The Restaurants

I'm pretty sure I'll come across as somewhat of a snob with this post (or maybe even an absolute snob), but I'm writing it anyway.  The topic is dining options (I should say lack of dining options) in Mankato/North Mankato.  When we moved here last summer the wife and I had a few concerns about leaving the Twin Cities and moving to a much more rural area, and I must admit my biggest concern was the restaurant scene.  Sure we would miss our old neighborhood, our friends, our jobs (me, not so much), and the multitude of social and cultural opportunities available.  But to be honest, as the years went by we didn't see our friends as much as we did in the past, we gave up our St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Wild tickets, and it turns out I can live without getting called at 3:00 a.m. because the full system backup failed.  The myriad of excellent dining options, however, was one thing that we took advantage of frequently.  Chances were if we had a night out without the kids, a good meal would be involved.

And it's not just the availability of nicer restaurants that we miss, but the variety as well.  Most ethnic foods you can think of were available within a 5 or 10 minute drive from our house - Japanese, Indian, Thai, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Spanish, French, Mediterranean, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Afghan, and did I mention Japanese?  There is not one sushi restaurant in Mankato.  Nada.  A restaurant at a downtown hotel hosts "sushi night" every Tuesday.  We went there once.  They only offered about 6 different sushi rolls, mostly containing cooked fish, and no nigiri sushi at all.  It wasn't very good and we haven't been back.  The city is not totally bereft of non-American food.  Our first night in town we went to an Italian place and had a favorable meal.  We've also been to a good Mexican restaurant and heard about another one that I'd like to try. And there is a Vietnamese place that we've driven past.  But as far as I know, that's about it for ethnic food.  The majority of places are the typical chain restaurants you find everywhere - Timber Lodge Steakhouse, TGI Friday's, Olive Garden, BW3, etc.  The internet search I did for "best Mankato restaurants" returned several different lists.  Among the best/top rated restaurants on the various lists were:
  • #4 - Papa Murphy's Take 'n Bake Pizza
  • #5 - Applebee's
  • #7 - Cold Stone Creamery
  • #7 (on a different list) - Old Country Buffet (I don't know whether to laugh or cry)
  • #12 - Noodles & Co.
  • #14 - Chipotle
Unfortunately, that's no joke.  I half expected to see Arby's (which I do like by the way) listed.  Now you see what we're up against.

A couple months ago, the wife and I went to a place that was supposed to be a nice steakhouse.  It was fine. Your standard steak-and-potatoes-with-a-side-salad kind of place.  The steaks were nothing special, and my impression is they're all cooked to the same level of doneness regardless of the diner's preference.  There was one silver lining in the dinner cloud that night.  On the wine list they had a Bordeaux but didn't list the vintage.  We asked the waitress what it was and then had to explain what "vintage" meant.  It turns out that it was from 2005 and priced very reasonably.  That wine salvaged our night.  It was like finding water on the moon (or at least like finding a great wine at an average steak joint).

Olive Garden is a decent-enough place and we've gone there 3 or 4 times since moving.  I suppose you could say it's our new go-to restaurant in Mankato.  During our last visit the waitress suggested we try their wine of the day or special or whatever, Riunite.  I had to stifle a laugh as I could only think of those cheesy 1980s "Riunite on Ice" commercials like this one.  Here are a few more:  It goes great with hot dogs!A fun day in NYC!Burgers Tacos Chicken Salad Whatever!, Cooler Anyone!, and Even Susan Lucci loves her some Riunite!  I could write an entire post on these commercials alone.  They're so awful you can't help but watch.

Even cooking at home is different now.  Back in Minneapolis, when we wanted to grill something for dinner we could take advantage of the butcher shop within walking distance of the house.  I recently found a butcher shop in town and have been there a couple of times.  I've also tried the meat counters at the local grocery stores.  I found that we now have to plan ahead to ensure that the store will have what we want for a particular meal.  On a few occasions I haven't been able to get what I was looking for without making 2 or 3 stops - beef short ribs or pork belly for example - not overly exotic items that I think would be difficult to find.

