Grub in the Peace Garden State: What to Eat in North Dakota

Head north for iconic local favorites, including seven-layer desserts, meat from the range and cheesy pasta with roots all across Europe.

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Photo By: juefraphoto

Photo By: North Dakota Tourism

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Photo By: North Dakota Tourism

Photo By: Jennifer Flaa

Nosh in North Dakota

North Dakota offers a full range of flavors, from rich desserts and classic comfort food to addictive street eats and locally made drinks. Here’s where to find the state’s 20 most-iconic tastes.

Tater Tot Hotdish

Hearty, filling and unpretentious, tater tot hotdish is North Dakota comfort food at its finest. In the Midwest, baking pretty much any combination of starch (like potatoes, rice or pasta), protein (think tuna or ground beef) and sauce together counts as a hotdish — called a casserole in other parts of the country — but this rich and satisfying variation is a local favorite. The Boiler Room in Fargo ups the ante for the stick-to-your-ribs meal that Mom used to make up, combining savory sausage gravy, bacon, caramelized onions, three different cheeses and house-made tots.

Cheese Buttons

These dumplings may follow one general recipe, but but they go by many names. Ukrainian speakers call them varenyky or pyrohy, while the Czechs say they’re vareniki. In Polish, they’re called pierogi. In German, they’re kase knoephla. Second- third- and fourth-generation North Dakotans call them cheese buttons, which seems an apt name for plump little dumplings stuffed with creamy cottage cheese. They’re typically boiled or pan-fried in butter and topped with cheese, scallions or sautéed onions and a drizzle of fresh or sour cream. Buy frozen cheese buttons at the Ukrainian Cultural Institute in Dickson or order freshly boiled dumplings by Tuesday and pick them up on Wednesday.

Seven Layer Bars

Bars and coffee is a classic Midwestern pairing. Local bakers have perfected dozens of bars (a word that sometimes slips out as “barse” in a folksy accent, much to our chagrin), so the seven layer bars in in the old-fashioned wooden cases at Josie’s Corner Café and Bake Shop in Fargo are as good a place to start snacking as any. Nuts, chocolate and butterscotch chips, coconut and condensed milk mingle on top of a thick graham cracker crust. Everything is made from scratch and inspired by Grandma Josie’s recipes, but the shop does custom baking if you prefer your own grandma’s version.

Kuchen

Creamy kuchen (pronounced “coo-gen”) is German for cake, but it’s actually a thick, custard dessert poured into a sweet dough crust and sliced like pie. German-speaking immigrants from what is now Ukraine brought kuchen to North Dakota in the 1880s, and it’s popular enough to be served with coffee and at weddings today. Fillings can be savory — like cottage cheese and onion — but most modern customers prefer sweet varieties like the peach and cheese, tangy strawberry-rhubarb, creamy apricot and blueberry, served at Charlie’s Main Street Café in downtown Minot.

Lefse

Delicately thin, hand-rolled lefse is a fixture on holiday tables in North Dakota, even in many non-Scandinavian households. Made from finely riced potatoes, the traditional Norwegian flat bread is cooked on a griddle until it forms a large, crepe-like sheet. North Dakotans smear it with butter and top it with white sugar, jam or jelly before rolling it up and eating it. Most families have their own (often ironclad) topping preferences. Those that don’t make their own lefse at home order from Freddy’s Lefse in West Fargo, where it’s been made by the same family since 1946.

Pitchfork Steak

Cowboys were the first non-Native residents of western North Dakota, and their cultural influence and rugged campfire cuisine live on in the North Dakota badlands. The gleefully touristy, mostly self-serve Pitchfork Steak Fondue in Medora offers steak prepared the cowboy way — fried in hot oil and served with baked beans, baked potatoes, coleslaw and more. The food is humble, but the sweeping view of the badlands bluffs from the outdoor terrace is stunning.

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

Desserts featuring the diced stalks of the ubiquitous (and virtually impossible to kill) rhubarb plant have been fixtures on prairie menus for generations. Rhubarb is tangy and a little sour, so bakers temper its tartness something sweet, like the strawberries in a slice of strawberry-rhubarb pie from Tower Travel Center in Tower City. It might look like an ordinary truck stop, but this humble roadside eatery just off of Interstate 94 is the locals’ pick for the best pie in the state.

Chippers

Equal parts salty and sweet, chocolate-covered potato chips — called Chippers — are a North Dakota cult classic. Most customers buy the confections (made with local potato chips and a thick coating of milk chocolate, semi-sweet chocolate or white almond bark) by the pound. Lines before Valentine’s Day and Christmas can stretch right out the door. The Widman family — proprietors of Widman’s Candy Shop in Grand Forks and Carol Widman’s Candy Co. in Fargo — has been making candy since 1885 and the candy shops’ display cases contain enticements like creamy caramels, silky truffles, crunchy peanut brittle and North Dakota sunflower seeds dipped in almond bark.

Taco in a Bag

Sure, a Taco in a Bag (also called a walking taco) shows up in other places, but North Dakotans (especially groups selling concessions at basketball and hockey games) insist that it’s a North Dakota thing. It kind of makes sense, since this proudly lowbrow street food totally appeals to North Dakotan’s no-fuss, unpretentious, on-the-go mentality. Just open a bag of chips (they’re almost always Nacho Cheese Doritos in these parts), toss in just slightly spicy taco meat and your preferred toppings, then grab a fork. You eat everything right out of the bag; try it at one of the locations of Sickies Garage.

