What to Nosh in the North Star State: Minnesota's Most-Iconic Dishes

Replete with Scandinavian, Italian and other far-away influences, Minnesota is the little-known destination for diverse yet comforting fare.

Photo By: Nancy Bundt

Minnesota's Best Bites

If you thought Minnesota was all Scandinavians and lakes, take this culinary tour for a view of the real North Star State. Yes, you'll see your fair share of Swedish meatballs — they're delicious! — but you'll also explore the abundance of local ingredients, along with Minnesota's diverse immigrant communities and the food they've brought with them. And the lakes? Well, let's just say the fish are biting, and you will be too!

Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs

Swedish Meatballs

Minnesota has been home to Swedish immigrants for more than 150 years, and they've certainly left a mark on the state's food culture. Though many Scandinavian dishes have become iconic here in the north, few seem to have the pervasive reputation of Swedish meatballs. Fika, in the Swedish American Institute, has elevated the comforting spiced, cream-sauced meatballs to a new level. Perfectly seasoned with allspice, juniper and pepper, Fika’s meat morsels are served with creamy mashed potatoes, sweet pickles and of course, the traditional partner to all respectable Nordic meatballs, lingonberries.

Go to: Fika

Wild Rice Soup

Wild Rice, which is not actually rice at all, but grass seed, is Minnesota's state grain and one that's been lovingly embraced by Minnesotan cooks. You find it in everything from burgers, pancakes, hot dish and of course, the famous Minnesota wild rice soup. While you can find this soup, both creamy and brothy, on restaurant menus all over the state, the version Minnesotans love best, can't be found at any of the state's dining establishments. You can buy it by the cup or the quart at Lunds & Byerlys grocery stores. This upscale chain, which has been in the Twin Cities for generations, has a loyal following when it comes to its iconic soup. Rich, creamy and comforting, the soup is studded with chunks of ham, loads of wild rice, veggies and crunchy almond slices. You can take it to go, or enjoy it in one of their in-store cafes.

Hot Dish

It might look like a casserole to you, but ask any Minnesotan what they call this combination of beef or chicken, veggies and canned cream of mushroom soup — traditionally topped with Tater Tots — and the response will be "hot dish." This easy to make casserole can be found everywhere from church suppers to family reunions. It’s even at the center of a highly competitive culinary competition that pits the state’s congressional delegation against one another to see just who makes the best hot dish. While it’s mostly a dish made at home, The Mason Jar, located in Eagen, serves a version that will remind you of your grandmother’s cooking, if your grandmother made everything from scratch. Ground beef is browned and stirred into a rich and creamy mushroom sauce, and draped over tots. Melted cheddar cheese and a few more tots crown the top for rib-sticking glory.

Go to: The Mason Jar

Artisan Bread

Once known as the "Flour Milling Capital of the World," Minneapolis and St. Paul have a rich history when it comes to baking, which is probably why it isn't hard to find incredible artisan bread in Minnesota. While there are many places to turn to for a good loaf, Rustica is thought to be one of the best. Founded more than a decade ago, Rustica offers a variety of homemade breads (the levain alone is worth the price of admission), but it also has to-die-for pastries and cookies. While at Rustica, do not miss some of the best coffee in town, ideal for pairing with pastries.

Photography courtesy of Rustica Bakery

Go to: Rustica

Polish Sausage

While most people think of Scandinavians when they think about Minnesota's immigrant communities, Eastern Europeans have been settling in the North Star State since the 19th century, bringing their hearty cuisine with them. The Kramarczuk family came in a wave of Ukrainian immigration post World War II and, soon after, opened a delicatessen, bakery and restaurant. More than 60 years later, Kramarczuk's is a Minnesota institution and the best place to go for a taste of the hearty foods of the Ukraine. Whether you're craving sausages or varenyky (pierogi-like dumplings), Kramarczuk's north Minneapolis location likely serves them. On a warm summer day, head to the Twins' Target Field for a Kramarczuk's polish sausage from the ballpark stand, where they sell more than 1,500 links during the average game.

