Fine dining in the upper Midwest

What’s the point of ordering the same-old, same-old when traveling and when you have hosts and companions who can point out menu delicacies?

During a reporting trip to the Midwest, CNS photographer Bob Roller and I were at a restaurant a block from St. John Church in Rochester, Minn., with Bishop Bernard Harrington of Winona. In one of his last offical acts before retiring as bishop there, he insisted photographer Bob Roller and I try the walleye sandwich. And not just any walleye sandwich, but the beer-battered walleye sandwich.

I’m game for just about anything, but Bob, who maintained a running and fitness regimen while on the road for CNS’ “On the Farm” series, had to be rather strongly encouraged to ask for it. The verdict: He liked it. So did I. 

At Sabor Latino I (no sign of a II) in Postville, Iowa, I saw rabbit on the menu and ordered it. But the waiter-manager came back with his apologies for not being able to fulfill the order. “We didn’t go hunting last night,” he said. So, a form of breaded Swiss steak with melted cheese atop the steak, and fries atop the cheese, had to do. Confidentially, it was delicious.

So, too, was the lunch the following day at the parish hall of St. Bridget Church in Postville. Guatemalan women who had been arrested in the meatpacking plant raid nearly a year before cook lunch for parish staff and volunteers. It’s their way of saying thank you for the help given by the parish and its people. The lunch included taquitos, salad, yellow rice, and chicken that fell off the bone before you could put it on your plate.

The bartender at a watering hole in Decorah, Iowa, offered Bob and me some “Ole and Lena” fortune cookies. Rather than the expected Chinese adage or prediction, the slip of paper inside the cookie offers jokes about a Nordic-American couple. The cookies tasted good, though.

For sheer audacity, though, one must go to the Irish Shanti (that’s right, an “i,” not “y”) in Gunder, Iowa. The Irish-themed restaurant-bar is one of the biggest enterprises in the tiny town. And it has menu items that nearly match it. I would have tried the thick pork burger sandwich were it not for the Gunderburger, whose reputation extends into Minnesota.

The Gunderburger gives the soul who orders it a pound of ground  beef with a wide choice of toppings, condiments and assorted slatherings. The bun is only regulation size, though, so one must use a knife and fork to cut away slices of the burger in order to pick up the rest of it. I have to say it was well worth the effort.

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A garage treasure

When CNS photographer Bob Roller and I paid a visit to St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Fayette, Iowa, as part of a trip to the Midwest for a CNS series on rural America, Father Jim Brokman, pastor, took us on a tour of the parish grounds. He didn’t really expect we’d want to see the inside of his garage.

He noted that when he took over as pastor of the parish, in the Dubuque Archdiocese, the garage was too cluttered for his liking. Inside there was indeed a bit of clutter, including some Christmas decoratons — and a bronze 1966 Dodge Charger in impossibly perfect condition.

The car isn’t Father Brokman’s, nor does it belong to the parish. Fayette hosts a classic-car fair each summer, and one of the regular participants rents space in the garage to store his Charger. Even in a dark garage, this bronze beauty shone.

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Patronizing advertisers

Most every publication carries a small announcement somewhere asking readers to “Please Patronize Our Advertisers,” from the daily newspaper to the weekly parish bulletin.

At St. Mary Church in Hanover, Iowa, the “Pray Together” missal aid prints photographs of the church on the front cover and advertisements for area merchants on the back.

One ad says simply, “Quillin’s In Waukon Featuring Huba-Huba.” What could this be? A rare cousin of the tuba with two horns?

Being an enterprising journalist, I drove to Waukon to find out. (I was in Iowa as part of a reporting trip through the Midwest for a CNS series on rural America.)

Quillin’s is Quillin’s Food Ranch, a supermarket chain. I tracked down a manager to ask what Huba-Huba was. “It’s out back,” he said, “behind the supermarket.”

And there it was: a gas station with the words “Huba-Huba” on the sides of the roof erected over the pumps to keep customers from getting soaked when they fill up in the rain.

I saw other Quillin’s in my travels through Iowa and Minnesota, but never another Huba-Huba.

By the way, a member of the Quillin family became a priest who served in southwestern Minnesota.

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