Greetings Outsiders – and Welcome to L’Étoile du Nord (Star of the North for the non-French-Canadian folk). We are really excited to have you visit (please don’t stay past the 5th, that’s the day after the Super Bowl). We take a great deal of pride in our part of the larger Continental U.S. (which is bigger than Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, combined [New York not included, because Yankees fans], just pointing that out) and would like to share some, not all, of our treasures (hands off the Jalapeño Spam). But before I get into the list of items that you are encouraged to try, buy, and tell your friends back East about, we need to address a few policies/rules that make this place what it is, which is pretty gosh darn good. As an aside, there might be one or two things in this post that prove to be less than 100% accurate, this should in no way dampen your enthusiasm nor make you nervous as you seek out the iconic places and delicious eats. Enjoy your stay!
First and foremost, everything you’ve heard about “Minnesota Nice” is, more than likely, wrong. Which is not to say we’re not nice—on the contrary, we’re extremely nice, we just have a different way of showing it. When we visit far away lands, like Wisconsin, or North Dakota, we make sure to buy a round of drinks for everyone, in whichever bar we happen to be sitting in, that’s how we show our Minnesota Nice (that’s really all there is to it, if you buy drinks for the whole bar, everyone will be really nice to you, it’s kind of a reactional type of niceness). When guests visit us here, we expect the same from them; and seeing as how you’re our guests this week, we expect to get a lot of free rounds… if you want the full experience of Minnesota Nice.
Second, we have a lot of bikers here (not Harleys) and they ride in all seasons (because we’re quite a bit tougher than the average American). If you choose to drive, keep your eyes peeled for them, and for the other cars that don’t see them until the last second and swerve into your lane. Your best bet is to hop on a Metro Transit bus or the light-rail, or hire a Sled (like Uber & Lyft & rickshaws but with sled dogs and a musher).
Third, the Vikings (not the ones that play football) are real and many of their descendants live in this area. As luck would have it, many of those descendants are fans of the football team. As DNA would have it, Vikings are rather large, on average, and menacing, sometimes, and don’t scare easy. This is a perfect opportunity for you to practice the art of Minnesota Nice.
And last, and maybe most importantly, we don’t have accents, you have accents. This is meant as a clarifying comment so you don’t accidentally make any snide remarks about the way we say “baaaygel“, or anything with an “ag” in it.
So, to review: 1) Minnesota Nice = buying drinks for your new friends in Minnesota. 2) Watch for bikers and/or download the Sled app (available on HP Palm only). 3) Vikings are large and strong and pretty nice, most of the time. 4) Accents are yours.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk Minnesota Treasures. Unlike New England, we’re not known for just one thing (but I’ll admit, Legal Seafoods Clam Chowder is delicious); and unlike Philadelphia, there’s more to do than eat cheesesteaks while looking around Independence Hall. We’ve got a lot of unique places to visit (many include food) and products to sample. So get out your phone and take some notes.
Grain Belt: This company has been making belts, out of grain, for more than 150 years. Nearly all of the Minnesota regiments and batteries that fought in the Civil War used these belts for their uniforms (the exception being the artillery batteries, the belts kept catching fire). They have 3 belts in year round production (Weaved Wheat, Casual Corn, & Tri-Grain Mock Leather [rye, barley & buckwheat] for more formal occasions). They only have one storefront and it’s located across the Hennepin Avenue Bridge (you’ll see the huge neon sign) just keep heading up Hennepin a couple blocks and it’s right by Kramarczuk’s Sausage Company (which makes the best sausages this side of Warsaw).
1st Avenue: I’m sure you’ve all heard of the iconic First Ave and have read about its storied history, but did you know that its actually on 7th Street? Yep, no lie. Its always been on the corner of 7th, across from the Target Center where the 4 time Champion Minnesota Lynx play their home games (between the Lynx and the Univ. of MN Gophers Women’s Hockey [6 NCAA Championships], we do pretty well in the team-sports world). Anyway, First Ave is legendary as a place that has witnessed the likes of Prince, U2, BB King, Björk, The Replacements, Pearl Jam, The Violent Femmes, A Tribe Called Quest, Emmylou Harris, Fishbone, and many many more. Also, it’s only 7 blocks to Eli’s Food & Cocktails, a seriously good local eating establishment.
Pearson’s Salted Nut Roll: It’s nougat surrounded by caramel and rolled in peanuts (Virginia type they say). And, Kemps (another local icon) makes an ice cream that celebrates the goodness of this delectable treat. Buy a few boxes and treat your friends and family when you get home.
