Category: Cafe

My Fergus Falls Love Song: Trees, Cafes & Ghosts

Before we moved to Iowa, I had hoped to compile a list of the best places to find road food between Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN and Fargo, ND.

Due to the quickness of our move and purchase of our first house, this plan was never realized. However, I do want to take the time to share photos from my last trip to Fergus Falls, MN.


I became smitten with Fergus Falls the first time I drove down these plush, tree-lined streets to the downtown area located about 10-minutes from I-94. They remind me of walking with my grandma through her old Cuyahoga Falls, OH neighborhood to the park.
I often stopped at Cafe 116 for coffee and a panini on my way to the Twin Cities.
The gift shop next door reminds me of the Bibelot and Patina shops.

My typical order at Cafe 116 was a machiatto (espresso simply topped with milk foam) and a Cleveland Panini filled with prosciutto, mozzarella, thinly shaved red onion and sliced apple. You can substitute fresh vegetables for chips for only $.50. It’s a worthy investment because they provide a large portion of fresh carrot sticks and pea pods. You can even add a small cup of homemade ranch dressing.

Cafe 116 makes as much of their food from scratch as possible and sources from local suppliers including bread and granola from Falls Baking Company, sausage from Premier Meats and Seafood, and maple syrup from Camp Aquila.

I also enjoyed my visits to the Viking Cafe located a few blocks down the street.

This cafe is a fixture; family owned for over 40-years. You can enjoy a meal along the counter or seated in the dark wooden booths. Some of Viking Cafe’s specials may seem a little institutional, but the prices are extremely affordable the service is swift. If you order coffee, your cup will never be empty.

I’ve been told they really shine for breakfast and a reader highly recommended their favorite biscuits and gravy. On my last visit, I arrived in time for an early lunch and they had already sold out, so go early if you want them.

It just feels special to eat here.

Since you are in Fergus, take a moment to visit the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center that operated from 1890-2005 (it was originally called the Fergus Falls State Hospital until 1985).

The treatment center was one of dozens built by Psychiatrist Thomas Kirkbride. He intended that their majestic architecture and sprawling lawns be part of the patients’ treatment. According to this Star Tribune article, the facility was once self-sufficient and patients helped maintain orchards, crops, livestock, and a greenhouse for compensation.

Since its closure, the building has remained mostly empty. The Otter Tail Country Historical Society offers tours and a couple horror movies were filmed on the premises. I found some beautiful photos of the insides of the buildings on Ghosts of Minnesota (Part I and Part II).

It sounds like the city has struggled to find buyers for the property. A group called the Friends of Kirkbride have worked to preserve the historic buildings, while others feel it’s best to demolish them. Both plans would be very expensive.

This recent article mentions that a developer from Georgia signed a letter of intent during June of 2013 to transform the buildings into a hotel, spa, two restaurants, gym and 60 apartments. Renovations are scheduled to begin in 2014.

I visited after a heavy rain. The property was silent except for birds and I was alone except for a few nurses power walking during their lunch breaks. I’m thankful I had the opportunity to explore Fergus Falls.

There are always fantastic adventures in store for those who wanderlust.

Dining With The After-Church Crowd At Travelers Inn Restaurant, Alexandria, MN

Whatever you do, don’t visit Travelers Inn when the after-church crowd hits.

On a recent drive to Minneapolis-St. Paul, I stopped at Travelers Inn Restaurant located along Alexandria’s historic main street on Sunday around 11 a.m. The restaurant was packed and people waited for tables along the sidewalk. I hoped the line signified good food worth a wait and walked inside. A man with a clipboard made his way through the crowd taking down names and seating parties as tables became available. Since I was eating alone, I figured my wait would be brief.

I told the man I just needed seating for one. “Great,” he replied and said he’d be right back. I assumed he had an open seat in mind for me. He never came back. He had walked away without taking my name and continued to seat others and add people to his list.

I noticed a couple seat themselves along the diner’s bar and wondered if I was allowed to do the same. Despite my attempts to make eye contact with the gentleman with the clipboard, he didn’t return. A server said I could also seat myself at the counter. A woman at the register brought me a menu and, eventually, a very harried server brought over hot coffee and took my order for a single biscuit and gravy. It was evident the servers were overwhelmed and frantically trying to keep up with their tables.

