Meals in the Mount Rushmore State: What to Eat in South Dakota

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Photo By: Staci J Perry

Dining, South Dakota-Style

South Dakota’s culinary scene is a collection of dishes heavily influenced by Native Americans, Scandinavians, farmers and ranchers, hunters and gatherers, meat eaters and vegetarians, and church basement ladies. Communities have their own food stories, but in a state where traditions and recipes vary, dishes like Indian fry bread, chislic, tiger meat, walleye, buffalo burgers, lefse and mocha cakes gather people around the table to eat and drink as neighbors.

Hot Beef Commercial

Part of the South Dakota experience is venturing off the highway and into an unassuming diner for a hot beef commercial. It’s the ultimate sandwich for the meat-and-potatoes set. The hearty meal sticks to ribs and powers locals through frigid South Dakota days. Beware of instant potatoes — you want nothing but real mashed potatoes and shreds and chunks of seasoned roast beef sandwiched between two tall slices of white bread and doused in homemade gravy until it pools to the edges of the plate. Look for it by other menu names: hot beef sandwich, beef combination, hot beef combo and hot beef combination. The Wheel Inn Café in Watertown is buzzing with locals telling tales and satisfying their hankering for classic comfort food. They’ve been eating the legendary hot beef combo for more than 50 years.

Indian Tacos

You’ll have diddly-squat for WiFi and a trace cellular signal, so plot the route \ through the scenic Black Hills in advance to devour Indian tacos as big as your steering wheel. The key to Cheyenne Crossing’s legendary specialty is the hot bubbly WoodenKnife Indian fry bread. The toppings — special recipe taco meat and refried beans, shredded cheese, sour cream, lettuce, juicy tomatoes, diced red onions, black olives, house-made picante sauce — are piled on until they tumble off the heap and around the plate; there’s also a vegetarian version with homemade black bean sauce. Cheyenne Crossing serves more than 5,000 Indian tacos during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

Kolache

“My grandma’s kolaches are the best,” is what you’ll hear at Czech Days in Tabor and across the lower east half of South Dakota. The recipes are secret and families are competitive about whose is best. Tyndall Bakery uses a kolache recipe original to the bakery. Before the soft yeast dough is baked, the pastry center is filled with a generous dollop of sweet filling like cherry, apple, lemon, poppyseed, cream cheese, strawberry-cream cheese, apricot or prune. Once out of the oven, it is drizzled with glaze and sprinkled with a hint of streusel. Eat kolache around the circle so you have filling in every bite.

Lefse

Lefse is a Norwegian-American staple. The flat potato bread is best enjoyed with a spread of butter and, for the sweet tooth, sprinkled with sugar, and rolled up. Scandinavian grandmas, aunts and moms are keepers of the family recipe and, when grandma is ready to give it up, they inherit the lefse grill, turning stick and corrugated wooden rolling pin. Lefse is iconic to South Dakota but it, and similar dishes influenced by Norwegian culture such as krumkake, sandbakkels and rosettes, are made in home kitchens, not restaurants. When you must venture out of grandma’s kitchen, buy packaged lefse at participating Hy-Vee stores or at bakeries and church bake sales at Christmastime.

Rhubarb

Rhubarb is a versatile perennial vegetable customarily showcased in gloriously sweet desserts. The red stalks are harvested when they are 12 to 18 inches long. Most South Dakotans have at least one favorite rhubarb recipe, typically for sauce, bread, muffins, pie, jam, crumble, cobbler or cake. Purple Pie Place in Custer takes tart rhubarb to pie-in-the-sky (or at least pie in the hills) status. Four pies to try: rhubarb, strawberry-rhubarb, raspberry-rhubarb-jalapeño and bumbleberry. Leola Rhubarb Festival offers the chance to grab a bottle of rhubarb wine from Schadé Vineyard and Winery or Prairie Berry Winery.

Chislic

Though some restaurants serve it as a sirloin, authentic chislic is bite-sized chunks of sheep — either the more-tender lamb, or fattier, more-flavorful mutton — deep- fried or grilled on thin wooden skewers. Chislic is a common menu item in southeast South Dakota but it isn’t well-known throughout the state. A dish resembling chislic was likely introduced to the area by Russian immigrants. Meridian Corner sits on the wide-open intersection of US Highways 18 and 81 near Freeman. The dive-bar-like restaurant serves the meat on a stick with crushed saltine crackers and shakers of Greek seasoning and garlic salt.

