These regional dishes are Minnesota icons.
Wild rice is technically the seed of an aquatic grass that thrives in the shallows of Minnesota’s lakes and streams. Officials decided to make it the state’s official grain anyway; it is a heritage crop, they point out, beloved for its nutty taste and versatility. Among its modern-day tenders are Native Americans, who harvest it using canoes and special paddles. They work as their ancestors did, gliding through the tall grasses, knocking seeds loose and into the boat.
Plenty of merchants — arts and crafts shops, gift shops, natural food stores — sell the Minnesota wild rice that the tribes and others harvest. Bags of wild rice make a good souvenir, especially for cooks. It also is the star ingredient in wild rice soup, a ubiquitous Minnesota dish served in restaurants and home kitchens. There is no one recipe: The Star Tribune has published 60 renditions of wild rice soup since 1975.
You can have a bowl as you arrive or leave Minnesota at the Minnesota Wild Bar and Restaurant, which specializes in Minnesota’s iconic foods. It’s in Terminal One at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Creative juices flowed in the 1950s. Barbie and Mr. Potato Head were born; Liquid Paper came along to cover up our mistakes; hula hoops kept us spinning; and Minneapolis flipped over a new idea in hamburgers — the Juicy Lucy — two hamburger patties wrapped around a knot of cheese and cooked on a hot grill until the cheese oozed and the hamburger crunched.
The story of the Juicy Lucy’s origin has long been disputed, and both Minneapolis restaurants that claim to have created it are still in business, a few miles apart on Cedar Avenue South. Matt’s Bar looks like a dive but inside, feels like a retro man cave. It sells the Jucy Lucy, the spelling quirk the result of a never-corrected typo on the original sign. Down the street, the 5-8 Club says the Juicy Lucy was its idea.
More than 60 years later, who cares? The two have a lot of competition these days, as restaurants throughout Minneapolis-St. Paul have jumped into the Juicy Lucy fray. Bon Appetit magazine proclaimed the Juicy at St. Paul’s the Nook, “a small place with big burgers,” the best. Hell’s Kitchen, Red Cow, Butcher and the Boar and the Blue Door Pub have their own renditions. No matter where you enjoy one, a Juicy Lucy and its molten cheese center can serve as a respite from a long Minnesota winter.
A century ago, porketta’s aromatic waft welcomed many a Minnesota miner as he trudged home from the iron ore mines. Italians had brought the recipe from their homeland, and they shared it with the Finns, the Slovaks and other immigrants who also came to work the Iron Range.
There was a lot to love about porketta. Made from pork shoulder or butt, it was cheap and fed many. The ingredients, primarily fennel and garlic, were simple. Cooked slowly, the herbs married with the meat. Tender and flavorful, porketta was a warm taste of home.
It’s still a Minnesota favorite, found in Italian restaurants like Gannucci’s Italian Market in Duluth and Valentini’s Vicini Lago in Chisholm, not far from the unofficial Iron Range capital, Hibbing. The Twin Cities have their porketta outposts, too. The Iron Ranger in St. Paul, its roots tied to a restaurant in the Iron Range, offers a porketta Cuban as well as the classic sandwich. The Northbound Smokehouse and Brewpub in Minneapolis also gets high marks for its 18-hour porketta — smoked porketta, smoked Swiss cheese and sauteed onions.
One of America’s favorite apples has roots in Minnesota. The honeycrisp, an apple variety developed at the University of Minnesota’s Agricultural Experiment Station Horticultural Research Center in the 1970s, has taken the country by storm in the past 15 years.
Honeycrisp apples are known as the perfect apples for eating raw. As the name implies, they were bred to be crisp and juicy, and they feature a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity. These traits — along with the royalty paid to the University of Minnesota for each apple — make the honeycrisp a premium variety, but enthusiasts are happy to pay the higher cost. The honeycrisp is now the official state fruit of Minnesota, and experts estimate it will be the third-most-grown apple in the United States this year.
Though you can find honeycrisp apples on grocery store shelves nearly anywhere in the country, there are still special ways to enjoy them in Minnesota. Orchards throughout the Twin Cities area and the southern region of the state offer pick-your-own honeycrisp experiences in the fall. Pepin Heights Orchard in Lake City is a popular destination for groups and offers honeycrisp cider and other products.
Fishermen love walleye. Minnesota’s state fish is stubborn, a challenge to reel in. Diners love it, too. Walleye’s white flesh is flaky with a sweet, mild flavor. Many tout it as the best-tasting freshwater fish of all, which explains why you’ll find walleye at restaurants of every kind in Minnesota.
It’s most often filleted and fried, and served as a sandwich with slaw and other sides. St. Paul’s Tavern on Grand gets a lot of acclaim for its walleye. At some lakeside restaurants, guests can bring their own fresh-caught walleye for chefs to prepare.
Chefs get creative with the versatile fish. Asian restaurants pair it with ginger and black beans. Mexican restaurants fry chunks of it and pour them into tortillas for tasty fish tacos. Blackbird, in Minneapolis, adds a New Orleans twist with a walleye po’boy. Others use it in breakfast hashes or fashion it into sliders with a tangy sauce. Baseball fans can get their walleye on at a Minnesota Twins game, where snack bars sell walleye on a stick, a handy way for spectators to eat in their seats.