In 2020, folks in the local food scene like lobster rolls served from an Airstream trailer, bahn mi pizza from a new 'za spot, and honey chamomile ice cream that tasted like home. A bacon-barbeque-double patty burger from Toasty's earned a virtual chef's kiss from a booch brewer.
The News Tribune asked local brewers and bakers and others in the biz to talk about their best bites from the past year. Here is what they said.
DAVE HOOPS is the veteran brewer behind Hoops Brewing and whose “Hoops on Hops” column runs in the News Tribune. The New Scenic opened an airstream trailer, Scenic 61, and has been serving customers in the parking lot and at a few pop-up locations.
Meal kit memories
As someone who works in the restaurant business, it was so refreshing to have a nice meal cooked for me from New Scenic Cafe. My husband and I were sick of cooking at home so for our 13-year wedding anniversary, we got a meal kit from New Scenic Cafe. Missing travel and reminiscing about our worldly travels, we ordered the cassoulet (a hearty bean dish with housemade sausages and duck confit) paired with a cherry frangipan tart. I can't tell you how much it lifted our spirits and (temporarily) made us forget about the stressful times we are living in. I'll never forget it.
LAURA KIRWIN goes by the name Bayou Baker when she adds the dessert — red velvet cupcakes, pralines, coconut snowballs — to the Cajun dinners from Gumbo Boi. New Scenic Cafe, in addition to opening the Scenic 61 food truck, has added meal kits in its Mise en Place Marketplace.
To the root of it
Mama Roots is a huge standout this year. The vegan food truck sold out during their debut, and the people’s taste buds don’t lie.
During my visit, the Buffalo Chik’n Tacos and Moroccan Carrot Slaw were to die for with organic soy curls that really tasted like chicken! Also, greens, tomato, green onion, buffalo sauce and “bus-made” ranch (made of aquafaba, lemon, fresh dill and parsley, among other delicious things).
The slaw was sweet, bright, orange in taste and color and well-covered in their ACV-maple syrup-lime aioli. Their food is 100% plant-based, impressive on the taste buds, easy on the wallet and on Mama Earth — what more could you ask?
MELINDA LAVINE is a features reporter at the News Tribune and frequently contributor to the Things We Like column. Mama Roots opened as the weather warmed in 2020.
Super, super torta
I've loved the innovation of 2020 and the way food became a source of entertainment: The buzz around Doc Witherspoon's Soul Food Kitchen, the radically honest social media presence of Tony O'Neil from JamRock Cultural Restaurant, Gumbo Boi's muffuletta sandwich, served out of a borrowed kitchen, with the coziest homemade bread, Scenic 61 offering New Scenic levels of food with the decidedly concession stand of regular old bag of chips or a bottle of wine.
When I interviewed Eduardo Sandoval Luna about taking Oasis Del Norte to a pop-up spot at the mall, he recommended his super torta. I keep going back for it, this handful of taco flavors like beans and cheese and avocado; we add carnitas, but there are other meat options, on a soft tela roll. Every once in a while you come across a glop of mayo and audibly groan with pure food joy. Do not skip the tres leches cake, which is a moist crumble of dessert, and tack on horchata.
CHRISTA LAWLER is a News Tribune features reporter. Oasis Del Norte spent the summer popping up in areas often untouched by food trucks, including an insurance company's parking lot in West Duluth.
... And cocktail kits
I think the one thing that I enjoyed and was impressed with the most was Vikre and their quick offering of cocktail kits. Each one was hand mixed, creatively packaged and (duh) delicious. It really helped take the edge off those early months of the lock downs and helped keep me feeling classy. And let's not forget to mention the sanitizer program, I didn't drink it, but Vikre deserves a lot of praise for things they did this year. Also, I really enjoy Bent Paddle's Snow Maker brew.
ROBERT LEE went from cooking hobbyist to a full-fledged pop-up shop with Gumbo Boi, which serves cajun dishes on weekends out of the kitchen at Zeitgeist. Vikre Distillery began making hand sanitizer early on in the pandemic, but also has kits filled with ingredients for the home bartender.
Worth the drive
Growing up in a small town, I was used to taking road trips as the nearest town was eight miles away, and the nearest restaurant chain, 30 miles away. I did even more driving than normal this spring, with everything shut down, sightseeing out of boredom. I liked hitting Wisconsin Point until they posted a sign saying it was only open to people who lived in Douglas County (not sure how a guy walking outside by himself checking out a lighthouse contributes to the spread of coronavirus, but I digress).
So I went the other direction and ended up south of town at a place called Pickled Pete’s, shortly after Wisconsin opened back up. I was hungry, and the bartender recommended a place just down the road that served great Mexican cuisine.
A Mexican restaurant in the middle of nowhere? I had to investigate.
Turns out, Bucktales Cantina and Grill was just as advertised.
I’ve been to Bucktales about a dozen times since, and I’ve never been disappointed. Owner and chef Dee Morales never mails it in — it’s always good. He clearly takes pride in his work, whether it’s traditional Mexican dishes like enchiladas and chimichangas or gyros and Philly sandwiches, and there’s always a good Mexican beverage to pair with it.