Honey

Crowned the state insect, honeybees produce enough honey to make South Dakota the third-largest honey-producing state in the US. Even more fortunate for people in the Mount Rushmore State, the largest commercial beekeeper in the world, Richard Adee, runs his sweet operation from the tiny town of Bruce. When Adee Honey Farms bees aren’t producing one of nature’s simplest, most-natural foods at home, 160 semi loads of them hitch a ride to the West Coast and pollinate almond orchards while wintering in California. Enjoy liquid gold straight from the source by drizzling Adee honey onto a dense chunk of cornbread at Backyard Grill in Brookings or Sioux Falls. Adee Honey Farms honey is sold to and packaged under different brand names, but you can purchase jugs of it at the Bruce Market.

Fleisch Kuchele

Fleisch kuchele is like a burger masquerading as a hand pie. Germans from Russia introduced fleisch kuchele to southeast communities around Menno, Freeman, Viborg and Parker, South Dakota. A pocket of handmade dough is filled with seasoned hamburger and onions and deep-fried to hot, flaky goodness. The meat pies are predominantly served with a side of ketchup and pickle spears. Years ago, restaurants in the area offered fleisch kuchele on their menus, so when the Svartoien family opened Meridian Corner in the 80s, they added it to theirs. They are now one of the few establishments in the state that still serve the dish.

Kuchen

No visit to South Dakota is complete without eating the state’s dessert. The German word for “cake,” kuchen starts with a traditional thick — or not so traditional thin — cross between cake and pie crust. It’s spread with fruit and rich custard and baked to creamy delicacy. It’s dainty enough to eat with a fork, yet sturdy enough to eat by hand. Made in a variety of flavor combinations, classics include prune and peach, though locals often enjoy a slice of cherry, strawberry-rhubarb, sweet raisin, blueberry, pumpkin, raspberry or cottage cheese. Pietz’s Kuchen Kitchen & Specialties in Scotland bakes an average 200 kuchen each day and supplies 40-50 South Dakota retailers with the dessert.

Asparagus

With pails in hand, hunters and gatherers roam the state each spring on a mission to collect wild asparagus from undisclosed plots of land. Although South Dakotans are territorial and secretive about where they pick their spears soon after the snow melts, they have no reservations about sharing recipes for pickling with peppers, steaming with lemon, frying in bacon fat and serving their hauls in a score of other dishes. The vegetable adds vibrant color and a faint grassy flavor to soup, salad, pasta, pizza and omelets. Purchase fresh asparagus in the spring at farmers’ markets, grocery stores and pick-your-own gardens like Sanderson Gardens of Aurora.

Chokecherries

Wild chokecherries have long been a treasured food staple to Native American Indian tribes across the Plains. As part of the rose family, the early spring flowers supply honeybees with precious nectar. The tart, puckery cherries are harvested and cooked, which sweetens them for use in jam, jelly, wine, sauce, butter, wojapi and syrup or to dry for wasna. Prairie Berry Winery uses an estimated five tons of South Dakota chokecherries yearly in making their wine and jelly. Both winery locations — in the state’s largest city, Sioux Falls, and nestled in the Black Hills near Hill City — offer a prairie-rustic, charmingly posh atmosphere.

Pasties

Pasties — savory hand pies — were a lunchtime staple for immigrant workers at the Homestake Mine in Lead, South Dakota. The miners liked the hearty meat-and-vegetable pies because they were satisfying for a long work day and durable enough to withstand the trip underground. The “handle” enabled miners to hold the pasty with dirty hands and toss the dirtied edge away. Harriet and Oak in Rapid City serves two versions made by Bonnie King of Kings Pasties in Lead. One is breakfast-style, with diced ham, cheese, scrambled eggs, and potatoes (best with house-made pico de gallo). The other holds steak and potato. You can’t miss the building: It’s the former Dean Chevrolet dealership, which dates to 1929 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.

