Dining out: A taste of the Midwest

Published: Friday, Aug. 21 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

My family and I spent most of this summer traveling, most recently to celebrate my in-laws' 50th anniversary in South Dakota.

I'm sure each member of my family enjoyed something different about the trip, but one thing I liked was — you guessed it — the local restaurants we visited.

I've always enjoyed the distinctive food culture of Utah, which even in my childhood boasted such diverse eateries as Ding Ho, Dask's and Hires Big H, and which has grown more rich, exciting (and, for me, homelike) over the years.

And while traveling through the upper Midwest, I was struck by the strong local flavor of many of the places we visited. Like my local favorites, to those who love them, they taste like home.

Nowhere is that more evident than at the Open Door in the town of Menno, S.D., population 671.

A disclaimer: The Open Door, right in the middle of Fifth Street, is owned by my mother-in-law's cousin. But she has so many cousins, it's hard not to run into them in those parts, and The Open Door is a great place to eat.

You could spend most of the day reading the signs and looking at the pictures adorning the walls, except that you'd be too busy with the day's special meal —roast beef, mashed potatoes and vegetables on the day we visited — and the jukebox, which will deliver up blast after blast from the musical past, free of charge.

My kids danced all over the dining room to tunes by Elvis and John Denver, not to mention three rounds of "Purple People Eater." And afterward, we had the best peach kuchen — a German hybrid of cake and pie — I have ever, ever tasted, plus 25-cent chocolate-chip cookies still warm from the oven.

Menno is lucky to have The Open Door, just as Early, Iowa, is lucky to have the Crossroads. This little white-sided building, snuggled right up to Highway 71, serves up fabulous blueberry pie — darkly sweet and tart blueberry filling and flaky crust with a thin, crisped layer of sugar sprinkled on top.

It was especially enjoyable to eat that pie in the Crossroads' dining room, the kind of place where the staff is unfailingly pleasant and down to earth and you're likely to pass a few words about the weather and its effect on the coming harvest with a local farmer there for lunch. People who say Midwesterners are hard to get to know have never been to places like this.

There's a nice feeling, as well, at 4 Queens Dairy Cream in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Open only in warm-weather months, serving frozen concoctions of nearly every stripe, 4 Queens is the place to be on a warm summer night in Cedar Falls.

Softball teams after a game, young families with ice-cream-covered toddlers, older couples who have come there for years, all line up in the humid July night to enjoy a local institution.

George's Pizza has long been an institution on Main Avenue in Brookings, S.D., home of my alma mater, South Dakota State University.

The place is open late, so students like it, but the whole town comes in for George's excellent pies, thin-crusted, piled with high-quality toppings and cut into squares.

With friends, we got a couple of pizzas and took them to a local park, where we ate, watched our kids play and marveled at how things have changed since we left South Dakota 14 years ago, and how they've stayed the same.

Vermillion, S.D., is a college town, as well — home to the University of South Dakota, historic archrival to my university. But I swallowed my distaste to meet some relatives there for lunch at Raziel's, a funky place in a historic building downtown that's using live music and tasty food to build itself a comfortable niche in the local food scene.

At Raziel's, I had a "sundae," served in a stemmed glass, of garlic mashed potatoes, gravy, bacon bits, cheddar cheese and red onions.

Apparently this quirky treatment of mashed potatoes is a feature at restaurants around the country, but I'd never had it, and I liked it a lot — really, what's not to like?

I plan to make my own version of the sundaes for my family soon, and if I ever get brave enough to try it, I'd love to learn to make peach kuchen as good as The Open Door's.

But even if I don't, I'll remember its sweet, heartwarming taste as a true flavor of a special place — just like my favorites here in Utah.

Stacey Kratz is a freelance writer who reviews restaurants for the Deseret News.

e-mail: skratz@desnews.com