Celebrate Minnesota Specialties, Locavore-Style

Great local specialties served up in the lake area.
Blackberry pork with a side of wild rice-pistachio pilaf from Bistro 11.

The tail-end of the summer is precious to Minnesotans for many reasons, not the least of which is the Great Minnesota Get Together. Our two-week state fair is one of the best state fairs (if not the best) in the country, which may be attributed to the slew of delicious comestibles, be they home grown, home-cooked, traditional or innovative. Minnesota cuisine may not be showy, nor is it especially famous, but it is pretty darn good. And with the locavore movement on the rise, it’s a great time to eat Minnesotan. Here are some lake-area specialties that do us proud.


Cracker crusted walleye


As we all know, there are 10,000 lakes in our state, so it’s no surprise that fish is a key part of our vaunted diet. We’re blessed with one of the yummiest fish of all, the mighty walleye. Delicate and flaky, the walleye was designated the state fish in 1965. We steadfastly assert that the litmus test of a good local restaurant is how they treat their walleye. Birch’s cracker-crusted walleye is the platonic ideal of walleye done right: a crunchy, golden exterior, a mild, flaky interior, adorned with nothing more than a lemon wedge and a sprinkle of chopped parsley. A bed of lemony tartar sauce contributes the right note of sweetness without overkill. The restaurant’s commitment to our local economy is laudable: The bar is stocked with many local beers, and even spirits, such as Prairie Organic vodka and Two Gingers Irish whiskey. $23.95. 1935 W. Wayzata Blvd., Long Lake; 952.473.7373


Brie cheese curds with lingonberries

Hazellewood Grill and Tap Room

Deep-fried cheese curds are one of the most popular treats at the state fair, for obvious reasons: gooey, salty, creamy—what more could a person want? At Hazellewood Grill and Tap Room, you can get an upscale version year-round, made from French brie. It’s lightly breaded and deep-fried till irresistibly melty, while the “ketchup” is upgraded to lingonberry jam, made from the cranberry-like fruit of Swedish heritage. The tap room itself is a nod to the state’s history of welcoming watering holes. $10, $4 during happy hour. 5635 Manitou Rd., Tonka Bay; 952.401.0066


Walleye sandwich

Maynard’s Restaurant

Did you know more walleye is consumed in Minnesota than in any other state? This is no surprise, given all the ways that we like to eat it. For a more casual meal, a good walleye sandwich can’t be beat—and Maynard’s does it right. The generous sautéed walleye filet is paired with tangy tartar sauce, bright yellow American cheese and crunchy shredded iceberg. The oh-so-fresh crusty baguette does the whole combination justice, and the experience is enhanced by the view of the lake. $12.95. 685 Excelsior Blvd., Excelsior; 952.470.1800

Enjoy a sauteed walleye fillet in sandwhich form at Maynard's

Signature Gold Nuggets

Gold Nugget Tavern and Grill

Although the Gold Nugget serves excellent deep-fried white cheddar cheese curds (“like the State Fair, only tempura battered and better!”), we were waylaid by their eponymous Signature Gold Nuggets—homemade Tater Tots filled with melted cheddar. These deliriously yummy creations hit all the basic food groups when paired with a side of creamy and smoky bacon-chive dipping sauce. Tater Tots hit the culinary scene in the 1950s and Minnesotans eagerly embraced them as a choice topping for our beloved hot dish. We will happily devour them any which way, especially when filled with hot cheese. White cheddar cheese curds, $6.95; Signature Gold Nuggets, $7.95. 14401 Excelsior Blvd., Minnetonka; 952.935.3600


Cream of chicken and wild rice soup


Wild rice is another foodstuff supported by our many lakes. It grows in shallow waters and was once harvested by canoe. Technically a grass, not a rice, it’s high in protein, lysine and fiber. The indigenous Ojibwa people considered wild rice a sacred element, and we cherish it today for its nutty flavor and chewy texture. Cream of chicken and wild rice soup is a Minnesota classic, perfect for soothing and warming in any season. Simplicity itself, it contains chicken chunks, celery, onion, mushrooms, cream and lots of wild rice. Sunsets’ version is one of the richer and creamier we’ve enjoyed, especially with a hunk of crusty bread. Bowl $5.95, cup $3.95. 700 Lake St. E., Wayzata; 952.473.5253

Cedar plank-roasted bison strip loin

Lord Fletchers Old Lake Lodge

Bison meat was another staple for our state’s first inhabitants, and once again bison ranches populate the Minnesota landscape. The Minnesota Buffalo Association has branded bison “the new health food” due to its remarkably low fat content, calories and cholesterol compared to beef, pork and even chicken. Lord Fletcher’s roasts their bison loin on a fragrant little raft of cedar and serves it sliced across the grain. The meat is dense, intense and earthily reminiscent of the prairie. The sweet-tart local cranberry glaze is an ideal enhancement, countering the brawn with a pleasing tang.  $32. 3746 Sunset Dr., Spring Park; 952.471.8513


Wild rice chicken casserole

Crossroads Delicatessen

It may be called “casserole” on the menu, but we Minnesotans aren’t fooled: this is hot dish, the pride and glory of Minnesota cuisine, and we love it. Granted, it’s a wee bit more sophisticated than the usual canned-soup-and-Tater-Tot version, packed as it is with Minnesota wild rice, fresh mushrooms and strips of tender grilled chicken. It’s blanketed with Parmesan cheese, fresh cream and a sprinkle of breadcrumbs, then baked until golden brown. It tastes utterly divine, no matter what you call it. $13.99. 2795 Hedberg Dr., Hopkins; 952.546.6595


Cranberry curry with chicken

Thanh Do

The 1980s brought a wave of Vietnamese immigrants to Minnesota, much to the benefit of our local cuisine. One of the first to open a restaurant here was Thom Pham, and his Thanh Do—“the new generation of Asian cuisine”—proved to be the perfect place for Pham to craft his unique blend of classic Asian cuisine and Minnesota flavors. He describes his delicious cranberry curry as “Asian spice meets Minnesota nice,” and indeed, the curry-coconut broth and tart cranberries seem meant for one another. We chose a luscious chicken version; beef, pork and tofu are additional options. $13.99. 8028 Minnetonka Blvd., St. Louis Park; 952.935.5005


The Four Firkins

Of course beer isn’t exclusive to Minnesota, but our state is home to several old-school classics that are popular with old-timers and hipsters alike. Hamm’s (est. 1865), Grain Belt (1893) and Schell’s (1860) continue to please crowds with a clean taste and reasonable price. The hoppy Summit (1986) Extra Pale Ale and seasonal beers are top sellers, and a recent explosion in microbrews has produced ever more delicious quaffs from locals such as Surly, Lift Bridge, Fulton and Harriet. The Four Firkins is a unique local treasure in itself: It’s the only liquor store in the state that sells nothing but beer. The self-described “beer geek but never beer snob” owners are on hand to advise and guide you on your local beer discoveries. Don’t miss the on-site Minnesota beer history museum. 5630 W. 36th St., St. Louis Park; 952.938.2847