Friday, August 29, 2008

Away at Sand Lake

Or What I did on my summer vacation

I hope you've managed to keep yourselves busy with legitimate day work while I've been so absent with decent distractions for you. I was lucky enough to spend a week up at our family's cabin which has meant severe fund restriction and a complete lack of Internet connection. So, please forgive me a moment of bloggity blog it's-all-about-me blog post. I haven't been to a decent restaurant for an entire month and I'm sure my eye twitch would be more severe were I not lucky enough to have this escape.

The first night we were there, my namesake Auntie Joy (90 some years young and Grandma Gidgie's baby sis, if you're keeping track) came out to visit with us. Some of my California cousins were staying at the cabin as well - a rarity we're hoping to repeat next year. My mom and I had every intention of grilling up some venison steaks until Joy (rascal) convinced us all to head over to the Oasis for some fried chicken and great rock n roll music.

I can't go here without getting Friends in Low Places stuck in my head. Inevitably, I spend the rest of the week yodeling, "Let me slip on down to the OOOAAAAAsis." Imagine how annoying this is.

The band was fantastic. They played mostly classic rock covers with an emphasis on Neil Young with a few Johnny Cash and Creedence songs thrown in for good measure.

Here's my cousin Greg, son Geoff (clearly a fan of the music) and Matt - looking and feelin' groovy. A special thank you to Geoff for pointing out that I am old. You have no idea, kiddo.

Laura had driven up to join us for the weekend as well. It's so unfair to post a picture of the ladies when we've all got cabin hair, but this must be documented for posterity.

There was a lot of dancing, but Laura, Mom and my sister Jules and I headed back to the cabin pretty early. We were pooped and I couldn't wait to get to sleep in my cabin room on the water. We were staying down in the boathouse, that has since been converted into bedrooms. The waves washed away all city stress I'd carried up with me and I fell into a heavy and sound sleep.

Of course, the downside of such happy sleeping circumstances and country beer meant waking up at the crack of dawn and hobbling, quickly up to the main cabin, legs crossed and hopping the last few steps.

For breakfast I whipped up a bunch of custom ordered fried eggs and bacon from F&D Meats. Their bacon is some of the best that I have ever had - not to mention really reasonably priced.

We spent most days lounging about and reading. While the day before, the sun had been shining and the Cali-crew were able to get out on the water, the wind had switched and now it was too cold for swimming.

Here's Matt hard at work:

I'd like it noted that I do not endorse, nor condone this shirt. Sleeping next to him is Reggie, my mom's new puppy and on the back of the couch is Coby. We're not usually the sort of family that travels with the house cats, but Julie couldn't find anyone to come check in on him, so up he came, car sickness and all.

After hours of Jenga marathons and spotty TV reception the sun came out. Most of us ladies grabbed our magazines and headed for the shore (Julie was sleeping - she sleeps when most people are active, not unlike the bats that live above the fireplace.)

The boys headed off for the fishing boat. They had great success. Matt landed a near record sized Crappie, but it was Geoffie's big success with the Northern that thrilled us all. He'd had a smaller one on the hook when this big feller swum up from behind and chomped on the tail of the smaller one, refusing to give it up.

The guys were able to coax it into the net and voila - our biggest catch of the week:

For lunch, rather than a fish fry (because we did let the big fella go) I boiled up some Kramarczuk's Polish sausage in beer and onions that Laura had been kind enough to gift us with.

There was eating, beer drinking and then back to the reading. Julie woke up and stoked up the fire for us before starting the sauna.

We try to have a sauna every night we're up there. The building we use is converted from an old playhouse that was dragged down to the beach and adorned with a wood burning stove. Julie's theory is that you have to stoke it for hours to get the just perfect fire - cooking the rocks until everything is a good 180 degrees.

Of course, Greg the California Authority things this is a huge waste of wood and just get it in there, get it hot and get going! There was a lot of debating, but Julie got her way and subsequently spent the remainder of the afternoon hauling a faded Red Flyer wagon up and down the hill until she appeared at dinner, sweating and declaring it ready.

"Joy, are you gonna sauna?"



"No, okay, I will." Nothing gets my sister going more than me skipping the occasional steam. Personally, I don't much enjoy being sweaty and stinking, while knowing that I won't have a shower for another good week. Plus, I may be over 30, but that doesn't mean that I don't enjoy needling the baby sis every once in a while.

Before the big steam we finally grilled up the venison that had been marinating in fresh rosemary, oregano, Worchestshire sauce, tarragon red wine vinegar and tons of fresh ground pepper.

Bloody wonderful. We did a big steak for the faint at heart as well.

Then we all donned our suits and shuffled down to the sauna. There's a hilarious picture of me sporting a giant American flag beach towel, but I'm sure as hell not posting it here. Trust me, though, it was the size of a comforter and swathed around me, beet-colored moon face and look of annoyance. It's a wonder no one jumped to their feet and started singing the minute I walked into the room.

