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.



Anonymous said...

I've never thought of myself as a restaurant snob. Even when other people complained about the food,I usually thought it was OK. Well, we spent 19 months in small town England and I now confess that I am a full-blown snob. I complained non-stop about the restaurants while we were there. It wasn't that we ate out all the time, it was the knowledge that there were NO good options - at all. Outside of London, it was grim - and not just the restaurants. I now know that I am not suited to small town life. So, I guess that makes me a major league snob!

Anonymous said...

I feel for you, brother.
-Justin in Manhattan

Eric said...

Is that you Karla?

Eric said...

Yeah, rub it in Justin.

bdeviller said...

Sounds like a challenge. I am curious to see how you will resolve this your own fine dining establishment...find fellow stranded foodies, and set up a monthly moveable feast, with rotating hosts...or something else.

Steve said...

Ok, brother-in-law, I have a wine-country story that may make you feel better (or, rather, assure you that Sonoma county folks are just as benighted as the restaurateurs in Mankato when it comes to wine.) A few years ago, C and I were on a Viognier kick. Viognier is hard to find around here. Iron Horse used to do one, although I haven't seen it in several years. Pine Ridge does a really good Viognier blend (with Chenin, I think). But they're all relatively hard to find--that's the important thing.

So . . . a few years ago I was shopping in our local Safeway when the wine guy (lots of Bay-Area grocers have sommelier-types--don't take that as a sign that we're any different from Minnesotans) asked if I needed help. (This is a better sign of our difference: local Safeway--hundred of different varieties/labels to choose from!) I mentioned I was looking for a Viognier. I pronounced it, of course, with the proper French inflection. He said, "oh, you mean Von-yay."

I can admit now to being overcome with an inner fit of snobbery. But because I'm a native Midwesterner, prone to swallowing my pride and believing that life is an endless string of humiliations, often sport-related--I took the reprimand from the Safeway sommelier without protest.

So there you have it. Clearly I'm still scarred by the experience, enough so that a box of Riunite sounds rather good right now!

Eric said...

Bruce, our solution so far has been to try to prepare some nice meals for ourselves. You may have seen the FB posts. Someday I'd love to go to culinary school, but I don't think I'd ever want to run a restaurant (see Anthony Bourdain's book "Kitchen Confidential"). I like the moveable feast idea...

Eric said...

Steve, it's funny when somebody corrects you and they're wrong (I'm sure I've done that myself from time to time).

What's up with your Sharks and Hawks?? Hopefully there's no sport-related humiliation headed your way this early in the playoffs!

Steve said...

Regarding Sharks and Hawks, success appears to correlate with my shaving status, but opposite the voodoo of the playoff beard. As a result, my face is as smooth as a baby's butt. I'm shaving four, sometimes five times a day to guarantee playoff success. There are profound scientific laws, deeply embedded in the logic of the universe, that govern the NHL. I consider myself privileged to understand them.

Liwanag said...

Tokyo Sushi soon coming to Mankato! Not optimistic but looking forward to trying and hopefully being pleasantly surprised.

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