In a region of Minnesota where fresh produce can be tricky to find, a Brainerd-area restaurant is sourcing as much as three-quarters of its ingredients locally. Prairie Bay, in Baxter, serves up what it calls “high definition” dishes that are replete with local ingredients.
The Brainerd Lakes area of Minnesota, where Prairie Bay is located, is a place where 90 percent of the restaurants could be renamed “Burgers (or Pizza) Surrounded by Taxidermy and Old Signs.” Breaking the mold of the highly clichéd “up north” motif, Prairie Bay provides a sigh of relief from the norm — even though it does serve pizza.
Inside the restaurant, which has warmly colored walls and a ceiling painted blue with clouds, Prairie Bay’s kitchen uses local ingredients year round. It does so through a partnership with Sprout, a central Minnesota business that aggregates local food producers for restaurants and school districts.
Sprout provided greens for Prairie Bay’s strawberry and Brie salad ($13). Though the strawberries weren’t local, the taste was fresh, and the Brie added a creamy balance to the tart berries and spicy greens.
Beyond Sprout, the restaurant staff frequents local farmers markets and grows herbs out the back door. A local man forages for the mushrooms in the tarragon mushroom fusilli ($13). The old-school barter system comes into play, too: A few locals bring in garden bounties and exchange them for cooked meals.
Shortly after announcing their plans to open a restaurant, Brut, in Minneapolis next year, chefs Erik Anderson and Jamie Malone organized a series of pop-ups at the recently closed Lynn on Bryant. We assumed the purpose of the dinners ($50 for five courses, $25 for wine pairings and coffee) was to create buzz about Brut. After talking with the chefs and tasting their food, we realized this was only partially correct: As Malone puts it, the main goal is “to have fun.” Anderson agrees: “Yeah, the biggest thing is to have fun, to hang out and have fun. That’s it really.”
Three years ago a bunch of passionate food purveyors and a bunch of passionate food eaters got together at Peace Coffee for the very first North Coast Nosh. They sampled; they sipped; they talked. They decided to do it again.
And so they did. Eleven times.
After North Coast Nosh XII wrapped up Friday night, we took a little time to think about why we still love the event. So here are six reasons to love the North Coast Nosh.
1. You see brand-new food businesses get their start
We all want to be able to say, “We knew them when,” right? (It’s pretty much Kickstarter’s business model in a nutshell.) Well, if you come to the Nosh, you can.
Aleks Till, a Minneapolis entrepreneur, launched Homegrown Foods in June. She brought fiery jerk chicken wings to the Nosh to show off the kinds of meals you can make at home if you subscribe to her meal-delivery service. (She plans, shops and does some of the prep. You just cook. And eat.)
Tin Whiskers has been available retail for a couple of years, but they opened their own taproom in downtown St. Paul in May. Turns out, to nobody’s real surprise, the taproom is a huge favorite with families, who bring in pizza or a picnic on late Saturday afternoons and relax. At the Nosh, the brewery sampled five beers on tap, including the light and fruity Wheatstone.
Tru Pizza began parking their truck in downtown Minneapolis at the start of the summer. In a move that pretty much defines the phrase, “Better him than me,” they put a fully functional wood-fired oven inside the truck. Pizzaiolo Jason Montgomery says it’s not so bad, “It’s a dry heat.” While the truck is new, Montgomery’s pizza roots go way back. He managed his uncle’s pizza place in Shakopee for years. This time around, though, he’s gone full Neapolitan, with a chewy, charred crust with a deep tang. “That’s Kingfield sourdough you’re tasting,” he says.
2. You can find new old favorites
“So, how long have you been open?” It’s a good way to open a conversation with a vendor at the Nosh. Some of them, as we said, are just pushing off the starting blocks. Occasionally, however, you hear, “Oh, about 18 years.” Oops. The folks from Lao Thai were ladling out coconut soup and handing out lettuce cups while chatting optimistically about how the opening of the Green Line should bring adventurous transit riders to check out their family restaurant on University.
Sunrise Bakery has been around more than five times as long as that and is still bringing old family recipes for porketta (peppery braised pork), potica (the ultimate coffee cake) and pasta down from Hibbing. (And to the Nosh.)
