True, we are what we eat. We're also what we serve to eat, especially to out-of-town visitors.
When guests arrive, Minnesotans trot out the longstanding foods that draw on our unique bounty and that seem the delicious sum of our ethnic, agricultural and watery abundance. In the hands of a skilled and properly reverent local, the resulting dishes serve up a satisfying sense of place.
That culinary reality is why, in some spots, legendary local food serves as a tourist attraction in its own right. Think Philly cheesesteak, Chicago deep-dish pizza and Memphis barbecue. Now add to that list New Ulm landjaeger sausage, Austin deep-fried Spam and the Mankato beef commercial, a slice of bread topped with mashed potatoes and roast beef and then smothered in gravy.
As you head out on your road trip this summer, remember that food can lend its own delicious depth to a destination. For proof, we offer a selection of iconic regional specialties around the state. We've paired each dish with a couple of choice restaurants known for their time-tested take on the delight -- or peculiarity, depending on your tastes.
Before you set off on vacation, we suggest you fill up your gas tank. Just make sure your stomach is on empty.
THE INTERNATIONAL FALLS AREA
Get it here: The Thunderbird Lodge and Grandma's Pantry
Anglers from around the world flock to Rainy Lake, which makes up part of the liquid border between Minnesota and Canada. Up here, if you aren't eating walleye by a camp stove on the shore of the lake the fish was pulled from, eat it at the Thunderbird Lodge or Grandma's Pantry.
As a decades-old fishing resort on the shores of Rainy Lake, the Thunderbird Lodge does walleye right (1-800-351-5133; www.thunderbirdrainylake.com). Here, the one-two punch of a dill-caper tartar sauce made with a century-old local recipe and an oven-friendly breading developed by its chef more than 25 years ago make the walleye a consistent favorite among regulars.
Farther west along the lake shore, in the village of Ranier, local icon Grandma's Pantry (1-218-286-5584) prepares our state fish in manners one might expect from a small-town diner surrounded by pine trees and serious anglers: poached, blackened in a cast-iron skillet or battered in white bread crumbs and fried. Try it with eggs in the morning and add a made-from-scratch wild rice pancake to your order.
If you go: International Falls Chamber of Commerce (1-800-325-5766; www.ifallschamber.com)
Get it here: Jerry's Other Place and the Old Mill
Legend has it that back in the 1930s, the president of Austin-based Hormel threw a party during which guests earned drinks by suggesting names for his new product: canned pork shoulder. No reports confirm how many drinks produced the winner, Spam.
Flash forward 70 years. Austin now goes by the nickname "Spamtown, USA" and you'll find the iconic meat product in restaurants all over town. One standout: Jerry's Other Place (1-866-731-9921; www.jerrysotherplacemn.com). This family-style standard plays to its location within view of the Spam Museum, peppering its menu with the edible star. Look for beer-battered Spam strips, a Spam and cheese omelet and Spam burgers. "We'll prepare it any way you want it. Give us a challenge," owner Scott Johnson said.
The Old Mill (1-507-437-2076; www.oldmill.net), on the other hand, has just one Spam item tucked amid its martini list and menu of hand-cut steaks: breaded and fried Spam dunkers, served with a chipotle pepper sauce (specify original or Black Pepper Spam). Ask for a falls view in this historic flour mill-turned-restaurant, which has been around about twice as long as a certain infamous canned, spiced ham.
If you go: Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau (1-800-444-5713; www.austincvb.com)
Specialty: Beef commercial
Get it here: Bobby Joe's Pub and the Midtown Tavern
The open-faced roast beef sandwich gets the special (if puzzling) name of "commercial" here in farm country, where it's often spotted at various small-town diners and bars. In Mankato, a pair of longstanding watering holes know how to keep even their most hard-laboring regulars coming back for more: with big plates lined with bread, heaped with hand-mashed potatoes and slices of slow-cooked beef roast, all smothered in homemade gravy.