The State Capitol Building: St. Paul has a lot going on: Winter Carnival, non-drinking Festivities, The Science Museum; Saint Dinette (don’t ask, just go), Minnesota History Museum, and much much more. At the center of it all is the newly refurbished State Capitol. It’s a gorgeous building and the people working in the State Govt love having visitors pop-in and ask “what ya doin’?” And when you’re riding the light-rail between the Twin Cities, jump off and eat at Homi, Bolé or Afro Deli, you won’t be disappointed.
Cardigan Donuts: As a donut connoisseur (actually, a connoisseur of all food and drink), and having traveled far and wide to taste all manner of cuisine, sweet and otherwise, I can attest to the fact that Cardigan Donuts is one of the premier donutteries in America. We are spoiled, here in the City of Flour & Sawdust, with a plethora of amazing bakeries/patisseries: A Baker’s Wife, Salty Tart, Bread & Chocolate, Granny’s Donuts, Patisserie 46 & Rose Street, Angel Food Bakery, and more than a dozen others of the highest quality.
Dangerous Man Brewing: Craft beers are another thing we have no shortage of around the State. Nor do we have any trouble keeping them in business. Trying to name “the best” would be like trying to pick the best cheesesteak in Philly, so many different styles and people like what they like. That said, Dangerous Man Brewing is certainly amongst the crème, particularly in the colder months (which would be most of them in this neck of the woods). A few others that I would be remiss not to share: Fair State, Indeed, Tin Whiskers, Fulton, Lakes & Legends, Boom Island, Steel Toe, Town Hall, Flat Earth, & BlackStack. If you get through those, it means you’ve probably stayed past the 5th and it’s unlikely you’re ever going to leave… Welcome to the North.
Nye’s Polonaise: Maybe the coolest place to listen to polka— in the universe. It closed more than a year ago, but according to those who know, reopened a few weeks ago. It’s a gem.
Matt’s Bar: If you love bar food and have never tried a Jucy-Lucy, get ready for Heaven. Pro-tip: it’s cash only; and if the line is long, don’t allow the door to be held open. And you can get a beer from the bar and get back in line, as long as you’re not standing outside. And play the jukebox.
Food Trucks: The Minneapolis/St Paul Food Truck scene is wild and wooly and filled with great food. If you are only going to try one, go to Mid-Nord Empanadas, they’ll be stationed at 10th & Nicollet-NorthEast corner. These empanadas are so authentic you’ll swear you’re in Quito and wonder why it’s so damn cold. If you’re trying more than one, enjoy, our food trucks rock.
A few other tips and insights: we’re passive aggressive, sometimes, not always, whatever, it doesn’t matter, just don’t do anything stupid; you might hear someone say “What the Heck!”, they’re not necessarily religious, or a prude, it’s just Minnesotan for What the Fuck; Uff-da is not the sound made when sneezing, it’s Viking for “holy shit”; If a complete stranger (a Minnesotan stranger) offers you a bite of something, they’re not trying to poison you, we’re just good at sharing and we want others to try this new found dynamite dish; lutefisk & lefse are scandinavian staples, skip the lutefisk unless you fancy yourself an Andrew Zimmern type (he’s Minnesotan, he’ll eat anything).
And a few more locales and eateries to check out, some of them are off the beaten path but well worth a taxi ride (don’t use Sled for these places, too far, dogs will get tired). The Walker Art Center; Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA, not M.I.A.); Mill City Museum; & The Testify Exhibit at the Minneapolis Central Library.
Tilia; 112 Eatery; Pat’s Tap; Alma; George & The Dragon; Parlour Bar; Troubadour Wine Bar; Gyst; Quang; Gandhi Mahal; Gorkha Palace; Manny’s; Bar la Grassa; Hola Arepa; Dominguez Restaurant; Bull Horn Burger Bar; Town Hall Tap; Pizzeria Lola; Wise Acre; The Pig Ate My Pizza; Spoon & Stable; Freehouse; Kadai (in the Skyway); Dogwood Coffee; Key’s Cafe; Italian Eatery; Sonny’s; Sebastian Joes; Revival; The Corner Table; Cecil’s Deli; Crescent Moon (pizza); Broders Cucina Italiana; Sen Yai Sen Lek; Holy Land; The Anchor; & The Sample Room.
I’ve certainly missed a few places that deserve to be mentioned but that’s ok, you’ll be back, and when you visit next time, hit me up for new suggestions.
Congrats on making it here and as they say in NOLA, this time of year – Laissez le Bon Temps Rouler… & Skol!