Chowhound's Midwest discussion board acts as a clearinghouse for local food lore: What's good, what's bad, what's new, and what's recently deceased. It's a constantly churning group discussion that is a vital pre-arrival research stop for visitors to the region.
At the center of most of the board's Minneapolis-St. Paul discussions, you'll find The Dairy Queen, a long-time (anonymous) contributor whose depth of knowledge, vigilance and generally well-informed sass have helped shape the community into the vital mob of foodies that it has become.
For how long have you been active on Chowhound? What drew you into the community?
I have learned so much from my fellow Chowhounds, and, as a result, I eat really well, which is what keeps me coming back. That, and the incredibly diverse array of personalities who are attracted to the site, from the earnest young Duluthian who maintains a list -- Afghani to West Indian -- of restaurants offering unique cuisines from which he chooses several to visit and report on whenever he's in town; to the granddad who can direct you to (and supply photos of) the best breaded pork tenderloin sandwich in a 6-state area because he's tried nearly every one out there; to the out-of-town businessman who dines at the finest restaurants in the Metro and posts about his experiences entirely in the third person. It is a fascinating community where everyone who has something to contribute or is interested in learning is welcome -- you don't have to be a chef to join the discussion.
How would you describe your approach to evaluating restaurants?
I am more drawn to family-owned, mom and pop-type establishments than to upscale restaurants that attract the expense account crowd, but any establishment where the staff and ownership take obvious pride in their work and are trying to put out the most exceptional food, even in the most humble of surroundings, will attract my attention. So restaurants ranging from Lenny Russo's Heartland to Casper & Runyon's Nook can all be favorites. Owner involvement in the day-to-day operations is usually a good sign. Attention to minute detail is a good sign. Well-trained, engaged staff who can respond to your questions about how the food is prepared and where it comes from is a good sign.
Since your arrival on the scene, what's one of the best and/or one of the most appalling trends you've noticed?
Although many Twin Cities' restaurants, farmers markets and co-ops have focused on local ingredients for years, the "eat local" trend that has swept the Twin Cities and the country over the past few years is very positive. It's important to understand and feel a connection to where your food comes from. Ngon Vietnamese Bistro is one of my favorite restaurants featuring locally-produced ingredients. It also exemplifies something else, perhaps a trend, that I'm excited about, which is a new restaurant operated by a young, second or third generation Vietnamese or Hmong chef; these restaurants are fresh and unique and as Minnesotan as they are Southeast Asian.
What's the best little-known gem that you've uncovered in 2008 either in your own research, or via the Chowhound boards?
I wish I'd tried it when it was first discovered and reported on by a fellow Chowhound a couple of years ago because I have been missing out all this time, but Manana Restaurant (El Salvadorian, Central American, and Mexican food) on East 7th in St. Paul is my favorite new-to-me restaurant of 2008.
Their pupusas, which are masa patties stuffed with cheese and refried beans and sometimes meat--sort of juicy lucy-esque in a Latin American way, are assembled and griddled right in front of you. Firm and a little crisp on the outside, and gooey and warm on the inside, they are absolutely crave-worthy. Manana's other menu-items --- tacos and burritos and such -- are delicious, too.
What's your take on how -- or whether -- the recession has hit local restaurants? Any recent closings that have shocked or dismayed you?
Well, I'm always disappointed when a mom-and-pop restaurant goes under, pulling the owner's hopes and dreams and financial investment down with it. As a consumer, it's always hard to know why some wonderful restaurants go under, others continue to limp along and others, perhaps even mediocre ones, flourish. It's a hard business, recession or not.
Rotisseria, a tiny shop known for its Peruvian-style roasted chicken, disappeared from its Uptown Minneapolis location in late 2007, only to rise again, to the great joy of many Midwest 'hounds, on Lake Street this past spring. But, in October, it disappeared again. One day they were open, "Poultry in Motion" sign in window; the next, they were closed, "for-lease" sign in the window instead. I hope they rise again.
Check out The Dairy Queen's numerous posts on the Midwest board of Chowhound.com.