolutely delicious skewer of tender pastrami wrapped around cream cheese wrapped around a small pickle.
Our Alexander Hamilton (cognac, creme de cacao from Tattersall, Jamaican black rum, vanilla ice cream) was well-balanced, neither too sweet nor too boozy, and was enjoyed by everyone at the table (except for the five-year-old, who thankfully didn’t notice it and therefore didn’t try to obtain a taste). At $13, though, it’s a break even prospect at best. — James Norton
Savory Bake House
3008 36th Ave. South, Minneapolis
Savory Bakehouse is a little place that sits just off Lake Street across from Merlin’s Rest. The stucco exterior is painted a deep mustard yellow. Their name is stenciled in black just above the door. The exterior is bold in its simplicity and a good hint at what you can expect when you walk through the door.
Inside there’s just enough room for a five or so people to jockey for position around the bakery case and ogle the creative pastry selection. It’s cozy in both the sense that it is physically small and in the sense that the vibe is relaxed and welcoming.
One of the owners was working the counter when we visited. He was authentically effusive and rightfully proud of the product the shop puts out. This is a person who loves what he does and that love has helped manifest a true gem of a bakery. In summary: Savory is actually pretty sweet. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
When it comes time to write our top 10 dishes list for this 90+ restaurant journey down East Lake Street, the Pistachio Apricot Frangipane ($4.50, top right above) from Savory Bakehouse will be on the list. Top five, quite probably. Top three? Perhaps. It was a masterwork of a pastry, and we feel lucky to have tried it. From the texture (a delightful mixture of chewy and crispy) to the subtleties of flavor (buttery, sugary, nutty) to the bright sunny kick of sweetness at the center that came from the apricot, this pastry could not have been better conceived or executed.
Our Mixed Berry Sweet Roll ($4, top left above) was underbaked at the center, which is a shame – it was otherwise a pleasing mix of natural berry flavor and creamy, gentle sweetness on a pillowy roll. Another five minutes in the oven and it would’ve been stellar.
Savory’s Ham, Cheese, and Spinach Brioche ($6, bottom above) was effortless and simple, leaning on one of the most obvious classic flavor combinations in the European canon with total success. Buttery, crunchy, chewy, salty, and with that clean, vegetal bite of spinach to round things out, this is a perfect beefy snack or light meal at a great price for the quality. — J.N.
920 E Lake St, Midtown Global Market, Minneapolis
Out of the gate, we appreciated the bright, wasabi green overhead sign and Intown Sushi’s simple, elegant logo. The cold case out front containing drinks and pre-made sushi combos in plastic trays hinted at their origin story as a supplier of grocery store sushi. But we opted to order fresh and received super friendly service (even if the wait for our food was a bit longer than expected). — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The story behind Intown Sushi is unusual – it’s a grocery store sushi supplier that is now branching out into a quick-service restaurant at Midtown Global Market. It’s not the swankiest backstory (for that, check out Kado no Mise), but it’s not necessarily a curse, either – we’ve had grocery store sushi at Lakewinds that does justice to the artform, so we know that it’s doable.
The strongest of our dishes was the Dragon Roll ($10), an avocado plus crab, cucumber, spicy mayo, and crispy onion concoction that tasted overwhelmingly of avocado but worked nonetheless. The crab was retiring to the point of invisible and the other elements swamped by the creaminess and bulk of the avocado, but the overall effect was pleasant.
Our Noodle Combo ($10) came with noodles and chicken plus a few fried dumplings. We’re used to noodle dishes like this (see: most of University Avenue) boasting profound depth of flavor – citrus, spicy heat, funky fish sauce and lemongrass, salty soy – but this dish was (reasonably) salty and nothing else. There’s nothing wrong with serving something inoffensively one-dimensional, but it’s also hard to recommend. The dumplings were equally innocuous – crispy, reasonably fresh-tasting, but not particularly flavorful. A stronger hand with seasoning and sauces would have mightily improved both of these otherwise adequate dishes.