Wojapi

Chef Randy Janis added wojapi to the Laughing Water Restaurant menu in Crazy Horse — at the Crazy HorseMemorial near Custer — to honor his Native American heritage. The most authentic way to make wojapi is to take tart chokecherry patties (chokecherries pounded into patties and dried in the sun), sugar, water and a thickening agent like cornstarch, then boil it until thickened. Chokecherries are naturally not too sweet, so sugar is added to taste. If chokecherries aren’t available, wojapi is made with other berries like blueberries, strawberries and blackberries. It’s usually made in large batches and served warm with bubbly fry bread for special occasions like ceremonies and feasts.

Indian Fry Bread

Although casually consumed at fairs and community celebrations across the state, Native Americans created Indian fry bread as nourishment for their people during hard times on unsheltered Dakota prairies. It is honored as the South Dakota state bread and continues to be a staple in Native American culture as they celebrate authentic fry bread, making it by hand and sharing it with others. Each family has a secret recipe or way of making it. The slightly chewy, puffy bread is often a base for Indian tacos, dipped in wojapi or buffalo chili, or simply warmed with a sprinkle of cinnamon and sugar or dripping with local honey. The WoodenKnife family uses a traditional Lakota recipe to package and sell the popular mix from Interior.

Buffalo

South Dakota is buffalo country. A herd of nearly 1,300 wild buffalo roam Custer State Park, and the prairies of South Dakota are home to several buffalo ranches. Buffalo is a healthy alternative in the landscape of this meat-and-potatoes-loving state. At Black Hills Burger and Bun, go for The Hot Granny stacked with bacon, cream cheese, jalapenos and sweet-spicy jalapeno sauce. The owners, Claude and Christi Smith, buy locally raised bison, grinding fresh chuck for burgers every day. “The chuck portion has a little more fat than normal buffalo burgers, giving it more flavor,” says Christi. The toasted, made-in-house bun soaks up the smoky juices.

Cookies 'n' Cream Ice Cream

It can’t be definitively stated who invented cookies ‘n’ cream ice cream, but beloved flavor’s birthplace is celebrated at the state’s largest land-grant university on the I-29 corridor. The Dairy and Food Science Department at South Dakota State University in Brookings churns out approximately 7,000 gallons of cookies ‘n’ cream every year, which is equivalent to 112,000 scoops of ice cream bursting with chocolate-sandwich cookie chunks. When just a cone won’t do, loyal fans purchase half gallon containers from the SDSU Dairy Bar on campus and in nearly 30 stores around the state.

Watermelon

Jam-packed with vitamins A and C, watermelon is suitably named as it contains 92 percent water and six percent sugar. The dot-on-the-map community of Forestburg near the James River declared itself South Dakota’s watermelon capital for good reason: hot summer days and cool nights create the ideal watermelon-producing conditions. Additionally, the glacier-deposited sandy soil on top of clay in the river valley helps yield a sweetness found only in watermelon grown in this area. Shane Baysinger of Shane’s Melons took the helm of his grandfather’s operation and he now sells melons in South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa.

Zebra Donuts

When a bakery trademarks a doughnut name, it means serious business and a chance they’ll be gone by 9 a.m. Royal Bake Shop in Centerville makes approximately 1,500 Zebra Donuts™ each week, including 42 dozen on Saturdays alone. But it’s the taste, not the name, that entices people to drive from miles around. Owners Keith and Janine Ellis bought the South Dakota bakery in the early 1990s (it’s been in the same location for more than 71 years) and Keith spent years creating the Zebra. The celebrated, melt-in-your-mouth marbled chocolate and vanilla doughnut is fried, dunked in sweet glaze, and hand-dipped in homemade chocolate frosting. The 12-inch Zebra feeds 15, so call ahead to reserve your stripy treats.

Dimock Dairy Colby Cheese

Opened in 1931, Dimock Dairy is the oldest dairy in South Dakota. You won’t find processed cheese here: They make cheese the old-school way in old-school tanks, with milk produced by local dairy cows. Choose from 23 varieties of cheese, including bacon and onion, bleu cheddar and pepperoni, along with the variations they are most known for: Colby, Colby Jack, Colby Ranch, and Pepper Colby Jack — and eight flavors of spreads like horseradish, jalapeño pepper, and ranch. Take home slices, half horns, full horns, milled curds or bites. Not close enough to visit? They ship on Mondays.

