We see that you have javascript disabled. Please enable javascript and refresh the page to continue reading local news. If you feel you have received this message in error, please contact the customer support team at 1-833-248-7801.

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Front Row Seat: I ate a whole Big Sturgeon burger at Bimbo's Octagon

An Iron Range landmark, Bimbo's Octagon is one of the oldest standing veterans halls in America. For the past 55 years, it's been a bar and restaurant beloved by locals and regular visitors to the community of Side Lake.

Man, eyes wide open in astonishment, inside a restaurant holding large burger with multiple layers of meat.
Weighing in at over a pound, the Big Sturgeon burger is a special order at Bimbo's Octagon.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune
We are part of The Trust Project.

SIDE LAKE, Minn. — Let's state this right up front, so I don't get in trouble. At Bimbo's Octagon, the Big Sturgeon burger isn't on the menu.

Building a Big Sturgeon is no mean feat, my server indicated. With staffing shortages being what they are, a rush of hungry patrons could slam the folksy restaurant's kitchen, so the owners have limited their offerings.

Fortunately, I showed up just after Bimbo's opened at 4 p.m. on a slow, rainy Thursday. There were only a few other people being served, and I asked very nicely whether a Big Sturgeon might be within the realm of possibility. My server didn't seem the least bit surprised that I'd driven 92 miles from Duluth just for the experience.

My journey to a 16.4-ounce stack of hot, juicy meat and rich, buttery bun (I brought a kitchen scale to weigh it) began last month. I was at a baby shower with some Iron Range residents, and I overheard one woman mention that her growing teen child had an appropriately healthy appetite. Her kid, she said, could put away just about anything — except, maybe, an entire Big Sturgeon burger at Bimbo's.

Exterior view of a low, octagonal restaurant with log sides. A boreal forest is visible in the background, and a few large black vehicles are parked outside.
Bimbo's Octagon, located on County Highway 5 in Side Lake, served as shelter from the storm for hungry visitors on a rainy afternoon.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

As a lifestyle journalist, you don't hear that combination of words and not take note. A little Googling led me to Bimbo's Octagon, a restaurant and bar just across County Highway 5 from Side Lake, in St. Louis County vacationland about 16 miles north of Chisholm. The route from Duluth led me directly under the gaze of the Iron Man.

ADVERTISEMENT

Though I wasn't necessarily expecting a religious experience, I fasted for 10 hours before my pilgrimage to the Octagon. As described on a 2006 menu that the owners dug out of their archives when they learned I was a journalist, the Big Sturgeon comprises "1/3 Lb. Burger, Sausage Patty, Slab Of Ham, Bacon, 2 Cheeses, Lettuce, Tomato, Onion & Pickle."

Mary Ann Pernat told me her late husband, George, invented the Big Sturgeon burger, named for a nearby lake. (There's also a Little Sturgeon — lake, and burger.) The couple were traveling in South Dakota some decades ago, she said, when George encountered a similar superburger and decided to add a Northland version to the menu at Bimbo's.

Yes, there was an actual Bimbo, and yes, the venue is literally an octagon. It was built in fall 1919, after a group of local veterans founded a Soldiers and Sailors Club, "which will have for its aim the promotion of social affairs and to obtain benefits for the men who donned the uniform," as the Hibbing Tribune reported in January of that year.

For historical context, the Side Lake octagon had been under construction for a week by the time Congress chartered the American Legion. That makes the building one of the oldest standing veterans' halls in America. The Legion post in Donna, Texas, which claims to be "the oldest American Legion Hall in the world," was also started in 1919 and dedicated in 1920.

The independent Soldiers and Sailors Club soon merged into the American Legion, but the Octagon only spent a handful of years serving the purpose for which it was built. The building was a store during the Depression, and sat closed for a long stretch. The Octagon finally took on its current identity in the mid-1960s, when it was purchased by one Matt "Bimbo" Chutich. In 1967, Chutich sold the venue to George Pernat and George's brother, Jack, but Bimbo's legacy endured in stained glass; the name has stuck to this day.

