MSP Airport: The best eats

Don't put our fare in the flyover category

While others in the airport security line carefully loosen their shoelaces or slip their laptops from their cases, I am more likely than not frantically shotgunning a container of yogurt, fearing that TSA will consider it a "gel" and try to take it away from me. Years of disappointment with lackluster, overpriced airport and airline food have turned me into a BYO flyer. I've been burned by both gate-side and in-flight eats, with pre-made sandwiches that taste of their plastic wrappers, or whose tomato slices have turned the bread soggy. In both cases, a squishy Sun Country cheeseburger would have been better—especially because they're free.

Whenever possible, I head to the airport with a smorgasbord of whatever must-gos were in the fridge. While others make do with the complementary peanuts, I pull down my tray table and smugly set out an array of everything from vegetable sushi to red velvet cake. When I travel with just a backpack, plane snacks sometimes account for 20 percent of my luggage.

A few months back, on a fight out west, I whipped out the leftovers of a charcuterie plate from the Craftsman. As I happily snacked on house-made crackers, rabbit rillette, and pickled garnishes, a woman across the aisle pointed at me and whispered to her seatmate, "Is she eating sauerkraut?" It sounded like she was jealous.

The only drawback to Surdyk's Flights' delicious fruit and cheese platters: You'll need a boarding pass
Sara Rice
The only drawback to Surdyk's Flights' delicious fruit and cheese platters: You'll need a boarding pass

Location Info

Map

Bonfire Wood Fire Cooking

4365 Pheasant Ridge Drive NE
Blaine, MN 55449

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Blaine

But I've been on brown-bagging autopilot so long that I've overlooked the upgrades at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, which have brought several local operators into the mix, alongside the ubiquitous Burger Kings and Wok & Rolls. After a day spent dining at the airport's Minnesota-grown, full-service restaurants, I found that you can eat quite well on the premises—as long as you know where to go and what to order.

Some 90,000 travelers visit Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport every day, and nearly half are just passing through on their way to another destination. The airport is all that many of these people see of Minnesota, which makes each layover a brief but significant marketing opportunity.

Recognizing that, Metropolitan Airports Commission officials were one of the first airports in the country designed with a central "mall" structure linking its terminals. (Some joke that it's a shopping center with planes attached.) Prior to its 1998 renovation, the airport's concessions were mostly in the snack bar vein, offering simple items such as hot dogs and popcorn. But just as stadiums and theaters—facilities that also house large, captive audiences—have upgraded their food offerings in recent years, airports too are adding unique offerings that express cultural identity. "Everything used to be generic," says John Greer, the MAC's assistant director of concessions and business development. "We're looking for vendors with a regional—or Minnesota—sense of place."

The MAC used to rely primarily on the worldwide food service company HMS Host to supply its concessions, but it has moved to a more diverse, multi-vendor model to encourage competition. (The practice of giving one concessionaire a very long contract used to be quite common, which is why food at many airports has seemed stagnant. San Diego International Airport, for example, used HMS Host exclusively for nearly 40 years.)

Greer explains that most of the 100-some airport tenants are operating with seven- to nine-year leases, and nearly all of them came due in the most recent vendor changeover, in 2005. A commission review team offered a request for proposals, made selections, and rolled out the new concessionaires over the next several years.

The most recent turnover brought several local restaurateurs to partner with HMS Host in operating branch locations at the airport: Axel's Bonfire, French Meadow Bakery & Cafe, Ike's Food & Cocktails, and O'Gara's Bar & Grill. Airport vendors rarely give up their leases, but after a NASCAR shop had its parent company go belly-up, the airport worked with the leaseholder to subcontract the space to the new Surdyk's Flights, a cheese and wine bar that opened this summer.

Here's a look at many of the airport's homegrown offerings.

Axel's bonfire
The Mall, across from Checkpoint 3;
612.355.4632

Axel's Bonfire is a locally operated chain of contemporary supper clubs, launched in Mendota in the mid-1990s, with locations all over the Twin Cities suburbs. In the airport location, the restaurant's namesake oven burns brightly against a pretty tile-and-mirror mosaic wall. Artsy glass light fixtures and a few decorative animal horns and skulls give the place a vaguely Southwestern feel, which is reinforced by the enchiladas and fajitas on the menu, next to wood-fired pizzas, pastas, and sirloin steaks.

Walleye is one of the restaurant's specialties, and it's served pretty much any way you'd like it: walleye fingers, walleye sandwich, walleye tacos, pan-fried walleye topped with toasted almonds, and the sleeper hit, a blackened walleye salad. Spring mix is topped with a generous Cajun-spiced fillet, laced together with a sweet-sharp vinaigrette of maple syrup and white balsamic vinegar. It's like visiting Minnesota by way of Louisiana and Italy.

The only turn-off about dining at Axel's is its entryway display of menu items. The giant wedge of chocolate cake might entice a few diners, but its lure was negated by a cold, congealed burger and plate of sliced beef that looked sloppy and unappetizing.

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