By Rick Gion
In the upper Midwest, a bowl of knoephla soup is where dumpling dreams are made. And lately, my dumpling dreams have frequently come true.
Let me explain a bit more. If you’ve been checking out the Fargo-Moorhead Eats Facebook group lately, you know that I’ve been on a knoephla soup tasting tour of area restaurants. In recent months, I’ve tried this soup at quite a few spots, amounting to a whopping 16 restaurants. I have photos of most posted in the Facebook food group to prove it. My waistline has grown, but my wallet has slimmed.
Not to insult, but I’ve found that folks usually eat knoephla soup at one or two places and think that a particular restaurant has their favorite flair. Instead, I tried my best to have both an open mind and stomach. And for all you knoephla soup purists out there, please read this whole article. You’ll find out that I know my stuff. I feel confident that it’s an erudite discussion.
This column ranks the top five knoephla soups that I sampled according to my palate. To me, the two big factors in this contest were the creamy soup broth and the dumplings. The dumplings needed to be sturdy and the broth needed to be flavorful and not too thick or thin. I do like an even ratio of dairy to stock. Too much dairy can make this soup extremely rich. I also prefer a limited amount of potatoes in mine.
In case you’re wondering, I tried this soup at Blarney Stone at the Hotel Donaldson, Boiler Room, Cafe Robert at Scheels Home and Hardware, Cracked Pepper, Deaner’s Diner, Kroll’s Diner, Luna, Michele’s Table, Moonrise Cafe, Nichole’s Fine Pastry and Cafe, O’Kelly’s Bar and Grill, Pepper’s Sports Cafe, Randy’s University Diner, Rising Bread Co. in West Acres, Sons of Norway, and Wurst Bier Hall Downtown. Many of these restaurants had well-executed soups, but others offered pasty glop. And I’m not saying that the knoephla soups featured below are the best in town; I’m just saying they are the best I tried after sampling soup at a lot of restaurants. There are probably 10 more knoephla soup offerings out there right now to sample, but I’m just plain over it.
Let’s get to the rankings regarding the sweet 16, shall we. Some of the restaurants listed below have knoephla soup on the menu regularly, and for some, it’s seasonal. Fortunately, it’s now soup season, so it's a ubiquitous menu item around here. Sorry to disappoint, but Kroll’s didn’t make the top tier. I would rather “sit down and eat” this soup at other restaurants in Fargo-Moorhead.
Luna on South University Drive in Fargo came in at No. 1. This restaurant’s knoephla soup wins the tasting contest as the most souped-up selection. The creamy broth and thickness of this soup was superb. The dumplings were also perfect – not too dense and not too soft. The addition of yellow potatoes to this soup was a great move, because they hold up nicely. I also liked the chopped fresh chives added just before serving. Sometimes it comes with a drizzle of high-quality olive oil. I know that isn’t traditional, but it’s a welcomed addition. My only complaint here is that this bowl of soup needed a tad bit more salt during one of the visits, which is an unusual complaint when it comes to soup served at restaurants. This bowl of knoephla soup was $8 and paired well with the arugula and pear salad that I ordered. The head chef at Luna is a two-time James Beard Award semifinalist, so the quality of this soup comes as no surprise.
In second place is Cracked Pepper, just west of 45th Street on 17th Avenue South in Fargo. It was very close to taking first place, though. If tradition is your preference, Cracked Pepper would most likely take the top spot. This soup had a good balance of creamy broth and thickness. It wasn’t super thick like some I’ve tried. The dumplings were large, rustic, and perfectly cooked. It’s truly a dumpling-lovers delight. I also liked the addition of medium-sized chopped root vegetables. Also, the cooks obviously knew not to put too many potatoes in it. A large-sized soup order at Cracked Pepper was just $5.25 and paired well with a thick slice of homemade white bread. Simply delicious. This soup is the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) of traditional knoephla soups in the area.
In third place is Nichole’s Fine Pastry and Cafe on the edge of downtown Fargo. It’s known as more of a coffee shop and patisserie, but the lunch offerings there are always quite good. Both the dumplings and the creamy broth in this soup were excellent. It also wasn’t too thick or thin. A large mug full of knoephla soup is $6.50 at Nichole’s. The one complaint I had with this soup is that it had a little too much dried thyme added to it. I do like thyme, and I understand that Nichole’s has a French theme, but they should lessen the amount used in this soup. For those who don’t know, this herb is frequently used in French cuisine. An interesting morsel about Nichole’s is that it was featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” in January of 2021. However, it ain’t no dive. The products at Nichole’s are always of high quality.
Wurst Bier Hall came in fourth place in this contest. I had knoephla soup most recently at the downtown location, but it’s good at both locations – downtown and West Fargo. It’s definitely a local favorite. It has a good balance of dumplings to root vegetables. The creamy broth is also good and has a nice consistency. The dumplings are cooked to the right texture in this offering. The knoephla soup at Wurst is of high quality and sets a standard. A bowl is $6. The original owners of the Wursts are Bert and Klaus Meyers. Those boys are Fargo food famous for good reason. If you remember Bertrosa’s, then you surely know.