Photography courtesy of Katie Cannon Photography

Go to: Kramarczuk's

Baked Goods

Minnesota's deep affection for baked goods is a critical, long-nurtured relationship. Formerly known as Mill City, Minneapolis has long been associated with bread and baked goods, and no one in town bakes them better than James Beard Foundation Award-nominated Pastry Chef Michelle Gayer at Salty Tart Bakery. Michelle is a rock star in the kitchen, a fact that's evident in every bite of her cookies (don't miss the coconut macaroons), pastries, breads and desserts. The ultra-Minnesota Surly cake (also sold in cupcake form) is a moist, deeply chocolate cake with a whipped cream filling and crazy good fudge frosting, along with a not-so-secret ingredient, Minnesota's own Surly Furious Beer. The beer gives the cake a mild, but distinctive flavor that sets it apart from other, more traditional chocolate cakes. Why did Michelle choose Surly Furious to go into her cake? "It matches the way I feel." Yeah, don't mess with Michelle.

Go to: Salty Tart Bakery

Blueberry Walnut Pancakes

Northern Minnesota may be the land of blueberries, but Al's Breakfast, in Minneapolis' Dinkytown, is the land of, well, breakfast, at least in the Twin Cities. A stop at Al's is on most visitors' bucket lists, thanks to a wait staff that's sassy — in that Minnesota-nice kind of way — and pancakes loaded with fresh blueberries and tons of crunchy walnuts. Yes, the food here is incredible, including the famous "The Jose" — crispy hash browns, topped with a mountain of melted cheddar, homemade salsa and a poached egg — and the addictive waffles, and the atmosphere is lively. Be prepared for a wait, though. Al's seats only 14 people at a counter, which means the wait can be long, but it's worth it. Besides, you may make a few friends while you wait. Sharing body heat has a way of breaking the ice on a cold Minnesota morning.

Go to: Al's Breakfast

Pecan Caramel and Cinnamon Rolls

Rolls are cofffee’s best friend, and a critical companion on icy winter mornings. Whether you favor cinnamon rolls or pecan caramel rolls, a visit to Duluth’s Best Breads should sate any craving. With a motto of "product quality, slick branding, and hilarious jokes,” the bakery prepares large-as-your-head rolls from handcrafted, cold-fermented dough, for rolls so tender and flavorful they hardly need sticky, pecan-studded caramel or cascades of sweet icing. While you’re at the Duluth’s Best Bread, trying to decide between caramel and icing, do yourself a favor and buy a loaf of the Wild Rice Cranberry Bread. It’s moist, slightly sour, slightly sweet, slightly nutty and completely addictive.

Pie

Minnesota has a pie addiction. It's an addiction that compels bakers all over the state to roll out flakey crusts and fill them with fresh, locally grown berries or lemon curd topped with mile-high meringue. You can find homemade pie on many Minnesota restaurant and bakery menus, but none better than the New Scenic Café on Minnesota's North Shore, where Chef-Owner Scott Graden has been making pies, and other wonderful dishes, since 1999. "Minnesota folks have a long history of resourcefulness," says Graden, "of putting what's around to good use," which he does to great effect, using local berries, rhubarb, acorn squash, pumpkin and other produce to fill his buttery, flaky crusts.

Photography courtesy of Scott Graden

Go to: New Scenic Café

Gravlax

For many, no trip to Minnesota would be complete without a stop at the American Swedish Institute. Located in the historic Turnblad Mansion in Minneapolis, the ASI is a gathering place for people to share the arts and culture of Sweden. Arrive hungry, because the ASI is also home to one of the best restaurants in town, Fika. In Sweden, fika is a daily break, traditionally involving coffee and pastries. While Fika embraces the spirit of its namesake, it goes far beyond a coffee break. Mornings mean coffee with egg tarts and Swedish-inspired housemade pastries (the cardamom bun is worth a journey). Lunch and dinner mean fresh salads, innovative soups and signature dishes such as Swedish meatballs and gravlax. The gravlax is delicately flavored with dill and other spices, then artfully arranged on a plate that looks too pretty to be edible. Wash it down with the housemade aquavit. Skoal!

