Midwest Sushi at the Birdhouse Eat & Drink
Back in the days of office holiday potlucks, I'd try to outdo myself by making an elaborate cake or a gourmet quiche, something I thought would subtly "win" the otherwise completely noncompetitive festive gathering. Then there was year I showed up with my spin on macaroni and cheese — with lutefisk. I was so sure that the ingenuity of it would sweep my colleagues off their feet. Inevitably, my dish would sit there with barely a sliver removed, while the real star of the party, the first plate to be wiped clean, was always the Midwest sushi, aka the pickle roll-up.
Not being a native Midwesterner, it took me some years to come around to the simplistic delight of a breadless lunchmeat burrito. Now I know that no picnic is complete without it.
Tongue-in-cheek versions have popped up on restaurant menus here and there — there's even a pizza topped with a rolled-up pickle spear at Wrecktangle. But the Birdhouse, a charming neighborhood eatery with a couple of arcade games and a bookshelf full of kids' activities in the back, stays true to the classic, only zhushing it up with a sprinkle of herbs. A $6 plate of crosscut pickles, rolled in dill cream cheese and ham, is made even better by the vintage-style stoneware it is served on and the retro wallpaper beyond. It's the perfect companion to the other nostalgia-filled menu items, including pot roast, Tater Tot hot dish and a dessert bar sampler. This place would win the potluck every time. (Sharyn Jackson)
4153 Broadway Av. W., Robbinsdale, 763-205-9668, thebirdhousemn.com
Bootleg at the Grocer's Table
Another Minnesota tradition that I missed out on is the Bootleg. Thankfully, that's been rectified. Like pickle roll-ups, this summery cocktail that begins as a mix of puréed mint and citrus reads more homemade than high end. But why not have it both ways?
Grocer's Table, the market, cafe and wine bar in downtown Wayzata, recently added cocktails to the menu. And they're crafted by top bartender Katy Dimick, formerly of Hola Arepa. Fruity and bright, the drinks utilize the flavors of passion fruit, lemongrass, hibiscus and cassis. In the case of the Grocer's Bootleg ($14), there are no surprises. Just mint, lemon, lime, your choice of gin, vodka or tequila, and a splash of soda water on top, served up in a canning jar.
The best part about having a market in the middle of a restaurant? Almost everything on the drop-dead gorgeous shareable boards (the smoked fish board, for $22, was a knockout) can be purchased to go. And so can the Bootleg mix ($16), in a bottle printed with instructions to make at home. I grabbed one ahead of a weekend gathering, poured my own Bootleg and made up for lost time. (S.J.)
326 Broadway Av. S., Wayzata, 952-466-6100, thegrocerstablemn.com
Prosciutto and asparagus pizza from Log Home Wood Fired Pizza
Spring comes late in Duluth and that makes it all the more fun to find those fleeting spring ingredients on menus. It's even more delightful to find those ingredients on a food truck.
Log Home Wood Fired Pizza, the work of Rick and Nancy Herman, has been serving the northland for eight years. Nancy's background is in graphic design and marketing, while Rick was a longtime educator. That is, until the pizza bug bit and he began toiling away at perfecting a crust that's both airy and light yet still retains a bit of chew. He also worked at taming a fire, because that char on the edge of the crust makes all the difference in building superior flavor.
The truck offers a surprising array of pizzas, but for lingering spring, we had to go for the asparagus. A Bianca sauce was a garlicky backdrop to the charred verdant asparagus, and the prosciutto lent a creamy, salty pork and fattiness to each earthy, fresh bite. There was also one with homemade barbecue sauce and bacon that I have designs on ordering on my next trip. Most pizzas are $10 and generously serve one person.
I found the truck outside a brewery in Lincoln Park, but Log Home Wood Fire Pizza is available all over the northland. They're at the Grand Rapids farmers markets, and make it down to Baxter. Plus, there's a whole restaurant in McGregor, which seems like important intel for cabin-goers heading up that way. (Joy Summers)
242 Hwy. 210 W., McGregor, 218-768-7992, northwoodspizza.com
Jerk pork wrap from Grumpy Claude's
Minnesotans make the most of warm summer days, knowing a 30-degree temperature swing could be right around the corner. So when a picture-perfect day presented itself, we took advantage and not only did yard work, but also chipped away at our Star Tribune Iconic Eats summer bingo card. And we knocked off two in one sitting: Discover a new food truck and raise a glass on a patio at the source.
The food truck came courtesy of Trinidadian chef Claude Alkins, who cooks up Caribbean and American flavors — and big smiles — in his busy mobile kitchen. We left the well-appointed burger and spicy wings and fries ($10-$13) to the hungry teens and went all in on the Caribbean flavors with the roti and jerk pork wrap ($15). The roti, available in both chicken and vegetable, was tender, flavorful and served with a hot sauce that is meant to be bottled. But the jerk pork wrap — a large tortilla is stuffed with red beans, rice and melt-in-your-mouth seasoned pork before getting char-kissed on the grill — was hands down my favorite. One regret: Not buying the chicken version to go.
Alkins thankfully does not hold back on the spice, making Grumpy Claude's a great brewery companion. We happened to be at my local brewery, Giesenbrau Bier Co. in New Prague, where the beer was flowing (Hildy's Helles lager has my heart), live music was playing and the patio buzzing. A perfect Minnesota summer night. (Nicole Hvidsten)
Find Grumpy Claude's schedule on social media at facebook.com/GrumpyClaudes
Vanilla/Chocolate Twist at Conny's Creamy Cone
There are three summer rites of passage for St. Paul kids: Skinned knees (although we call them summer knees, since it's not a summer well-lived without wearing a couple of giant, square Band-Aids), nights when bedtime slips by unnoticed because the sun refuses to go down and a trip to Conny's Creamy Cone.
The stand has operated as the Creamy Cone for generations, owned by Conny for 25 of those years. It offers 24 flavors of soft serve ice cream, shakes, hot dogs and a long list of treats, and it's only open during the warm months. It's a stand, with a few benches and a couple of picnic tables that seem to resist the march of time.
Standing in line at Conny's is an opportunity to savor the rich tapestry that makes up the city. Kids dot the line, sporting different shades of melanin and matching summer knees. They cluster together with friends who rode over on bikes, or shuffle up next to their grown-ups, craning necks to see how long the line goes on. Some clutch dolls or little metal race cars. Some are melting down, others are winding up. We all stand there, twisting back down the sidewalk along Maryland Avenue, watching the cars, each other and the towering ice cream cone on top of the building.
When we get to the window, the flavor choices are almost overwhelming — all that waiting can lead a mind to imagining new flavors, like the just-added Key lime. Normally, I'm a vanilla girl with a chocolate dip, but on this night, I followed the kids. We ordered twist cones ($2.39-$3.49), with sweet milk chocolate blending into a milk vanilla. We sat on one of the red painted picnic tables and watched as the sun stretched out to shadows — completely missing bedtime. (Joy Summers)
1197 N. Dale St., St. Paul, connyscreamycone.com