It was at the nigiri ($5.50 for two pieces) that Intown really faltered. The fish (we tried both the tuna and the salmon) was sliced into such uniformly thin, even rectangles that it looked as though it had been cut by machine. It lacked the supple texture and clean, oceanic flavor that makes good nigiri or sashimi such a singular dish. And the rice was overseasoned – wet to the point of being damp, and heavy on the vinegar. We should be clear: this wasn’t bad sushi (as in Chinese restaurant all-you-can-eat buffet bad sushi that tastes like playing sushi roulette) but it fell short of ideal. — J.N.
Mama D’s Authentic Southern Cooking
920 E Lake St, Midtown Global Market, Minneapolis
You have to hand it to Mama D’s. They’re going all in on “loud and proud.” Shimmery gold-sequined overhangs surround the space. Crystal chandeliers dangling over the order counter.
Their signage oozes with attitude: “In the South, we don’t hide crazy. We parade it on the porch and give it a sweet tea,” “Mama don’t take no mess,” “The recipe is in my head,” “Made with love.” They’re like mini mission statements that also give patrons a good idea of what to expect.. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Soul food seems to be making a real resurgence in the metro area and we’re all for it – done well, it’s some of the best cuisine America has to offer the world. In that regard, we’re happy to see Mama D’s open up at Midtown Global Market and give the cuisine a serious shot.
We’ve become diehard fried catfish fans over the course of these Checklists after getting some really good stuff at Johnny Baby’s and an even better order at the remarkable A&J Fish and Chicken. So we kind of put Mama D’s in a tough spot by ordering their Fried Catfish ($11). That said: They crushed it. Incredibly crispy exterior via flavorful breading, super tender and slightly tangy-tasting flesh, and a gentle buzz of that earthy catfish flavor that not every place offers.
Our Smoked BBQ Pork Rib Tips ($11 for a small order) were a mixed bag. The meat was surprisingly tough (we don’t demand or even want “fall-off-the-bone” but a yielding consistency is nice) and the smoke tasted aggressive – more of the liquid rather than natural variety, but we wouldn’t be surprised if it was the latter punched up with the former. The sauce that they came slathered in was too sweet and fairly one dimensional, but there are definitely a lot of people who want ribs done that way, and where there’s a commercial demand, the sugar comes out to meet it. The total package wasn’t bad: these were far from the best ribs we’ve had, but also far from the worst.
Our sides were all over the place. From worst to best: cornbread (dry as dust, not much flavor), garlic mashed potatoes (served room temp and tasting heavily of garlic powder), collard greens (nice firm texture, some spicy depth of flavor), black eye peas (tangy and well seasoned, a bit of liquid smoke that tasted absolutely appropriate and good in context) and some really tasty mac and cheese that managed to be rich and gooey without being congealed or overwhelmingly fatty. — J.N.
Dogwood Coffee Bar
4021 E Lake St, Minneapolis
Dogwood is an open, modern space. Think clean lines, straight angles, hard surfaces and bright pops of color. Think high-back plank wood booths, wire-back stools, metal beam ceilings, and concrete floors. Think Walker Art Center more than Minneapolis Art Institute. The space is connected to Forage Modern Workshop next door and the design aesthetic of the two meshes seamlessly.
Those seeking to sink into a squishy couch or armchair with their latte and a novel may want to look elsewhere. But if you need to crank up Adobe Creative Suite and kick out a few logo designs while sucking down a nitro cold brew, Dogwood has you covered.. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
If you drink enough coffee around here, you start to get a feel for the players and their roasting philosophies. Dogwood’s tendency is to roast lightly, to bring through more of the brightness, astringency, and character of the bean, which can be frustrating if what you’re looking for is a nutty, roasty cup of breakfast brew, or fantastic if you’re hunting for coffee with depth and complexity.
We found Dogwood’s Zamboni Cold Brew ($3.75 for 10 oz.) austere but pleasing – it was cool and bright and refreshing over ice, particularly when enjoyed on the cafe’s Lake Street-adjacent patio.
