By Rick Gion
The clever new tourism campaign slogan for Minnesota’s Otter Tail County is “find your inner otter.” Well, that otter better be hungry.
In addition to nearly 1,000 lakes, Otter Tail County is home to many great bars, cafes and restaurants. It’s fun to take a day trip and visit different establishments there. Yes, you could do a Zorbaz tour, and that would be zuper, but there’s definitely more to explore.
Located just north of the Silent Lakes on county Highway 41, Blackboard features casual fine dining. The restaurant is unique and operates in an old school house.
The menu at Blackboard features souped-up local favorites and craft cocktails. I mostly think of Blackboard as a supper spot, but they’ve recently announced a lunch menu for Saturdays and Sundays.
During warmer months, there is seating on the back patio. Most of the patio is screened in, so those pesky skeeters won’t make a meal out of you.
The food and drinks served at Blackboard would also be at home at a restaurant in Downtown Fargo. The eatery has had a number of big name chefs from the metro area grace the kitchen there. That skill, creativity and unique atmosphere make Blackboard a special place in the lakes area.
I next need to profess my love for Taqueria Chavez in Pelican Rapids. It’s just off of Highway 59 as you come into town. For quick-dining Mexican food, it’s just as good as any in Fargo-Moorhead. It’s actually better than most here. I make it a point to stop at Taqueria Chavez on my way to Maplewood State Park, or on my way home from a day of fishing, or with any excuse I can come up with.
My favorite plates at Taqueria Chavez include the birria tacos, chicken sopes, tacos al pastor, and the tortas. Those sandwiches are as large as my head. And, be sure to order a Jarritos soda pop with your meal.
Taqueria Escobar is another Mexican restaurant right down the road and is located in downtown Pelican Rapids. It’s also quite good, but does not take the top spot for best Mexican food in that town.
A short drive to the south, the big city of Fergus Falls features a great brunch restaurant called TOAST. It’s seriously good and is a crowd favorite of the Fargo-Moorhead Eats Facebook group. TOAST is self-described as “Scandinavian fusion.” I’d describe it as just plain delicious.
TOAST features many items with, well, a thick piece of toast, but also offers tasty omelets, Swedish pancakes and waffles. The plates at TOAST include fresh ingredients and look like works of art. Don’t forget - they also serve great coffee. It’s the jolt you need if you next go for a hike at Glendalough State Park near Battle Lake - that’s a subtle hint.
Speaking of coffee, TOAST uses beans from Stumbeano’s, which is a coffee roaster located in Fergus Falls. Very close to Stumbeano’s is Falls Baking Company, which specializes in making artisan breads. And, if you don’t know, TC Chocolate or now Sted Chocolate, is located in Fergus. There are also two good Mexican restaurants in Fergus, and who can forget Mabel Murphy’s and the Viking Cafe? The food scene in Fergus Falls is impressive for a community with a population of around 14,000.
Just so you know, the same folks that run TOAST also operate Union Avenue Bar & Eatery. It’s actually right next door. Union Avenue was a brew and pizza pub a few years ago, but the mission has changed a bit. It’s no longer a brewery, and the new version features handmade pasta dishes and woodfired gourmet pizzas. The bartenders there make excellent craft cocktails, too.
Just northeast of Vergas, Minn., on County Highway 4, is Spanky’s Stone Hearth. It’s probably one of the last lakes area supper club-type restaurants left in the area. It’s a classic in that sense, but the menu there keeps up with a lot of the latest food and wine trends. The menu features fish, steak and chops, but also includes items with a big city flair.
Spanky’s overlooks Rose Lake and the view is scenic. The drive there from the metro is also scenic once you hit Lake Lida on Highway 4.
That sums up a quick food tour of Minnesota’s Otter Tail County. However, I also wrote this column for sentimental reasons so you’ll have to read on a bit more here.
When I was really young, my grandparents owned a small place on Lake Lida. I spent a lot of hot summer days in Otter Tail County. The jingle of the old Pelican Rapids TV ad from the 1980s will forever be stuck in my head - “Pelican Rapids sure can make you feel at home.” It still does, actually.
During that early time of my life, I remember going to cafes in Pelican Rapids after church and to the Pelican Supper Club just off of Otter Tail County Highway 4 sometimes for dinner. All of those places are now closed, but the good memories are still there.
There are new memories to make, and I’m looking forward to trying out additional eateries in Minnesota lakes country this summer. My inner otter is hungry for more.
YOU SHOULD KNOW
Blackboard is just north of the Silent Lakes on Otter Tail County Highway 41
Taqueria Chavez is just off of Minnesota Highway 59 on the north end of Pelican Rapids, Minn.
TOAST,116 South Union Avenue in downtown Fergus Falls, Minn.
Spanky’s Stone Hearth is northeast of Vergas, Minn., on Otter Tail County Highway 4
Rick Gion administers a Facebook group called “Fargo-Moorhead Eats” that’s dedicated to the area’s great cooks and cuisine. The page now has nearly 20,000 followers. Check it out, join, and feel free to post items about your local culinary adventures and home cooking. And, while you’re at it, also join the Instagram page!
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