7 Dishes that Define Minnesota Cuisine & Where to Try Them
The Land of 10,000 Lakes is home to a diverse food scene with influences from around the world melding together in a way that is uniquely Midwestern.
If you go by pop culture Minnesota’s food scene consists of Scandinavian dishes, canned soup-based casserole of some sort (it’s called hot dish, thank you very much), state fair fare served on a stick, and, of course, a Juicy Lucy hamburger.
While there’s some truth to such generalizations, food in Minnesota is anything but static, typical, or boring. In fact, right now, it’s downright exciting.
The Land of 10,000 Lakes has been influenced by a multitude of different cultures. Some have called the state home for hundreds of years, like Northern European immigrants and Ethiopian refufgees. Others, like the Ojibwe, Dakota, and other Indigenous tribes lay an ancient ancestral claim to the lake-laden land. New influences from East and West Africa as well as Asia and around the world contribute to the modern character of the state’s cuisine and culture, too.
“Modern Minnesotan cuisine is based off of what we grow here,” Vang says, “it’s about what we get from our farmers.” Vang, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and grew up in central Wisconsin before moving to the Twin Cities. “The unifying theme here, and I really saw this growing up in the Midwest, is pickling and fermenting,” explains Vang. “A friend of mine talks about how in the North we harvest vegetables in the fall, and throughout the summer all of the sun is captured inside this vegetable. So when we pickle it, then eat it in the winter and there’s that sharp, tangy, acid taste—that’s actually the element of the sun being captured.”
In addition, he’s also combining classic Midwest comfort foods with flavors from Hmong culture that draw crowds to his restaurant nightly—and yes, one of those dishes involves tater tots. And he’s not the only local chef making food worth traveling for. The following seven dishes showcase the vibrant Minnesota restaurant scene happening right now, from a revival of pre-European indigenous food to Ethiopian beef stew.
1. Southern Hospitality Bowl with collard greens, mac and cheese and fried chicken: Gerard Klass of Soul Bowl
Black Americans have called Minnesota home since the early 1800s. During the Great Migration, which saw Black Americans move from the rural South to the urban Northeast and Midwest, the state’s Black population grew by as much as 149 percent between 1950 and 1970. Chef Gerald Klass of Soul Bowl, in Minneapolis, reimagines the soul food of his childhood in the millennial-favorite bowl format. The Southern Hospitality Bowl is a veritable greatest hits of southern soul food classics, including collard greens, mac and cheese and fried chicken. Klass also incorporates Caribbean influences into many of the dishes—an homage to his own Guyanese heritage.
Chef Sean Sherman of the Oglala Lakota Sioux is leading the revitalization of indigenous food in Minnesota. The James Beard Award-winner runs a catering company, hosts pop-ups, and leads education initiatives. And that’s not to mention, he’s about to open a full-time restaurant, Owamni, along the Minneapolis riverfront in late spring of 2021. Sherman utilizes ingredients that are native to the landscape and existed in the region prior to European settlement. His famed cedar-braised bison with maple-glazed squash is entirely made from local ingredients.
3. Minnesota Hmong Tater Tot Hotdish: Yia Vang of Union Hmong Kitchen
What started out as a joke quickly became one of Chef Yia Vang’s most popular dishes at his Union Hmong Kitchen outpost. “The Hmong people, our cultural DNA is woven into the foods that we eat,” Vang says, “our story is written in our food.” Part of that story is now Minnesota casserole, AKA hot dish. The Twin Cities are home to the second largest Hmong community in North America. Hmong Tater Tot Hotdish features a base of red coconut curry along with homemade Hmong sausage and charred root vegetables from surrounding Hmong farmers. Served with a lime wedge and fresh scallions, there’s nothing better on a cold Minnesota evening.
4. Red Lake Walleye Cake Melt: Gatherings Cafe at the Minneapolis American Indian Center
Fish, especially walleye, is a key part of the Minnesota diet. Dakota, Ojibwe, and other indigenous peoples relied on Minnesota's lakes for sustenance. The state’s name comes from the Dakota word Mnisota, for a clear water that reflects the sky above. At the Minneapolis American Indian Center, Gatherings Cafe acts as a community space. The menu combines traditional and modern preparations. The Red Lake Walleye Cake Melt, with fish sourced from the Red Lake Indian Reservation, is a perennial favorite.
5. Swedish Meatballs and Semla: FIKA, The Cafe at the American Swedish Institute
Minnesota’s Northern European immigrants from Sweden and Norway have had an enduring impact on the state’s cuisine. Lefse (Norwegian potato flatbread) and lutefisk (cod preserved in lye) are mainstays of Scandinavian-American cuisine, but nothing is more beloved than Swedish meatballs, or köttbullar. The American Swedish Institute’s FIKA cafe in Minneapolis balances Scandinavian-American tradition with contemporary cooking, while also making use of regional ingredients. Be sure to save room for a Semla, too. This sweet almond and cardamom creme-filled bun is perfect for a sweet after lunch treat.
6. Siga Wat: Russom Solomon of The Red Sea
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of refugees, asylum-seekers and immigrants from Ethiopia and Somalia arrived in Minnesota. Since then the community has grown even more. Representative Ilhan Omar, a member of the community, made history in 2019 when she was sworn in as the first African refugee to become a Member of Congress. East African restaurants now dot the Twin Cities and beyond, but one favorite is The Red Sea. Owner Russom Solomon combines Ethiopian and Eritrean influences along with an Italian streak owing to the region’s colonial past. The standout is the traditional siga wat, a slow cooked beef stew prepared in aromatic Berbere spice served with a side of injera, Ethiopian sour fermented flatbread.
7. Tumeric and Dill Fish: Christine Nguyen of Hai Hai
From 1979 to 1999, Minnesota welcomed more than 15,000 Vietnamese refugees and the community has steadily grown ever since. It didn’t take long for Vietnamese cuisine to become a fixture in the Twin Cities dining scene. Christine Nguyen of Hai Haiin Northeast Minneapolis combines Vietnamese flavors with culinary influences from across Southeast Asia. Her Tumeric and Dill Fish dish is inspired by a trip to Vietnam, but feels serendipitously connected to the Scandinavian flavors well known to her fellow Minnesotans.