Our Cortado ($3.50) was excellent – the punchy fruit of the beans came through but was complemented by the mild dairy sweetness of the milk. The whole thing was clean and balanced.
And our Baby Bear Cappuccino ($4.50) was tremendously good – we’d expected this molasses and brown-sugar flavored coffee drink to be sweet or even over-sweet, but most of what we tasted was the depth and tang of the molasses and the complex flavor of the coffee. — J.N.
4000 E Lake St, Minneapolis
El Norteño is a family affair. There’s no corporate entity behind it to assure that patrons have a Consistent Dining Experience™. The place is owned and operated by three sisters. There’s no overlord pressuring waitstaff to improve nightly table turnover numbers. Which means that while the service is super friendly, it’s also super, super, super relaxed.
The dining room wasn’t designed by a restaurant design group out of New York. The room is decorated with a few pieces of Mexican decor: sombreros, pottery, textiles. There are terra cotta and wood accents and the classic four-top tables and vinyl covered chairs you might find in any main-street family restaurant. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s honest. Not a trace of pretense anywhere.
The night we visited, the dining room was deserted. As soon as we walked through the screen door to the back patio we understood why. Almost every table outside was occupied. It’s a hidden gem of a space tucked back behind the building. There’s an arbor, a colorful mural, and plant life everywhere. It’s as though you’re visiting your neighbor’s backyard… if your neighbor served Mexican food nightly. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
It’s hard not to enjoy everything at El Norteño, as it’s served with so much homey love and un-reconstructed first wave Tex Mex-iness that it’s instantly charming. Emblematic of that: the Norteño Chicken Enchilada ($9.50), with kicky, deeply flavored red sauce and enough browned cheese to resemble a pizza. There’s nothing fancy going on with this dish, and that’s the point: it’s comfort on a plate, done simply but winningly. We couldn’t keep our forks out of it, even with the knowledge that we had three more restaurants yet to visit.
The charming simplicity of the enchilada is reminiscent of the chips and salsa that start your meal. They’re so basic and familiar they’re almost impossible to notice – you just start shoveling them in and at some point you recognize that this is a clean, clear rendition of a starter that should be done cleanly and simply. We’ve had fancied-up house chips and complex spins on salsa at dozens of newer Mexican places, and we’ll take this old-school rendition any day of the week. The restaurant’s guacamole was similarly honest – overwhelmingly just mashed up avocados, with a few little bits of onions and tomatoes, plus mild seasoning, to finish the dish.
Our Barbacoa Burrito ($9) came topped with melted cheese and sprinkled in a little salute to a lettuce-and-tomato side salad, placing it miles away from the stripped down, grab-and-go burritos that populate the western side of East Lake Street. And we found the barbacoa underseasoned – until we mixed it with the quite salty refried beans inside the burrito and discovered that the two foods worked hand-in-hand. This dish was a lot closer to the Norteño Chicken Enchilada than we’d expected, but it very much fit into the “Homespun Cheese-Covered Fun Mex” mold that defines this restaurant almost as much as its charming garden patio.
This is a minor closing note, but we liked El Norteño’s clean, frothy, refreshing, austere horchata as much as any we’ve tried on Lake Street (and we’ve tried a lot.) — J.N.
Dragon City Cafe
4301 E Lake St, Minneapolis
“We’ll have chow mein.”
“Chow mein?” The server looked at us as though we’d ordered Baked Alaska or a Beef Wellington. “Our chow mein is the old fashioned kind,” she said with not a small amount of concern. We couldn’t tell if she was trying to steer us toward another item or if she truly didn’t believe we were the kind of people competent enough to be ordering chow mein. Which we most assuredly are. (Perhaps, frighteningly so.)
She finished taking our order and disappeared into the kitchen. Almost immediately the silence in the place—which had been on the verge of closing down for the evening when we arrived—was broken by the sounds of a kitchen roaring back to life: banging pots and pans, clinking kitchen utensils, and the sizzling of food hitting hot cooking surfaces.