An older couple seated themselves next to me at the counter shortly after I ordered. They waited for so long that they asked me if a server would assist them at the counter. I replied that one would stop by soon and pointed out how staff seemed overwhelmed.

They patiently waited for another stretch of time and then asked for assistance. An employee at the front told them they were slammed with the after-church crowd. I realize she was stressed, but her response struck me as gruff. She alerted a server to check on them when she got the chance. They continued to wait for so long that I wished I could share my huge pot of coffee with them. If I could have located extra mugs, I wold have offered.

Another stretch of time went by and the server returned and brought them coffee with no cream so I shared my extras. The couple asked for a caramel roll while they waited, because they could see how busy the restaurant was and that the rolls were selling quickly. They glistened in front of us, just a few steps away.

The caramel roll never came. With concerned expressions on their faces, they watched the roll supply dwindle as servers grabbed them from the case. They asked a second time about their caramel roll when they placed their order, yet it still didn’t arrive. Finally, they asked the woman at the counter if she could pack up a caramel roll in a to-go box before they were gone. At this very moment, the register was hit with customers wanting to pay for their meals, so she helped the long line of people while other servers continued to grab the remaining caramel rolls.

As a bystander, I found myself feeling very concerned about whether or not that couple received a caramel roll. The line at the register never ceased, and I wished the employee would just pause and take the couple seconds to pack up a roll. After all, their request was were being put behind the line of customers who showed up after they asked. Heck, I wished I could have packed up the damn caramel roll for them. Like I said, they were sitting a few feet in front of us and it would have literally taken 30 seconds.

The older couple exchanged glances and the wife softly stated, “This was a mistake,” earnestly.

The kitchen seemed as slammed as the dining room and it took a while to get my order. The biscuit and gravy was fine. I’m guessing the plate might have sat on the line waiting to be picked up. I found the gravy mostly tasty and a little pasty.

By the time I paid my tab (under $6 before tip), the staff was calmer and made a concerted effort to be more friendly. The couple finally got their caramel roll but was still waiting for their meal.

This summer, I’ve worked as a server and barista at a local cafe. I’ve also been the person behind the counter at various restaurants and retailers in the past. Therefore, I try to tip well and give staff the benefit of the doubt. I’ve gotten overwhelmed during busy shifts, written down orders wrong, and made my fair share of stress faces. However, I can honestly say I’ve never been rude to a customer or spoken to one in such a gruff manner.

The couple sitting next to me wasn’t rude or condescending (if a little cranky), and overall mostly patient, all things considered. I found the staff’s treatment of the couple striking. I left with an uncomfortable, sad feeling swishing around in my gut.

I don’t know why the staff was so overwhelmed. Maybe someone called in sick. Maybe the management likes to minimally staff the restaurant. Either way, it wasn’t an ideal situation for either servers and customers.

I love small towns and independently owned, old fashioned diners. I just didn’t love this one after church.

Wanderlust: Hillsboro and Mayville, ND

When I get bored, I drive. When I feel sad, I drive. When I have the time, I drive.

My life is flecked with wanderlust. Or, more like plagued. I’ve read enough travel memoirs to know I’m not alone and that there are more like me out there. This week, I felt great kinship with author Irma Kurtz as I read her memoir The Great American Bus Ride, cover to cover.

I like the safety and security of my home base. My nook on the couch and the flop of my husband’s favorite slippers as they slap the hard floor. I like waking up to the sound of his morning showers and the smell of freshly brewed espresso. But I also like to wander and this wanderlust always leaves me with a certain amount of discontent. One small town or back road is never enough. Once I visit, I want to know more about that town and then I want to move on to another. Ironically, my wanderlust is both propelled by both enthusiasm and fear. There’s nothing I find more invigorating or terrifying than solo travel.

