Ten favorite things to eat and drink before Labor Day

Jax Cafe's trout, Common Roots' fruits and veggies top the list

Last week I was biking along the Southwest Trail in St. Louis Park when I decided to make my first pit stop of the season at Wagner's Drive-In. But instead of finding its familiar white shack staffed with teenage employees and its rainbow-colored picnic tables packed with families, I came across a deserted construction scene. The lawn had been torn up, and the building's former footprint was framed with waferboard walls—only Wagner's old corrugated metal awning remained. I noticed a colorful, Jetsons-style sign that said "Galaxy" and remembered that Steve Schussler, the restaurateur behind Rainforest Cafe, had recently bought the decades-old drive-in and was planning to remake the place with a futuristic vibe. I'd missed my chance to bid Wagner's a fond adieu with one last commemorative corn dog.

By the time I got home, I started to panic: It was early June, and summer already felt as if it was slipping by too quickly. To enjoy our fleeting warm weather to its fullest, I had to be prepared. So I put together a list of not-to-be missed summer dining experiences—foods and drinks that capture the essence of the season, served in pleasant outdoor settings. They won't be around long past September, so you'd better start eating and sipping.

1. Death by Chocolate Sundae at Liberty Frozen Custard

Time to work on your summer tan: Lift Bridge's Minnesota Tan at the Muddy Pig
Jayme Halbritter
Time to work on your summer tan: Lift Bridge's Minnesota Tan at the Muddy Pig

5401 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis, 612.823.8700, www.libertyfrozencustard.com

If you're looking for a place that possesses Wagner's family-friendly vibe, visit the remaining location in Brooklyn Park, the Drive-In Restaurant in Taylors Falls, the Dari-Ette in St. Paul, Peppermint Twist in Delano, or my favorite inner-kid-pleaser, Liberty Frozen Custard. The renovated 1950s gas station serves hot dogs and deli sandwiches, plus delectable frozen custard, which is essentially a richer, creamier version of ice cream. The umbrella-topped outdoor tables are an apt setting for a Death by Chocolate, a sundae that combines chocolate in its various delicious forms: chocolate custard, hot fudge, chocolate chips, Oreo cookies, and chewy brownie chunks. The fire station across the street also offers plenty to check out—shiny trucks for the kids, hunky firefighters for adults.

2. Minnesota Tan at Happy Gnome or Muddy Pig

Happy Gnome, 498 Selby Ave., St. Paul, 651.287.2018, www.thehappygnome.com; Muddy Pig, 162 Dale St. N., St. Paul, 651.254.1030, www.muddypig.com

Tanning season is here! Slather yourself with SPF 50 and head to the bar, because Lift Bridge's brand-new summer seasonal, Minnesota Tan, should be arriving on tap at Muddy Pig and Happy Gnome right around the time you're reading this. (It'll also be at a few of Lift Bridge's other clients, including Stub and Herb's in Minneapolis and the Mad Capper in Stillwater. I'm hoping it'll make its way to Moto-i, because I'd love to sip one up on their roof deck.) Minnesota Tan is a high-alcohol Belgian triple with the hue of a sunburned Scandinavian (head brewer Brad Glynn added pureed wild lingonberries to the fermenting tank). The beer has a cranberry-tart bite; a few funky, malt-yeast notes; and an ultra-clean finish. If you like Belgian fruit lambics as much as I do, you'll probably love it. Glynn brewed only 30 kegs, so the supply will likely last just a few weeks, especially if the weather's nice enough for Happy Gnome and Muddy Pig to keep their patios open. If Minnesota Tan is too intense for your taste, try Lift Bridge's Farm Girl Saison, an easy-drinking light beer with just a hint of bitter orange peel. The Lift Bridge guys just started bottling it, so expect six-packs to start showing up at local liquor stores the week of June 22.

3. Indian-spiced mini-doughnuts at Chef Shack

Saturday mornings at Mill City Farmers' Market, 704 S. Second St., Minneapolis; Sunday mornings at Kingfield Farmers Market, 4310 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis, www.chefshack.org

Why wait for the Great Minnesota Get-Together to get your mini-doughnut fix when the Chef Shack serves its sophisticated, Indian-spiced version at two weekend farmers' markets? The deep-fried darlings are pillow-soft, with a subtle, cardamom flavor that distinguishes them from their carnival brethren. And yet, they haven't outgrown their kid-pleasing magic—the Shack staff has been known to ask youngsters to perform a "doughnut dance" before they'll pass over a piping-hot sack. You can always rationalize the indulgence as early-morning fuel for picking out the market's best farm-fresh fruits and veggies.

4. Catch-your-own trout at Jax Cafe

1928 University Ave. NE, Minneapolis, 612.706.0145, www.jaxcafe.com

Minnesota's longest-running family-owned restaurant is a northeast Minneapolis institution—a neighborhood clubhouse in which to celebrate life's milestones with a steak and a Sazerac. It's also the only restaurant in town where you can catch your own dinner with a long-handled net. Request a table next to the trout stream on Jax's lush, greenery-filled patio, and prepare to channel your inner hunter-gatherer. The fish like to hide under the water wheel, so it's not as easy as it looks!

5. Fresh produce at Common Roots

2558 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.871.2360, www.commonrootscafe.com

We're now blessed with dozens and dozens of restaurants that love to showcase local ingredients (I've spent months waiting for the reprise of Spoonriver's gorgeous tomato-watermelon salad). But I think a locavore's first stop should be Common Roots, due to its newly planted, on-site garden. The adjacent lot wasn't intended to supply the kitchen's demand (do you have any idea how many heirloom tomatoes they go through in August?), but instead to allow its patrons and neighbors to observe and enjoy the food-growing process. The Common Roots plot is one of the most diverse in the city, chock full of everything from radishes, lettuces, peas, rhubarb, and raspberry bushes to the cherry and plum trees we hardly knew grew in Minnesota.

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