Now that the Fahrenheit is 30 degrees at noon and parkas have come out of hibernation, it’s time to talk about comfort food.
In Minnesota, we know all about comfort food. It’s a heaping, belly-filling plate of meat and potatoes, in the form of a hot dish or a meatloaf. Gravy is great. When you’re looking for food to improve body heat and make oblivious to winter, nutrition and diet are down the list; it’s all about heat, bulk and staying power.
While I couldn’t find a full Four Stars of Hot Dish in the Rochester area or Four Stars of Meatloaf, I know of a few great examples of each species that total up to the Four Stars of Comfort Food.
For many people, the perfect hot dish involves tater tots, and I won’t disagree. At Cowboy Jack’s, the Western-themed saloon and grill in the Wyndham Garden Hotel, they pack a lot of ground beef, gravy, tater tots, corn and other vegetables in a cast-iron skillet for their hot dish ($14), topped with fried onions. It’s baked to a crispy crust on top and piping hot inside — be sure to use the hotpad handle on the fry pan.
Cowboy Jack’s might surprise you as a new hangout. They have a barrel of peanuts, high-top tables built out of whiskey barrels, wagon-wheel light fixtures and a long, long bar that looks apropos to an Old West saloon. If you can read it, they have one of the classic tales of the West on the wall, the legend of the Dead Man’s Hand. And it opens for the day at 7 a.m., which is another virtue.
Jack’s is owned by a Twin Cities company that also has the Cabooze, one of the legendary live music clubs in Minneapolis. Way back when, I lived just down the street from the Cabooze and it was a home away from home. There’s still some hope that Cowboy Jack’s will add live music — they’re certainly laid out to get that done.
Crooked Pint Ale House, which took over the Green Mill in Rochester earlier this year (and is owned by the same company), has a long list of comfort foods to choose from. That was part of the mission change for Crooked Pint from Green Mill, and judging by the crowds at night, you’d have to say mission accomplished. It’s one of the hottest night spots outside of downtown and it’s not just for the 32 lines of craft beer — it’s the affordable, nothing-fancy menu.
There’s a tater tot hotdish but my favorite is the beef enchilada hot dish ($14), another cast-iron skillet with big chunks of pot roast wrapped up in tortillas, buried in spicy tomato sauce and cheese, and baked. There’s one fan-shaped tortilla chip planted upright in the pan, as a flourish.
In Red Wing, Oliver’s Wine Bar has a truly MInnesota combination of good, eclectic wines, a list of elegant small plates (including garlic shrimp), and then some comfort food to hit the mainstream. The tuna noodle hot dish ($13) is just the way you remember it from school cafeterias and funeral lunches, though with premium touches — better tuna and peas, cream sauce rather than cream of mushroom soup, and with a salad and foccaccia bread.
They didn’t have foccaccia in my school cafeteria.
And who else but Chester’s Kitchen & Bar would have a meatloaf that even the most devoted son would have to admit is better than Mom’s? They serve two round slabs of beefy loaf, with a boullion-rich broth and mushrooms alongside a pile of genuine mashed potatoes and a bright green array of broccoli florets, to make the whole thing seem healthier than it is.
But again, nutrition and diet isn’t what comfort food is about. It’s to help you get through winter so you can lose weight and eat more salads in spring.
FOUR STARS OF COMFORT FOOD
Wyndham Garden hotel, 1625 S. Broadway, Rochester
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday-Saturday
2723 Commerce Drive NW, Rochester
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Monday-Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to midnight Sunday
227 Bush St., Red Wing
Hours: 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Shops at University Square, 111 S. Broadway, Rochester
Lunch, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Dinner, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Brunch, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.