Schell’s Brewery is staring down its 200th birthday and still looking spry. They were sampling Arminius, a hoppy pale lager, the grapefruit-spiked Shell Shocked, and their tribute to 89.3 The Current, but the real fun will come at the State Fair: Schell’s is making a special brew mixed with blueberry syrup. They plan to put it in a slushy machine to make frozen beer foam that can also be dunked in porter for a “black and blue” float. Over the top? Yes. Because that’s exactly what the fair is supposed to be.
3. You can bond with your parents and grandparents
You could make a lot of assumptions about the demographic that might decide to spend their Friday evening having intense (sometimes) conversations with cheesemakers and brewers. You’d be at least partially wrong.
While we were waiting for our Tru Pizza, we had a lovely conversation with three generations of food lovers: a young woman, her mother, her aunt — and grandma and grandpa. All three generations loved the pizza.
4. You can watch food entrepreneur love matches being made
Eva Duckler of Tree Fort Soda poured us a generous glass of ginger beer, a drink so tingly with real ginger root it tasted like it might possess actual curative properties. We were still carrying it and raving about it when we got to the Tin Whiskers stand. “Oh no,” we said, “We can’t have beer yet. We are going to drink every last drop of this ginger ale.”
Ginger ale? The brewer’s ears perked up. He had been thinking of putting some on tap. After one sip, he scurried off to chat with Eva. Was a nonalcoholic love connection made at that moment? Will kids at Tin Whiskers soon be drinking Tree Fort soda? Who knows. But it’s events like this that give busy entrepreneurs a chance to find exciting new partners.
5. You get to hear and see the purveyors’ passions — in their own words
Behind every table at the Nosh is someone who absolutely loves what they do. Making food is that sort of business: No matter how profitable or unprofitable it is, you wouldn’t keep brewing that beer or hand-rolling those caramels or babying those wheels of cheese if you didn’t love it.
And every purveyor at the Nosh wants to do more than just hand you a sample on a napkin. They really, really want to talk to you.
You can hear that passion in David Duckler’s voice when he talks about the farms in China where he buys the tea for Verdant Tea. You can hear it when Kevin Halgrimson and Mike LaPoint talk about how they suddenly found themselves making Poorboy caramels or when Ashlee Olds talks about the wild flavors she creates for Sweet Science Ice Cream. You can hear it from every single person at every table.
6. You’re helping a great cause
Open Arms Minnesota not only hosted North Coast Nosh XII, but will also receive a portion of the proceeds. Visitors to the Nosh learned about Open Arms’ upcoming Cookathon, on Sept. 26. (Hint, hint.) They’re still looking for teams to raise money or to prepare meals in a round-the-clock cooking extravaganza.
PepperJax Grill Philly Express
It’s impossible not to consider value when making a judgment about a food truck, or a restaurant, or any purchase, for that matter. It feels good to spend so little and get so much. On the other hand, you could spend $10 on two of the tiniest, most well executed and delicious tacos you’ve ever had and feel great about the experience. PepperJax Grill Philly Express stands decidedly on the value side of the fence.
There is pretty much only one item on the menu at PepperJax Express: Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich. This isn’t to say that there aren’t choices. You can have steak ($8), chicken ($7.75), or veggie ($7). Then you decide if you want onions, peppers, mushrooms or jalapenos. You can choose to have fries ($3) or not.
After you place your order, they slide your torpedo roll down a chute and throw the veggies and meat (6 oz., we were told) on the flat top. When they call your name, you’d better have both hands free, because this sandwich delivers some serious value.
The roll was crammed into the container diagonally and was spilling over with beef and veggies, the melted pepper jack cheese tucked underneath. Every spare inch of the container was stuffed with french fries. You could feed a family of four with this sandwich. Was it good? Who cares! It was HUGE! PepperJax founder Gary Rohwer’s patented “vertically sliced” sandwich steak was juicy and spiced with a secret blend that contained at the very least hot pepper and a generous amount of garlic salt. The cheese had a sort of industrial, sandwich-shop feel to it, but so did the meat and bread, so it all played well together.
Most of the trucks on the street are homegrown enterprises. PepperJax Express, with their unverified and dubious motto, “America’s Best Philly,” and comprehensive branding (including a full line of bottled sauces), has a suspiciously corporate feel. The meat came pre-sliced out of a cardboard box from a freezer case. Indeed, it turns out that PepperJax are an offshoot of an Omaha-based sandwich shop that decided to ride the food truck wave up in Minnesota.
