Dining In Pine City, Minnesota


This story originally appeared in Heavy Table’s Churn Newsletter on July 15, 2022. Back us on Patreon to receive newsletters packed with original stories, reviews, and photos every Friday morning.

Hinckley is often thought of as the gateway to the North Shore, where massive pine trees thicken along the interstate and a stop at Tobies marks something akin to a halfway point to Duluth and all the wonders that exist along Lake Superior. But just south of Hinckley, and just north of where 35E and 35W merge, is Pine City, a town of about 3,000 people. The Chamber of Commerce has been alerting us that there are a number of locally owned eateries, some of which are new, that might entice people to stop there rather than Hinckley. We decided a trip to Pine City was in order, and discovered some worthy dining alternatives to Tobie’s. All three also offered stellar service, friendly and quick.

Our first stop was at Mom’s Parkside Café, a diner appropriately named for its location directly across from a large city park. This is the classic small-town diner, with pressed-tin ceilings and a menu focused on hearty breakfasts and classic lunches, including hot meat sandwiches and even diet plates (cottage cheese, chicken breast, and dry toast is one such offering–when’s the last time you saw a diet plate on a menu?? Back in the 70s, when a ground beef patty without bun stood in for the chicken breast?). 

Mom’s serves breakfast and lunch all day, so we tried one of each. The blueberry pancake ($4 for one, $7.45 for two) was dinner-plate sized, raising some concern that it wouldn’t be cooked through. But that was a groundless fear. It was light and caky, slightly crispy on the edges, and generously packed with tangy blueberries. 

The lunch choice obviously had to be the hot roast beef sandwich (half order $8, full order $11). Our server said the roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy were all made from scratch. The beef was cooked pink and thin sliced, still tender and juicy. The mashed potatoes soaked up the thick, rich, beefy gravy. Buried under the mountain of food was a slab of white bread, which of course is exactly what you want with the gravy and beef. There’s a reason this dish is a classic when done well, which Mom’s knows how to do.

Next we paid a visit to Don Julio’s, part of a small chain that appears to be modeled after the Zorbaz method of concentrating in a specific regional space (without, alas, Zorbaz’s lakeside setting and huge deck). All six Don Julio locations are found in the area north and northeast of White Bear Lake, with Pine City the furthest north. Don Julio’s has an extensive Mexican menu, with a few pages of Americanized favorites like burritos and enchiladas, and then a few pages of more specialized items. We ordered the Piña Vallarta ($16), which our server noted was “pretty big.” That was an understatement. It’s a seafood and bacon dish served in a halved pineapple. The pineapple was huge and overflowing with filling, including shrimp, scallops, imitation crab, and tilapia along with green and red bell peppers and pineapple pieces. The price seemed fair for the large amount of seafood; this was definitely not a case of a bit of fish on top hiding cheaper ingredients underneath. The fish was nicely seasoned with a mild chili pepper, and everything was cooked just right. 

Following that success, we made our way to Lotus Thai. As much as we enjoyed the previous two places, Lotus Thai was a clear winner of our visit, and as good as some of the better Thai places in the Twin Cities. We tried the Drunken Noodles with shrimp ($14) and the Thai Panang Curry with tofu ($12). The noodles were an excellent rendition of that Thai staple, with the shrimp, vegetables, and noodles lightly charred but still tender and not dried out. It was good enough that in spite of not exactly being hungry, it was hard to stop taking yet another bite. 

Then the Penang Curry arrived. Besides beautiful presentation, this dish was wonderfully rich with all kinds of subtle flavors, coconut milk being on top but with the curry infiltrating the sauce with lingering tastes. 

One thing to know about Lotus Thai is that, as usual for this kind of eatery, there are menu items marked with the pepper symbol, indicating this is a spicier dish. Both of these dishes had that symbol, but we didn’t expect them to be hot, and they weren’t. But when we got our receipt, it appeared that, without having asked us, the order was submitted to the kitchen with spice levels specified as none. So if you like more heat, remember to ask. If we’d understood that, we would have asked for more heat. But in the end, both dishes were so good in their mild versions that we didn’t care.

One place we wished we could have visited was Three Twenty Brewing, but alas, they weren’t open on our visit. But the brewery has a sizable patio not far from the city park, and its website indicates frequent visits from local food trucks. That might be worth a visit on its own. 

The Pine City Chamber is right to be promoting these locally owned gems. We have a tip for the Chamber, though—the signage on I35 coming into Pine City promotes only the chains in town. It’d be a great idea to work with the indies to get them signage on the interstate too. 

Mom’s Parkside Café
223 5th Street SE
Pine City 
Open Wed.-Sun. 8 a.m.-2 p.m., closed Mon.-Tues.

Don Julio’s
1120 Hillside Ave SW
Pine City
Open Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Lotus Thai
610 8th Ave SW
Pine City
Open Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-8 p.m., closed Sun.

Three Twenty Brewing
135 5th St SE
Pine City
Open Wed.-Thurs. 4-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 12-10 p.m., Sun. 12-8 p.m. Closed Mon.