North Dakota-Brewed Beer

To taste North Dakota-brewed beer, made from barley grown by local farmers and malted just down the road, head to Laughing Sun Brewing Company. This cozy taproom and live-music spot is a downtown Bismarck favorite. Fourth Try Rye, a pleasantly malty brew — with just a hint of rye’s grainy bite — is a crowd pleaser. If it’s not on tap when you’re in town (selections change constantly), don’t worry: Nearly every beer here features North Dakota base malt, so there will be plenty of options. It’s perfectly acceptable to sample a few varieties before deciding.

Jell-O Salad

Confusingly, many of North Dakota’s most popular salads contain no vegetables at all. You’ll find colorful, Jell-O-based salads at pretty much every potluck dinner. They even turn up alongside picnic staples like fried chicken and potato salad in the deli section of Hornbacher’s grocery stores. Some Jell-O salads are topped with whipped cream, while others are dotted with canned pineapple chunks, mandarin oranges or tiny slivers of carrots. Despite its dessert-like ingredients, a Jell-O salad is usually served with the main course. Keep it away from hot foods, or you risk turning your mashed potatoes a garish color — a rookie mistake.

Stone Ground Wheat Bread

Wheat has been the backbone of North Dakota agriculture since before statehood, and North Dakota wheat farmers still supply the only state-owned flour mill in the U.S. This reverence for wheat hits new heights at Bismarck’s Bread Poets, where bakers mill the local grain for the Stone Ground Wheat Bread right in the shop. If the alluring smell of fresh baked bread doesn’t tempt you, the free sample will. Everyone that walks into Bread Poets’ bakery is treated to a thick slice of bread topped with butter or honey (or both, if you can’t decide) for no charge.

Chokecherry Wine

The chokecherry tree’s dark red berries are North Dakota’s official state fruit. They grow wild in the region, and the face-puckeringly tart fruit has shown up in recipes for jelly, syrup and wine since pioneer days. Richly colored chokecherry wine is a throwback to a quieter time, when parents and grandparents would harvest the berries from the trees in their yards and farmsteads and make their own wine at home. The tannins from the berry skins add just a touch of astringency to this semi-sweet wine. It’s best served at room temperature or just barely chilled. Pick some up from Maple River Winery, in Casselton.

Juneberry Jam

Hardy juneberries are native to North Dakota, but aren’t widely available outside the prairies of the U.S. and Canada, so be sure to sample them when you’re in the state. The vivid purple berries, also called Saskatoon berries or serviceberries, look and taste a little like blueberries. Native American tribes preserved them in pemmican (a mixture of berries, dried meat and fat), while homesteaders preferred them in jellies and pies. Berry Dakota’s hand-stirred jam contains just three ingredients — juneberries, sugar and pectin — so the fruit’s flavor really shines. Find it at museums, gift shops and drug stores across the state.

Fry Bread Taco

Also called an Indian Taco, a Navajo Taco or an Uff Da Taco, this savory street food features ground beef, lettuce and shredded cheese atop thick, chewy, golden-brown fry bread. It’s a traditional favorite at outdoor festivals, carnivals and street fairs in North Dakota all summer long, and numerous vendors are quick to claim it as their own creation. But the fry bread taco has been a fixture for years, a fusion creation inspired by the fry bread that tribes in the Southern states made and shared. Try it year-round at Mexican Village in Fargo.

Bison Steak

Bison has been a staple in region for centuries; it was essential to the way of life for local Native American tribes. Today, though, it’s most popular in steak form. Since bison is lean, order it a bit rarer than you normally order your steak, which helps the meat stay tender and juicy. At Bismarck's Broadway Grill & Tavern, bison shows up in meatballs, on skewers and as a hulking, 24-ounce ribeye. It’s an upscale introduction to a traditional source of protein from the Great Plains.

Knoephla Soup

With a rich chicken and potato broth, hearty vegetables and its namesake dumplings, knoephla soup is a steaming bowl of comfort on a cold winter night. Its dumplings range from pillowy and soft to thick and chewy, with as many subtle variations as there are diners and cafes that serve this German-Russian standby. The chainlet of Kroll’s Diners is known for 1950s décor, grandmotherly spokeswomen and a bowl of knoephla soup jam-packed with dense little dumplings. It’s so popular, locals buy it by the bucket.

Whirl-A-Whip

What’s thought to be the original Whirl-A-Whip machine on the planet works its magic in a small town drugstore on the North Dakota prairie. Customers choose hard chocolate or vanilla ice cream or colorful rainbow sherbet and take a seat at the 1940s soda fountain. Next, they select their toppings, which include cookies, candy bars and cake batters, as well as peanut butter, fresh fruit and hard candies. (The truly daring try bacon bits or dill pickle relish.) Then the machine whips it all into a thick, creamy, topping-studded soft serve. The novelty alone is worth a pilgrimage.

Lutefisk

No food in the North Dakota’s food canon is as divisive as lutefisk, a dried fillet of whitefish that’s soaked in lye (yes, you read that right), reconstituted in water and then baked or boiled. It’s a sentimental favorite among the descendants of the region’s early Norwegian and Swedish immigrants. Love it or hate it, North Dakota is one of the few places you can still find this pungent, gelatinous fish on the menu. Try it at the Sons of Norway in Fargo on the second Sunday of the month, November through April. (Tip from the experts: Drench it in butter.)

Ice Cream

Pride Dairy is the oldest creamery in North Dakota. They started making fresh butter here in 1930 and expanded into decadent ice cream creations in 1940. For a true taste of North Dakota flavors, opt for juneberry, rhubarb-strawberry and chokecherry ice cream (the prairie fruit trifecta), served with plenty of sweet juneberry and rhubarb-strawberry toppings and drizzled with chokecherry syrup. The toppings and syrup are made from locally grown produce and are available in the dairy’s retail location, in Bottineau, as well as in the online store.