Drive In, Eat Out

Vali-Hi Drive-In Theatre
11260 Hudson Boulevard, Lake Elmo; (651) 436-7464
Cost: $6; 12 and under free. Movie starts after dusk.

65 Hi Drive-In Theatre
10100 Central Ave. NE, Blaine; (612) 780-3063
Cost: $6; 11 and under free. Movie starts after dusk.

United Noodles
2015 E. 24th St., Mpls.; (612) 721-6677
Hours: Monday-Saturday 9:30 a.m.-7:00 p.m.; Sunday 9:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m.

Coastal Seafoods
2330 Minnehaha Ave., Mpls; (612) 724-7425
74 Snelling Ave. S., St. Paul; (651) 698-4888
Hours: Monday-Friday 10:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m.; Saturday 9:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m.

 

Isn't it kind of early for a drive-in movie? Maybe just a tad, says 65-Hi owner Irving Braverman; normally he wouldn't open his Blaine theater until mid-April, but he has moved the schedule up because of the warm weather. Over at the Vali-Hi in Lake Elmo, manager Joe Murr says his hardy patrons are usually ready for outdoor cinema by the first weekend in April. In any event, here it is: drive-in season. Six full months of opportunities to sit in a car and watch the big screen. Or, in my case, to sit far from the car, in front of the screen, and have a picnic. On a blanket, or in chairs, with a good radio to pick up the sound as the enormous Minnesota sky arches overhead in a dappled dome.

I think drive-ins are one of the greatest treats available in the Twin Cities, and if I don't take the turnpikes to the outdoor screens at least a dozen times before Halloween rolls around, I'll count this a wasted summer. Murr points out that had I gotten to town a few decades earlier I wouldn't have had to take any turnpikes. When he started managing the Vali-Hi 22 years ago, he almost never saw patrons from Minneapolis or St. Paul, since the metropolis was amply supplied with theaters: The Corral in West St. Paul, the Minnehaha off Minnehaha Avenue in St. Paul, the Rose Drive-In in Roseville, the Mann France on France Avenue, the Hilltop in Columbia Heights, the Colonial off Highway 55, the Hundred Twin off Highway 100, the Lucky Twin down in Burnsville, and the Flying Cloud in Eden Prairie--to name but a few.

Which made me sad. Because I think if there were that many drive-ins today I could set up a tent, run a laptop cord from the popcorn stand, and be happy, outside, for the whole summer. And I don't know what movies are coming this year, and frankly, I don't even care: I'll see anything at the drive-in. I mean, I saw Wild Wild West at the drive-in last year. I saw Bowfinger. Twice. You think I'm kidding, but I'm not. You know how fishermen or hunters will go on and on about how their pursuit gives them an excuse to be alone and meditate in nature? Well, to me the drive-in is a city kid's answer to a duck blind, the opportunity to examine the ever-changing night sky without the pressures of the world. Better yet, it's a chance to sit outside and do nothing, with snacks.

As a drive-in pro, I'm happy to tell you that if you've got a grill and some organizational skills, there is a plethora of perfect drive-in prep pads hereabouts: Buon Giorno (Italian sausage, fine cheeses, crackers, beer, wine, bread, amaretti!); Cossetta's (ditto, save the beer, add cannoli, and they're open late in the summer); Kramarczuk (Eastern European sausages and sweet rolls; Surdyk's virtually next door); and any of the co-ops. But, being perpetually unsatisfied, I thought I'd kick off the season with a search for something different. What if, I thought, you wanted Asian? Or fish? Or some sort of Asian fish thing?

So I motored down to Coastal Seafoods, and it all fell into place. There they were, the thick, substantial fish steaks and fillets you need for confident grilling under the stars: tuna, sea bass, sturgeon, maybe even a whole, cleaned rainbow trout. And for those scared of whole fish, the freezer holds seasoned salmon burgers ($3.49 each). As I stood contemplating the selection, the rest of the meal came into focus: There's a big basket of Alice Factor bread on Coastal's counter, the walls are lined with every sort of spice powder and marinade you could imagine, and in the corner sit big bags of honest-to-goodness hardwood charcoal ($7.99 for 8.8 pounds). Now that's living. That's eating. In fact, grilled sturgeon with baguette is probably even better eating than you could have wrangled at the Corral Drive-In, lo those many years ago.

Then, coming out of Coastal, I spied United Noodles across the street, and the vision of it caused me to feel as a panda must, charging for spring's tender bamboo shoots: Eureka! The finishing details to the feast of feasts. Parsley, cilantro, basil, chives, garlic, shallots, and lime to perfect your fish, and then on through the aisles for snacks, treats, and beverages of every dimension.

