Food is important.
On the surface, this seems obvious. Yet, in a world of mass-produced quick bites, food doesn’t seem that important.
That’s why I love places like the Lincoln Café in Mt. Vernon, Iowa.
This restaurant – which uses the phrase as their motto – strives to bring exceptional food to people in small town Iowa. They believe that good food should be accessible to all people, regardless of where you live. And while there’s no doubt in my mind that Chef Matt Steigerwald could work successfully in kitchens in Chicago, New York, or San Francisco, his choice to bring “honest food” to the heartland demonstrates that good food can and should be accessible to all.
Recently, The Daily Meal ran an article outlining nine great “small food towns.” While I have significant quibbles with the inclusion of Evanston, IL and Danville, CA on this list (because of geography and not because of the quality of food), I found the list thought-provoking. Notably, it got me to thinking – what small towns have I been to other than the nine listed where patrons could get exceptional meals?
What constitutes a small foodie town? Well, for my purposes, it has to be in a metropolitan area of fewer than 300,000 people (or in adjoining metropolitan areas of less than 500,000 people). While I’m sure the food in places such as Evanston, IL, Danville, CA, or even Beverly Hills is spectacular, they are not small foodie towns. Yes, they have distinct identities. People in these towns take pride in their community. But these cities exist as part of large metropolitan areas and therefore should not be evaluated as an independent foodie community.
By no means is this intended to be a comprehensive list of smaller towns that have great food scenes. In fact, I’m probably missing small towns where I’ve had a great meal. Regardless, I’d love to hear your suggestions on places that should be on these lists. But, these are places that should definitely be included in the conversation for fantastic small food towns the next time a food writer takes on the topic.
Iowa City/Cedar Rapids/Mt Vernon, Iowa (Iowa City metro pop 2000: 131,676; Cedar Rapids metro pop 2000: 237,230)
Perhaps I’m including Iowa City/Cedar Rapids/Mt Vernon on this list unfairly. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of my life in these communities. With all apologies to every other place I lived before Iowa City, this is the place where I became an unapologetic foodie. This where I first had Indian food; learned to not turn up my nose to vegetarian cooking; and where I started to realize what a pleasure fresh food can be.
Needless to say, I have far too many foodie locations in this area for me to list them all. But, there’s one place that stands above the rest – the aforementioned Lincoln Café in Mt. Vernon. The Lincoln Café always has delicious, locally sourced entrees on the menu. However, I’m partial to their sandwiches and wraps. There’s nothing fancy about these items (and they’re very affordable), but the locally sourced products and careful presentation mean that basic items – such as a cheddar burger – are memorable.
However, eating in this area provides so many options that you wouldn’t expect in rural Iowa. I’m partial to the delicious vegetarian and vegan entrées from the Red Avocado. A visit to this vegetarian’s oasis will make diners forget their carnivore tendencies. Oasis Falafel makes my favorite hummus ever produced, along with amazing falafel. Taste of India in Cedar Rapids consistently prepares some of the best Indian fare this side of Devon Ave. And who could forget bistros such as 126, The Motley Cow, and Devotay. Plus, the New Pioneer Co-Op is one of the best co-op groceries I’ve seen, providing fresh, local foods to their patrons.
I would be remiss to not list a couple of places that are worth a stop for an after-dinner coffee – Fuel in Mt. Vernon along with the Java House and Capanna Coffee in Iowa City – serve strong, tasty coffees that rival many of the established coffee houses in other parts of the US.
Duluth, MN/Superior, WI (Duluth-Superior metro pop 2000: 275,486)
Duluth-Superior almost didn’t make this list. Though the population of the two core cities is slightly over 100,000 people, I was surprised to read that the overall metro population was over 275,000. Based on my experiences, this area seems much smaller than its official metropolitan population.
That said, regardless of the size, there’s some good food regularly served in the Twin Ports of Duluth and Superior. As you might expect, one of the highlights of the area is fresh fish. Not just any types of fish, but lake trout, salmon, and walleye regularly dot the menus of establishments in the area. Northern Waters Smokehouse is the primary purveyor of fresh fish in the area and their outpost in the DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace should not be missed.
Many of the other outstanding restaurants in the area specialize in what I can best call Minnesotan food. What is this? Basically, it’s what I think of as comfort food – the hearty portions of meats and vegetables that help people survive the long, cold winters of this part of the world. But many chefs in this region are playing with the traditional hearty food equation, interjecting new flavors, seasonal ingredients, and various spices into their creations. One of the best places to experience the fresh bounty of the area is the New Scenic Café. Located along the Lake Superior shore northeast of Duluth, the New Scenic Café is a must-visit if you’re looking for excellent food and wine. Their next door neighbor, Nokomis, is also worth stopping by.
A bit closer to town, At Sara’s Table/Chester Creek Café is creating excellent locally sourced meals, with a menu that is both comfortable Minnesotan and interspersed with flavors from around the world. Fitger’s Brewhouse crafts some good local brews, has locally sourced burgers, and their Pub-Style Wild Rice Burger (with a house salad drizzled in Maple Vinegarette) is a meal worth exploring. But, one of the biggest surprises of this area is found in Duluth’s historic, working-class west end where the Hanson family has turned a local diner into the Duluth Grill, a locavore’s heaven. The menu features updated, locally sourced versions of traditional diner food, alongside a myriad of vegetarian and flexitarian selections.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a few places across the bridge in Superior that are worth checking out. First, the Anchor Bar is a regional institution, serving some of the best burgers I’ve tasted. Their specialty is the Cashew burger – which I’ve never had, but colleagues swear by. Nearby is the Thirsty Pagan Brewing, another source of excellent local beers and deep-dish pizza. Finally, perhaps my favorite place in the entire area is Red Mug Espresso. It’s located in an artist’s incubator in Superior and serves wonderful soups and sandwiches – in addition to great coffees – that help visitors (and locals) make it through the cool days and nights that typify this area.
Hilo, HI (Hilo metro pop 2000: 40,759)
If there’s one place on my list that I wish I had more time to explore, it would be Hilo. I only spent 24 hours in town last year, but was completely enthralled with this quiet city on the east coast of Hawaii.
For foodies, the charms of Hilo start with the abundance of fresh, tropical fruits and vegetables that are grown in the area. The best place to view (and sample) the bounty of the area is at the Hilo Farmer’s Market, which runs seven days a week. But the charm of eating in Hilo doesn’t stop at the Farmer’s Market. One of my favorite Thai restaurants anywhere – Sombat’s Fresh Thai Cuisine – is found in a nondescript shopping center located across from the airport. What makes Sombat’s so special is the fresh herbs and vegetables – grown in her backyard – that she uses when preparing her dishes.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit many other places in the area. However, the memories of fresh papaya, locally grown coffee, and the complex flavors of Sombat’s merit inclusion on any list looking at small, foodie destinations. I know it’s on our list of places to return to for food and relaxation.
Decorah, IA (Decorah pop 2000: 8,172)
You want a true small-town foodie destination? Then look no farther than the quaint town of Decorah, Iowa. Nestled in the rolling hills of Northeast Iowa (yep, the state is not all flat) and the home to both Luther College and the renowned Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah increasingly embodies the excitement of locally-sourced foods and vegetables. The center of the food universe in Decorah is the Oneota Community Food Cooperative, where community members are able to buy locally sourced, fresh food to members and non-members. Arguably the best local restaurants are La Rana Bistro and Rubaiyat – both specialize in seasonal dishes using locally produced ingredients. On a per capita basis, Decorah might be the best foodie town on this list!