Category: Small Town (page 1 of 6)

The Cheese Cave: Faribault, Minnesota

This chapter of my Minne-RoadTrip series of posts is sponsored by Visit Faribault.

If you’ve ever traveled between the Twin Cities and Iowa along I-35, you may have noticed the Faribault Cheese Cave billboard. One thing that you should know before you run to the Cave O’ Cheese, is that there isn’t a cave made of cheese and you can’t actually go into the cave. It does exist, though.

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Minne-RoadTrip: Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner in Owatonna

This Minne-RoadTrip series of posts is sponsored by Visit Owatonna, Visit Faribault and Visiting Northfield

This week I took the Owatonna-Faribault-Northfield Minne-RoadTrip.

The Owatonna,  Faribault and Northfield’s Convention & Visitors Bureaus graciously hosted me on a road trip to explore their communities.

While Jake and I are grateful to have lived in four Midwestern states within the past six years, Minnesota will always be home. We worked really hard to circle our way back home and so I’m honored to promote travel within Minnesota.

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Time Traveling For Chicken Fried Steak & Peach Pie At The Blue Owl

First things first, some big news: We’re moving (again).

This time, we’re making a full circle back to the Twin Cities. Jake recently accepted a new role at work and so we’re wrapping-up our last full week in St. Louis.

Last month, I attended a bloggers dinner at the newly revamped Preston in the Chase Park Plaza hotel. I sat next to a woman who had also moved many times for her husband’s job. We talked about frequent, corporate moves and I tried to put a positive spin on them.

Moving a lot makes you crazy,” she replied.

I had to laugh because it’s true. Like the past moves, this one feels bittersweet.

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Northwestern Steakhouse

Jake and I finally made it to our city’s most famous restaurant, Northwestern Steakhouse.

When I mentioned Northwestern Steakhouse on Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl’s podcast Off The Menu while speaking to our community’s Greek culinary influence, I realized how ridiculous it was that we hadn’t dined there yet. This restaurant’s served the community since 1920, opening soon after the first Greek immigrants settled in Mason City. The current owners Bill and Ann Papouchis took over the business from Tony’s father in 1965. Northwestern’s housed in a unique building across from baseball fields that blends in with its residential neighbors on the north side of town. You might miss the restaurant if you weren’t looking for it or the people waiting outside for tables didn’t give it away.

Upon moving to Mason City, we’ve heard legendary tales about Northwestern’s Greek-style steaks and spaghetti. Northwestern steaks are distinguished by their tenderness and the magic sauce that forms when the Greek seasoning mixes with the steak juices, olive oil, and butter. My friend Debbie published a copycat recipe that went viral last year.

Northwestern has a reservation system similar to Broders’ Pasta Bar which means that, basically, you can’t make one. Diners can arrive before 5 p.m. and hope to secured a table or call at 5 p.m. to put their name on the seating list. If your party is composed of at least six people, it’s possible to make a reservation. During our first winter in North Iowa, we naively arrived at Northwestern Steakhouse with out-of-town friends on a Saturday evening at seven p.m. We figured that on a sub-zero, snowy evening after prime dinner hour, we’d waltz right in and were totally wrong. The place was packed for the evening. You might be able to show up closer to five p.m. on a rainy day or weeknight (or a rainy weeknight!).

On this Saturday evening, we were determined to secure a 5 p.m seating so we arrived an hour early. Ann warmly greeted us at the door and gave a card with a number that corresponded to our table. People continued to arrive, so we wouldn’t have wanted to show up much later. The good news is that you can wait in the lounge upstairs until your table is ready. We passed the hour by playing cards and enjoying a beverage from the bar. Northwestern provides a deck of cards on each lounge table and servers take beverage orders.

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At 5 p.m. our server guided us to our table. The menu’s concise and so it didn’t take long to choose our meals. Obviously steak is the restaurant’s namesake, but diners can also find items like roasted chicken and fish. We chose ribeyes, our favorite cuts with the Greek spaghetti as a side. Meals also come with tossed salads and bread plate.

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The tossed salad was composed of crisp iceberg lettuce and garnished with tomato, pickle, hardboiled egg and an olive. I was satisfied with my upgrade to gorgonzola dressing which contained small chunks of blue cheese. Jake’s Greek salad was dressed in a very light oil and vinegar-like dressing.

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And then there were the steaks. Our ribeyes were as big as our plates and shimmered with the flavorful butter/steak juice mixture.

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The steaks were tender and cooked to a perfect medium rare and the fat melted in my mouth. Each time I’ve ordered a steak, the kitchen always cooks it north of medium rare, but this was truly the best cooked steak I’ve ever eaten. Jake ranked it in his top two favorites, alongside Ruth Chris’s (which are cooked differently). When I first studied Debbie’s copycat recipe, I was puzzled by her addition of chicken bouillon but now I understand she was trying to replicate the intensely salty, savory bite of the sauce.

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When people mention Northwest Steakhouse, they mention the spaghetti side as often as the steak. This spaghetti isn’t coated in a tomato sauce, but steak juice and parmesan cheese. I wish I had followed the advice of a reader who had suggested we also drizzle the steak juice from our plates onto the spaghetti.

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As we approach our move from North Iowa, I will treasure the evening we got to dine at Northwestern. Considering the quality of our meals and size of the steaks, prices are affordable for a steakhouse. Our ribeyes cost around $20 and came with the bread plate, tossed salads, and spaghetti side. My ribeye provided enough food for two leftover meals.

Northwestern is certainly a beloved institution and conversation topic that sparks intense debate among North Iowans about who serves the best steak. There are the die-hard Northwestern Steakhouse fans and those who prefer other local steaks. We’ve tried a couple of our friends’ suggestions, and, while they tasted delicious, Northwestern is our favorite. We left the steakhouse feeling somewhat hyped up on the excited from finally dining at the restaurant, and from how much fun we had that evening. We felt the steaks were totally worth the wait. Sure, you might have to plan ahead to dine here, but sometimes it’s nice to slow down; to play some cards, drink a beer, and make an evening out of a nice meal.

Webster City, Iowa: Grid Iron Grill & La Perla Jarocha

Disclaimer: On 12.13.14 Deb Brown, Executive Director of the Webster City Area Chamber of Commerce invited me to spend the day in Webster City as part of the “Seven Bloggers on a Saturday” tour. Grid Iron Grill provided lunch. All opinions are my 100% my own

It’s bittersweet to write about Webster City again.

Last December, I spent the day touring the city with seven North Iowa bloggers. One of them was Amy Hild who recently died in a car crash late February. Thinking about the Webster City tour makes me feel sad because we miss our friend, but it also makes me happy because the day holds more warm memories than any other day I’ve lived in Iowa.

Beth and I actually returned to Webster City in January to explore at a more leisurely pace. Our bloggers tour had moved at a rapid pace in order to fit in as many businesses and attractions as possible. Between both of our visits, we enjoyed meals at a few restaurants. Here are highlights from our meals at Grid Iron Grill and La Perla Jarocha.

Grid Iron Grill & Sports Lounge
This sports bar served as our big lunch stop on our original Webster City tour. Owner Burk Risetter greeted our table and surprised us by treating us to our meals. Before he opened his own restaurant, Risetter worked in the food service industry. He spoke of taking pride in the fact that his kitchen hand breads most of their appetizers such as their onion rings and fried pickles and cuts their own steaks and salmon fillets.

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We split several appetizers and most everyone ordered a different entrée. My favorite appetizer was the fried pickle chips.

Fried Pickles WM

I didn’t mind that the chips were softer because I liked their light coating. Of course, they were served with ranch in true Iowan fried appetizer style. I found these pickle chips addicting and kept returning for more during the entire meal. Grid Iron’s ranch passed my ranch test, meaning it did not taste like a pre-made product.

