Finding local flavor in Ely's dark winter months

Potica from SuLu's cafe in Tower, Minn.
Photo courtesy Becca Dilley/Heavy Table

The mere mention of the phrase "February in Minnesota" is enough to get some people sprinting to the airport for a flight to somewhere tropical, or least vaguely Southern.

But, if you love ice fishing or other winter spots, or just looking to embrace winter and have a good time in the deep freeze, you might head the opposite direction, to a place like Ely.

Food writer James Norton from the Heavy Table traveled there for a cold long weekend in January, and came back with a sampling of the town's local winter flavor.

Tom Crann: The trip from the Twin Cities to Ely is about 4 hours — any advice for a place to stop on your way up?

James Norton: We turned up a bit of a gem — there's an independent coffee shop called SuLu's in the little town of Tower that has some great stuff going on.

They proudly brew Alakef coffee from Duluth. I bought a latte and it was just right — not too sweet, with a clear, clean, expressive coffee note and a smooth, balanced milky taste.

A savory crepe from Ely's Organic Roots bistro.
Photo courtesy Becca Dilley/Heavy Table

We also noticed that SuLu's sold walnut potica, the Slovenian pastry that's one of my favorite northern Minnesota delicacies. I plunked down $23 for a tender, homemade, elegantly prepared breakfast pastry as luxurious as any New York City babka.

Crann: I understand that there's an item on their menu that sounds like it would not be out of place at the Chatterbox Cafe in Lake Wobegon.

Norton: SuLu's serves something — I kid you not — called Lutheran coffee, which costs $1.60, 5 cents cheaper than a regular coffee.

When I asked the proprietress about it, she told me that after she opened the cafe, she'd had a procession of older local gentlemen come in and order coffee — but watered down a little bit so it wasn't quite so strong. So, Lutheran coffee is for the prevailing local denomination.

Boathouse beer sampler
A sampler of beer from Ely's Boathouse brewpub.
Photo courtesy Becca Dilley/Heavy Table

Crann: A lot of regular visitors to Ely probably know the longstanding places, like the Chocolate Moose or the Ely Steakhouse. Are there any newer places worth checking out?

Norton: A newer restaurant in Ely called Organic Roots prides itself on wholesome slow food.

I always worry about a place like this because you can sometimes get an overpriced, fussy, warmed over interpretation of California food, circa 1988. But, our lunch at Organic Roots was really pretty delightful — a flatbread with red bell peppers, Italian cheese, portabella mushrooms, and beef braciole was chewy and herbal, with a well-balanced mix of fresh-tasting toppings, and we also got one of the best savory crepes its ever been my pleasure to eat — it was mushrooms and leeks, with a bit of cream cheese.

Crann: It seems like you can get a good local pint just about everywhere these days — is that true in Ely, too?

Ely, Minn., almost at the end of Highway 169 in far northern Minnesota, has a good selection of local food and drink for hungry travelers.
Photo courtesy Becca Dilley/Heavy Table

Norton: It really is. We interviewed Ben Storbeck, the brewer at Boathouse Brewpub and Restaurant. He came to Boathouse from Lake Superior Brewing, and has an easygoing brew philosophy that really suits the town — although he strives for quality beer, he lets the brewpub's beers evolve from batch to batch, getting higher in alcohol in the winter months, for example.

They do a walleye Fish fry on Fridays that's worth checking out — it's a high-temperature fry that creates a really crunchy, substantial coating on the fish that complements the flavor and texture beautifully, doesn't fall apart or get soggy.

I found all their beers to be pretty agreeable and drinkable, all good vacation in the woods beers, no hardcore urban assault beers; my favorite was a blueberry blonde beer that had a gentle but detectable natural blueberry note up front and in the finish. Nothing artificial or sweet about it.

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