Photography courtesy of Jon Dahlin

Go to: Fika

Turkey Burger

Minnesota's 450 turkey farmers raise more turkeys — 46 million per year — than those in any other state in the U.S., so it's not surprising that Minnesotans know what they're doing when it comes to cooking turkey. You can find it in all kinds of dishes, but Birchwood Café has served "good real food" since 1995, using locally sourced, sustainable and organic ingredients. You’ll find a turkey burger on each of its eight seasonal menus, changing toppings based on what the farmers provide. Seasonal specials include Summer's Tour de France burger and Dusk's Thanksgiving Delight, with cranberry pear chutney, root vegetable puree, leeks and Brussels sprouts — so good you won't have trouble gobbling it up at any time of year.

Photography courtesy of Megan Swenson

Go to: Birchwood Cafe

Porketta/Porchetta

The Iron Range in Northern Minnesota attracted immigrants from all around the world to work in the iron-ore mines, and with them came dishes from their homelands. Porketta came to Minnesota along with thousands of Italian immigrant miners. Slightly different from authentic Italian porchetta, Iron Range porketta is a fennel-and-garlic-seasoned pulled pork hailing from Minnesota, and no one does it better than Porchetteria at Terzo in South Minneapolis. Owned and operated by the Broder family (check out Broders' Cucina Italiana and Broders' Pasta Bar, all within a block of the Porchetteria), Terzo serves a version inspired by family trips to the Iron Range, offered in a variety of mouthwatering sandwiches, as well as an irresistible polenta bowl. The favorite may be the Calabrian, made with seasoned roast pork, fennel-current-radicchio slaw and Calabrian pepper aioli on a ciabatta bun. Get it at the daytime-only takeout window or at the wine-bar restaurant. Bring napkins.

Photography courtesy of Andy Swarbrick

Go to: Terzo Vino Bar and Porchetteria

Lefse

Lefse is a traditional Norwegian flatbread made with flour, potatoes, cream and butter, and in Minnesota, it is a holiday favorite. During the holiday season, the lines at Ingebretsen's, Minneapolis' home of everything Scandinavian, are legendary, reaching out of the meat-market side of the store, snaking through the gift shop, bursting out the door and winding down the block on Lake Street. The crowd greets friends and neighbors — and sometimes even bursts into song. If the holiday line is intimidating, you can buy lefse, as well as a wide variety of other Scandinavian treats, all year long.

Photography courtesy of Molly Ingebretsen

Go to: Ingebretsen's

Smoked Fish

You may have heard that Minnesota has a few lakes, so it should come as no surprise that it also has a few lake trout. One of the best ways to experience the trout is smoked at Duluth's Northern Waters Smokehaus. The Smokehaus has been smoking Lake Superior trout and whitefish, as well as Atlantic salmon, since 1998 and selling thousands of pounds a year at its shop and restaurant. While the smoked lake trout and whitefish draw rave reviews, the most-popular item on the restaurant menu is the Cajun Finn. This sandwich, created one afternoon to satisfy a regular customer who loved the smoked salmon with Cajun seasoning, features scallion cream cheese, sliced roasted red peppers, sliced pepperoncini and mixed greens on a freshly baked stirato roll. You can eat it at the restaurant or get it to-go for a picnic on the North Shore.

Photography courtesy of Mary Tennis and Cher Matamoros

Go to: Northern Waters Smokehaus

Pho

Minnesota is home to a large Vietnamese and Hmong community, including great restaurants serving authentic versions of the cuisines. Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup, is one Minnesota has whole-heartedly embraced. St. Paul's Ngon Vietnamese Bistro is thought to have one of the best bowls of pho in the Twin Cities. Hai Truong, chef and owner, was 5 years old when his Vietnamese-Chinese family landed in Minnesota in 1979. He learned to cook in his family's restaurant and now owns his own restaurant, serving both Vietnamese and French fare. Truong uses locally sourced beef bones as the basis for the pho-nomenel broth, cooking the bones 36 hours for maximum flavor, before ladling the result over noodles and your choice of meat. Never fear vegetarians, Ngon serves a meatless version that's just as delightful.

Photography courtesy of Hai Truong

Go to: Ngon Vietnamese Bistro

Wild Rice Patty Melt

Wild rice is Minnesota's state grain, and The Duluth Grill gives it proper due. The restaurant's menu features the official state grain in its famous Wild Rice Melt, made with pepper Jack cheese, caramelized onions, roasted red pepper vinaigrette and a housemade wild rice patty on grilled multigrain wheat. It's also showcased in a Minnesota Burrito Bowl with cilantro-lime wild rice. Looking for your wild rice fix at breakfast? Regulars know they can get it in any of the Grill's porridges or simply ask for the nutritious grain as a side.

