Back From Up North: Duluth Cuisine in Three Parts

For people outside of Minnesota, Duluth doesn’t mean a whole lot. If they’ve even heard of it, it might have been a dim memory of the game Rampage (yes, Lizzy, Ralph and George did grace the fair lake town all those years ago) or a passing reference in that Beginner’s Guide To Minnesota, Fargo. But for those of us in the Land Of 10,000 Lakes, Duluth has some very special meanings. I mean, for a culture who’s passtimes often include “going up North to the lake”, it’s hard to get more “The Lake” than Lake Superior. Not to mention that for some people, Duluth is the last
bastion of civilization before you hit Moose Country, formerly known as Canada. So for us, Duluth represents many different things. It combines the rustic charm of the Great North Woods, the youthful energy of a college town, the campy garishness of a tourist trap, and the cosmopolitan appearances of a great port city.

This seeming schizophrenic image extends thankfully into the local food. And while large chains have obviously
penetrated the area, filling passing fishermen and campers with Concrete Mixers and such, Duluth has an amazing local independent food scene. During a recent trip “up nort”, I got a chance to check out a few places I think you should know about.

The first was actually a recommendation of Zac Bentz, local musician and all around Japan-o-phile (you should check out his Japanese music podcast Japantor Radio. It’s pretty keen). Hanabi is a small little sushi place tucked away
in the heart of downtown Duluth, mixed among the storefronts and salons and across the street from a family shelter. If not for the hand written sign proclaiming cheap drinks and happy fun, you might miss it completely. Luckily, Hanabi is a kind of style Tardis, looking more cooler on the inside than on the outside. The sushi bar along the back wall has neon blue running lites, and is backed by a chalkboard revealing the latest sushi and sashimi special mixed among cute drawings of samurai octopi. The speakers blast sugary J-Pop, and had the non-sushi bar been playing anime on the big screen, clearly Hanabi would be a weeaboo’s delight (in this case, Ang Lee’s Hulk movie was showing on SyFy, which is cartoonish in its own right. But enough about Nick Nolte.)

Catering to the Japanese enthusiast extends to the menu. In my constant quest to sample the girliest drinks in the nation, I was drawn to the Charizard, a cocktail whose ingredients escape me at the moment (and isn’t listed in the online menu) but was delightfully sororitastic. The sake list is short but stout, with a nice variety of crispness and strengths, and Hanabi is one of the few places I have seen that offers shochu, a Japanese alcohol similar to sake but stronger and often made with barley or sweet potato. Unfortunately I didn’t try it, as I was distracted by Pokemon-themed drinks, but it’s something I will definitely try when I return.

The food was exactly what you expect high end sushi from Duluth to be: competent without being flashy, hardy and filling in a way that sushi sometimes isn’t. The vegetable spring rolls were the highlight for us. Perfectly fried, giving the skins a nice crisp without being heavy or oily. The filling was warm and fragrant and still had a crunch of freshness which made it a perfect starter. The sushi that followed was similarly high quality. The fiance went with the aptly named Superior Roll, which was a nice mix of heat from the wasabi honey and pepper tuna with creaminess courtesy of avocado and crab. I went with individual servings of tuna rolls and tamago, or egg custard. The tuna was flavorful but ultimately a bit forgettable, due partially to the amazingness of the tamago. I admit I’m a bit of a minority in my love of a good egg custard sushi roll, but that’s fine by me. That means I don’t have to fight anyone over little eggy pillows of joy doled out by Hanabi. Seriously, these are the best examples of the form I have ever tasted. Light and airy, with brown sugar notes melding with the distinct egg taste. In the immortal words of Will Smith, “Damn”.

Onto the other end of the geo-culinary spectrum (I love making up words), you have Fitger’s Brewhouse, as American as Hanabi isn’t. This is part of the Fitger’s Brewery complex, a former brewery turned hotel/shopping mall/brewpub conglomeration. Remember kids, Minnesota created the mall (you’re welcome) so we know how to jam several businesses into one building. The Brewhouse is on the lower level of the complex, directly across from Red Star, an affiliated night club that looks more like Tony Starks “Stripper Room”. But I digress.

While the food is pretty decent (try the elk burger, it’s a nice alternative to regular beef or bison burgers and
hard to get further south), the stars of the show are the dozen or so beers brewed on site. These run the range of your standard lagers and ales, to several pale ales, both India and regular variety. The pale ales continue the current inexplicable fad of overhopped beers. We get it, the hop shortage is over. Luckily the Brewhouse does have a few nice alternatives to Steel Wool In A Can. The real surprise was how much we liked the Apricot Wheat Ale, enough to pick up a growler in the downstairs beer store. It’s the kind of beer that works with food, particularly savory man dishes like burgers and steak, than it does on its own. Its seems weirdly appropriate that a “girly” fruit beer works makes a good pairing (or couple, if you will) with more “manly” dishes. Maybe it’s a “Steaks Are From Mars” thing.

The final stop on this northern excursion is unfortunately the most inconsistent cuisine-wise. At Sara’s Table Chester Creek Cafe should be a locovores dream. Everything they serve is locally made and produced, right down to the local root beer named after Dorothy Molter, the Boundary Waters nurse who made root beer in the 30s as a treat to passing canoers. Unfortunately “local”, much like “independant” or “natural”, doesn’t always mean “better”. My brisket sandwich was oversweet and more than a little gritty while the “GLBT” ordered by the fiance, a beautiful BLT sandwich complimented by a nice fat slather of quality guacamole, caused acute sandwich envy. I’ve rapidly become an avocado/guacamole fan, especially on sandwiches and burgers, and the guac combined with meaty slices of tomato and crisp lettuce gave the sandwich a richness that I feel is often lacking in BLTs. Stealing small bites of this sandwich made my brisket all the more disappointing. The lackluster local root beer didn’t help matters either.

Luckily the vibe of At Sara’s Table (which is the least awkward way of saying the name) is decidedly low key and homey while still maintaining a hipsterish quality that works for the neighborhood. The walls are lined with bookshelves covering everything from fiction to history and art, and the large tables are perfect for big groups to get together, have some wine (from a good list for a small cafe) and some so-so food, and discuss the latest Johnathan Franzen essay before they ride their fixies up to the river for some canoeing. The whole place is unassuming in a way that the best cafes are, and in a weird way that excuses the at times disappointing food.

For someone who has lived in Minnesota all his life, some how I’d never managed to make it up to Duluth for business or pleasure. Seeing the great food options available to our northern brethren, I honestly can’t wait to go back. And I promise I’ll write about it earlier than a month after the fact. Happy, Jimmy?