It’s Thursday and nearing the end of my spring break from school. At the break’s start, I became enamoured with Andrew Flier’s website Everydot, in which he photographs every town in North Dakota. I spent hours working my way down the list, from A-Z, lost in big skies and fields of soft, waving grass. Some of the locations were nothing more than an intersection of rusty dirt roads. Others reminded me of the abandoned towns depicted on AMC’s television series the The Walking Dead. I kept an eye on those that seemed to have active cafes and bars and notated them on a map. Flier was kind enough to email me back and mention a couple memorable dining experiences.

I stayed up late drawing majestic itineraries that would take me to the far reaches of North Dakota. Straight north to the Canadian border, passing through Grand Forks, Cavalier, Langdon, Pembina, and ending at the strange, pyramid-shaped safegaurd complex. Another took me through the south-central part of the state in search of German-Russian cuisine, passing through Fredonia, Wishek, Napolean, and Linton. Unfortunately, March in North Dakota might as well be February. The roads have been prone to iciness due to the temperature fluctuations and precipitation so I put my grander plans on hold. It’s hard waiting for the spring.

Not Your Typical Coffee Shop View

Recently, a Twitter friend mentioned a new bakery in Hillsboro, a town of about 1,600, located less than a half hour north of Fargo on I-29. Our Town Bakery opened early last December. According to this Grand Forks Herald article, the cafe was a community effort. The residents helped Amanda Johnson, the bakery’s owner, save the buildings, built in 1890, from destruction.

I parked across from towering farm buildings, stopped in a quirky antique store, and almost walked past the bakery whose window was marked with a paper sign. The interior was beautifully remodeled. Exposed brick walls, interesting wooden tables, and a sleek contemporary feel. The bakery counter offered a small selection of treats such as cookies, bars, and turnovers. Shelves to the left of the counter offered homemade marshmallow creations and hinted at freshly, baked bread, although I did not see any that morning.

A whiteboard described the daily lunch special ($8) and soup of the day. I ordered two beef pies, one for me and one for Jake, and sipped on a bottled soda. The pie crust was buttery and flaky, like it had merged with phyllo. Its golden top was thoughtfully sprinkled with salt and pepper, encasing stew that comforted with carrots and tender beef.

I paused to enjoy my pastry. The tables were few and I watched people who appeared to be in a business meeting extend an invitation to share their table with a pair of elderly women. As I returned back to my car, I heard the tinkling of a carillon. I half-heartedly drove in search of its source before rejoining the freeway towards Mayville.

The city of Mayville is about 20 minutes north east of Hillsboro, home of Mayville State University It’s smaller than it’s counterparts in Fargo or Grand Forks, and its total enrollment hovers around 1,000 students. I figured Mayville would have the type of charm that usually accompanies college towns.

I spent my college years in Waverly, IA, a small, rural town along the Cedar River. The campus was surrounded by neighborhoods. We could walk to our favorite bars, a small grocery mart, and a movie theater that treated students to 99¢ cent movies one midnight a month. On these evenings, we marched to the theater in packs. I loved running on the bike trail along the river and we always felt safe. Back then, I resented the smallness of the community and have now grown to miss it.

Mayville is quite a bit smaller than Waverly. About nine times smaller. The main street was dotted with the usual suspects. A pizza joint, drug store, bank, bakery, cafe, and even a small theater. Paula’s Cafe was packed for lunch and I slowed my car down to examine the day’s specials including a hickory burger, roasted ham, and roasted turkey. Since I was full of beef handpie, I made a mental note to return and moved on to the Soholt Bakery.

A woman greeted me as I gazed at the small shop’s products. I noticed a sign that let me know the bakery did not accept credit cards, so I averted my gaze from loaves of bread and packages of cookies. With two dollars in my pocket, I focused on the smaller treats and settled for a tray of plain donuts.

“How much are they?” I asked.

The woman replied about $2.50 for six or 45¢ each.

“May I have four?” I asked after trying to do some quick mental math.

“Whatever,” she responded in a sing-song voice. “You can have however many you’d like.”

At this time in the afternoon, the donuts were cold. A little dense, a little soggy, with enough crisp left on the outside. They tasted like nutmeg and I found them strangely addicting. I enjoyed them with my next couple morning coffees.

Before I left Mayville, I drove around the campus and admired a stately, red brick building. Maybe it was the winter or the cloudy day, but the town looked tired. I’ll pop back on my grand tour North. Everything looks better in the Spring.

