By Rick Gion
The winter blues has me feeling sentimental about former Fargo eateries. It’s been so cold recently that I need to warm up with some fond food memories.
The first eatery of absence on my nostalgia list is Bertrosa’s Cafe at their Downtown Fargo location. For those not familiar, Bertrosa’s opened a spot on south University in the late 1990s. It eventually ended up in the lower level of the Black Building after a brief stint off of south 45th Street. Their main fare included Chicago-style beef sandwiches and hot dogs.
I probably ate at Bertrosa's twice per week when I was in college. It wasn’t the most upscale dining experience, but it was quality food for a reasonable price – perfect for a hungry student. There was usually a daily special that came with soup or salad. The salad bar was great and the memory of the beer cheese soup still satisfies.
On most Wednesdays, Bertrosa’s special was hot turkey sandwiches for $7. It was a full plate of homemade grub with your choice of soup or salad. It was unbeatable. In fact, Bertrosa’s slogan was “nobody beats our meat.”
Speaking of meat, their Chicago beef sandwiches were so good that they are lore around here and still discussed by hungry bar-stool food aficionados to this day. My favorite was the horseradish beef sandwich with extra giardiniera and a small cup of au jus. It wasn’t a truly authentic Chicago Italian beef sandwich, but I am not a purist or food rules person. Learn the rules and then break them I say.
I’m sure many would agree that Downtown Fargo hasn’t been the same since Bertrosa’s closed.
The first owners of Bertrosa’s are the current owners of Beer and Fish Company, Dempsey’s Public House and the two Wurst Bier Halls. They now have a Fargo food empire. It’s well deserved.
If this column was about cocktail bars, the original HoDo Lounge would be in the No. 1 sentimental spot. For food, it’s No. 2.
However, that doesn’t mean the food wasn’t top-tier. The HoDo Lounge helped to revolutionize Fargo’s food culture about 20 years ago.
Anyone miss the HoDo’s bison burger? How about the hanger steak with the fresh-cut fries and house-made aioli? How about General Dirty’s chicken? Yes, please. These dishes were created with local and regional ingredients. HoDo was one of the first restaurants in North Dakota to implement those goals and guidelines. It was a ground-breaking change from the fried-food culture here at the time.
The newly opened Blarney Stone at the Hotel Donaldson has kept some of the menu favorites as a tribute to the former establishment. The management made a good decision in doing so.
Remember the small Vietnamese restaurant in a strip mall just off of Main Avenue and about 25th Street? I sure do. That restaurant, My Viet, was the first of its kind in the area.
My Viet was a frequent stop for me in the late 1990s. At this restaurant, I first discovered Vietnamese pho soup and rice vermicelli bowls. It also opened my eyes and mouth to fresh spring rolls and sweet potato-shrimp fritters. I also learned how to properly eat Vietnamese-style fried spring rolls by wrapping them with crisp lettuce and herbs then dipping the handful into spicy-sweet fish sauce. The hot, cold and crunch of that combo is amazing. It’s something I concoct to this day when I make Vietnamese-style fried spring rolls.
My Viet was a family-run joint with the grandmother cooking in the kitchen most of the time. No wonder the food was so good. It rivaled many Vietnamese places in the Twin Cities at the time. I’m not kidding.
The owners of My Viet eventually closed the restaurant and operated an Asian market on Main Avenue for a while. I haven’t heard much about them recently. They’re super friendly folks.
Perhaps Fargo’s first attempt at real Italian food was Luigi’s at the Conservatory, located on the upper levels of the Stone Building in Downtown Fargo. The main room the restaurant was located in is beautiful. It was once a space for classical music performances.
I ate lunch at Luigi’s quite often back in the late 1990s. While dining there, I was introduced to eating bread dipped in herbed olive oil and balsamic vinegar. My first experience eating fried calamari was also at Luigi’s. Both culinary excursions were quite exotic for Fargo back then.
The owners of Luigi’s also operated a night club in the first level of the Stone Building called First Avenue. Acts such as Dick Dale, Elliott Smith, Fishbone, and New Power Generation performed there. It was a happening place at the time. If First Avenue and Luigi’s existed in Downtown Fargo now, they would be very successful.
The esteemed establishments mentioned above are at the top of my list. However, there are many others on that list including Beefsteak Club, Bosnian House, Daran’s Southern Soul Food, D’Vine, Happy Joe’s, Josie’s Corner Cafe, Littlefield’s, Monte’s, Paisano's, Prairie Roots Food Co-op, Saffron, the Downtown Juano’s, Toscana, and Yukihana. Whew, I’ve obviously spent a lot of time eating over the years.
Here’s to many more years of eating and to hoping that my current favorite restaurants don’t close any time soon – happy thoughts for this new year.
Editor's note: Rick Gion administers a Facebook group page called “Fargo-Moorhead Eats” that’s dedicated to the area’s great cooks and cuisine. Check it out, join, and feel free to post items about your local culinary adventures and home cooking.
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