Courtesy of Mason Jar Kitchen
Photo by Meet Minneapolis and Heidi Ehalt
At Owamni, chef Sean Sherman serves Minnesota’s state grain with cranberries and root vegetables.
With foods as diverse as Norwegian flatbread, Hmong spicy sausage, and local wild rice, Minnesotan cuisine offers a trip around the world.
Home to cultures as varied as Indigenous, Scandinavian, and Hmong, Minnesota is an exciting mix of influences. Indeed, nearly 10 percent of the state’s population are immigrants, and about another 7 percent have at least one immigrant parent—a fact that makes for a particularly diverse food scene.
In the North Star State, cuisine ranges from Italian porchetta and Scandinavian aquavit to Minnesota classics like dessert bars and hotdish. Whether you’re dining in an award-winning restaurant, a historic marketplace, or a downhome café, you’ll encounter a mix of traditional and innovative flavors that will leave you with a whole new perspective on the Land of 10,000 Lakes. (It’s actually more like 12,000, but who’s counting?)
For help choosing the 10 must-try Minnesota foods, we turned to Stephanie March, senior food and dining editor for Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. Read on for her picks and where to find them.
“There’s no better icon for Minnesota than wild rice,” says March. “It’s important to Indigenous peoples, to fancy chefs, to farm stands up north, and to soup makers of all walks. Live here long enough, and it will find its way into your life.” The best place to try the official state grain is at Owamni in Minneapolis, a “modern Indigenous” restaurant owned by James Beard Award–winning chef Sean Sherman. Also known as the Sioux Chef, Sherman is focused on offering a “decolonized dining experience,” forgoing colonial ingredients like wheat flour, cane sugar, and dairy for Indigenous products, Native American heirloom varieties, and locally grown produce. His hand-harvested wild rice dish is a thing of beauty, made with true wild rice, cranberries, and root vegetables.
Also known as the yellow pike, the freshwater walleye is the state fish of Minnesota. Locals know it’s best enjoyed as a shore lunch in Lake of the Woods, but if you can’t catch it yourself, your next best option is to head for Minnesota Nice Cafe in Bemidji. The homey spot gets its walleye from the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe—the only legal commercial fishing option in Minnesota—and serves it breaded on a sourdough hoagie roll with your choice of wild rice, french fries, coleslaw, or mashed potatoes. You can also try it in a “Nice Basket,” which features chunks of fried, breaded walleye alongside grilled french bread and more of that Minnesota Nice coleslaw with bacon bits.
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Meat, canned vegetables, and cream of mushroom soup, all baked together in a single dish. The rest of the world might call it a casserole, but Minnesotans know it as hotdish (always one word, not two). Anything goes when it comes to this North Star State staple so there are infinite varieties, but one of the standard-bearers is the Tater Tot Hotdish, featuring ground beef, corn, and the aforementioned soup, topped with tots and cheddar cheese. For the best version you’ll find outside of a local church potluck, order it at the Mason Jar Kitchen in Eagan. “When people come to town looking for restaurant menus packed with hotdish, we have to tell them, ‘No, we eat that at home,’” says March. “But this suburban spot does a great job of subbing for Mom.”
Not quite a cookie but not quite a cake, the bar is a quintessential Minnesota dessert. It must be made in a rectangular pan and cut into squares, but otherwise there are no requirements—desserts as varied as Rice Krispie treats, lemon bars, and toffee squares all qualify (though brownies do not). Yum! Kitchen & Bakery, which has multiple Twin Cities locations, offers several delicious options, from a pumpkin bar to one topped with Froot Loops. We’re partial to the Nut Goodley Bar, however, featuring layers of peanut butter, chocolate butterscotch, and peanuts with a maple nougat.
A standard cheeseburger isn’t enough for Minnesotans. We prefer a molten lava–like cheese ball wrapped in two beef patties, also known as a Jucy Lucy (not misspelled). For the prime version, head to Minneapolis stalwart Matt’s Bar, which supposedly invented it when a customer asked for two hamburger patties with a slice of cheese in the middle. Upon biting into the burger, he said “that’s one juicy Lucy” and the name stuck, though Matt’s got so overwhelmed by the demand that they forgot the “i” when adding it to the menu. Order yours with pickles, onions, and a side of fries, then wash it down with a beer from a local brewery like Grain Belt. Just be prepared to wait for a table. Says March, “There’s almost never not a line; I think Obama himself had to wait in line. That’s the magic of a seasoned griddle and molten cheese.”
Spam may be a household name around the world, but it was actually invented in Austin, Minnesota, by Hormel Foods in 1937. Today, the only place to sample all 15 flavors of the mysterious meat product is at Austin’s admission-free SPAM Museum, where varieties like hickory smoke, teriyaki, and Portuguese sausage are on display in curated meat exhibits and available for purchase in the gift shop. While you’re there, be sure to check out wacky highlights like the Spam conveyor belt and the Great Wall of Spam.
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Not only does Minnesota feel somewhat Nordic thanks to its climate, it’s also home to more Swedes and Norwegians than anywhere outside Scandinavia—and, consequently, lots of delicious lefse. A soft Norwegian flatbread, lefse is traditionally made with potatoes and cooked on a large, flat griddle with special tools like long wooden turning sticks and deeply grooved rolling pins. Pick up a pack of three large, round sheets at the Lake Street location of century-old, family-owned Ingebretsen’s Nordic Market in Minneapolis, which suggests using it in place of a bun for a lefse hot dog.
Another nod to Minnesota’s Scandi subculture comes courtesy of the female-owned Vikre Distillery. Situated on the harbor in beautiful Duluth, this craft operation handmakes two versions of aquavit, infusing the original Scandinavian spirit with northern Minnesota terroir. The oaky, floral Voyageur is aged in cognac barrels, paying homage to the French trader founders of Duluth, while the unaged Øvrevann is light, aromatic, and the perfect base for Nordic-inspired cocktails. Try them both during a visit to the distillery, which is currently offering private indoor tastings by reservation but also has a cocktail room and café with outdoor patio.
Unbeknownst to many, the Twin Cities are home to more Hmong people than anywhere else in the United States. In St. Paul, the Hmongtown Marketplace functions as the pillar of the community, with its 125 stores and 11 restaurants serving the best examples of Hmong cuisine in the surrounding area. Go here for spicy sausage flavored with lemongrass (available from multiple vendors in the main building’s food court), as well as sai krok (a fermented pork sausage, often served with chiles, cabbage, and ginger) from Mai’s Kitchen. “Everyone thinks Minnesota is full of burgers and pancakes, and this is the best place to prove them wrong,” says March. “Minnesotans know that the spice-kicked life is the way to get through any winter.”
Thanks to its strong immigrant community, Minnesota has a plethora of top-notch butcher shops and meat markets, where recipes and traditional craft are passed down from one generation of owners to the next. One of the best is Fraboni’s in Hibbing, Minnesota, which Dominic and Palmina Fraboni opened in the early 1900s after immigrating from the Ancona region of Italy. Today, their grandchildren run the operation and continue to draw customers from across the state eager for a taste of their famous porketta (aka porchetta). Seasoned with fennel and secret spices, the pork roast makes for the ultimate hot sandwich, for which Fraboni’s slices it thin and serves it on a brat bun with au jus, marinara, and grated Parmesan.
Note: Though COVID-19 has stalled a lot of travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures. Please continue to check government websites for the latest policies and restrictions.
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