Category: St. Cloud

I-94 Is Delicious: The Brass Lantern, Alexandria, MN

On Saturday morning, I found myself on the road again.

I’ve become intimately acquainted with the stretch of Interstate 94, between Fargo, ND and Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN.  And I find myself in a love-hate relationship with the journey.  At the end of the three and a half hour drive, I am usually spent, especially at the end of a busy week.

I enjoy scanning the local radio stations along the way.  When two stations simultaneously played Paula Cole’s Where Have All The Cowboys Gone, I was filled with glee.  This was followed by Aqua’s Barbie Girl and something by Shaggie.  As an introvert, I enjoy the solitude of a solo road trip and spend most of the drive singing like a lunatic.

Billboards have become as familiar as friends.  I nod at the grinning Keith of Keith’s Kettle Family Restaurant and and wonder when OMG meant “Obama Must Go.”  The terrain is mostly flat and mostly boring, unless you look closely or take time to wander off the beaten path.

This time, I drove without a specific plan of where I wanted to stop for a meal.  I just drove until I was hungry and noticed my blinks dangerously increased in length.  Thus, I exited in Alexandria in search of breakfast.  An appointment in St. Paul left me with less than an hour to choose a restaurant and eat, so I conducted a quick Internet search, settling on The Brass Lantern.  It was close to the freeway and ranked on Urbanspoon, which I realize is as helpful and prone to astroturfing as Yelp.  When it comes to outstate Minnesota, I have to take what I can get in terms of online reviews.

I had a difficult time finding The Brass Lantern, located in what looked like a strip mall.  The restaurant’s interior was dated and dark, and I hesitated when it seemed devoid of customers this late Friday morning.  I asked a server if I could order breakfast.  She answered affirmatively and invited me to sit in the front section of the restaurant that faced the inside of a mall where a few other customers had settled.

When I inquired about using the restroom, they replied, “It’s in Herberger’s.”  I spent the next ten minutes holding my bladder and silently cussing as I wandered through the dead mall and weaved through cosmetics and clothing.  A friendly salesperson finally guided me through the department store maze, to the cleverly hidden bathroom.  Aren’t they always?

By the time I returned to the restaurant, the staff had gravitated towards the other side.  I felt like Goldilocks/Sheldon Cooper as I tried out several booths in hopes of finding a seat where I didn’t feel so awkward.  I wandered to the other side of the restaurant and let a server know I had, in fact, emerged from the garishly-colored bowels of Herberger’s juniors department.  She quickly gave me a menu along with a mug of hot coffee and water.  I ordered the Western Breakfast Skillet with sourdough toast.

My meal quickly arrived and I inhaled my skillet of scrambled eggs mixed with diced bell peppers, onions, and ham a top fried potatoes.

The scrambled eggs reminded me of egg foo young patties.  They were cooked to the point of being golden brown on the outside and slightly spongy in texture, and covered in melted American cheese.  Jake likes his eggs like this; cook to the point of near crispiness.  I prefer mine soft or runny.  The fried potatoes were crisp, non-greasy, and nicely salted and the buttered sourdough toast hit the spot.

As I began to eat, I overheard a server tell a regular she just learned a patient escaped from a local psychiatric hospital.  According to her friend, who was supposedly an employee at the hospital, the patient was described as dangerous.  The server and the regular agreed their best precaution was to carry their guns with them until the patient was re-admitted.  Then, the server added that she hoped she wasn’t murdered that evening. I ate quickly.

While I can’t say I’d make a point to return to The Brass Lantern, I also can’t really say I disliked my meal, well-cooked eggs, American cheese, grape jelly packets, and all.  The food and coffee were served piping hot, the skillet was not greasy, and I found the service endearing. I basked in the “hun’s” and “dear’s” and appreciated their efforts to make sure everyone’s coffee and water was refreshed.

As I paid my tally of $10, I asked for a small, to-go cup for my remaining glass of coffee to sip on the remainder of my drive.  The server provided me with a fresh tumbler of hot coffee and offered me a set of French vanilla creamers.  Not the powdered kind.  I loved her for that.

Even though I would have liked to make one more trip to the ladies room, the thought of returning to Herberger’s was too much to bear, so I ran out from the dead mall, back to my car.  I locked my car door and began to breathe a little easier as I sipped the gift of hot coffee and put some distance between me and Ms. Alexandria.

I-94 Is Delicious: Cafe 116 (Again) & White Horse

I continued exploring dining options off I-94, between Fargo and Minneapolis, on a solo road trip home this past weekend.

On the way to the Twin Cities, I returned to Cafe 116 in Fergus Falls, MN for lunch.  Even though I wanted to branch out in my roadfood stops, my first visit last Memorial Day was so lovely that I returned.  Cafe 116 strives to utilize local foods and suppliers.

Plus, it smells like butter.

With just two visits, Cafe 116 has already crept onto my short list of happy places.  These are places in which I find myself breathing easier and my shoulders relaxing.  Where the climate is controlled, chatter doesn’t echo, and the music’s not too loud or obnoxiously selected.  The light’s never to bright (or too dim), the tables are perfectly spaced, and the service is friendly.  Places where I feel comfortable pausing over warm beverages and better than average food.  You will rarely find me at coffee shops that serve terrible food.

