I knew we were in the right place when I noticed the kitschy sign, above the pie case and the Arco coffeemaker, that says, “Coffee: If you’re not shaking, you need another cup.”
A diner that lives by those words tends to have great comfort food, strong coffee and a few sassy waitresses, and that’s the case at Little Oscar’s, the roadside diner in Hampton. Little Oscar’s has been making java drinkers shake for 50 years and making travelers and local folks feel right at home.
It’s the kind of place where commuters or truckers headed north or south on U.S. Highway 52 sit elbow-to-elbow at the brightly lit counter with locals who’ve enjoyed the chat and chew for years.
Owner Vicky Dohmen, who bought the place in 2005, is a hometown girl who worked at the diner for a time before taking over. It’s open early and closes at mid-evening, which keeps it a quiet, reliable local favorite, along with the consistent, home-cooked goodness.
Take the hot beef sandwich, for example: The beef is tenderly roasted overnight, the drippings make a robust gravy, the potatoes are real, peeled and mashed on the premises, and the food is hot and on the counter about five seconds after it goes on the plate.
That makes it a Four Stars winner for hot beef sandwiches, my obsession this month. Joining Little Oscar’s in the pantheon for hot beefs are Grandma’s Kitchen and the Canadian Honker in Rochester and the Iron Skillet, the 24-hour restaurant at the Trail’s Travel Center on Interstate 35 near Albert Lea.
The hot beef is a big seller, Vicky said, though all the gravy-covered sandwiches are. If you plan to visit, clip and save this: It’s typically hot beef ($7.99) on Wednesday and Fridays, pork on Saturday and turkey on Sunday, though you might want to call ahead.
“It seems like we’re busier all the time,” says Vicky, 52. “We have people from the Twin Cities who stop in and say, why don’t you open one of these in Richfield? Or people from Rochester who say, why don’t you open one in Rochester?”
Her response is more or less, “mm-hmm” — she’s got her hands full in Hampton at the moment.
Some of the uptick is due to the highway changes in Cannon Falls, where the last stoplight on U.S. 52 was removed a few months ago, changing traffic patterns and driver habits, and causing some indigestion for Cannon Falls restaurants and businesses. “Oh, my goodness, yes,” the highway changes have grown her business, Vicky says.
But the rest of the credit goes to Vicky and her team. The distinctive A-frame building is a blast from the past — for those of you who remember the orange-roofed Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodges and restaurants, it looks like half a Ho Jo’s, with big windows and vintage touches inside. There used to be a cherry-red Northern Pacific caboose parked next door that dated back to when Oscar Palrud opened the cafe in 1964, but Vicky says it was more than she could keep up, so it was hauled away to the Little Log House Pioneer Village, near Hastings, in 2006.
But they still have a model train running on a loop around the two yellow-and-green dining rooms. I asked waitress Kendra Frandrup, Vicky’s niece, if it still worked and she said, “It breaks down a lot, but sometimes it runs.”
Among the other Four Stars winners this month, the Iron Skillet‘s hot beef has awesome chunks of pot roast that’s cooked over a wood fire in the dining room ($8.89). At the Canadian Honker, you get thick slabs of roast beef atop equally thick pieces of Vienna bread and some of the heartiest gravy around, for $9.29, and at Grandma’s Kitchen, the hot beef comes in two sizes, big and bigger ($5.15 and $6.55), and their beef is fall-apart tender.
Got a beef with this? That’s what Four Stars is all about. Tell me about your favorite hot beefs and I’ll share with readers.
What’s next for Four Stars? Bruschetta, the Italian appetizer that’s on menus all over the place now. They come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from spartan crusts of Italian bread with just a few cubes of tomatoes and onions, to a plate of bread served nachos-style, with extravagant toppings.
I’ll tell you where to find the most authentic, the most bounteous and the most delicious bruschetta, or my name isn’t Mr. Four Stars. That column runs on Nov. 6, two days after Election Day, so tell me your favorites and vote early and often.
FOUR STARS OF HOT BEEF SANDWICHES
23470 Emery Ave., Hampton
Hours: 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily
At the Trail’s Travel Center, Exit 11 on I-35, just south of I-90, Albert Lea
Open 24 hours
1203 Second St. S.W., Rochester
Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
1514 N. Broadway, Rochester
Hours: 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday