Making the Most of Southern Minnesota, From Pizza Farm Pies to the SPAM Museum
By Andrew Parks
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With gas prices hovering at an all-time high heading into the summer of 2022, Explore Minnesota has decided to dust off our old travel guide series Trip on a Tankful as a surefire way to seize the day along the many open roads and winding streets that stretch across our state. Our first itinerary is bound to be regarded as one of our most ambitious — a whirlwind tour of Southern Minnesota, including stops in Dundas, Northfield, Faribault, Owatonna and Austin.
Something to keep in mind as you mark your own map with musts along the way: While our itinerary follows a logical path toward Austin and back, starting with an early morning departure from Minneapolis, you can start and end anywhere you'd like, of course.
The baked goods at this local Faribault fav are balancing acts between sweet and savory hits of butter, sugar and brioche so airy and light they nearly levitate off your plate. Revelatory cinnamon and pecan rolls are both a must, as is a vegetarian quiche that highlights whatever’s in season right now alongside a delicate, phyllo-like crust and eggs cooked to the consistency of a creamy, jiggly custard set just right.
Nestled right next to the Cannon River is one of the country’s last vertical woolen mills, a heritage brand as beloved as Hudson's Bay, Pendleton and Woolrich. It's hard to beat the boutique textiles at its flagship shop, which carries such cabin essentials as bedsheets, throws and woven blankets from Faribault's newly acquired sister company Brahms Mount.
Here are just a handful of things we learned in Steele County’s main History Center: Owatonna native Scott Nylund spent a decade working as a fashion designer for Tina Knowles and her superstar daughter Beyoncé (one particularly gaudy piece is now hanging in the exhibition hall); the Arts Magnet Program at Owatonna High School produced many punk bands throughout the ‘90s, much like Minneapolis; and double bass phenom James B. VanDemark was so in-demand as a teenager that he soloed with the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra and skipped his final year of high school to play music professionally.
In other words, you don’t have to be a history buff to appreciate Steele County’s sprawling time machine. Between its recently acquired Model T, life-sized Village of Yesteryear and the sobering Orphanage Museum down the street, there’s much to learn and look at here, regardless of whether you’re 6, 16 or 60.
Believe it or not, one of Southern Minnesota’s most striking architectural marvels is the three-story headquarters of a natural gas company. Nearly lost to a natural disaster in 2010, the Owatonna Power Plant received a full renovation after the Straight River flood left 12 feet of water in its basement. Its exterior is a sterling example of Italianate architecture, a 19th century movement that merged Renaissance elements with Picturesque touches from Tuscany.
Come for the griddled cornbread — a mixed plate of revueltas (beans, cheese and ground pork) and queso con loroco (cheese and edible flowers) — and stay for the stellar pastelitos that are a study in contrasts (minced meat and vegetables encased in a crunchy shell).
The Dole Whip desserts at this tiny stand are a welcome nod to Disneyland, but the real draw at The S’Cream is its gravity-defying Giant Twist. Served with a tall cup because it’s bound to fall to the ground otherwise, it’s not a gimmick so much as a generous serving of chocolate-vanilla classicism somewhere between State Fair soft-serve and a wondrous Frosty at Wendy’s.
8. Learn to appreciate gelatinous lunch meat at the SPAM Museum
History’s most divisive canned meat has been Austin’s claim to fame for nearly 85 years now. The pop culture icon also has no problem filling a 14,000-square-foot space that delves into everything from warfront rations to a Broadway-worthy Monty Python sketch. Be sure to swing by the gift shop on your way out the door. Since Hormel dialed back on some of its nationally distributed SPAM varieties during the pandemic, it may be your only chance to purchase its Filipino-style tocino flavor — a breakfast favorite that pairs up perfectly with fried eggs and garlic-studded long grain rice.
Don’t you dare call the star of The Tendermaid’s show a Minnesota-style sloppy joe. It’s in a spoon-optional class of its own, and a nice appetizer for the SPAM-centric specials (beer-battered SPAM anyone?) at the nearby Main Street mainstay Piggy Blues Bar-B-Que. If you are feeling a little guilty about today’s calorie intake, there are 10 miles of prairie, forest and wetland trails ready to be walked at the nearby Jay C. Hormel Nature Center.
10. Experience Frank Lloyd Wright firsthand at the Elam House
It’s hard enough finding a Frank Lloyd Wright property that’s willing to let you photograph its historic insides, let alone cook, sleep and stay in one overnight. Lucky for us, the Plunkett family is willing to share their 820-square-foot Terrace Suite with the public for the price of a deluxe hotel room. Pair that Prairie School spirit with a stop at the National Farmers’ Bank of Owatonna on the way back to Minneapolis. It’s now a Wells Fargo, but don’t worry; its friendly tellers are used to people stopping by to photograph its beautifully maintained “jewel box” interior — a signature design of modernist architect Louis Sullivan.
11. Photograph all the things in Austin
Check-out at the Elam House isn't until noon, so we recommend not rushing out the door. Sit; stay a while; maybe even make a late breakfast. After all, when are you going to have a chance to hang in a meticulously designed Usonian house again?
When you do decide to leave, we recommend driving and walking around the streets of Austin one last time. Aside from offering several lunch options (The Tendermaid closes early, so you might not make it there on Day One), it also houses such worthwhile landmarks as the Paramount Theatre (a neoclassical beaut that was built in 1915) and Buffy, a 15-foot cow made of fiberglass that can be found outside the Mower County Fairgrounds.
St. Paul shoppers will recognize Nick and Christina Soderstrom from their dearly missed clothing store, which leans heavily on well-curated Americana clothing from decades long gone. It’s new location is situated on Northfield’s main drag and benefits from a roomy layout that lets its most precious finds breathe. And don’t worry; there’s still a big ol’ bin of budget-priced wares in the back.
Red Barn Farm is a quintessential example of a true Midwest phenomenon: pizza farms. Starting in early May and winding down in October, it serves wood-fired pies on Wednesday nights, and select Fridays and Sundays. Reservations are a must; limited time slots can be secured throughout the season here. Be sure to bring your own beverages, whether it's a six-pack of soda or a couple of crowlers from the Dundas-based Chapel Brewing. (It’s just 10 minutes and one town away.)
If craft beer isn’t your thing and/or Red Barn Farm is fully booked, Keepsake Cidery hosts Friday Night Cookouts between early June and the end of October. Depending on the week, you’ll be able to try everything from shrimp etoufée and overstuffed muffulettas (Roux 32) to picadillo nachos and pernil tacos (Red Hen Gastropub).
Keepsake also happens to bottle some of Minnesota's very best cider — effervescent, complex pours that have more in common with natural wine than Woodchuck.
If you're looking for one last stop on the way back to Minneapolis, we can't think of a more surreal site than this towering Buddhist temple hidden among cornfields in Hampton. The largest complex of its kind in North America, it took five years and more than $1.5 million to build. Good luck finding a more restful spot to reflect on your road trip in Southern Minnesota, let alone the Midwest at large.
Andrew Parks is the multimedia editor at Explore Minnesota. His past lives include copywriting and content strategy for such clients as Food & Wine, Apple, Condé Nast Traveler, Bandcamp, AFAR, Bon Appétit, and Red Bull.
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