NAGC’s Best Adventurer Food, 2019

Read More Nordhem Karlstad MN

Even when you’re on the road, everybody’s gotta eat. There are the hidden gems, and there are the inevitable sore disappointments. On my adventures, I’ve found my share of each. In the interest of rewarding the proprietors of first-rate eateries, I would like to share some of my favorites with you. Hopefully this will also serve to help you avoid some of the duds lurking out there. The map below is interactive, so click on the icons to obtain addresses, phone numbers, and websites. Have at it, and let me know what you think!

Nordhem Restaurant and Heritage Center

Nordhem Karlstad Kittson Minnesota

Let’s not beat around the bush. Instead, I’ll start with the crown jewel of this list: The Nordhem Restaurant and Heritage Center. The Nordhem is a tribute— no, a monument— to small town pride and local Scandinavian heritage (Nordhem is apparently Swedish for “northern home”). This family-centric business on the main drag through Karlstad is quite unlike anything else you are apt to find in any old dot on the map. From the moment you pass through the front door, you know you’ve stumbled upon something special. 

Owner Sharon Wikstrom had an artistic vision for her restaurant and painted much of it. When she passed away, her son Matthew and daughter in law Andrea took up the mantle and finished the job. Now, murals above booths depict Scandinavian folk tales and doors throughout the restaurant display biblical scenes and traditional rosemaling. In all, it is spectacular. 

The rest of the restaurant’s interior is painted in a color scheme identical to that of a little church in Øystese, Norway that my wife and I happened to visit in 2018. No joke; I have the pictures to prove it. You certainly can’t accuse the folks in Karlstad of inauthenticity. 

When it comes to the menu, Nordhem won’t disappoint. With daily specials and pages of dishes to choose from, there is no chance of sitting in your booth thinking, “there’s nothing here I want.” A handful of offerings from Sweden and Norway also keep things interesting. I’ve eaten there a few times, including the Sunday buffet,  and everything reflected the homemade, personal treatment they specialize in. You owe it to yourself to stop in (or make a special trip to) Karlstad.

The Local Pizzeria Zumbro Falls Paul Bankers Godfather's Pizza

The Local Pizzeria

On the opposite end of our map sits The Local Pizzeria. Tucked away in Zumbro Falls, this (literally) mom-and-pop operation has auspicious roots. Husband and wife team Paul and Peggy Bankers opened The Local Pizzeria in 2015. They had been living in Denver for years, and wanted to get back to Minnesota. But that doesn’t mean they’re new to the pizza business. Far from it. 

Paul had a hand in the beginnings of Godfather’s Pizza in Nebraska years ago (he still has the top-secret recipes for the crust and sauce). Together with Peggy, they opened a Waldo’s Pizza in St. Cloud, where I remember eating decades ago. From St. Cloud they moved to Denver where Paul stayed active in the foodservice industry. And now, they serve top-notch handmade pizza to a loyal fan base. I can attest to that, as our family had both the “Pork-A-Licious” and the “Barn” for our first meal at the Local. We were camping over 20 miles away at Frontenac State Park at the time and it was more than worth the drive. 

The restaurant is housed in a historic building that once serviced the stage coach business; horses used to be tied up where the main dining room is now. There are more tables in an adjacent room and patio seating outside. And an assortment of ice cream flavors awaits the diner who doesn’t actually gorge himself on the pizza (like I did). 

Zumbro Falls is not far from either U.S. highways 52 or 61, and is worth a short deviation from your route. Or, Zumbro Falls is itself a worthy destination for canoeing, kayaking, river fishing, camping, or fall leaf-peeping trips. And since nobody in their right mind doesn’t like pizza, there’s practically no excuse not to drop in and experience The Local. Just keep in mind: they are usually closed Mondays and Tuesdays since there are only two employees, and if they ever want a vacation, they have to shut the place down. So you might want to call ahead to confirm the oven is hot when you want to go: 507-753-2444

Sportsmen’s Cafe

There aren’t many places you can go to find an old-fashioned diner experience anymore. This fact can be somewhat distressing to people of a certain age. But don’t despair, the Sportsmen’s Cafe in Mora has your back. 

