If I hadn’t witnessed the ever-thrilling sight of an iron ore ship gliding beneath the Aerial Lift Bridge earlier that day, I would have believed that I was dining in Minneapolis’ North Loop neighborhood.
Nope. I was enjoying a memorable meal in downtown Duluth.
Martha’s Daughter, a stylish reflection of its chef/owner Nyanyika Banda, boasts asset upon asset: an eclectic and globe-hopping menu of meticulously prepared — and wonderfully affordable — dishes, a gorgeous remake of a former greasy spoon, hospitable and knowledgeable service and a convenient late-night schedule.
This impressive new effort is one of many reasons why Duluth’s dining scene feels as if it’s on a new trajectory.
The state’s fourth-largest city — and prime Twin Cities tourist destination — has always had its share of beloved, influential players in the food and drink world.
But in the past few years, those numbers have multiplied, leading to a critical mass of chefs, brewers, distillers, bakers, mixologists, coffee roasters, retailers, restaurateurs and other entrepreneurs.
Including Banda. Her four-month-old Martha’s Daughter, like the nearby, just-restored NorShor Theatre, is a draw for those venturing out of visitor-clogged Canal Park, even if Superior Street, the area’s main thoroughfare, is undergoing a disruptive, three-year reconstruction. Newcomers in the city’s up-and-coming Lincoln Park neighborhood are making similar culinary progress.
Yes, there are plenty of delicious reasons to dine in Duluth. Here are a few:
Shining on Superior Street
Nyanyika Banda has moved to Duluth three times.
About 10 years ago, during her second stretch in the city, Banda found herself “enthralled and inspired” after encountering chef Tim McKee (then at La Belle Vie in Minneapolis, fresh off his win at the James Beard awards, now at Octo Fishbar in St. Paul) at an event. It was a life-changing moment that led to culinary school, then gigs in New York City’s influential Mission Chinese Food and WD-50, as well as the Saveur magazine test kitchen. In 2014, when she returned to the Twin Ports to finish her undergraduate degree (in history and writing) at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Banda found herself craving the dumplings and ramen from her New York City days, so she started preparing them at a series of increasingly popular late-night pop-ups.
Last summer, opportunity knocked. The former Original Coney Island, a Superior Street landmark dating to the 1920s, was up for sale. She jumped.
“I picked up the key on the way to graduation,” Banda said with a laugh.
She named her restaurant Martha’s Daughter (yes, her mother’s name is Martha). Banda funnels the techniques she gleaned from her New York City tenure to boost the outcomes of seemingly familiar fare, much of it showcased in small plates.
Ramen broth shimmers with the essence of mushrooms. Sesame, tamari and ginger enrich a mushroom- and walnut-filled dumpling, and a hearty corn cake is topped with a flurry of opposites-attract combinations, both proving how vegetarian cooking can be light years away from boring.
A spectacular chicken and waffles dish embodies the fascinating duality of Banda’s aesthetic: While the format may appear uncomplicated, the refined, nuanced outcome is obviously the result of leaving nothing to chance. There’s even an homage to the previous tenant, an artfully dressed, meticulously sourced hot dog. The topper is that Banda’s considerable skill set — and warm hospitality — is available at prices that rarely top $14.
The kitchen stays open to 1 a.m., serving a pared-down menu that might include delicate corn tortillas filled with Dr Pepper-braised pork shoulder, or pappardelle tossed with pickled fiddleheads and a ramp pesto, or navy beans tossed with snap peas and an onion-garlic broth.
Pastry chef Kaila Fuller’s desserts — a panna cotta with tart rhubarb, a picture-perfect Pavlova brightened with lemon curd — mirror Banda’s seasonal instincts and confidence to cook from the perspective of unfettered simplicity.
A few traces of the former tenant remain, complemented by a beauty of a copper-topped bar. There are flavor-layered cocktails and the short, eclectic wine list reinforces that overriding notion of affordability. Banda has just launched weekend brunch, reason enough to make a return trip.
107 E. Superior St., Duluth, 1-218-481-7887, marthasdaughterrestaurant.net. Dinner and late-night Friday through Sunday, brunch Saturday and Sunday.
Stillwater native Eric Faust was destined for a career in coffee.
“It’s in my blood,” he said.
Self-taught, he began roasting beans in his dorm room at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and started the Duluth Coffee Co. with a one-pound-capacity roaster. Today, a decade after Faust left UMD with an English degree, the weekly output of his lively downtown operation hovers around 3,000 pounds of carefully selected beans from small-scale growers, supplying restaurants, breweries and other establishments all over town.
Along with improving Superior Street’s fortunes, Faust’s six-year-old retail shop is the center of Duluth’s third-wave coffee culture. It’s a comfortable place to talk beans, roasting and brewing, or just pick up a latte, cortado, cafe miel (made with honey from Lake Superior Apiary) or a spectacular nitro cold brew, so luscious it should be loaded with cream, yet it’s dairy-free. Drop in on Thursday afternoons for free cuppings.