For my entrée, I ordered six wings with bourbon sauce and a side salad.

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Chicken wings are one of my top three favorite foods. My parents rarely served meat on the bone and so wings were a treat I’d order wings at restaurants every chance I got. Grid Iron’s wings were larger and plumper than what you’ll find at chains like Buffalo Wild Wings. The cook fried them so that the skin was crispy and the meat was tender. Typically I prefer spicy wing sauce, but chose something milder since I was on a bloggers tour. I’m not sure if the world is ready to see me devour hot wings yet.

This sauce was a little sweet for me, but ideal for those who like honey BBQ. Donna ordered a burger glazed with this same bourbon sauce and raved about it. Her meal also came with crispy sweet potato fries served with an unusual marshmallow sauce. I would certainly order Grid Iron’s wings again with a spicy sauce. In terms of size and cooking technique, these are the best wings I can remember eating for a long time.

La Perla Jarocha
We noticed two specialty food markets along Webster City’s main street. On our second visit, Beth & I popped into a small Asian market that carried mostly South East Asian pantry items and La Perla Jarocha, one of Webster City’s two Mexican grocery stores. Chamber Director Brown mentioned that Webster City is home to a sizable Laotian community and that a Laotian family is in process of opening a egg roll and bubble tea shop soon.

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It’s hard to believe, but even though Mason City and Clear Lake are the biggest communities in North Iowa, we have no multicultural grocery stores. I’d love for someone to prove me wrong, but the closest Asian grocery store appears to be Yaw Asian Grocery Store located 40-minutes away in Albert Lea, MN.

At La Perla Jarocha’s grocery store, I noticed a hot food warmer on the front counter containing what looked like pork carnitas meat and found foil-wrapped tamales in the cooler. The owner shared that her mother prepares them with freshly made masa dough. She gently reminded me to remove the banana leaf before eating, which made me giggle as I thought of people trying to eat the tough leaves.

I brought two tamales home. The masa dough was light and fluffy and the chicken filling tasted delightfully spicy. I’m always thrilled when food makes me sweat.

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Spicy chicken tamale from La Perla Jarocha

The tamales from La Perla Jarocha reminded of eating my first banana leaf-wrapped tamale in Cholula, Mexico. Our friend Mario biked to his favorite tamale vendor early one the morning so he could share them with us at breakfast. We unwrapped them on a beautiful sidewalk cafe and enjoyed them with espresso and traditional pastries before climbing Mexican’s largest pyramid, The Great Pyramid of Cholula.

Until this moment, I thought I didn’t like tamales because the only ones I had tried were dry and heavy. Now that I know how delicate and spicy they can taste, I try them every chance I get.

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Mario unwraps a tamale in Cholula, Mexico

I later followed up with the owner of La Perla Jarocha who said they recently opened a restaurant across the street where they serve these tamales and more of their family recipes.

Soon after our last trip to Webster City, a Des Moines Register reporter contacted me (along with two other Iowan food bloggers) for an interview . Understandably, Torpy’s word count was limited and she couldn’t fit all of our replies into her feature, but her final question was my favorite to answer. I wrote my reply as I enjoyed one of these tamales: “What do you hope people will take away after reading your blog?”

I hope my readers will feel inspired to try a new food or wander into a new market. I also hope they’ll feel inspired to explore their own backyard and never stop searching for their new favorite dive bar or small town café. My favorite bloggers make me feel something. They make me laugh and cry, awaken wanderlust, or become curious about something new. I hope I do the same for my readers.

Be curious. Wander into new stores and don’t be afraid to ask the owners questions. Celebrate chicken wings with crispy skin and don’t be the fool that passes on someone else’s mother’s homemade tamales.

Thanks again to Grid Iron Grill for treating us to lunch during the December 2015 Webster City Bloggers Tour.

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