The funny thing is that I wasn't raised on gourmet food.  I grew up eating beans and hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, etc.  I can remember going to McDonald's and making my dad order plain hamburgers for me.  Plain!  I've never ordered a plain hamburger myself, so maybe the quality improvement process has reduced the wait time over the years, but I can tell you that back then it took them a looong time to produce a plain hamburger.  And there was no way I would accept ordering a regular hamburger and simply scraping off the toppings.  It had to be plain.  I don't know how my dad put up with me.

My family went out for meals on occasion, usually to Lil' Chef or The Nugget (I can find no evidence on the internet that this place even existed).  When we wanted to get fancy we usually went to the Highland House, or another place under the same ownership, Gus'.  They were good but nothing extravagant.  At Gus' (which has since been renamed Tomato Brothers) we always ordered the same thing - bread sticks, Greek salad, and pizza.  A couple of summers ago I went to Tomato Brothers with my parents for the first time in probably 20 years and the food was exactly the same, and I loved it.

There are probably plenty of places in Mankato that families love and will remember forever, just like the ones I went to as a kid.  It's the "foodie" type places that are lacking here.  Our Mankato friends probably think I sound like a whiny prima donna.  It's just that after living in Minneapolis for so long, we became accustomed to having many terrific dining options available.  I'm sure that uber whiny prima donnas in cities such as San Francisco, Chicago and New York have similar attitudes toward Minneapolis, so it's all relative.  I guess I'll just have to accept that the restaurants we love still exist, but now we just have to drive a little farther to get to them.


You may remember me discussing in a previous post the desire to drop some weight (don't ask).  I mentioned I would sample various light beers to see which I would adopt in support of this effort.  About a week later I voiced my disdain for those bland potables, admitting I don't like their taste and vowing to stay away from them altogether.  Well, it turns out that I'm not alone in preferring to drink beer with flavor.  According to this article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, craft beer (that is beer that tastes like something) sales rose 9.6 percent over the last year.  During the same time period, sales of domestic premium beer, e.g. Budweiser, declined 6.1 percent and premium light beer, e.g. Bud Light, fell 2 percent.  It's nice when one's judgments are validated.


The Bricks

I guess it's about time that I broach this subject.  Of course I'm referring to LEGOS, or LEGO bricks as the LEGO Group prefers they be called.  Well, I've done the "LEGO dance" enough times after stepping on one of those pointy little bastards that I'll call them whatever I like.  Not to mention I've known them as LEGOS since I knew what LEGOS were, as does everyone else in the free world who's not employed by the LEGO Group.  Plus it's easier and more fun to say LEGOS, and every time I do I'm reminded of waffles.  So LEGOS it is.

While doing research for this post I found that the LEGO Group was founded in Denmark in 1934 by Ole Kirk Christiansen (oh yah, sounds like a good Minnesotan - you betcha).  Good ole Ole took the first two letters from each of the Danish words "leg" and "godt", meaning "play well", to form the name LEGO.  It's just an amazingly cool coincidence that the word "lego" in Latin means "I put together".  Another neat coincidence that you might not be aware of is that the word "viagra" in Latin means "Erector Set".  Among LEGO fun facts listed on the company website are the following:
  • Approximately 19 billion LEGO elements are made every year, equivalent to approximately 2 million elements an hour or 36,000 a minute.
  • Laid end to end, the number of LEGO bricks sold in a year would encircle the Earth more than five times.
  • Approximately seven LEGO sets are sold each second.
  • Approximately 54,658 LEGOS are hidden in the carpeting of my house waiting to be stepped on.
I loved playing with LEGOS as a kid.  I remember playing with them for hours in my room, where I was frequently (and may I add unfairly) sent by my mother after having allegedly committed various transgressions reported by my sister.  I had a couple of the universal sets as well as sets for an air ambulance, go-kart, and moon base.  After I grew up and moved out of the house, my parents stored those LEGOS in their basement for many years, and when I bought my first house they were all too happy to give them back to me.  The poor LEGOS again sat unused for quite a while until I passed them on to the boy when he was about 3.  At that time he was already a LEGO expert after having played for a couple years with the Quatro bricks (really big and easy to see on the floor) and then the Duplo bricks (smaller than the Quatros, but still readily visible when set as traps by naughty children trying to cripple their parents), which are designed for the tiny, fumbling hands of toddlers.  The boy's favorite thing to do with the Quatros and Duplos was to have me repeatedly build giant towers for him to destroy like Godzilla rampaging through Tokyo.