It’s also the place to indulge in exceptional pastries — fruit-filled hand pies, sinfully buttery cookies, knobbly scones, airy raised doughnuts, dainty madeleines — from Amanda Belcher, the talent behind the Zenith Bread Project. Let’s all pray for the day when Belcher opens her own bakery.
105 E. Superior St., Duluth, 1-218-221-6643, duluthcoffeecompany.com. Open 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sun.-Wed., 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thu.-Sat.
Oink, moo, cluck
A faded commercial stretch of W. Superior Street in the city’s Lincoln Park neighborhood is coming back to life, thanks to the efforts of Frost River Trading Co. outfitters and several other pioneering retailers, the Duluth Folk School and the soon-to-open three-suite Hotel Pikku.
And restaurants, of course, since good food and drink are always effective urban-renewal catalysts. Leading the charge is the Hanson family — Tom and Jaima, and their son and daughter-in law, Louis and Ashley, the folks behind the nearby Duluth Grill — with their instantly popular OMC Smokehouse. After purchasing a rundown bar, they decided to introduce a barbecue culture to a city lacking one. The doors opened in March 2017.
“I jokingly say that Minnesota barbecue is fall-off-the-bone, super-sweet baby back ribs in the Crock-Pot,” said Louis Hanson. “We wanted to bring a style of barbecue that was unique to Duluth.”
After tutorials at some of the nation’s barbecue epicenters, the Hansons decided to focus on smoking and dry rubs (the restaurant’s name is shorthand for Oink, Moo, Cluck, symbolizing the kitchen’s obsession with pork, beef and chicken), and in all cases, that smoke insinuates, but never overpowers.
The brisket, which cuts like a dream, is rubbed with mustard, pickle juice, tons of black pepper and smoky hot paprika, then cured overnight before being slow-smoked with oak and sugar maple. The pulled pork shoulder — tender, succulent — gets a chile-powder/cumin/sugar dry rub for days before it hits the smoker.
The ribs are impressive on their own (the meat, easily nudged off the bone, is firm but tender, and beautifully seasoned), but try the house specialty, which dredges them in flour and egg and finishes them in the deep fryer, country-fried-style. Chicken sports an admirably crispy skin covering juicy, plentiful meat.
The kitchen finds all kinds of ways to incorporate its smoked meats and poultry into a wide variety of sandwiches, salads, wraps and other dishes. Still, a perfect intro to OMC is the basic (and highly shareable) smoked plate, where $24 buys a pair of ribs, three ounces of that brisket and a quarter-chicken, along with a pair of sides that range from crunchy coleslaw to bacon-boosted collard greens.
Each visit starts with some of the happiest words in the English language (“Here’s a plate of fresh pork rinds,” said my server), and all tables come equipped with an array of housemade sauces that manage to cover the major barbecue food groups, from adobe-chile/cilantro (which cleverly balances its heat with tart rhubarb and cranberry notes) to a mustard-ale combination.
“Letting the meat stand for itself, and having fun with sauces, that’s barbecue at its finest,” said Louis Hanson. “The simpler you can make it, the better.”
1909 W. Superior St., Duluth, 1-218-606-1611, omcsmokehouse.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
Pastrami and beer
The Hanson family’s role in Lincoln Park’s transformation continues with their just-opened Corktown Deli & Brews.
As the line snakes past the deli case, submit to the temptation of a handful of inventive schmears (pickled ramp, smoked salmon), but reserve the lion’s share of your appetite for the long and impressive list of sandwiches. Roast beef is taken to tantalizingly tender and ruby-red medium rare. The ham is tender, salty and smoke-teased. The star is a spectacular pastrami, brined for seven days, smoked over oak, packed with peppercorns and boasting a perfect meat-fat ratio.
What chef Jeff Petcoff, a longtime Duluth Grill vet, isn’t preparing on the premises, he’s buying from top-flight purveyors, including habit-forming cherrywood smoked bacon from Jones Dairy Farm in Fort Atkinson, Wis., and sturdy breads from the Sunrise Bakery in Hibbing, Minn.
The Hansons, a true Duluth success story, have transformed a former pawnshop into a casual, inviting setting (the light fixtures fashioned from meat grinders are a clever touch), the beer list highlights many local names, and the roomy bar is designed to accommodate both Corktown diners and people waiting for a spot at OMC, located directly across the street. For dessert, grab a stout-fueled chocolate cupcake, crowned with a thick swirl of chocolate icing.
Oh, and the Corktown name? Choose from one of two urban legends: either a reference to early residents, who hailed from County Cork, Ireland; or a nod to the sailors (or “Corkies,” thanks to their cork-lined life preservers) who were once drawn to the neighborhood’s rowdy establishments.
1906 W. Superior St., Duluth, 1-218-606-1607, corktowndeli.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
Drink, eat, be merry
There’s a new and wildly attractive taproom in town, and it’s the place to see and be seen and enjoy some of the state’s most skillfully brewed beers. By restoring a 109-year-old brick-and-timber building, Bent Paddle Brewing Co. has created a hangout extraordinaire for enjoying the signature ales and lagers (including a robust black ale brewed with Duluth Coffee Co. cold press) from brewers Bryon Tonnis and Colin Mullen. The bar’s 20 taps also include a superb root beer and hibiscus-watermelon kombucha from Duluth Kombucha. A bonus: the proximity to OMC Smokehouse, which delivers takeout via a very busy scooter.