The dining room had all the requisite charm you’d expect from an old-school Chinese-American restaurant. Wood paneled walls, framed Chinese watercolors, food specials printed on letter-sized paper, Chinese zodiac placemats, tea sets for sale. And the place was surprisingly clean and tidy compared to others we’ve visited on these Checklists. (Substantially more so than some.) — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
We’ve eaten at some bad neighborhood Chinese-American restaurants on these Checklist crawls – on Central Avenue, on University Avenue (woof woof, two clunkers) and on East Lake Street as well. With that in mind, we were happy to discover that the biggest problem with this well-maintained, old-school chow mein joint is that the food was profoundly underseasoned.
Our Chicken Chow Mein with Egg Foo Young and Fried Rice ($7.45) would typically have been a mountain of salt and MSG. Instead, it was plain to the point of perplexing – where was the salty depth of good old fashioned Chinese-American food? Or the salty greasy horribleness of bad old fashioned Chinese-American food? Once we got the salt shaker involved, the pleasures of the dish – the still-crispy celery, the textural contrast between the fried noodles and the meat – came to the forefront. Nothing profound, but not too bad, either.
Our Cream Cheese Wontons ($4.80) were the most basic renditions of this most basic of appetizers that we’ve ever encountered. Nothing more than single, thin wrappers folded into triangles and deep fried with a couple milligrams of cream cheese spread within them, they lacked all bells and any whistles.
And our Black Pepper Chicken ($7) was fairly bland save for a blanket of black pepper that bordered on the hostile. — J.N.
2990 West River Pkwy, Minneapolis
We sat outside on a gorgeous night under dappled light. The patio was beautifully situated on the corner of E. Lake Street and the Mississippi River Parkway. Our view was filled with trees gently blowing in the breeze. The service staff was friendly. Our food and drinks were served promptly.
There was nothing wrong with our visit to Longfellow Grill, but there was nothing particularly right with it either. It was neither remarkably good, nor monumentally bad. It was flawlessly satisfactory, perfectly average, extraordinarily OK.
That’s what makes it so frustrating.
Perhaps our expectations of the place are too high. Maybe we’re putting too much emphasis on its potential and not enough on what’s actually there. But what this place could be—given these natural surroundings and the idyllic location—is something truly special. Not just a place people patronize by default because it’s just fine, but a place people actually go out of their way to visit because it’s just so great.. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The schizophrenic, borderless, madly careening menu of the Longfellow Grill defies explanation. Is it high concept? Bar food? Diner food? “Ethnic” food? Yes, sure, yes, whatever. It’s a maddening whirlpool lacking any culinary backbone or perspective, so when it came time to order we more or less threw a dart at the map and let chance take us where it would.
The BBQ Pork Waffle ($14) seemed like an overpriced disaster waiting to happen, but no. It was an enjoyable, balanced trio of tastes that supported one another skillfully: tender pulled pork, crispy sweetened waffle, and crunchy fried onion strings. Every bite that combined the three elements of this dish was a pleasant one.
Potato Pierogies ($9) were described by one of our crew as “a dish that’s usually bland … but not this bland,” and it’s true that they lacked a certain sort of … anything. But once they were dressed up with the accompanying horseradish sauce and onion strings, they worked well as vehicles for these other, stronger points of view.
Then there’s that cheeseburger (nearly 13 freakin’ dollars.) Never a more underseasoned patty has crossed our palates – it was criminally lacking in flavor or seasoning, and thoroughly overpowered by the reasonably low wattage of its own bun. It made us pine for the burger we had just down the street at Peppers and Fries.
Our cocktails – an overly sweet Earl Grey Old Fashioned with little trace of tea flavor ($10) and our similarly sugary and one-dimensional Mezcal Mule ($9) did little to lighten the mood after we tasted our dud of a burger. — J.N.