We sweated our asses off - my cousin Marilyn's husband Dave just dousing the rocks and stove with water. The steam smacked us in the face time and time again, no one wanting to be the first to go. I'm not a big sweat-er, but rivulets drained into my eyes and dropped the the sappy wood below me. Finally, someone called uncle and we all raced out in the early autumnal evening, steaming and shrieking. I dodged my slow mother and raced into the frigid water and swimming a couple of breast strokes before breaking the surface of the water and howling.

The big moon was covered by clouds, but usually, this is the best place to see the stars. It's like you can reach out and yank off Orion's belt for your own accessory. You just don't get stars like these in the city. I was momentarily nostalgic for my own childhood of growing up on the shores of my own large lake, until the water shocked me back into the present and sent me careening towards the sauna for one more steam.

In the morning, my skin felt heavenly and I'd slept even harder than the night before. (Although, again, there was the six am hop/dash up to the main cabin.)

The next day was colder than the first and I think it was that which drove the California cousins home, airline tickets be damned. It was hard to say goodbye because I hadn't seen them in years. This summer we lost our grandma and not long before that, they'd lost their mother (my Aunt Peggy) their larger than life father (one of the great personalities ever to roam the earth - my Uncle George), and before that my dad. We were all keenly aware in the holes that stretch through the wearing fabric of our lives. We're thankful to have the opportunity to knit together our bonds. It's easier to remember that we're all family and in this together when we've got this quiet time in the wilds of Northern Minnesota, the wall of old photographs smiling down at us.

Oh, and of course, there is cooking

I think if you look closely into those coals, you'll see my Grandpa Dunk's face, smiling up at the two of us in the sacred family space he left us, doing what he enjoyed best. Eating, drinking, laughing and loving.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Q&A with the Me at the Minneapple

CindyMN commented on my last post:

Hey there!!We are heading down to the big TC's this next wk. Would you mind giving me some restaurant recommendations? I would love to hear what you think. We'd like to try something different then the normal red lobster or olive garden. something FUN. We have 2 teen daughters. So something not too spendy, but fun in the bloomington/south metro area.I would love to hear your thoughts!!THANKS

First - thank you for even asking. That's so cool. I've had a few people ask me about where to eat when in the Bloomington area and I always struggle because I don't go out there often anymore.

When I very first moved down here, after fleeing my picturesque hometown because they just don't get me and no one here will ever understand my pain I landed in Bloomington. Actually, to be honest, first I landed in Richfield in what used to be the Tressman Music dirt parking lot in a 70's era RV with a broken sewage system and two buddies, Jerome (who wished that James Hetfield was his long lost father) and Guido (not his given name, but better than.) Anyhoo, after tiring of the acrid smell and bathing in the Super America sink we decided to get an apartment and found one nearby in a complex that housed mostly immigrants who worked at the Mall of America. Eventually, I, too would become employed there.

Those were some weird times. I have so many stories that I could get in to, but will save you the gory details other than that I thoroughly apologize to my parents for what I put them through.

Anyway, that's not what you asked. There are actually a couple of good spots that have stood the test of time in the Mall of America. I know, shock, right? Me, enjoying big mall dining? But it's not the chain spots that eventually die. And it is most certainly not the Rainforest themed restaurant where I was once fortunate enough to dine in the path of some stampeding elephants.

One of my favorite suburban restaurants is the Twin Cities Grill on the first floor, North side of the MOA. The food is Minnesota focused and varied enough to please all palates. They have great burgers with delicious malt vinegar soaked fries, dusted with a little season salt. My jaw muscles twinge at the thought. The perfect salty, sour food combination. The fish is also incredible, the walleye does not disappoint. They are a little bit more expensive than Ruby Tuesday, but not that much and the welcome reprieve the restaurant offers can't be beat. You and your girls can get some serious shopping in and then step inside this coolly lit room and the din of the mall just melts away.

The service is polished, too. I've never been treated rudely and the food has never been anything but delicious. Last time I was in the mall, I lasted longer than my usual 20 minutes before I start regressing and yelling at rude customers to back up OFF the cash register and get in LINE you will get checked out AS SOON as it is humanly possible YOU CREDIT CARD WAVING PARASITES! (You can see why I eventually transitioned out of the customer service industry.)

Other restaurants in the Great Mall that come to mind are yummy burgers and shakes and Johnny Rockets. No matter how many times I've eaten there, when the guy draws a little ketchup smiley face to go with my plate of fries, I'm utterly charmed.