Photography courtesy of Louis Hanson

Go to: Duluth Grill

Turtle Cake

Nestled in the lovely shopping districts of St. Paul's Grand Avenue, Café Latte has been a dining destination since 1984. This casual eatery, celebrating modern comfort food, is the perfect place to for soups and salads, but for a midshopping treat, go for the Turtle Cake. A staple since the Quinn family opened the doors, this three-layer cake is made with imported chocolate from Belgium, drizzled with buttery caramel, studded with extra-large roasted pecans. Double down on sugar with Tres Leches Cakes, another best-seller.

Go to: Cafe Latte

Popovers

Every morning, the kitchen at The Bachelor Farmer, led by James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef Paul Berglund, is popping. Or, rather, it's popover-ing. Prepare for a Scandinavian-leaning meal with a starting warm popover with honey butter. The history of the Minnesota popover and The Bachelor Farmer are closely linked. The Oak Grill, in what used to be Dayton's department store, is famous for popovers, and the Dayton family owns The Bachelor Farmer. The dots aren't hard to connect. While the Oak Grill still makes an excellent popover, the airy, crisp-on-the-outside and eggy-on-the-inside version at TBF is the best.

Photography courtesy of Erin Kincheloe

Go to: The Bachelor Farmer

Juicy Lucy

Juicy Lucys can be a controversial topic in Minneapolis. There are disputes over who invented the burger, with the cheese on the inside of the patty. Two bars on Cedar Avenue, Matt's Bar and 5-8 Club, both claim the title of "home of the Juicy Lucy." While we don't take sides, we do know a good Juicy Lucy is a thing to behold. So in an effort to stay neutral, go for 6Smith's Venison and Kobe Juicy Lucy. A world away from the simpler versions on Cedar Avenue, 6Smith begins with a custom blend of Kobe beef and Minnesota elk formed into a patty stuffed with smoky Gouda, bacon jam and jalapenos. It's then topped with more Gouda and bacon jam and served on a pretzel bun. As if this decadent version of an iconic Minnesota dish isn't enough, 6Smith sits on the shores of Lake Minnetonka and the view rocks. So if you want the full Minnesota experience, 6Smith is a good place to get it.

Photography courtesy of 6Smith

Go to: 6Smith

Mini Doughnuts

To say that Minnesotans love their state fair would be an understatement. During the fair's 12-day run (ending on Labor Day), almost 2 million people congregate. While many ride the rides and visit the animals, most people go for the food. Toward the end of every summer, state fair food becomes the topic of local news shows, newspaper stories and magazine articles. While you can find a vast and filling array of options, usually skewered and deep-fried, mini doughnuts are the perennial favorite. Of course, once a year is not enough to enjoy these addictive little bites, so Carrie Summer and Lisa Carlson of Chef Shack decided to put them on their menu year-round. The constant line that forms at their food truck (parked at Mill City Farmer's Market every Saturday) will attest to the deliciousness of their Indian-spiced version. The rounds are available at their restaurant, Chef Shack Ranch, too.

Photography courtesy of Carrie Summer

Go to: Chef Shack Ranch

Craft Beer

The craft-brewing movement has taken Minneapolis by storm, with more than 105 breweries producing over 630,000 gallons of beer a year. That's 5 gallons per adult over the age of 21 (Don't judge: Our winters are long up here!). At the eye of the craft-brewing storm has been Surly Brewing Company. What started out small, with distribution limited to the Twin Cities, has expanded to a juggernaut found throughout the Midwest. While they make a number of different beers, one of their most popular is Surly's Furious, a hybrid of the American IPA and British ESB styles, with citrusy hoppy aromas and flavors balanced out by a chewy caramel-malt backbone with a refreshing bitter finish. Pair the beer with some great food. The brewery's restaurant, The Brewer's Table, headed by Chef Jorge Guzman, has been recognized as one of the country's best new restaurants.

Photography courtesy of Surly Brewing Company

Go to: Surly Brewing Company