Solo Road Trip: Harvest Thyme Bistro, Wadena, MN

I don’t know a darn thing about cars and it stinks.

My car tires were going on 80,000 miles. This has been no season to prolong purchasing new tires with the slippery roads. I called car shops and received quotes ranging by hundreds of dollars and varying in brands. Of course, each shop claimed their tire recommendation was the best. A family friend who owns a car shop was kind enough to provide his personal recommendation, which is why I ended up at Discount Tire in Baxter, MN.

When I reminded the staff member which tire I wanted, he offered to find a “deal” for a higher quality tire at a lower price. I explained that, although it may sound weird, I wasn’t interested in any specials. I just wanted that certain tire. “But I think I can find you a higher quality tire for less money. . .” he replied.

But, tire guy. I drove all this way for these tires. Tire guy. Stahp

I didn’t actually say that. And in all seriousness, the service was friendly and efficient. Within ten minutes, I was on my way back to Fargo.

The journey to and from Baxter was pleasant, thought it wasn’t as scenic as I expected. Still, the drive provided an opportunity to daydream and sing along to Katy Perry songs. At least it was more interesting than the drive to Minneapolis-St. Paul. As I slowed down to pass through small towns, I curiously eyed signs pointing towards dinner clubs, bars, and church camps. Lots of church camps.

A solo road trip isn’t complete without stopping for a meal or snack in a new town. Once, a friend had mentioned enjoying a meal at Harvest Thyme Bistro in Wadena, MN, situated about halfway between Fargo and Brainerd. Author Brett Laidlaw was also kind enough to suggest Harvest Thyme via Twitter, mentioning the food wasn’t necessarily earth shattering, but made from scratch with local ingredients.

On some solo road trips, I’m in a more adventurers mood than others. Sometimes I feel plucky enough to walk into a divey establishment, alone, with a c’est la vie outlook. Or, I may wait until Jake can join me. Generally, solo dining adventures are pleasant. At worst, the service may not be the warmest or it may be tinged with apathy. I can deal with this. Every once in a while, these experiences are flat-out uncomfortable.

Today, I was just not in the mood. I wanted people to be nice to me. I wanted to feel comfortable and I did not want to be stared at or hit on. Fortunately, Harvest Thyme Bistro was just this place.

The bistro is located along the Wadena’s main street. To reach the cafe, one must walk to the back of a beautiful, independent bookstore. It’s spacious and decorated with colorful sculptures of hanging birds. I couldn’t help but hope heaven would also be a bistro within an independent bookstore.

Harvest Thyme serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The lunch menu was concise, consisting of a few chalkboard specials, soup, salad, and sandwiches. I chose the wild rice burger with a cup of soup (sandwiches come with soup, salad, or chips), $8, and hot green tea, $2. I practiced self control by only admiring the ramekins of creme brulee in the dessert case. Then, I chose a seat between ladies who lunched and an older couple celebrating a birthday. A server brought over a large mug of hot tea and came back to deliver a teapot filled with more hot water.

I took advantage of the wireless Internet service provided to patrons of downtown businesses. A short wait later, the server brought my burger and soup.

I wasn’t so crazy about the potato soup, though it was far from inedible and served hot. It’s texture was a little pasty and the flavor was bland, save for red dots of smokey, hot sauce.

On the other hand, the wild rice burger was wonderful. The patty was clearly homemade. I really liked its crispy and chewy texture. It was sandwiched by a toasted bun and topped with caramelized onions and mushrooms. The bottom half was spread with a tangy barbecue sauce that tasted much better than those overly sweet, bottled versions. A umami bomb.

I dare say this wild rice burger was every bit as good as the HoDo Lounge’s. Totally craveable.

Harvest Thyme Bistro made me happy. From the general atmosphere and hospitable service to its affordable, hot food.

One visit was enough to add it to my short list of happy places.

Memorial Weekend Jaunt Home: Cafe 116, Wise Acre Eatery, Clearwater Truck Stop

One of my goals is to compile some sort of food guide for those who travel between the Twin Cities and Fargo.

