Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Blog from Minnesota IV: North Country Road Food

by Tom Bozzo

Tobie's. Just off I-35, Hinckley, MN.

This is now considered a quintessentially Minnesotan kind of place. We went there because Suzanne and her dad would stop there on the way to Duluth eons ago -- he headed there on business (he was an Assistant U.S. Attorney at the time*), she tagging along. The place was rougher and tumbler at the time, a truck stop with a bakery counter, the latter serving locally renowned caramel and cinnamon rolls.

Modern Tobie's is a sprawling wayside family restaurant, with lots of salmon pink trim, incorporating the bakery counter, and a still truck-stoppish attached lounge that is the presumed source of cigarette burn marks on the non-heat resistant horizontal surfaces of the men's room. Various families, including former neighbors of my in-laws (who were headed up as we were headed down), made the restaurant seem perfectly ordinary at mid-morning.

Suzanne and I both had severe protein cravings -- fog thwarted our efforts to track down an Egg McMuffin in Proctor, just outside of Duluth -- and we both ordered pseudo-Eggs Benedict. Pseudo in that the menu didn't even pretend to offer Hollandaise, but rather a 'creamy cheese sauce' present in several other menu items. How bad, we thought, can one screw up eggs, ham, and cheese on a 'homemade' English muffin?

Plenty, as it turns out. The cheese sauce was the main culprit, a congealed brown mass neither cheese nor gravy. Plus the eggs were greasy and the muffins far too dense.

The legendary sweet rolls were inoffensive, but hardly in the same league as the efforts of Turtle Bread Co., or the L'Etoile Bakery Cafe's incomparable Spice Girls Wheel. I could imagine these not being improved by mass production.

Breakfast: F. Cinnamon and caramel rolls: an underachieving C+.

Norske Nook. Downtown Osseo, WI. (Also in Rice Lake and Hayward, WI.)

From seeing a lot of rural New York State as a kid, I was accustomed to seeing small towns whose past prosperity, though significantly eroded, was still at least somewhat evident. Rural Wisconsin, in contrast, seems to be dotted with towns that started butt ugly and have not improved with time. Osseo is one of these. But the Norske Nook is regarded as a road-food treasure of the area, even by competent authorities!

Specifically, the Nook is known for its pies, and if they offered a savory pie or two, I'd recommend skipping the non-pie offerings altogether, which would stick to their core competencies.

As it happens, a good portion of the non-pie menu is devoted to 'lefse wraps,' lefse being a tortilla-like round and flat Norwegian bread made fresh on the premises. Think burrito gone Norwegian. I chose a good Wisconsin filling, a cod filet. I'm pretty sure that the cod was better off inside a tube of buttered lefse than not. I'd have given them at least half a grade higher if the tartar sauce had been good; it was instead too sweet by a wide margin. Suzanne got the first all-iceberg lettuce salad I've seen in some time, and a vegetable beef soup in which the vegetables were apparently potatoes and carrots. I can't say that I actually saw the carrots.

Most all was forgiven when the pie arrived. My apple had large, al dente chunks of what I'd peg as heavily sweetened Granny Smiths in a flaky crust (still tender in a couple areas where the dough might have been overworked a little) that was resolutely neutral -- the crust had no noticeable sweetness apart from some juice from the apples and only the slightest bit of saltiness. Suzanne's raspberry sour cream pie was nicely fruity and had a similarly flaky bottom crust, though the filling inbetween the berries was perhaps more gelatinous than optimal. I'd go back for the pie.

Pie: a solid B, B+ if you like your apple pie sweet. Non-pie: C-.

*And managed to send five kids to college, including four to private colleges, which is in substantial part why I have no sympathy whatsoever for Tom Ridge's claimed need to earn more than a Cabinet secretary's pay to send his two kids to college.
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