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
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
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.
6. The Bootleg at Joe's Garage
1610 Harmon Pl., Minneapolis, 612.904.1163, www.joes-garage.com
The Bootleg is a staple cocktail of Twin Cities country clubs, but you won't have to plunk down a hefty membership fee to drink one at Joe's Garage. It's made with Absolut Citron vodka, a puree of lemonade, limeade, and mint leaves, and a splash of club soda, and it tastes like a refreshing variation of the already-passé mojito. Tucked between Loring Park and the Basilica, Joe's second-story oasis is the most laid-back of the downtown roof decks, so you don't need to bother with the high-heeled Pradas.
7. Sorbet at Crema Cafe
3403 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.824.3868
Crema Cafe's outdoor courtyard feels as if it might be tucked into the narrow alleyway of a European city: The vines, fountain, decorative archways, and flowerpots exude an Old World charm. (I've never dared open its weathered blue door, as I suspect it may be a direct portal to the cliffs of Cinque Terre.) Crema displays the Cities' best selection of house-made sorbets—colorful gems that range from the more familiar blood orange and blackberry to the daringly experimental (the pine-needle one may not have been a great seller). Crema's ingredient list includes such surprises as Prosecco and Cabernet, fresh mint and basil, and even cucumber and celery, so there will always be something new each time you visit.
8. Karlen's Karma at Sebastian Joe's
4321 Upton Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.926.7916
Need a boost to run three lakes, cycle to St. Paul, or paddle the Mississippi? This iced coffee drink is a jolting sugar-caffeine elixir: cold-press coffee, two scoops of vanilla ice cream, a dozen squirts of caramel, and a little bit of ice blended into a pale, creamy bliss. Named after the highly wired local author Neal Karlen, who penned several books in the Franklin Avenue shop, Karlen's Karma is best enjoyed on the Linden Hills location's serene, leafy patio or new-ish screened porch.
9. Po' boy at Sea Salt Eatery
4825 Minnehaha Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.721.8990, www.seasalteatery.wordpress.com
Louisiana's famed submarine sandwich has found a home at Sea Salt Eatery, where Minnehaha Creek meets the Mississippi River. The casual, park-pavilion cafe serves a vast assortment of fresh catch, including po' boys that come stuffed with the likes of fried oysters, grilled catfish, or crawfish. Last time I ordered the crawfish variety, the po' boy was piled so high with the cornmeal-crusted critters that I could hardly close its soft, grilled bun. When I finally did, the combination of crunchy crawfish, crisp lettuce and tomato, plus mayonnaise and hot sauce made for one helluva sandwich. Even though the line at Sea Salt can stretch out the door on sunny days, it's well worth the wait—and the recent kitchen remodel should only help speed things up.
10. Itinerant street eats, citywide
As soon as the first hot day hits, young entrepreneurs start staking their lemonade stands along the Cities' most popular biking and walking paths. Of course I'll stop, no matter what, but I do have a few requests for the wee ones: Just because you're cute, don't take that as license to price-gouge—most buyers will leave a big tip. And if you're not making fresh-squeezed lemonade, at least use concentrate in lieu of the powdered stuff.
Food-lovers who spend enough time in the Cities' Latin neighborhoods are bound to come across one of the taco trucks (mobile food trucks are sanctioned in St. Paul but not in Minneapolis) or vendors selling cheese-topped sweet corn, aguas frescas, or skewered, chile-dusted mangos out of roadside coolers. I can't officially endorse unlicensed eats, but that doesn't mean you won't ever find me standing on the sidewalk, stick in hand, with mango juice dripping down my chin.