I was there just the other day and while it was listed as an appetizer, the chorizo tacos were a meal in and of themselves, and man, they were good.
In this year of COVID-19, and with Minnesota back on lockdown, this holiday season Bucktales has been the gift that keeps on giving. It’s definitely worth the drive.
JON NOWACKI is the News Tribune sports reporter who writes the Taco Stand food column. Bucktales is a Mexican restaurant in a bar on South State Rd. in Superior.
Boat Club raves
“I was a big fan of The Boat Club. From set up to service to plated meals … loved everything about them and went to my own JamRock page to rave about them publicly.
TONY O’NEIL took JamRock Cultural Restaurant from a mobile grill to a brick-and-mortar spot at Average Joe’s and now has plans to move to the former Pak’s Green Corner, 1901 Tower Ave. The Boat Club, located in the lower level of the Fitger’s Complex, specializes in seafood and views.
We're so blessed with so many amazing local options. But, if I've gotta choose just one I'm going with the Burger in Paradise from Toasty's. It's mortal magic in a bun. Two cheeses, jalapeños, bacon, bbq sauce, lime, two perfectly juicy patties … *chef's kiss* … superb. I once let someone try a bite of my burger (pre-covid) and cried because they took a bigger bite than I was expecting. Also, I haven't confirmed this, but their fries taste like they blanche them. The BIP and fry combo could get me through, like, five more 2020s. Although Universe if you're reading this pleeeaaassee understand that it's just hyperbole. Less pandemics, more burgers in paradise.
RACHELLE RAHN of Duluth Kombucha recently reopened in a new space, 12 S. 15th Ave. E. Toasty’s, located in downtown Duluth, is a sandwich shop that offers variations on the classic grilled cheese sandwich in addition to burgers.
Burger + alfredo
There are two things I have eaten the most in 2020.
One would be a cheese burger from Lake Ave. This is definitely my favorite restaurant in Duluth. They always have a creative, well thought out delicious menu but I always come back to this perfect patty. I have to get my burger fix from them a few times a month. Hands down best in the D!
Two would be fettuccine alfredo from Gannucci’s Italian Market! Bill puts a lot of love into all his dishes but that one in particular is, in my opinion, the best in town. The noodles are handmade, perfectly cooked, and the sauce is creamy perfection.
JONATHAN REZNICK owns The Rambler food truck and MidCoast Catering and was part of the movement to deliver food to frontline workers during the pandemic. Lake Ave. is based in the Dewitt-Seitz Building and Gannucci’s Italian Market is a West Duluth mainstay.
Flavors from home
We honestly eat our food all the time, but we also love love love to visit Love Creamery. The completely made-from-scratch taste is never missed and included in every flavor. My wife especially loves the gluten/dairy free options like S’mores. My favorite flavor is the Honey Chamomile because it reminds me of home, a flavor I had growing up as a kid.
EDUARDO SANDOVAL LUNA opened a pop-up Oasis Del Norte at the Miller Hill Mall with plans to stay through March. Love Creamery, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, seemed to have a steady stream of masked and distanced customers throughout the pandemic.
Affogato + bahn mi 'za
The affogato at Love Creamery. This isn't news, but does it need to be? It's sooooo good. I like to get mine with the salted caramel ice cream and top it with whipped cream because it reminds me of the ones we had on our honeymoon in Italy!
The banh mi pizza at Lulu's pizza. Lulu's opened right before the pandemic began, which seems like unlucky timing, but maybe it wasn't since their pizza is pretty much the perfect take out food. We have been picking up pizza for dinner almost every Friday since the pandemic began, and the banh mi is my steady favorite.
EMILY VIKRE of Vikre Distillery published “Camp Cocktails” this past year and the distillery also made a quick move to create hand sanitizer when there was a sanitizer drought and also has created cocktail kits. Love Creamery is a craft ice cream shop that quickly adapted to the pandemic. Lulu’s Pizza has clever pizza options and is at 420 W. Superior St.
Wussow's mega list
It's been a super odd year for eating out, but there were still some good experiences. I have so many favorite spots like Lake Ave Cafe, Phoholic, OMC / Duluth Grill. It's really hard to pick something. I really miss the Scenic Cafe. The Earthwood Inn in Two Harbors sometimes has fresh herring and fresh lake trout fish cakes. It's bar food connected to a little motel, but if they have fresh fish they do a really great job served with hush puppies and fries. Yikes, it's a greasy dinner, but a little juxtapose to fine dining and super foodie fun that I'm usually after. For a favorite drink option, the new Jade Fountain has some really top-notch cocktails with really interesting ingredients and house made ginger beer and other concoctions.”
JASON WUSSOW made a quick shift to add a drive-thru window at Wussow’s Concert Cafe in West Duluth, in addition to hosting parking lot concerts this past summer. Jade Lounge is a tiki bar located across the street from Wussow’s and The Earthwood Inn will often update its Facebook page with its fresh fish options.