I ordered a cortado, $2.75.  A couple shots of espresso cut with milk froth.

For lunch, I ordered the Hamden, a panini filled with ham, mozzarella, roasted red red pepper, thin slices of red onion, and pineapple, $7.50.  I upgraded chips to a generous pile of carrot sticks and pea pods and homemade Ranch for $1.

The panini was crunchy and I liked the salty and sweet interplay between the meat, cheese, and pineapple.  However, I liked the panini I ordered last time, better.  It was made from prosciutto, mozzarella, fresh apple slices, and red onion.

I ordered a chocolate chip cookie bar, $1.50, for the road.  It tasted surprisingly bland and dry and one bite was enough.  No worries.  I’m smitten with Fergus Falls and will return to my newest happy place for coffee and grilled paninis.

On Friday evening, I met some friends at the Imperial Room for a rumored, free mashed potato bar.  I know I’ve become accustomed to Fargo traffic when I ran into Target Field Twins Traffic and broke into a cold sweat.  Walking to the Imperial Room, I realized I was lost somewhere around Dream Girls.

We learned the Imperial Room no longer offers their complimentary happy hour mashed potato bar on Friday evenings.  We ordered happy hour specials instead.  Half-priced beverages and appetizers, and $5 treats.  The fried goodies were cooked with a deft hand.  I enjoyed a small plate of non-greasy walleye fingers and a thoughtful salad of crisp romaine accompanied by a bracingly tart vinaigrette.

Then, I got lost again on the way back to my parking ramp.

The afternoon trek back to Fargo included a stop at White Horse, a bar along the main street in downtown St. Cloud. I chose the White Horse for two reasons:

1.  It’s in St. Cloud
I went through a country music phase in 1995.  The second song I ever loved was “On a Bus to St. Cloud” By Trisha Yearwood.  And hence, St. Cloud, MN has become legendary in my mind.  Kudos to Trisha Yearwood for hosting own cooking show.  I’d still take her show over Ree Drummond’s, any day.  She joked about her chain-smoking grandma while her sisters looked embarrassed.  For some reason, this made me laugh.  Ree Drummond’s never made me laugh.

2.  The Thai Burger
I prowl the Internet for potential roadfood stops.  Yelp may not be the most reputable source for reviews, but it’s often the only source when it comes to small towns outside the metropolitan area.  One reviewer complained the White Horse’s Thai burger was too spicy to be edible.  “Ding Ding Ding Ding!  The bells went off in my head when I read the words “literally inedible.”

Sweet.

I know St. Cloud is in outstate Minnesota, but I was determined to try that Thai burger and hoped for at least a tingle.

White Horse’s printed lunch menu offers mundane bar food, with the expectation of the Thai burger.  However, the dinner menu offers surprisingly diverse dishes of Thai, Indian, and Vietnamese influence. The daily chalkboard specials included a soup made with eggplant and chickpeas and even homemade pho with shrimp.  The pho scented the bar with star anise which was unexpected and lovely.

The Thai Burger was the menu’s most expensive burger option at $11.  I upgraded the burger’s side of french fries to a salad for $2.50 (upgrading to a cup of soup was only $1).

White Horse delivered an above-average salad for the upgrade.  It was goodly-sized and made with high quality ingredients.  Crispy romaine lettuce, generous slivers of red onion (the more, the better), seasoned homemade croutons and dressing, and plush, ripe tomato.

I publicly admit that I have a thing for Ranch dressing.

The burger was spicy and flavorful.  For my tastes, it was spicy enough to induce a jolly sweat, though it probably wasn’t spicy enough for the most seasoned of chili-heads.

The meat patty was crusty on the outside.  I detected garlic and lemongrass while nubs of of Thai chilies and chili seeds were packed into the meat.  The sriracha aoli contained a pleasant kick and wasn’t overly rich or creamy.  Again, I swooned over the ruby-red, ripe tomato slices.  They were really beautiful, especially considering the mealy, orange abominations normally served elsewhere.  Finally, the brioche burger bun was above average.  It was toasted, buttered, and of the ideal texture to support a burger.

When I cut into the burger, I cringed when I realized I didn’t specify the burger’s doneness.  The patty was cooked all of the way through.  Thankfully, it was juicy, despite its doneness.  Considering the modest size of the burger and the salad upgrade, $13.50 plus tax and tip made a pricier than average lunch.  Overall, I enjoyed my meal and felt comfortable as a single, female diner.  The vegetables were especially lovely. Had the Thai burger had been cooked a little less, it would have been my version of bliss.

Service was fine with a tinge of apathy.  The “thank you for coming” chocolate mint sticks helped.

I-94 is Delicious Chronicles, restaurants on deck:

  • Albany Restaurant, Albany, MN
  • Palmer House, Sauk Centre, MN
  • Ackie’s Pioneer Inn, Freeport, MN
  • Mable Murphy’s, Fergus Falls, MN
  • Eagle Cafe, Barnesville, MN
  • El Portal, Melrose, MN

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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