Eat or Be Eaten

So I grabbed a couple of said tubs and proceeded up a cafeteria-style line, where I ordered as many pieces of great animals as I could: elk, caribou, venison, bison. What, no hyena? I asked the woman behind the counter, who grinned the mirthless grin of someone who has heard the same joke 30,000 times this year.

Then, to my great surprise, she asked me if I wanted butter or mayonnaise on my sandwiches. For some reason I had assumed that game sandwiches would have some predetermined makeup, something like elk tenderloin served rare on pumpernickel with a lingonberry chutney--which goes to show how feeble-minded constant dining out can make you. That may be how they treat elk in fancy restaurants like Schumacher's, but elk and caribou are to Cabela's as turkey breast is to Subway--which seems fitting for a place that has, by my count, about three billion elk heads on the wall.

It turns out that the Northwoods Cache serves about a dozen different sandwiches, all made to order on your choice of bread with your choice of cheese and the usual fixings. You can have ham ($4.25), roast beef ($4.95), smoked buffalo ($5.75), smoked elk ($6.25), or caribou ($7.95). Not to mention a hot dog ($2.75), a bison brat ($3.45), or a venison brat ($3.45). (Are there vegetarian offerings? Yes, all the sandwiches are chock-full of vegetarians...)

Teddy Maki

Location Info

Map

Cabela's Northwood Cache Restaurant

3900 Cabela Drive
Owatonna, MN 55060

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Outstate

I'd never before seen elk, bison, or caribou made in the manner of cold cuts (brined, cooked, machine-sliced thin) and was surprised that they came out tasting like, well, cold cuts. The buffalo resembled roast beef; the caribou was not unlike bland supermarket pastrami. The elk, however, was a cut above average sandwich meat, tender, almost buttery, and tinged with a mysterious, appealing taste from a spice rub--pepper and sumac, as best I can tell. Both the brats were very good, the venison version pale and slightly garlicky like a very nice, lean, German-made sausage, the buffalo one sweet, smoky, reddish, and very distinct. As far as lunch goes, it was fine. As far as lunch among motionless wildlife goes, it was the best I've ever had.

Refreshed, I checked out the cooking section of the store--the "Jerky Shooter" (more like a jerky caulk gun), the cigarette-lighter blender (car daiquiris!), the gas-powered blender (canoe daiquiris!), the combination French-press coffee pot and travel mug, and the most comprehensive collection of Dutch ovens, camp stoves, sausage-making equipment, and smokers I've ever seen. I also worked my way into the fishing section, where 50,000-plus-gallon aquariums hold native fish and the walls are covered with native trophy fish. For someone who has eaten about a thousand walleyes and caught exactly none, it was fascinating going--who knew they were so brown and lived in such a murky world? (Don't answer that.)

It was also fascinating to eavesdrop on the other people gaping at the aquariums, mostly boyfriends whispering to girlfriends: "That's a walleye, that's a muskie, that's another walleye, see? It's almost about the size of that one last summer..." It was nearly as good as standing under the prize halibut mounted on one wall, and hearing everyone who walked by say: "That's a helluva halibut. A helluva halibut!" Indeed it was.

On the way home I detoured through downtown Owatonna for a glance at the famous bank built by Prairie School luminary Louis Sullivan. But as dazzled as I was by the elaborate ironwork, gorgeous stained glass, breathtaking plaster, and general majesty of this jewel box of a building, I couldn't help but think that the best part of this road trip had been the experience of gazing upon large, active-looking animals as you ate of their flesh. And by best, what I really mean is surreal, creepy, disturbing, and altogether jarring--and all the more so for being not at all strange to so very many people. According to the Owatonna Chamber of Commerce, four million visitors have already passed through the Owatonna store; brochures from Cabela's corporate offices say the Sidney, Nebraska, Cabela's is the state's second-largest tourist attraction, and the forthcoming Dundee Cabela's aims to be the biggest tourist attraction in Michigan.

And, Bunky, isn't that the whole point of travel--to make the commonplace seem strange and the strange seem commonplace, and to jumble everything up for a new way of looking at the world? Let me tell you, the briefest mention of in-canoe daiquiris, roadside stuffed lions, fish-head can coolers, ersatz stuffed bald eagles (made from 12 species of non-endangered bird! and only $10,000!) and bison-filled croissants has you looking better already.

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