Yet another LEGO fun fact states that on average there are 62 LEGO bricks for every person on earth.  If that's true, then I'm certain the boy owns as many LEGOS as the entire population of Luxembourg.  That's because over the years, the boy's infatuation with LEGOS has only grown.  I'm fairly confident that his mother and I could get rid of all his other toys and he wouldn't even notice.  I'm also fairly confident that he could survive several years of solitary confinement in a Turkish prison unscathed if he were allowed to bring a couple LEGO sets with him.  It's ridiculous how many sets he owns - I'd guess there are around 25 or so.  Every Christmas, birthday, and visit from the grandparents results in the acquisition of a new set or sets.  In fact, the wife and I made a pact with the boy last month.  He is already an avid reader, but to spur him on even further we promised to buy him a $50 LEGO set if he reads 300 books before the 4th of July.  At this point it looks like he's going to make it - little bugger.

One thing bothers me about the boy's use of his LEGOS - he fails to respect the integrity of the individual sets!  When he first opens a set, he humors me and builds the model according to the instructions.  After that, all bets are off.  He mixes up the pieces from different sets and builds all manner of mutant projects.  Good guys' heads are put on bad guys' bodies and vice versa, Star Wars clones are melded with Space Police, Bionicles mingle with Toy Story guys, he attaches blue bricks to yellow bricks, pieces get lost (and then are sometimes found when I step on them).  When I handed my old sets over to him, they still contained all of the original pieces, each in the original box and including instructions (so I was a bit anal in my younger days - sue me).  These sets and many of his own now cannot be completed because pieces are missing.  But you should see his Darth Lightyear.  As long as he's having fun (I guess).

In true LEGO-loving fashion, the boy's favorite place on Earth is Legoland.  We've been to the California theme park twice, once before the girl's arrival and once afterward.  It's actually a full-blown amusement park and, in my opinion, beats the hell out of Sea World (especially now that Shamu is killing people).  While there are roller coasters, water rides, shows, and LEGOS for sale everywhere, my favorite section of the park is Mini Land or Tiny Town or LEGOville or whatever they call the area that contains the scale model LEGO replicas of actual places, such as the Las Vegas strip, New York City, the Taj Mahal, the White House, New Orleans' French Quarter, etc.  I could hang out there for hours.  And I'm sure I'll have a chance to do just that in the near future as I recently read that a brand new, biggest-ever Legoland will open in Winter Haven, Florida at the end of 2011.  Opening day, here we come!


On April 7th, the August Schell Brewing Company is releasing a new beer, Grain Belt Nordeast, which is named after our old stomping grounds, Northeast Minneapolis!  I'm a tad miffed that after living there for 10 years and having no beers to our name, this momentous event is occurring only 7 months later and I'm missing it.  And apparently there is some debate over the name of the new beer.  You see, Northeast Minneapolis is often referred to as "Nordeast" because that's how the Eastern Europeans who settled there in the early 1900's used to pronounce it.  While many folks view the term as a tribute to the history of that part of the city, other politically-correct ninnies consider it a pejorative.  I find this similar to when people oppose and protest the naming of sports teams after Native American tribes, when the actual Native Americans themselves consider it an honor.  The way I see it, most of the people who said "Nordeast" in the first place are probably long gone, so they won't be offended anyway.

Na zdrowie!