1832 W. Michigan St., 1-218-279-2722, bentpaddlebrewing.com. Open noon-10 p.m. Tue.-Thu., noon-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat., noon-9 p.m. Sun.
Jobs held by teenagers often germinate into careers. That’s the case with Love Creamery owner Nicole Wilde, whose introduction to the ice cream business was as a carhop at a suburban Milwaukee custard stand.
After several years of wholesale sales and a popular summer ice cream cart, Wilde has just opened a brick-and-mortar shop in — where else? — Lincoln Park, and it’s a doozy.
The building block for her luscious, full-bodied product is cream from the Daninger family’s Autumnwood Farm in Forest Lake, although Wilde also produces a few nondairy options. The cheery, photogenic shop — opened just a few weeks ago, it’s already an Instagram hot spot — also features espresso (“This neighborhood is a coffee desert,” she said), which means affogatos, and a beer and wine license will translate into Champagne floats and other adult-only treats.
Naturally, it’s the ice cream that’s drawing crowds. Although salted caramel and vanilla bean are regulars, the 12-flavor scoop cabinet changes frequently, based upon Wilde’s whim and the availability of local and seasonal ingredients: blackberries and blueberries from the famous berry farms in Bayfield, Wis., peppermint and camomile from Wilde’s hobby farm, rhubarb from nearby Clover Valley Farms, even spruce tops from a farmers market connection.
“I could go on, and on,” said Wilde. “But that’s what I love, seeing an ingredient and wondering, ‘Can you make ice cream from it?’ ”
1908 W. Superior St., Duluth, 1-715-209-0370, lovecreamery.com. Open 7:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
Raise your glass
For those in search of masterful mixology, look no further than Vikre Distillery. At this 21-and-over playground, distiller Joel Vikre channels Lake Superior’s pristine waters into distinctive gins, aquavits, vodka and whiskey, then funnels them into vivacious cocktails. There’s a first-rate cheese plate, and don’t miss the fascinating free tour, daily at 5:30.
525 S. Lake Av., Duluth, 1-218-481-7401, vikredistillery.co. Open 2-11 p.m. Mon.-Fri., noon-11 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Noshing on the Lakewalk
Sure, there are food trucks in Duluth. But leave it to a city perched on the world’s largest freshwater lake to flip the whole meals-on-wheels routine into a boat. What was once Crabby Bill’s has been recently christened Lakewalk Galley, and it’s now run by the good folks behind the nearby Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar. The improvements are, well, everywhere. The menu now features a well-composed fried cod sandwich, snappy hot dogs and brats from Yker Acres (the exceptional source of heritage breed pork in Carlton, Minn.), poutine with a delicious twist (sweet potato fries, white gravy) and hot-from-the-fryer cheese curds and brioche doughnut holes. Nothing is over $9, and the shoreline views are free.
510 Canal Park Dr., Duluth, lakewalkgalley.com. Open 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Lakeside icon, 20 years young
Anyone gazing upon the tiny Minnesota treasure that is Northern Waters Smokehaus — the deli/sandwich shop appears to be roughly the size of a McMansion’s walk-in closet — would never know that it requires the imagination, prowess, strength and determination of 42 people to keep it running.
There are more than two dozen sandwiches, and the range of their building blocks is enormous and impressive: smoked and curry-rubbed leg of lamb, dry-cured gravlax, smoked Berkshire ham, exceptional salami and mortadella, a rich country-style liver pâté, even a fabulous smoked tofu.
The deli counter contains riches that rival the precious gems cases at J.B. Hudson, including dry-cured pepperoni and chorizo, hearty smoked Andouille sausage and smoked Lake Superior trout, whitefish and Cisco.
The building’s basement, unseen by the 500 daily diners the restaurant serves during peak season, contains the business’ circulatory system, a fascinating, packed-to-the-rafters warren of workrooms, smokers and storehouses.
In just 20 years, this modest-looking operation has blossomed into a Duluth institution.
“Our goal has always been to represent Duluth, and Lake Superior,” said owner Eric Goerdt. “With all of our products, we try to capture a taste of Minnesota.”
394 S. Lake Av., Duluth, 1-218-724-7307, northernwaterssmokehaus.com. Open 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun.
Up the shore
It’s a well-worn round of Word Association: Ask a Twin Citian to name their favorite Duluth restaurant, and chances are the response will be the New Scenic Cafe. With good reason. The don’t-miss experience is crafted from a postcard-perfect setting, gracious service and chef Scott Graden’s imaginative, sure-handed cooking. Make a reservation, and, by all means, order the pie.
5461 North Shore Dr., Duluth, 1-218-525-6274, newsceniccafe.com. Lunch and dinner daily.