At Sportsmen’s, classic diner design and furnishings evoke former times. A long L-shaped counter with stools dominates the inside of the dining room, and booths line the walls. Full-size front windows invite passers by to stop and have a sit-down meal instead of being handed one through a window. If that’s not enough, a full menu, daily specials, and homemade pie should seal the deal. And that’s basically it. No theme or gimmicks, and no “dining experience.” Just a regular restaurant that serves good food. For what it’s worth, they seem to have a loyal group of local patrons; that’s always a good sign. 

We used to drive past this place in the north end of town, wondering what it was like. One summer day when I was driving by with just my son, he requested that we finally stop and try it. How could I refuse? We each had a meal with pie, and now the Sportsmen’s Cafe is officially his favorite restaurant in all the world. At my age, it’s hard to come up with favorites. But for me, Sportsmen’s Cafe is near the top of my list too. 

Grand Buffet   

I know what you’re thinking: A buffet?  In a mall?  Seriously, Roy?  Yes. Stay with me here. 

Few people claim not to like Chinese food. I definitely love it. And in my opinion, more is always better in this arena. Sure, you may not like to stuff yourself with salty, saucy goodness like I do.  But unless your diet is limited to mac & cheese and chicken strips, you can always find something you like at a buffet, right? 

Our family of four usually eats here a couple times a year, and we’ve never not had a good meal. Everybody has their favorite dishes. My wife likes the sesame chicken. My kids usually quit the buffet halfway through to start making their own soft serve cones. As for me, the Mongolian beef reigns supreme. In my opinion, it is perfectly done with lots of green beans and onions, swimming in a heavenly sauce. It’s the best Mongolian beef I’ve ever had, anywhere. The only place they might make it better is in Mongolia, and maybe not even there. Plus, I know the ingredients are fresh. We see them every time as we leave, sorting and preparing the green beans on a table near the register. Mall food? No. It’s practically homemade. 

Sweet Tooth Division

McGregor Bakery

This place is pretty new to me. Apparently, they’ve been in business since 2006. I don’t know how I managed to overlook it for so many years, but I’m glad my eyes have been opened. 

They make some outstanding donuts, rolls, scones, danishes, and other sweet treats, and the secret’s out. It is one hopping place in the mornings. I learned the hard way that if you don’t get there on the early side, you won’t have much to choose from. In fact, if we are driving up north in the morning rather than the night before, I can convince the whole family to get up much earlier than they otherwise would by promising to stop at McGregor Bakery. Getting what you want at McGregor Bakery can be a powerful motivator. 

Last time I was there, I had a cranberry flavored danish that was so beautiful I couldn’t pass it up. It tasted as good as it looked. The time before that, we all had almond-flavored twists. Nothing has ever been short of divine, which makes me wonder: what do they put in that dough?

World’s Best Donuts   

Overstated claims tend to lead to disappointments. World’s Best Donuts in Grand Marais has been around for 50 years, which is one reason their name might not be all smoke-and-mirrors marketing. The other reason, in my opinion, is their cake donuts. 

They make a big deal about their “skizzle,” which defies classification, other than to say it’s fried dough with sugar all over it. It’s good, but there are a ton of other things to try at this tiny North Shore institution. In past years, I’ve had long johns and skizzles and all sorts of things. But this last May I picked up a skizzle to take home and a cake donut which left me feeling a bit blindsided. If I hadn’t been so far down the road when I bit into it, I would have turned around and bought a dozen more. It’s a mistake that haunts me every day and will continue to do so until I manage to get there again. It’s the best I’ve ever had, which is saying a lot. 

They open again on May 20th, 2020. The countdown has begun. 

Rothsay Truck Stop and Cafe   

For years, I heard my dad rave about the pie at the Rothsay Truck Stop. To hear him talk about it, you’d think he would eat their sour cream raisin pie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He tries to time his trips to and from North Dakota so he can eat there. Needless to say, I was skeptical the first time I ate there with him. I hate it when things don’t live up to the hype. But it did. I don’t remember which meal I ate there, but I definitely remember being glad I made the time- just for that pie. 

Now, I don’t usually go out of my way for pie…and I still never have. The Rothsay Truck Stop and Cafe is mere feet off Interstate 94 in Rothsay, the prairie chicken capital of Minnesota.

