Diners south of the Minnesota River have a surplus of familiar chain restaurant options. Yet it's not impossible to find an independently owned gem in Prior Lake, Savage, Burnsville, Eagan, Apple Valley and Lakeville. Here’s a highly subjective list of standouts.
One of these things (is not like the others)
In the Land O’ Bland that is the food court at Burnsville Center, feisty and friendly Pimento Jamaican Kitchen sticks out like a delicious sore thumb. Owners Yoni Reinharz, Tomme Beevas and Serge Kogan (he’s the chef, a vet of D’Amico Cucina, Oddfellows and Red) opened in August after securing their lease in a novel way, winning a year’s free rent as the top award-getter on the Food Network’s “Food Court Wars.” Their counter-service operation is a kind of Caribbean edition of Chipotle, incorporating deeply flavorful pork and chicken into Jamaican street fare-inspired dishes. One American quality they get just right: the big portions-reasonable prices equation.
24 Burnsville Center, Cty. Rd. 42 and Burnhaven Dr., Burnsville, 952-435-5552, http://pimentogrille.com
Italian on the lake
Perron’s sul Lago doesn’t look like much from the outside — it’s located on the second floor of an anonymous commercial condominium — but inside, its warm autumnal tones and lake views (sul lago is Italian for “on the lake”) are a fine backdrop for Todd Perron’s spirited cooking. Perron is a south-of-the-river (SOTR) rarity, a chef who not only runs his own show, but makes a go of it, with an impressive nine-year track record. A Capital Grille alum, Perron handles his bruschettas, pastas, risottos and grilled steaks and chops with care and finesse. For those with an appetite for something less than white-tablecloth, there are pizzas, meatball sandwiches, lasagna and other casual bites. One final note: It may not feel like it at the moment, but warm weather will one day return, so don’t forget about the restaurant’s scenic balcony.
16154 Main Av. SE., Prior Lake, 952-440-1411, www.perrons-sul-lago.com
Two eggs over easy, with a side of nostalgia
History is in semi-short supply SOTR, even in a town that goes back as far as Savage. Which is why, after 42 years in business, it’s a relief to see that the Windmill Cafe is still going strong. It’s a truck stop minus the diesel pumps, and the interior is cozier than its modest concrete-block face might otherwise suggest. The menu is straight-up short-order cooking, notable for its rib-sticking portions and moderate prices, everything from two-eggs-any-style with hash browns and fried ham, fluffy pancakes, corn beef hash, biscuits and gravy and chicken-fried steak at breakfast to lunch’s hot turkey sandwiches, patty melts, mushroom cheeseburgers and other greasy-spoon fare, all served in a flash by a hospitable and no-nonsense staff. Truly, a community treasure.
5367 Hwy. 13, Savage, 952-895-1869, www.windmill cafemn.com
Rambling Porter Creek Hardwood Grill sprawls out across some seriously expansive (and handsomely decorated) real estate. Its menu is no shrinking violet, either, although quantity doesn’t trump quality. Braised bone-in lamb shanks with Israeli couscous, flatbreads dressed with silky house-smoked salmon and lemon-kissed chèvre and juicy chickens roasted in a wood-burning rotisserie are just a few examples of how chef James Foley makes this well-run and justifiably popular offshoot of Doolittles Woodfire Grill stand apart from the fierce dining-out competition surrounding Burnsville Center. Dessert? The butterscotch panna cotta, by a mile.
14201 Burngarten Dr., Burnsville, 952-698-1888, www.portercreek.com
Too cold for ice cream? Nope.
Because ice cream and polar vortex aren’t exactly simpatico, spouses Dave and Sherry Ringberg go to great lengths to lure customers into their Ring Mountain Creamery Cafe. They’ve developed a place that’s friendly to Wi-Fi camper-outers; there’s a small room tailored for group get-togethers; local artists’ work hangs on the walls; they serve a (not bad) warm sipping chocolate, and there’s even a flickering fireplace. But really, in a perfect world, the made-on-the-premises ice cream, gelato and sorbet should be enough of a draw. There’s never fewer than 40 ever-rotating varieties stretched out among two scoop cases, and they’re funneled into cones, cups, sundaes, shakes, malts and floats. Generous portions, competitive prices, nice people. What’s not to like?
1965 Cliff Lake Rd., Eagan, 651-454-7464, www.ringmountain.com
Main Street cafe, suburban-style