The Bungalow Club
4300 E Lake St, Minneapolis
The letters “TBC” painted on the beveled glass of the entryway door is all the signage there is outside. Inside, the Bungalow Club takes over where the former Craftsman left off. The paint has been refreshed, a few fixtures have been updated, and the decor has been revamped. But the warm wood floors, mission-style furnishings, and leather-backed benches remain. It’s a refined, open space. A classic, really. And a shrewd business decision by the owner. Why fix what isn’t broken?
We opted for a spot under the arbor on TBC’s extraordinary patio. Our server was attentive, but not obnoxiously so. She lead us to successful food and drink choices without a dramatic reading of the menu.
With twilight settling in, we sat under tendrils of ivy winding through lattice and the ambient glow of garden lights and couldn’t imagine a more appropriate setting to contemplate the end of the East Lake Checklist (and so much more). We’d be lying if we told you things didn’t start getting a bit wistful.
Then, as if by divine will, one of the highlights of our entire Checklist journey—not just of the East Lake Checklist, but of any we’ve completed so far—arrived at our table. And we were reminded how even when you think it’s coming to an end, the Checklist will always find a way to surprise you. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
There’s a reason we wrapped up our 91-restaurant tour of East Lake Street here rather than at the physical end of the street. When we started The Heavy Table back in 2009, one of our favorite places for dinner was The Craftsman. We’d post up at the bar, order a charcuterie plate and a couple of cocktails, and have one of the most enjoyably civilized times available in the state. We celebrated our first anniversary as a publication there, and had an incredible time. You probably already know the story of the restaurant in the intervening years: Mike Phillips left and founded Red Table Meats, the Craftsman slowly declined, and it finally shut its doors after a final, grotesque but sort of so-bad-it-was-fun incarnation.
It was sad, but things change. We didn’t expect that the spirit of the Craftsman would linger on, but like some magnificent royal ghost, it did: The Bungalow Club has captured the earthy elegance that made this spot on Lake Street one of our favorite places in town.
Start with the Smorgasbord ($16). In the same way that a Craftsman charcuterie plate used to be a light but delightful dinner for two, this plate groans with interesting choices – a deft, balanced pate, well-pickled veg, deviled egg slices, cloudlike burrata, and more.
Our Cobia Crudo ($11) came with walnut pesto and was a mix of bright, earthy, tender, and crunchy. The whole package was sheer elegance.
And our Tajarin pasta ($16), thin, rich and unbelievably supple, astounded us with its mellow, mild deliciousness, in large part due to the use of slightly crispy ramps and mildly kicky calamansi juice. At first we thought a whole bowl of this stuff might get a bit tedious for a single diner, but then the charm of the tender homemade pasta and the subtle flavors snuck up on us and we were hooked.
Just for kicks, we ordered an Old Fashioned ($10) and a Mezcal Mule ($9), to go head-to-head with the beverages we tried at Longfellow Grill. There was no contest: the Old Fashioned was deeply flavored but delicate, a glorious blending of brown liquor and a hint of natural citrus, and the Mule was balanced and tremendously refreshing.
Since starting this Checklist, we’ve visited 91 restaurants and many, many hundreds of tastes have crossed our lips. So you might wonder how the last taste turned out for us.
Here’s what happened: we ordered a piece of strawberry pie at The Bungalow Club and it was perfect. We could smell the warm, buttery pie as it arrived at our table. We could hear the snap of the crispy crust as we cut into it with our forks. And we were charmed by the way the slightly undersweetened strawberry filling smashed into the vanilla sweetness of the ice cream atop the pie and became something subtle and wonderful.
You can’t demand that every time you order dessert at a restaurant, big parts of your life come full circle. But, as it turns out, it’s a thing that can actually happen. — J.N.
There are the people who grow up on the farm, leave for the big city, and never go back. Then there’s Mike Swanson and Cheri Reese.
Swanson and Reese are the proprietors of Far North Spirits in Hallock, Minnesota, located in the far northwest corner of the state where agriculture is king. Swanson grew up on a family farm still being farmed by his father, but he had other aspirations. He and Reese sought out the corporate life, getting college degrees and pursuing corporate and marketing careers in Colorado and Utah (and taking some time to be ski bums) before returning to the Twin Cities. In 2009, Swanson was studying for his MBA at St. Thomas, but he and Reese were already having doubts about their chosen career paths and urban lives. “We were soul sick,” Swanson said. “What did we want to do with our lives? We’d drive to Hallock for Christmas, MEA weekends, and those drives gave us a lot of time to talk.”