Above an indoor bar, a large stained glass sign, lit from behind, reads WELCOME TO BIMBO'S with the latter word in large yellow letters.
Matt "Bimbo" Chutich sold the Octagon shortly after it opened in the 1960s, but the restaurant and bar still bears his nickname.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

The story of Bimbo could fill its own column. Originally from Hibbing, Chutich was a fan of old-time music and styled himself "the Friendly Yugoslav." He left Minnesota and founded other restaurants in places including Marietta, Georgia. There, today's Delkwood Grill still references its founder's Minnesota roots and styles itself "Bimbo's in the South." There was also a "Bimbo's on the Hill" in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

According to his obituary, over the course of his life, Chutich founded a total of 33 Bimbo's restaurants. When Chutich died in Georgia in 2006, his remains were brought home to be buried at Maple Hill Cemetery in Hibbing.

Mary Ann Pernat no longer owns Bimbo's; 22 years ago, she and George sold to their son, Mark, and his wife, Christy. Mary Ann, Mark and Christy were all working at the Octagon when I stopped in last week. "People say, 'You could volunteer in town,'" said Mary Ann. "I say, 'Yeah, or I could volunteer here.'"

ADVERTISEMENT

She pointed to a photo of herself with her family from Bimbo's LBJ-era opening, and made sure I understood that the logs forming the Octagon's walls are all original to 1919. So are the windows, which were turned into display cases when an exterior surround was added to increase capacity and help winterize the building.

Interior view of a restaurant and bar, with log walls visible in the background. In the foreground are lamps and beer signs.
Inside Bimbo's Octagon, visitors can still see the original log walls and windows from when the building was constructed in 1919 as a Soldiers and Sailors Club.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

As I waited for my Big Sturgeon, a couple families sat at tables in the Octagon, their kids getting up to run over to an adjoining game room. Mark Pernat sat with one of the families for a while, catching up, and then walked me over to see historical photographs on display in a front room. One photo pictured the Octagon as it originally appeared; another showed giant water slides sloping into Side Lake. "I remember the trees they were tied to," said Mark.

A map mural on the wall dates to before the Octagon was "Bimbo's." It's been retouched over the years, Mark noted, since chairs and tables rub up against it. I thought of the North Shore Scenic Railroad, where general manager Ken Buehler likes to say that the best way to preserve a train is to use it. Perhaps you could say the same of an Octagon.

Bimbo's is well-preserved, and so is the recipe for the Big Sturgeon — complete with sausage made in-house. When my server agreed to accept the special order, she leaned around to call into the kitchen. "Got a Big Sturgeon coming back for you!" she called to the unseen cook. She then turned to assure me, as if I'd had any doubts: "He makes the best burgers. You're in good hands."

A very large hamburger stacked with other meats between the bun, in a basket with french fries and cole slaw.
The Big Sturgeon burger is stacked with sausage, ham and bacon, among other ingredients.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

When the Big Sturgeon arrived, my first challenge was simply to pick it up. As I reached my fingers down into the basket, I kept thinking I'd reached bottom, only to realize there was yet another layer I hadn't grappled with. When I finally succeeded at lifting the burger out of the basket, fries fell away like chunks of ice flaking off a rocket during launch.

A Big Sturgeon, I learned, can't be consumed quickly; eating one is a matter of building a relationship. You take a bite, savor it, breathe, sip your soda, check your phone. Then you dive back in, grateful for the opportunity.

I was glad I hadn't filled up on lesser foods, because I wouldn't have wanted to waste a bite. It's a lot of meat, yes, but it's all so flavorful that the burger implicitly shames "meat lover's" pizzas and omelets where the morsels are so tiny and dry, they might as well be Bac-Os. I can't deny that there are a lot of good reasons not to eat four meats at once ... but if you're going to do it, do it right.