Try PepperJax if you are super-duper hungry and aren’t particularly concerned with having a chef driven experience. It’s a good sandwich, if a bit industrial, and it’s probably the best value you’ll get out of a truck this season. PepperJax can be found in Minneapolis on most days, and occasionally in St. Paul.
When O’Cheeze hit the streets earlier this summer, they were greeted with a chorus of great press, so we were very excited to try their twist on grilled cheese and tomato soup.
Our first visit was at best a mixed bag. The Portobello ($8, below, left), with its eponymous fungus, roasted red pepper, and Havarti cheese, was the highlight. The meatiness of the mushrooms worked well with the creamy Havarti, while the sweetness of the roasted pepper balanced it out. It was simple and delicious. The Nacho ($8, below, middle), filled with avocado, chicken, and corn chips (yes, inside the sandwich), was not well put together. The chicken and avocado tasted good, but the chips were soggy and the sandwich would have been better without them. The cheese was scant, almost an afterthought. It felt like a misclassified panini. Both sandwiches were buttery but not crisp like you want a grilled cheese to be, almost as if they were toasted rather than griddled. Popcorn chips were served on the side — a frustrating choice, considering that the corn chips would have been much better alongside, rather than inside, the sandwich. The much-ballyhooed Tomacado soup ($2 for a cup with a sandwich order) was befuddling. It tasted overwhelmingly like pureed food-service tomatoes, with barely an echo of basil and an unpleasant, astringent feel.
But having heard praise for O’Cheeze from every corner of the blogosphere, both before and after our flawed experience, we decided to try again, and are glad we did. We ordered the Mac and Cheese ($7, above, right), and once again the Tomacado soup (below, before and after). The sandwich arrived piping hot, the Great Harvest bread buttery and crisp, with a soft, gooey crumb. The elbow macaroni was cooked just past al dente, probably the perfect doneness for noodles as a sandwich filling. The result — our favorite comfort food stuffed inside our second favorite comfort food — was toothsome, delicious, and most importantly, cheesy. This time, the Tomacado soup made sense. It was creamy and sweet, with fresh, summery tomato flavor and a rich red color. We asked, “Why Tomacado?” when there are no discernible avocado pieces, and were told that instead of using cream, O’Cheeze uses pureed avocado.
Maybe our first visit was an off day for the crew. Maybe it was a combination of a new guy working the grill and a batch of unripe tomatoes. Maybe they refined their recipes. They traded the popcorn chips for potato chips, and whatever else changed from our first visit to the second, there was improvement across the board, and we found a well-oiled operation sending out high-quality comfort food. O’Cheeze can be found in Minneapolis on most days, and in St. Paul on Tuesdays.
This post is sponsored by the River Falls Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau.
The River Falls Bacon Bash in River Falls, Wisconsin — just 35 minutes east of the Twin Cities — promises to be even more “porktacular” in 2014. This free, two-day festival runs Sept. 13-14 and celebrates all things bacon. The Bacon Bash features a plethora of bacon-inspired dishes, including bacon cheese curds, caramelized-bacon-and-bourbon ice cream, and pig wings, along with a variety of local craft beers.
The River Falls Bacon Bash offers pig-themed activities for the entire family, live music, a marketplace with a twist, and much, much more! The quirky celebration offers events including cook-offs, a pet parade, Mr. & Mrs. Bacon, plus pig calling / impersonation, sizzlin’ T-shirt / costume, and pig wing eating competitions, to name a few.
The second annual River Falls Bacon Bash has been selected as a returning official qualifying event of the World Food Championships. The winner of the Bacon Bash cook-off will travel to Las Vegas to compete in the Bacon World Championship on Nov. 13-15 and will vie with culinary craftspeople from around the world for a chance to “bring home the bacon” (i.e. a piece of the sizzlin’ $25,000 prize).
Individuals looking to compete for a year’s supply of bacon (provided by the Wisconsin Pork Association) are encouraged to enter their favorite bacon recipes in the River Falls Bacon Bash Recipe Contest through Channel3000.com, now through Sept. 4.