But the catalyst for change came in one of Swanson’s MBA classes. The professor required students to develop a fictional business plan. Swanson decided to create a plan for a business called Two Rivers Rye, a nod to his childhood home and one of the crops his father grew. As Swanson recalled, “She was tough. The kind of professor that could find faults with anything. I emailed her the plan in the morning, and braced myself for her comments. But that night, she emailed back and said, ‘You really need to do this.'”
The timing was propitious, as Swanson’s father was talking about retiring, although, as Swanson cracked, “The thing about farmers is they start talking about retiring at least 10 years before they actually do.” He and Reese embarked on a 2.5-year stint of reading and researching, as well as developing a formal business plan and sorting out financing before quitting their jobs in 2012 and heading to what is now the northernmost distillery in the contiguous U.S. In 2013, they built their building and started distilling their first product: Solveig gin. “Solveig is more of an expression of a place than a traditional gin,” Swanson noted. “It’s how the prairie smells after a June rain. Verdant, herbaceous, flora, ozone in the air, almost a citrus note. I had the flavor in my head and wanted to work with botanicals. For me, flavors have shapes and colors. They’re blue, green, round, sharp. I tried several iterations, but they always involve grapefruit, thyme and lavender.”
It’s an unusual gin, with an almost viscous texture that can be off-putting to some gin enthusiasts. But Reese and Swanson pointed out that they’re not trying to create a one-size-fits-all spirit, and they have found that Solveig has converted some non-gin drinkers. “It’s a gateway gin,” Swanson said. “If they like Solveig, they’ll be more receptive to other gins. It’s so unique. That’s what people like about it.” Currently Solveig is second only to their Roknar Rye in sales.
Besides chasing botanicals, the couple had another concept they were firmly in favor of: making their spirits part of the farm-to-table (or field-to-glass) movement, where they can identify local aspects of nearly everything they do. The spirits are distilled from grains and corn grown on the family farm; grain neutral spirits from Benson; malt from Crookston; and aged in barrels from coopers in Park Rapids and Avon.
But they see a bigger picture than just focusing on local purveyors. As they’ve moved into distilling whiskey, which has become a major part of their business, they want to create something that was more Minnesota, or at least Midwest, focused. “Think about provenance and place of origin,” Swanson said. “I didn’t want to do a Kentucky whiskey, or a Tennessee whiskey. Those have been done already. I look at Empire Rye, where New York State has created its own style of whiskey. Why couldn’t we do that here? We should have a Minnesota whiskey. Or even a northwest Minnesota whiskey.”
It’s a long path to creating a specific regional whiskey, including the development of criteria that would define the standards. But Swanson and Reese see it as necessary. “That is the future of spirits,” Swanson said. “Regional designations that become a great expression of a specific place.”
Swanson and Reese are doing more than talking about developing a regional expression. In 2015, they applied for and received a first-of-its-kind, multiple-year grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to study the different varieties of winter rye grown in Minnesota, both for performance in the field and for flavor and sensory performance in the distillery. Partnering with the University of Minnesota-Crookston and North Dakota State University’s Barley and Malt Lab, the grant program involves field trials on two Minnesota farms as well as blind tastings around the U.S. In 2019, the research done will be summarized in a report that will be published in 2019 and made available to all Minnesota farmers as well as micro-distillers nationally.
Once the study has been completed, that might free Swanson and Reese up to look at future projects, including developing a Minnesota single malt, and likely expanding the Hallock distillery, which is getting close to capacity as the Far North brands have spread to 14 states. They also want to start aging their rye for 4 years, up from the current 2.