A mural painted on a restaurant wall: a stylized map of area surrounding Side Lake, with lakes including Big Sturgeon, West Sturgeon, and Little Sturgeon.
A mural dating back over half a century at Bimbo's Octagon depicts the geographic features surrounding Side Lake.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

When my server left the check, she pointed me to the merch on display in the front room ("the Bimbo's butts shirts are kind of iconic") and asked me how the burger was.

ADVERTISEMENT

"Incredible!" I said, waving my arms in a very non-Minnesotan explosion of emotion that surely pegged me as someone who'd come up from the city. "I'm transported! Transformed!"

She just smiled and nodded. "Good deal."

The author of the humorous "visitor's guide," first published in 1987, has died at 83. Some aspects of the book are dated, but many of Mohr's insights remain as relevant as ever.

Short Cuts

A painting depicts a crowd of people wearing blue surgical scrubs and white medical coats holding signs that are variations on WHITE COATS 4 BLACK LIVES MATTER
"White Coats for Black Lives" by Carolyn Olson. Pastel on paper, 2020.
Contributed / Prove Gallery

In the wake of the nurses' strike, front-line workers are very much on Minnesotans' minds. It's an apt time, then, for Prove Gallery to open a show of 100 pieces by Duluth artist Carolyn Olson. Not all art has a message, but these pastel portraits do: by depicting "the essential workers who provided necessary services to society during the COVID-19 pandemic," notes a news release, Olson "honors those who performed the necessary services that maintained society in the face of growing apathy and disregard for their health." It's personal for the artist, whose two children are essential workers. The show opens with a Friday night reception and runs through Nov. 19. For information, see provecollective.org.

Book cover: "The Science of Witchcraft" by Meg Hafdahl and Kelly Florence, promising "the truth behind Sabrina, Maleficent, Glinda, and more of your favorite fictional witches"
"The Science of Witchcraft" is the latest from Minnesota authors Meg Hafdahl and Kelly Florence.
Contributed / Skyhorse

Spooky season is coming up, and fear not — so to speak — I'll have much more on that in coming weeks. My East Hillside neighbors are already decorating for the season, though, and an early event is coming up Thursday. Authors Kelly Florence, of Duluth, and Meg Hafdahl (Duluth-raised, now living in Rochester) are celebrating the release of the latest book in their "Science of Horror" series. They'll be at the Nordic Center on Thursday from 6-7:30 p.m., selling and signing their new book "The Science of Witchcraft." The authors will also be giving away copies of other books in the series to people who bring donations of specific items needed by Safe Haven Shelter and Resource Center. For details, see facebook.com/kelly.florence.

Picture book, "One Winter Up North" by John Owens, held in front of pair of vintage snowshoes. Cover illustration depicts a young girl in a snowy forest.
"One Winter Up North" by John Owens, photographed at the J.C. Ryan Forest History Room in the St. Louis County Depot on Monday.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

On Tuesday, the University of Minnesota Press will publish a wordless picture book called "One Winter Up North," by John Owens. A sequel to the illustrator's "One Summer Up North" (2020), the book follows a family of three on a winter camping trip in the Boundary Waters: snowshoeing, sled dog spotting, making snow angels, howling at wolves. (The latter seems inadvisable, but what do I know?) Full of smiling faces and bright white vistas, the book is a warm reminder that despite Minnesota's recent branding, you don't have to get all Bold North about outdoor excursions in the snowy season. With proper preparation, winter can be as relaxing as summer. Theoretically. For details, see upress.umn.edu.

Related Topics: FOODST. LOUIS COUNTY
Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
What to read next
Attempting to be honest with my cardiac doc, I naively shared with him my journeys up and down the hills around here.
Columnist Jessie Veeder reflects on having to take a backseat to her family's pack of dogs. "Why?" she asks. "Because heaven absolutely forbid, we ask the dog to move. Nope. No one say a thing about it."
Gardening columnist Don Kinzler takes questions from readers, including whether cutting blooms from Bobo hydrangeas for a bouquet will harm the plant.
Trick or treat, soap or eats — hey, what happened to that?