 

 

 

Foraging in Minnesota: Focus on Black Cherry

Read More Minnesota black cherry

I’m sure you’ve heard of “black cherry,” either as a flavoring or as a type of wood. For me, the name evokes a certain flavor of candy. But did you know it’s a harvestable fruit here in Minnesota? Yes, it is. And this year’s harvest was outstanding. 

I’d been waiting several years for a good crop of these cherries- perhaps 4 or 5. They were not something I went out of my way for, but I usually checked on a couple different trees at least once toward the end of each summer. Well, this year, it was clear conditions were somehow just right. Branches were full of green clusters by July all over in my area.  Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Focus on Black Cherry”

Do Something New: Tapping Maple Trees and Making Syrup

Read More Minnesota maple basswood forest

When you try something new, sometimes it doesn’t go so well. A week ago, it was looking like I wouldn’t see so much as a drop of maple sap coming out of my taps. There was more than a foot of snow on the ground, and although the temperatures seemed perfect, nothing was happening. I didn’t know the first thing about how to make maple syrup, not to mention all the nuances regarding the tree tapping and sap collection along the way.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Tapping Maple Trees and Making Syrup”

What to Fix- Chokecherry Recipes

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Believe me, I’ve been there too. You find yourself in the presence of an abundance of some kind of foraged treasure- perhaps for the first time– and you collect more than you know what to do with. Most of the time these things can be preserved, and we can decide to do with it all later. For some reason I always seem to envision this taking place on a January day that’s so nasty I can’t even go ice fishing. 

Anyway, the time to decide what to do with all those chokecherries has come. If you’re like me, you’ve made a couple batches of pancake syrup and/or jelly, but there are still several bags of berries waiting down in the basement freezer. The good news is, chokecherry syrup and jelly are unique and tireless, at least in our house (I believe every forager owes it to themselves to at least try the pancake syrup). The better news is, you don’t have to restrict yourself to syrup and jelly; if you use your imagination a bit and have the patience to endure a little trial and error, there are lots of uses for your purple tree caviar.  Continue reading “What to Fix- Chokecherry Recipes”

My Public Lands: 2018

After the Public Lands Day rally at the state capitol rotunda last year, it seemed like a good idea to keep track of my public land usage until the next rally rolled around. I normally visit a lot of state and federal public lands throughout the year, but never kept a record, and so never really knew the extent of my own personal use. My mission to document my outings proved not only enlightening, but also spurred me on to go new places and try new things. 

The following is a visual representation of my visits- as well as my varied activities- on Minnesota’s public lands since last April. You may notice that not every single day or visit is represented by a photograph. For instance, some photographs represent an activity carried out on several different parcels, at noted. Likewise, some outings occurred on many different days, such as foraging in Chippewa National Forest and George Washington State Forest throughout the summer and fall. I only wish I had remembered to bring my rally sign with me every time; regrettably, there are some gaps in coverage. 

Our public lands, as you can see, are important to me throughout the year for camping, fishing, hunting, foraging, educating my children, and much more. If you are so inclined, please consider joining the Public Lands Day rally at the Minnesota state capitol February 7th, at 3:00. Thanks, and get outside. 

C.C. Andrews State Forest, Kettle River

Sucker fishing and camping, Cloquet Valley S.F. and CC Andrews S.F., April 2018 Continue reading “My Public Lands: 2018”

Foraging in Minnesota: Focus on Chaga

Read More Drying chaga

If there was a beauty contest for fungus, I know one that would probably come in last: chaga. Resembling a black scaly scab on the wound of a birch tree, there is really nothing attractive about it. But for every point it loses for its ugliness, it makes up for in medicinal qualities. Well, that’s the reputation it has, anyway. It has quite a following among select foragers. However, that could possibly be chalked up to a lack of other things available to gather through the cold months. 