There are also ideas they haven’t had the chance to explore yet. “What if we collaborate with Spring Grove’s RockFilter Distillery? What would that be like?” Swanson said. “What about blends, like corn and rye? Or smoked malt? We have local peat bogs. We could use local peat. There’s a lot we can do when you look at what’s right under your feet.”
The Heavy Table is proud to have posted nearly 7,000 different stories about food and drink over the course of its nine-year history. And even though the site is suspending publication, we want to keep all of those stories, photos, illustrations, and videos available for readers like you.
Enter the online food delivery mavens at Bite Squad. They’ll be sponsoring the next two years of Heavy Table hosting fees to keep our stories online. “From our perspective, we are a business that was built on the great Twin Cities food scene, who is a fan of another business built on the great Twin Cities food scene,” says Craig Key, Bite Squad’s Chief Marketing Officer. “We’re excited for James, but sad to see the Heavy Table go…and the least we could do is to make sure the content sticks around.”
We’re grateful to Bite Squad for their support, and will be staying in touch with them as the years go by as we place orders for mushu pork at Lao Sze Chuan, banh mi from Lu’s, pizza from Andrea, and much more.
Each Friday, this list will track five of the best things Heavy Table’s writers, editors, and photographers have recently bitten or sipped. Have a suggestion for the Hot Five? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Hot Five is a weekly feature created by the Heavy Table and supported by Shepherd Song Farm.
Strawberry Pie from The Bungalow Club
The Bungalow Club’s strawberry pie was the last official taste of our East Lake Checklist, and it honestly could not have been better. The crust was so crispy it was audible when cut with a fork. It was so buttery that its aroma preceded it to the table. The strawberry filling was a bit undersweet so that when it collided with the vanilla ice cream it was served with, it combined into something absolutely delicious. Talk about going out with a bang.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted from the East Lake Checklist by James Norton]
Mangonada at Hmongtown Marketplace
This sweet / tart / spicy / funky blend of chamoy sauce, mangos, lime juice, and chili powder offers a whole lot of complexity for a casual beverage, but that’s the appeal. You can get these on East Lake Street, too – they’re the beverage of choice for people who want two barrels of intense flavor.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted from Snacking in the Bike Lane by Mecca Bos]
Lake and Marshall Bridge Burger at Peppers and Fries
The Lake and Marshall Bridge burger looked simple enough on the menu – two 1/4 pound patties, American cheese, lettuce, onions, pickles and special sauce on a three-tier bun. Got it – kind of a play on a Big Mac. But no: The thing is a burger TOWER. It leans crazily over the plate, and it intimidates the riff-raff. The bun is pleasingly eggy, the sauce on point, the toppings in balance, and – this can’t be over-emphasized – the seasoning on the meat absolutely perfect, salty in a savory and encouraging way with plenty of pepper for balance. We destroyed this thing.
[Last Week on the Hot Five: #1 | Submitted from the East Lake Checklist by James Norton]
Iraqi Flatbread at Al Amir Bakery
Yes, these massive pieces of Middle Eastern flatbread are chewy, but they’re also crispy, and they’re often warm when you stop by the bakery to buy them. They’re exceedingly popular and it’s easy to see why: they’re cheap (four massive pieces for $3) and brilliant for breakfast sandwiches, wraps, or just eating out of the bag resting on the passenger’s side of the car, as I often find myself doing immediately post-purchase.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted from a post by James Norton]
Sicilian Pizza from the Paparazzi Pop-Up at Al Vento
It’s always fun to see restaurants evolve and experiment, as is the case with Al Vento’s pizza-focused restaurant-within-a-restaurant, Paparazzi. A 12″ Sicilian pie feeds about three (maybe four?) for $19.50, and it can be loaded down with as many premium toppings as you’d like. We thought the crust was delightful (light and almost fluffy with a crispy exterior) and in balance with its toppings. Pictured: A delicious Sicilian pizza with roasted fennel, kalamata olives, prosciutto, goat cheese, fresh mozzarella, and Parmesan.
[Last Week on the Hot Five: #5 | Submitted from an Instagram post by James Norton]