Steak

Cooking beef over indirect flames is one of the oldest South Dakota culinary traditions. Most South Dakota restaurants serve steak, but a trip to the capital city of Pierre will get you one of the best beef steaks in the Midwest. Cattleman’s Club Steakhouse serves only Black Canyon Angus Beef aged, trimmed and seasoned to their specifications in cuts of bone-in ribeye, T-bone, top sirloin, prime rib and porterhouse. Myril Arch founded the steakhouse in 1986 and his daughter Cindy runs it now. Myril couldn’t afford carpet so he put sawdust on the floor, which to this day, adds to the charm of the rustic steakhouse by the river. Get here early: Doors unlock at 5 p.m. and the parking lot is nearly full before that.

Walleye

The Missouri River in South Dakota is one of the best spots to reel in walleye, the state fish, and Spring Creek Resort and Deep Water Marina is one of the best restaurants to eat or cook your own. Order the flaky white fish one of four ways: Cajun, butter and herb, lemon-pepper pouch, or beer-battered and broasted for a crunchy walleye, which is also the most-requested way for the restaurant to cook fishermen’s catches of the day. No matter which you order, get a cup of their house-made tartar sauce. The resort is situated 17 miles north of the state capital, overlooking Lake Oahe.

Ring-Necked Pheasant

Pheasant Restaurant & Lounge’s managers, Michael Johnson and Trevor Clements, embrace South Dakota’s food heritage, serving dishes like bison burger, chislic, hot roast beef sandwiches, bison ribeye, asparagus and walleye. Customers wanted the Brookings restaurant namesake, also the state bird, on the menu. In Johnson’s research, he discovered pheasant salad was served to troops in Aberdeen as they left for World War II, so he created his own version and added it to the menu. It starts with locally raised pheasant, mixed with dried cranberries, apples, roasted pecans, celery, green onion, sesame and olive oils, mayonnaise and seasonings, all sandwiched between a layer of melted Swiss and grilled marbled rye. Or go low-carb and order pheasant salad as a wrap, served with romaine hearts.

Wasna

Native Americans have a spiritual relationship with natural food sources like bison, blueberries, chokecherries and cranberries. Wasna, meaning “all mixed up,” is a traditional Lakota dish made of dried prairie-raised buffalo meat and berries pounded with a stone. Native American Natural Foods in Kyle, South Dakota, has turned their traditional recipe into healthy, gluten-free and paleo-friendly Tanka Bars available to consumers. The dark and smoky meat snacks give way to a touch of sweetness. Use the store locator to find a location or purchase Tanka Bars online.

Dakota Martini

Not even the closest neighboring states know what Dakota martinis are. Also known as “red beer,” the drink is a precise ratio of three-fourths beer to one-fourth tomato juice — if it’s weak, the cocktail gets bitter. Bartenders in the Midwest state garnish the beverage with green olives or pickle spears with, if desired, a splash green olive juice. When you have a designated driver, drink a few cold ones on the patio at The Cardinal Tap in Arlington.

Tiger Meat

It is not real tiger meat: It’s South Dakota’s rendition of steak tartare. Take the appetizer to-go at Dakota Butcher in Watertown, where they mix ground round steak with seasonings, green peppers and onions. Spread the raw mixture on saltine or butter crackers. The state health code restricts restaurants, grocery stores, and butcher shops to selling tiger meat as a to-go menu item only.

Mocha Cakes

The name is deceiving, the taste is habit-forming. Mocha cakes don’t contain coffee or chocolate; they are not even brown. The square or rectangular blocks of light and airy white cake are also called Blarney stones, gold bricks, gold bars and peanut bars, but whatever the name, they’re a local obsession. They’re frosted on all sides with vanilla buttercream and rolled in lightly salted crushed peanuts for ideal flavor and texture. Opened in 1929, Flandreau Bakery in Flandreau is one of the oldest bakeries in South Dakota. Because people with ties to the eastern plains of Flandreau have migrated all over the world, their mocha cake obsession has followed, so it’s a lucky thing that bakery owners Ed and Don Duncan started shipping the cakes and several other specialties years ago.