When I was growing up in Burnsville during the 1970s, my family's dining-out options were pretty much limited to McDonald's, Perkins and, if the folks were splurging, Mr. Steak.
Fast-forward 30-plus years, and restaurant choices in the southern suburbs have exponentially expanded. Unfortunately, most continue to remain in the corporate chain vein.
That's why Mendoberri Cafe & Wine Bar in Mendota Heights stands out, in the very best way. Unlike the Brand X school of suburban chain dining, there's an actual chef/co-owner on site -- Robert Ulrich -- and he's producing appealing food that caters to the surrounding area. In many Minneapolis and St. Paul neighborhoods, this notion wouldn't raise an eyelash among residents of Yelp Nation. But in Dakota County, it's borderline revolutionary. If I lived and/or worked nearby, I'd be constantly dropping in for takeout, a meal, a drink -- or all of the above.
The uncomplicated fare emphasizes locally sourced ingredients and is designed to cover a wide range of demographic needs. It's especially adept at catering to wine-sipping noshers. The pizza oven, a holdover from the previous tenant, turns out oval-shaped pies built on thin, bubbled crusts generously topped with fresh ingredients -- different enough that they don't compete with the deep-dish pizzeria next door.
That same pleasing wafer-style crust doubles as flatbread crackers for a colorful plate of flavor-infused cream cheese spreads. I loved the velvety smoked salmon, served with all the right accoutrements. Ditto the ultra-affordable cheese plate. Oh, and Ulrich knows his way around a crab cake, packing them with sweet jumbo crab meat and little else, then finishing them with a saffron-kissed aioli.
During the day, Mendoberri goes counter-service, concentrating on a few well-prepared salads and sandwiches made on New French Bakery breads. That pizza oven roasts up flavorful, family farm-raised turkey and beef, which Ulrich skillfully turns into memorably tasty Reuben and Rachel sandwiches, filled with pungent, house-made sauerkraut and a killer Thousand Island dressing.
In the salad department, best are the fresh field greens, dressed with orange segments, a few crisp potato croquettes and a lightly sweet sherry-honey vinaigrette. Next time I'm down with a cold, I'm medicating on Ulrich's chicken soup, with its bold chicken-ey broth, an abundance of thick-cut carrots and a garnish consisting of a thin pancake sliced into ribbons, which any self-respecting carb freak can quickly learn to love.
Regulars have reasons to make a habit out of certain weeknights. On Mondays it's all about burgers; big, juicy, grass-fed beefers, topped with all manner of deliciousness, from zingy horseradish to a sweet/savory onion marmalade. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Ulrich gets into the rotisserie chicken business, finishing them in the pizza oven until the skin is irresistibly crisp.
A few other familiar and affordably priced entrees round out the menu -- a New York strip, a roasted salmon fillet -- and while they're not drive-across-town draws, they're noteworthy for their appealing simplicity and integrity; I can't recall the last time I so enthusiastically enjoyed straight-up steamed broccoli.
Ulrich is a sunny presence in his equally cheery restaurant. The Austrian native has a novel-length résumé, peppered with words like cruise ships, hotels and caterers. He married a Minnesotan during a mid-1990s stint at the Marquette Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, and the couple returned to Ann's native state last year to raise their daughter.
In their search for an opportunity to launch their own business, the couple stumbled across the former Sage Market and Wine Bar in the Village at Mendota Heights, one of those pop-up downtowns that are all the rage in the suburbs.
Ulrich sneaks his Austrian heritage into his cooking, but only in dribbles. "I don't want us to be stamped solely as a German-style restaurant," he said. Still, the man makes a dynamite savory strudel, with a light and flaky crust enveloping a rich, earthy array of mushrooms, and his chicken schnitzel is right on the comfort-food money.
Baker Mari Mafioli's desserts are pleasantly homey, whether she's tackling Boston cream pie, fruit-filled turnovers or lavishly crowned cupcakes. The four kids' selections are actually dishes parents would want their children to eat, and the youngsters will enjoy them, too.
The restaurant recently launched a weekend live-music schedule. Nothing against the musicians, but their presence creates a social conundrum for diners: Do we listen or talk over the music? I'd prefer to listen but a big part of the restaurant experience is conversation. As in, the etymology of the Mendoberri name. Turns out it's a conjunction of place (Mendota) and the wholesomeness of berries and their association with wine. Nice.