Fresh produce and young plants aren't the only reason to visit this market. Look for restaurant-quality treats, too.
Organic, natural, sustainable and locally raised are the watchwords that no doubt drive many shoppers to the Mill City Farmers Market. The hot riverfront address might be a contributing factor, too. But there's another big reason to become a Saturday-morning regular at this two-year-old downtown Minneapolis hot spot. It's premium grazing territory.
It's all about color at Muddsuckers. When owner/barista Cevin Chladek isn't concentrating on java beverages (made with Minneapolis-roasted Peace Coffee, a nice touch), he's squeezing fresh citrus into a pair of Day-Glo thirst quenchers: crimson raspberry limeade and hot pink strawberry lemonade, and they're as thirst-quenchingly tasty as they look.
Here's what's worth buying at the Queen of Tarts: everything. Kathy Hayes, the stand's reigning monarch, offers nearly a dozen sweet and savory single-serving tarts ($5, three for $13) every week, and it's not out of bounds to imagine nibbling your way through all of them. They're that good. Some are little seasonally inspired arias (a sweet-tart strawberry-rhubarb-oatmeal beauty), while others exemplify the kind of baking miracles (Vidalia onions with mellow Gruyère and little pops of fresh thyme on buttery puff pastry) that merit instantaneous inhalation.
McDonald's could pick up a few pointers from the Donner family. A teasing whiff of smoke from a fancy Brinkmann grill acts as a calling card to Minnesota Valley Organics, where Larry and Jenelle Donner and their daughters Samantha, Jessica and Rebecca cook up a fast, delicious breakfast. Their McDonner Muffin ($5) is a locally raised riff on the Golden Arches' iconic Egg McMuffin, but this farmers market version features fried eggs and sizzling pork sausage from the family's Redwood County farm, topped with cheese and slipped into a pair of white or whole-wheat English muffins. Late-arriving shoppers will probably find themselves out of luck, but there's a superb consolation prize in the form of snappy, smoky brats, made by a butcher in Grove City, Minn., using the Donners' naturally raised pork.
My friend sniffed the air and smiled. "It's that State Fair scent," he said. "Don't you wish you could bottle it?" He was referring to the distinct Eau de Mini-Donut fragrance that can only come of sweet dough frying in a vat of scorching oil. The source: Carrie Summer, pastry chef at Spoonriver, a big smile across her face as she coaxed little rings of dough into a small fryer at her Urban Donut stand.
"Mini-donuts have always been my dream," she said with a laugh. "Seriously." But these piping-hot, bite-size glories are a world away from the fairgrounds' Tom Thumbs. Organic flour and sugar, a secret blend of Indian spices, a shot of black pepper, mild safflower oil and a toss into cardamom-blended sugar put a sophisticated and highly addictive spin on a beloved standard.
Each hefty wax paper bag -- her "urban dozen" counts out to 14 doughnuts -- goes for $5. "Oh, my gosh," said my friend, seemingly incapable of stopping as he popped one doughnut after another into his mouth. "This is just like popcorn at the movies, only better."
That other all-smiles person in chef's whites at Urban Donuts is Lisa Carlson, Summers' Spoonriver colleague, and she keeps the market interesting by preparing a different seasonally inspired dish every week. Who knows? It could be an absurdly fresh ceviche. Or it might be a bracingly refreshing tomato-watermelon gazpacho, each spoonful brimming with basil, cilantro, cool avocado and crispy croutons. Whatever Carlson has on her one-item menu, it's not to be missed.
Grazers know to stop by the River Chocolate Co. and sample Allen Whitney's superb chocolate sauces, from a blood orange-cardamom blend to another that includes raspberries that Whitney grows on his farm near El Paso, Wis. They will surely be tempted by the 16 varieties of truffles and the deliriously over-the-top tortes. But truly wise browsers know to plunk down $3 and savor what might be the Twin Cities' best brownie, a moist, fudgy thing jammed with intense cocoa flavor and a tingly sea-salt finish. Actually, they buy two; one for the market, and one to savor later at home. If it makes it that far.
Chocolates of a different kind are piled up on the chartreuse-and-purple-polka-dot tablecloth-covered stand at Groveland Confections, where Andrea Pesses tempts marketeers with gregarious, plus-size sweets ($2 to $6). Most of the handmade treats are based on classic candy bars: chocolate-dipped macaroon haystacks recall Mounds bars, cashews put a nutty spin on the Salted Nut Roll, and Pesses cranks up the maple flavor while putting her stamp on the Nut Goodie.