The drive is notoriously dull, but I refuse to believe it’s devoid of any gems.  Every time I make the drive, I want to stop in a different, small town and try a new truck stop or cafe.  The ride is dotted with intriguing towns, many marked by majestic church steeples.

On this particular drive back to the Twin Cities, I stopped at Cafe 116 in Fergus Falls, MN for a light lunch.  Cafe 116 notes that it makes its food from scratch and utilizes local foods and suppliers.  At least three individuals have recommended this cafe and I remembered reading positive reviews in The High Plains Reader and Jihye Chang’s blog.

I rolled into Fergus Falls around lunchtime on Saturday afternoon and was immediately taken by the town’s cozy homes and plush, green trees.  I easily located Cafe 116, about seven minutes from I-94.   I had to pause to my breath after nearly being T-boned by an elderly couple who ran a red light, and forget to grab my camera.

The cafe is spacious and I sat at the window bar.  At first glance, I was confused if I should order at the counter or wait for a table but was quickly assisted.  I ordered a small pot of loose leaf green tea, $3, and browsed the lunch menu that offers cold and grilled panini sandwiches by the whole or half, soup of the day, a vegan burrito, and selection of salads.

I ordered half of a Cleveland panini, $5.25, made with prosciutto, red onion, apple, and mozzarella.  For an additional $1, I substituted vegetables and homemade ranch dressing for chips.  The half sandwich was petite but tasted of high quality.  Nothing fancy, but the prosciutto and apple slices provided a pleasing salty-sweet sensation.  The bread was crispy and scented with toasty Parmesan cheese.

Despite the up-charge, I was glad I substituted fresh vegetables for potato chips.  The half sandwich and large serving of carrot sticks and pea pods made a lovely light lunch.  I wouldn’t hesitate to return and also try their homemade ice cream or creme brulee.

I spent the rest of the day with my folks and we made spicy tacos.

On Sunday afternoon, my friend suggested a few of us meet at Wise Acre Eatery in South Minneapolis.  C’s friend works there and she wanted to check out the restaurant for the first time.  Last summer, I visited Wise Acre Eatery and didn’t have many positive things to say about the service.  However, I have since visited Wise Acre twice for lunch, and have had positive experiences with food and service.

C’s friend stopped by often to check in, though we were served by a couple of individuals we did not know.

I kept it simple and ordered a cold press coffee, bowl of the daily chowder, and a side of bread with butter.  

I genuinely enjoyed the flavorful chowder.  It wasn’t too rich or too salty and I enjoyed the tender chunks of carrot and occasional piece of thick bacon.  The chowder was covered in croutons, made from both flaky croissants and bread.

C’s friend brought us a trio of house made hot sauces.

I’m not sure if they are typically offered to customers but I kept dipping the croutons into the thicker sauce to the left.

Wise Acres was celebrating its birthday and surprised its customers with jars of custard.

We shared a trio of chocolate, vanilla, and cinnamon custard accompanied by caramel sauce, rhubarb caramel sauce, chocolate-covered cacao nibs, nut brittle.  I suspect the toppings were an extra gift and I loved the rhubarb caramel sauce the most.

On the way back to the Twin Cities, I picked up some spicy, grilled beef salad from Bangkok Thai Deli for Jake and made one more stop at the Clearwater Travel Plaza.  A couple of readers recommended stopping at Nelson Bros. Restaurant and Bakery for sandwiches made with freshly-baked bread.  I was too full to try a sandwich so I grabbed a giant caramel roll.  The employee confirmed the breads are baked in-house.

Since it was late afternoon, the outside of the roll tasted a little stale but the inside was still moist.  The roll was covered in a thick layer of caramel and nuts but I did not taste any buttery richness.  The caramel seemed to taste more like store-bought pecan pie filling.  Sweet and corn-syrupy.  Oh well.  I used to work next to Isles Bun & Coffee which has become my gold standard for sticky buns.  Isles Bun & Coffee emanates the sweet scent of butter and it’s better for that.

I plan to stop by again for one of the sandwiches but will pass on the baked sweets.

If you have any suggestions for food stops along I-94 between the Twin Cities and Fargo, I’d love to hear them.

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