In fifth place is the Blarney Stone at the Hotel Donaldson on Broadway in downtown Fargo. Some people really enjoy knoephla soup loaded with dumplings and little to no carrots, celery or potatoes. If this is your preference, this restaurant’s offering comes highly recommended. I also thought the creamy broth was quite good. An Irish-themed restaurant can make good German food. Unfortunately, this soup was just available recently in December. It was $6.99 for a very healthy portion. The Blarney Stone downtown may be bringing it back to the menu soon though. Keep an eye out, because it’s delicious and a must try.
Special shout outs go to a few more spots. I thought the knoephla soup at both Randy’s University Diner and Rising Bread Co. in West Acres were very good. During my soup ventures, there were some standouts for the quality of service. The top one is O’Kelly’s Bar and Grill. It’s a super friendly crew over there.
I’m sure there are many more good knoephla soups out there. I actually had to cut myself off, because I started gaining weight. There was also that pesky monthly content submission deadline for this edition of the High Plains Reader. That’s all okay with me, I guess. My waistline can’t handle much more. I really don’t want to have to buy larger pants.
Now that you’ve read all the good stuff, I’ll explain a quart of other fairly interesting things.
Although I’ve thoroughly researched this soup, I’m no purist. I’m after flavor, so my apologies now go to the fine folks who just read this article and are now shaking their heads.
Over the past few months, I’ve found that the varying versions of this soup make people’s blood boil. Bragging rights are abundant when it comes to knoephla soup. The comments section of the Fargo-Moorhead Eats Facebook group gets into a raucous rumble because of it. There really needs to be some knoephla soup cook-offs around here. I’m serious.
My research regarding this soup has led me to peruse church and community cookbooks from south central and southwestern North Dakota. Both areas of the state have a great number of folks of German-Russian ancestry. From my research, knoephla soup is obviously a dish that comes out of German-Russian agrarian culture and is based on the availability of simple ingredients.
The most recent good read is the “Gutes Essen - Good Eating in German-Russian Country” cookbook, which is a collaboration publication by Prairie Public and the Tri-County Tourism Alliance. It includes some content by Sue Balcom, a frequent local foodways guest on Prairie Public’s “Main Street” radio program. “Gutes Essen” is also a featured television program that sporadically airs on Prairie Public.
The three or “tri” counties referenced here are Emmons, Logan and McIntosh in North Dakota. For those who don’t know, that’s the capital of kuchen country in the greater and upper Dakota. These counties are a triumvirate of German-Russian culture, boasting Sauerkraut Day in Wishek and world-famous sausage from Stan’s Supermarket in the same town. There are also less-heard-of sausage bragging rights in other communities in those three counties.
Just so you know, the “Gutes Essen” cookbook is in high demand and has very limited availability. Ja, it features recipes for knoephla soup. In fact, one recipe is for an industrial-sized batch.
I need to mention that my father’s family is from southwestern North Dakota, so I have some gravel road credibility in German-Russian country. There are a lot of families out there with that ancestry and heritage. We’re actually German-Hungarian though. I know a dash of Hungarian sweet paprika in knoephla soup is probably blasphemy, but I would thoroughly enjoy it.
One thing I’ve noticed from the traditional knoephla soup recipes is that most versions are not overly thickened. A slight thickening comes from just the starch in the dumplings and the added potatoes. However, many versions of this soup that I tasted in Fargo-Moorhead are thickened like a chowder. My guess is with a cooked butter-flour mixture, which is called a roux in French cooking. There’s also a slight yellow color to a few soup selections here, either from colored chicken base or from a dash of turmeric. That’s definitely not traditional.
With the various recipes, come different spellings of the word knoephla - knefla, knepfla, knephla, knoefla, knopfle, etc. It basically means little button or knob – in effect a dumpling. I’m sure that I missed a few umlauts in this paragraph, so please forgive me. Eating all this soup lately has made me lazy.
There are other knoephla dishes out there besides soup. One that I enjoy includes dumplings with sauerkraut and sausage. It’s a scrumptious sautéed mix that I’ve enjoyed at many church basement lunches in southwestern North Dakota – St. Henry’s Catholic Church in Regent, N.D., to be exact. It’s a flavorful German-style hotdish with Midwestern moxie.
As you now know, knoephla is a virtual wonderland. I’m hoping this column gives you some ideas on new restaurants to try. To you soup purists out there, peace be with you in this new year. And, to everyone in the Fargo-Moorhead area, may your knoephla soup eating be prosperous.
Rick Gion administers a Facebook food group called “Fargo-Moorhead Eats” that’s dedicated to the area’s great cooks and cuisine. The page now has nearly 32,000 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 and TikTok pages!
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