Especially the poetic dimension. I am quite fond of the cayenne-crusted peanuts called crackernuts ($1.29)--you'd be amazed at how often you can work the name into a conversation: "So, this total crackernut calls me up and wants to know if I can crackernut everything I'm doing and rush right over and I'm like: 'Crackernuts to you, buddy.'" Crackernuts!

I also located lots of cheap peanuts in shells, ideal for crackernutting under the stars, to say nothing of the half-dozen sorts of shrimp chips--including low-fat baked, cheese, and barbecue. I purchased a selection of Speed brand flavored wafer cookies (69 cents) made by Malaysia's Munchy Food Industries, because they too lend themselves to scintillating conversation: "Who brought the Speed--did you bring the Speed?" "Don't mind her, she's a Speed fiend."

I stayed away from the expansive, expansive rice-cracker selection, mainly because I can't be trusted around the salty, sometimes spicy, sometimes seaweedy snacks--mmm, glutinous rice!--but did stock up on Kasugai Roasted Hot Green Peas ($2.29), the utterly addictive, crispy-fiery little things that sell for $4 a bowl at Chino Latino. And I love them even more now because I noticed, for the first time, the slogan on the bag: "A happy present from the Earth."

To my great joy I also found that United Noodles' soft-drink selection has increased dramatically since my last visit. They now stock at least 50 canned beverages, including that L.A. Lucky Orange Drink With Sacs (59 cents) that flies off the shelf at Quang Restaurant, as well as mango, guava, peach, pennywort, sugarcane, and tamarind juices and sodas. And I sampled the two most kick-ass drinks I've had this year, both from Japan's Suntory company: Bikkle ($2.39), which contains "glucose, sugar, milk, citric acid, pectin, oligo sugar, ascorbic acid, [and] lecithin" and tastes absolutely weird and yummy like some kind of sweet grapefruit-buttermilk soup; and Coffee Boss ($2.09), which resembles cold coffee with a dollop of condensed milk, but comes in a can with this great graphic--sort of Comrade Lenin meets Papa Hemingway, it just really makes you want to go out and take the mailroom to task. Oh yeah, and if you're not much of a fish griller, United Noodles sells a selection of Vietnamese hoagies from Saigon Bakery: A mere $1.95 will get you a crusty loaf filled with that sliced meat that tastes like a cross between mortadella and liverwurst, as well as ham, pickled carrots, onions, cilantro, jalapeños, and spicy mayo.

Of course, drive-in managers Braverman and Murr would far rather you invested in burgers, hot dogs, pizzas, popcorn, and soda on-site, and if we want these theaters to survive we should all buy as many of their snacks as we can afford. Still--popcorn is great, but crackernuts are the spice of life.

The metro's prettiest drive-in--which, alas, forbids tailgating and drinking--should also open in the next month: It's the Cottage View Drive In, 9338 S. East Point Douglas Rd., Cottage Grove; (651) 458-5965.

 

TABLEHOPPING

BACK IN THE BARN, EWE:It's spring, and every spry-hearted lad's and lass's thoughts turn to sheep's-milk yogurt. Don't they? Huh. Well, maybe I've been misinformed, but consider, if you will, my new favorite thing--Butler Farms' sheep's-milk yogurt. This thick, rich, creamy, delicious stuff is made by Bill and Janet Butler on their organic farm and dairy located in Whitehall, Wisconsin, just past Eau Claire. There are three flavors: berry, which is sweet, dessertlike, and made with raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries; maple, which is pretty good; and plain, which is the one that kills me--it's so fresh, tart, and bright that it's like a good crème fraîche, and on the top of every cup rests a dollop of indescribably delightful, pure separated cream. Mmmm.

I called the Butlers to ask where they had been all my life. They didn't know, but Bill Butler (who hails from Astoria, Queens!) did tell me that they're milking 150 ewes right now and plan to have 200 by the end of the year. "They have access to come in and out of the barns as they please," he explained. "They really like it outside even if it's cold, as long as it's not really windy. They like the snow a lot, it keeps them cool--you know, they have those big sweaters on."

I asked Butler whether the sheep spend the summer roaming the rolling Wisconsin pastures; he said they do, but that I might wish they didn't. "When they go out to pasture the amount of cream on the yogurt really diminishes," he noted. "We had someone call last year and ask if we changed the recipe. I told her, 'No, they're just out on pasture instead of eating and hanging out in the barn.' So she yells: 'Put them back in the barn!'" The Butlers' yogurt is distributed by Roots & Fruits Produce, and is widely available at local co-ops for $1.20 to $1.40 a cup.

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