What does it take for a town to declare itself “Restaurant Capital of the World”? Apparently, having four restaurants for a total of 22 residents. Fitting the bill is Dorset, MN, located just east of Park Rapids. Oh — and the mayor of Dorset was elected by popular vote at the tender age of 4 (and has his own cookbook: Cooking With Bobby).
There’s a great deal of gentle self-send-up in Dorset’s cheerful marketing materials, but in reality, the survival of a little town through its restaurants is something to be appreciated. Rick Kempnich opened the Mexican restaurant Compañeros with his father 29 years ago in a former pizza parlor that had closed years earlier. He didn’t have a food background, having started his adult working life as a high school counselor. Budget cuts led to job loss at a time when Kempnich was looking for a way to help his father recover from his mother’s death. Dorset had a restaurant at the time — the Dorset Cafe — but Kempnich and his father decided to add Mexican to the menu. Not that he had much knowledge of Mexican food either. “I did not know what a burrito was,” he says. “At the time, the nearest Mexican restaurant was too far away for an easy trip.”
Logically, the next step was to learn something about Mexican food. Which Kempnich did, from the owner of a Mexican restaurant in Hawaii. “When I got back to Minnesota, it turned into a big joint project,” he says. “A big family thing. Trial and error. A lot of trial and error.”
The trial and error process led to Compañeros’ salsas, made in house, and its enchilada and burrito sauces, which are produced in southern Minnesota from recipes Kempnich and his family developed. He’d make those in-house too if he had the equipment he needed: “We’d have to make gallons and gallons, every day,” he says. “I wish we could do it here. But they are our recipes.”
As such, they’re not going to win authenticity awards in terms of contemporary Mexican cuisine. However, the salsa served to every diner (both mild and hot, with the latter not overly so) is fresh and smooth — no chunky salsa here. The pork carnitas burrito ($9) has a pleasantly surprising amount of jalapenos inside, as well as tender, juicy shredded pork. The green sauce could use more cilantro, both for color and flavor, but overall, it’s a reasonable, if Americanized, burrito.
As Compañeros worked on its recipes, Kempnich bought the restaurant next door (Dorset House) from a retiring owner. Across the street, the Dorset General Store & La Pasta Italian Eatery opened. “People come here for progressive dinners,” he says. “They start one place for drinks, another place for an entree, and the General Store for ice cream.”
The restaurants compete, but also work together to keep the community going, along with the retailers that have sprung up nearby. “It’s a joint project,” Kempnich notes, pointing to the upcoming Taste of Dorset annual festival on Aug. 3 (where Mayor Bobby will sign his cookbooks in person, and a new mayor will be elected). “We’re all a family here.”
21414 Fajita Loop
Dorset, MN 56470
HOURS (varies seasonally):
ENTREE RANGE: $9-16
RESERVATIONS: For groups of 6+ only
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Limited