Tucchi Bennuch are owned by the same group that owns the Grill, Lettuce Entertain You. They know what they're doing. The pasta dishes are not far from what you'd find at the Olive Garden, but way better. Man, the last time I ate there was right before I saw Eric Clapton play at the newly christened Xcel Center - what a wonderful night that was. He played Sunshine of Your Love just for me, I know it.

If you'd rather not hit the behemoth mall, then my recommendations get a little sketchier. Because of the bizarre nature of most of my memories of this time of my life, I don't head back there too often. (Or... exactly remember every thing.. precisely.)

One more place that should not be missed is if you can get in to the West Side of St. Paul for breakfast is Mickey's Diner. The original dining car is just about impossible to get in to, but most people don't know that there is another Mickey's on West 7th (take 494 E, follow 5, which turns into West 7th, watch for it on your right, about 2 miles in, just before a Famous Dave's. It's a really quick trip from Bloomington) They serve the same out of this world malts and the hashbrowns... Oh, the hashbrows. They're made every day, on site and fried in lard. They are the holy grail of hasbrowns. You never have to worry if they will be soggy on one side, or slightly cold in the center. These little tender beauties fry up crisp and brown with just a thin layer of tender, homey taters. And unlike the surly/kitchy attitude the original Mickey's promises, these ladies are loving and quick to warm up your cup of coffee. Watch for the Gov. When he's not out campaigning, I've caught him in there a few times, hair still spiked from sleep and sweet looking kids by his side.

I hope I'm at least a little helpful. And, if your girls grow up and one maybe doesn't want to live in a dorm right away? I'd really stick to your guns on that one. No young lady should be rooming with a guy named Guido.

Mom - I'm sorry! I love you! You were right! You were always right! But then you knew that, didn't you? Thanks for letting me figure it out on my own.

And now, as penance, I give you a picture of 19 year old Joy dancing at her friend's wedding in an ill-fitting, handmade, blue, satin, with gauze overlay bridesmaid dress. Looks like two pigs fighting over a blanket.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Hacienda Del Sol - Duluth

Minneapple goes on the Road!
Last weekend I traveled up to my adopted home town of Duluth to join the other hoards of tourists viewing the historic "tall ships."

They were pretty cool. Not standing in line for hours on end cool, but I'd definitely say they were neat. Mostly we just wandered around looking at all of the people. This was people watching on a State Fair kind of level. I saw a spiked haired mullet not unlike a wandering hedgehog and the a fanny pack the size of a steamer ship loaded on the back end of a human pontoon. It was extraordinary.

The weather was gorgeous, too. It was perfectly sunny and no humidity. I'd luckily landed there on one of the five days where the weather is nice. After all the oogling, I was starving. We wanted to have a sit down lunch, but somewhere a little off the beaten path. All of Canal Park was packed, so we decided to head in to town. Matt said he hand a hankering for Hacienda Del Sol and I remembered that they have one of the best patios in town.

The restaurant is located in a cute little store front sort of kitty corner from Fitger's brewery on Superior street. The thin room belies the expansive patio in back. You walk through the room, out the back door and up the steps to a little Mexicano oasis.

It's entirely fenced in and there is barely a view of the lake, but there are trees and landscaping. The walls are covered with Aztech inspired murals and tables are each adorned with a little pot of blooming flowers.

The waitress was kind enough to keep us knee deep in chips and salsa as we waited. All of their food is made from scratch and made to order. The salsa was very fresh and very mild. While Julie was reading us an entertaining story about baby pictures on Facebook from the Weekly Reader, Matt slapped his knife, which spattered the salsa all down the front of him. His pants, shirt, even shoes. He furiously dabbed while we pretended to study the landscape.

I ordered the special, enchiladas rancheros, my mom got the chili rellanos, Julie had the beef enchiladas and Matt ordered the chorizo burrito. Here is what they all looked like:

Good thing the waitress knew who got what because I couldn't tell by first glance. My enchiladas were covered with a chunky tomato sauce and underneath were two corn tortillas wrapped around gooey cheese. The beans were creamy, smokey and lovely. The rice tasted fresh - nothing like that Tex Mex crap you get at most middle of the road restaurants. It was good, if not particularly interesting. Mom gave me a bite of her chili.

The mild green poblano was stuffed with cheese, lightly breaded, fried and served under a blanket of the red sauce. The freshly fried flavor came though, no sodden evidence of ever having been frozen.

I think my favorite dish was actually Julie's enchiladas. She scooped me up a few bites onto the tortilla chips. They were simply ground hamburger with cheese and enchilada sauce, but boy were all of those things done well. On the chip, they were my new favorite nachos.

I wouldn't say that the food is a good enough draw to get me to drive all the way up for a day trip, but it was comforting and familiar in a gorgeous city on the water. The patio should be savored on these few, perfect days of sunshine.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Love is...

Love is parting ways after lunch with a chocolately kiss and saying, "Bye... I'm going to go get a cookie!"