The problem with "worth the drive" lists: Rarely are they indeed worth the drive. And that's why this list is a short one. I'm not going to include these places: "Already here, so might as well eat," or "That was just OK," or "Mine was great, but yours sucked!" This list of three and only three places that are actually and truly worth driving two to four hours, eating, spending the night (don't turn right around and come home, for that will only anger you no matter how many donuts sit on the armrest), and returning home the next day.
Just like their cousin, the worth-the-drive-list, "world's best" places are rarely that. We (me, too) bandy around the word "best" with the sort of wild abandon that gets MPR listeners' practical cotton briefs all up in a bunch. The best is the best. Nothing can be better. So, we like World's Best Donuts in Grand Marais because they opened in 1969 under the practical, modest, businesslike name Donut Shop. Just the facts, ma'am. But do you know what happened? So many of their customers returned, again and again to declare: "These are the world's BEST donuts!" that they simply had to, almost a decade later, change the name. The customers called it, and you know, they're not wrong.
These are the kind of ethereal, pillowy donuts that haunt once they're gone. You might say to yourself: "Well, that was an extra special treat! I won't be having another until we come back to town next year!" But then you turn over in bed to find that your significant other has gone, before 7 a.m. to retrieve another sack. And for that you will be relieved.
The old-fashioned cake, the raised glazed, the twists, and the Long Johns are all textbook perfect, dough with the anti-gravity of cotton and glaze that hasn't any time to harden or crack (the line spills out the door at all hours). Pro tip: The cinnamon pull aparts are tender yet dense love in a loaf, just large and small enough to share with someone you really, really like. Otherwise, buy two. This is serious business.
The "Skizzle" is a thing of their own creation. Think of an Elephant Ear gone off to school, with extra levity, a sight less grease, and enough sugar to send a kindergarten class into outer space. It is good.
10 E. Wisconsin St., Grand Marais
Since we're on this theme of abuse, let's move on to pie. Jamming sugared fruit into dough does not a pie make. In fact, pie corrupted is a crime unto humanity, as is the phrase "easy as pie," an atrocity of language. It is not in fact easy to make a good pie. It's difficult, and it takes time and sometimes generations to get it right, and a delicate touch and a reverence for the seasons, and passion for the thing you've set out to do!
If you had asked Betty Lessard, namesake of Betty's Pies, the North Shore landmark that is in fact worth the drive who recently passed away at the age of 90, she would have told you that she woke up at 3 a.m. to bake 100 pies each Sunday and 50 to 60 each weekday, along with rye bread and cookies, all while still greeting customers. Passion! Well, that and lard.
And while the business was sold in 1998, Lessard stayed on as informal consultant, burning up the driveway in her "Pie Lady" car two or three times a week to ensure that the pies were still up to snuff enough to bear her name. These are pies whose fillings do not run, whose crust is tender and flaky and never tough and never too sweet. It's the kind of pie that brings to mind the word "easy," but the only thing easy about it is having another slice.
1633 E. Highway 61, Two Harbors
You know what gets no respect? Sandwiches. Meats between two slices of bread suffer all sorts of ill treatment: bad bread; worse protein; shoddy distribution (the bite in the middle should have precisely the balance as the bite at the edges — this is not rocket science); molding greens; anemic, out-of-season tomatoes; under seasoning. You know I can go on. Chances are, if you've had any sandwich this week that you did not make yourself, it suffered from one of the above, if not many more injustices. You know who does not debase a sandwich? Northern Waters Smokehaus.
In a storefront that would be dwarfed in size (but not might) by a Subway, throngs of people line up for the privilege of sandwiches that have been venerated — house (or haus)-smoked Superior fish and sustainable meats are given both classic as well as innovative deli treatment; the Pastrami Mommy is delicately balanced buffalo pastrami with correct fat-to-lean ratio and a bewitching tang not offered by regular beef pastrami. Porketta is lush as butter with the addictive sweet, clean-tasting flesh of animals treated well until their final day.
They only do a few other things — some smoked olives, some handmade Boursin cheese, some pate. And that's what we love — do one thing and do it right! It's a little like Clancey's Meats & Fish if all they did was make cured meats, smoked fish, and sandwiches with near-religious devotion.
And here is the best news you're gonna get today. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO DRIVE TO GET IT. Northern Waters Smokehaus will be in Minneapolis, at the Mill City Farmers Market, July 11, August 1 and 22, September 12, and October 3 and 24. Though they may not be making their most excellent sandwiches, you can pick up a sausage or five and some smoked fish and make your own at home, the way you like it.
394 Lake Ave. S., Suite 106, Duluth