Inonotus obliquus

Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Focus on Chaga”

Do Something New: Whitefish Gill Netting

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As many times as I’ve suffered from bitingly cold hands and fingers, there is only one time in my entire life that could possibly eclipse the way my fingers felt recently. When I was pretty young, my dad took my brother and me out in the boat to do some last-minute fishing before heading home from the cabin. All I remember was learning how to set the hook, the big juicy bluegills we boated, and my hands being so cold that I probably cried. Late last month, as I gripped my canoe paddle without actually feeling it, my old record for cold hands seemed almost certainly broken. Unlike that memorable day from my childhood, however, I definitely did not shed any tears. This was the last morning of my inaugural whitefish netting trip to northern Minnesota. The air that day was stuck in the low 30s, pushed around by a light wind, and punctuated by intermittent drizzle. The previous four days, unfortunately, were pretty much the same.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Whitefish Gill Netting”

Foraging in Minnesota: Focus on Cranberries

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The fourth Thursday of November is still more than a month away, but now is the right time to go out and find that Thanksgiving staple: the cranberry. Didn’t know cranberries are growing wild in Minnesota? You’re definitely not alone. Yes, wild cranberries are fairly widespread in our great state, and with a little patience, a person can harvest enough to get a good taste.  Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Focus on Cranberries”

Foraging in Minnesota: Focus on Maitake

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Whether you call it Maitake, Hen of the Woods, Sheepshead, or just Bill, Grifola frondosa is a sought-after mushroom. It doesn’t seem to get the hype that morels and others do, but it is, in my opinion, one of the best-tasting, most versatile, all-around great mushrooms. I get downright giddy when the summer is coming to a close and I can start checking my favorite spots. Throughout the season, I see a lot of excitement on social media over some really mundane mushrooms like Pheasant Back and Chicken of the Woods; frankly, I don’t get it. Maybe taste and texture don’t matter as much to other people. Don’t get me wrong; I eat those too when I find them. But for me, there are few mushrooms I’d rather find than Maitake when I head out the door. Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Focus on Maitake”

Foraging in Minnesota: Focus on Wild Hazelnuts

Read More wild hazelnuts

Minnesota is host to two varieties of wild hazelnuts: American (Corylus americana) and Beaked (Corylus cornuta). The Beaked hazelnut grows mainly in the Appalachian and Northeast states, the western Great Lakes region, and West Coast states. The American hazelnut’s natural habitat is exclusively east of the Rocky Mountains, mainly from Minnesota to Maine and south to Arkansas and the Carolinas. They occupy slightly different ranges and habitats in Minnesota, but are both widespread and can often be found growing side by side. Their seeds- a bit smaller than the commercially grown european variety- are eaten by gallinaceous birds (grouse, turkeys, etc.) and especially squirrels, chipmunks, and mice.  Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Focus on Wild Hazelnuts”

What To Forage

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Foraging in Minnesota: Focus on Thimbleberries

Read More Rubus parviflorus

August 2005, Isle Royale    My wife and I went ashore from the ferry as it stopped at Windigo. With half an hour until the ferry continued around the island, we went into the visitor center to get our book stamped and ask about what we might find on the trail. We learned about the wolves, moose, and thimbleberries. “Whatberries?” I wasn’t sure if I’d heard correctly. “Thimbleberries,” repeated the Park Service employee. She described the berry she was talking about, and sure enough, we found plenty over our 6 days of hiking the island.  Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Focus on Thimbleberries”

Bring a Kid: Berry Picking in MN

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  • Wood Lily
  • Bumper crop of hazelnuts
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Are you looking for a way to get kids into the outdoors? Do you want to do something simple, accessible, universally appealing, and fun? Take them berry picking. 

I took my kids yesterday to some public land in east central Minnesota with the hope of finding some mushrooms and, if lucky, some raspberries or blueberries. Well, blueberries ended up being the main attraction, with some bonus raspberries and mushrooms as well. This is why we call it “foraging,” and not simply “harvesting.” You just never know what you’re going to find.  Continue reading “Bring a Kid: Berry Picking in MN”

Death By Mushroom

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A few years ago, my dad told me a story about a guy who had a cabin across the lake from our family’s place up north. Legend has it he picked some mushrooms and brought them home for his wife to cook up. When she expressed her doubts, he proclaimed, “I know my mushrooms!” and slammed his fist down on the table. She cooked, he ate, he died. 

Now, I have no idea what those mushrooms were. What I do know is that people die or become very sick every year from mushroom poisoning, or mycetism. It is unfortunate but almost inevitable. Continue reading “Death By Mushroom”