Size matters at Bobby Joe's Pub (1-507-388-8999; www.bobbyjoespub.com) in North Mankato, where the huge, home-cooked commercial has a 40-plus-year history. "Most people can't even finish the small," said owner Mike Kitts. The commercial comes in multiple flavors here: traditional beef, turkey, ham or hamburger.
On the other side of the Minnesota River, in 'Kato proper, the dish is a lunch special in heavy rotation at the Midtown Tavern (1-507-345-1909; www.midtown tavernmankato.com). Cook Patti Roy's handcrafted carb fest is informed by her past, specifically childhood school lunches and her grandparents' dinner table. You'd think if anyone knew why it's called a commercial, it'd be Roy, a.k.a. "PattiCakes." "When people started opening eateries, maybe they called it a commercial because it was served in a commercial kitchen," she says. "I don't know. It makes sense, though, doesn't it?"
If you go: Greater Mankato Convention & Visitors Bureau (1-800-657-4733; www.visitgreatermankato.com)
Get it here: Otto's Feirerhaus & Bierstube and Veigel's Kaiserhoff
In a town so proud of its German heritage that a public glockenspiel kicks into action three times daily and grown men sometimes stroll about in short leather overalls, no surprise the local specialty is a sausage. It's called landjaeger (say LOND-yah-ger), a juicy mix of spiced pork and beef.
A locally made version is on the menu at Otto's Feirerhaus & Bierstube (1-507-359-5300; www.ottosnewulm.com). The chef serves it grilled in the sausage sampler and the German platter, and cut up and fried and smothered in sauerkraut and cheese as an appetizer. Wash any of them down with a frosty Schell's; versions of the local brew dominate more than half of the 16 taps.The steins and polka music seal the Teutonic experience here.
Veigel's Kaiserhoff (1-507-359-2071; www.kaiserhoff.org) has been serving landjaeger for more than 60 years. Its version comes on a bun, with a side of sauerkraut, or as a dinner, served with German potato salad and beans. A host of hand-painted murals add to the German ambiance, as does the requisite Schell's, which comes either bottled or on tap.
If you go: New Ulm Convention & Visitors Bureau (1-888-463-9856; www.newulm.com)
THE NORTH SHORE
Specialty: Smoked trout
Get it here: Russ Kendall's Smoke House and Lou's Fish House
No trip along Minnesota's Lake Superior shoreline is complete without a rest-stop picnic of trout plucked from the deep, chilly, glistening blue waters. Russ Kendall's and Lou's are both excellent choices -- staple North Shore hole-in-the-walls boasting decades-long relationships with their respective smokers.
When you're heading out of Duluth, skip the Hwy. 61 Expressway in favor of Scenic 61. It runs closer to the lake and delivers the painted-red Russ Kendall's Smoke House (1-218-834-5995), just as you hit Knife River, tasty proof that the scenic route is best. This place has been in the Kendall family since it opened more than 100 years ago, and Russ' grandson Cody now tends the smoker, working with small, manageable batches. The trout comes sugar-cured or plain, and Cody also works his magic on Lake Superior whitefish, cisco and herring, plus king and silver salmon.
About 10 minutes farther up the shore, hit the brakes when you spot the big wooden fish sign over the little log cabin that houses Lou's Fish House (1-218-834-5254; www.lousfish.com), on the outskirts of Two Harbors. Lou's prides itself in its ability to smoke without drying, resulting in fish good enough to earn the Martha stamp of approval -- Ms. Stewart's Living magazine deemed it the nation's best smoked fish house last year. Amid the wide variety of smoked meats and seafood from Lake Superior and beyond (including Alaskan salmon and jumbo Gulf shrimp), the real attention-getter is the smoked trout in "gourmet" (teriyaki-brined) form, though the brown sugar-cured and spread versions also shine.
If you go: Visit Duluth (1-800-438-5884, visitduluth.com)
Minneapolis-based Berit Thorkelson writes for Budget Travel, Midwest Living, Better Homes and Gardens and other national magazines.