Aug 142011

As we headed west across southern Minnesota, I began to think about dinner.  I pulled out my phone and hit the Yelp application to check out some South Dakota restaurants.  Would it be better to eat in Sioux Falls or Mitchell, our final destination for the day?  As I read reviews of a Middle Eastern restaurant, a supposed gem in a land of chain restaurants in Sioux Falls, and  a steak place in Mitchell, a much smaller town, it hit me just how different a road trip can be today than even 10 years ago with immediate access to a wealth of information.

We decided on Chef Louie’s in Mitchell (4.5 stars on both Yelp and Tripadvisor), with more than one person noting it was a highlight of their cross-country trip.  It’s cow country so why not go for a steak, right?

Based on a range of reviews I was not sure what we were getting into.  I felt inappropriately dressed until I saw the massive cow statue in the parking lot with another sign reading, “Welcome as you are.”  We walked in and I froze.  It was dead quiet except for the muzak; the tables had white tablecloths; and there was not a child in sight.  Except for us, the clientele was comprised entirely of staid, childless locals and bikers, who we found out later were in South Dakota to attend the 71st annual Sturgis Bike Rally.  One biker was, uh, unusually dressed for a white-table-cloth steak dinner, wearing a Harley t-shirt with cut-off sleeves tucked into his stone-washed jeans.  Maybe his was the motorcycle parked in front with the wild animal skull strapped to the back with his stuff.

We were seated and I hoped for the best with Jude.  Ordering was an interesting experience and it seemed the waitress and I spoke different languages.  I know I have a regional accent but I can usually communicate almost anywhere.  I think I caused the waitress some stress – like when a foreigner is talking to you in English and you can’t understand them but feel embarrassed to keep asking them to repeat themselves.

First, Patrick asked what type of red wines they had by the glass.  She looked a little panicked but then listed several including pinot grigio (I’m no oenophile, but I’m pretty sure that’s a white; Patrick just smiled).  However, looking at the menu, it was clear that someone there did care a lot about wine, put a lot of great California reds on the menu, and put together a thoughtful suggested pairing for each entree.  When we ate our steaks later, it was also clear that someone cared about good cuts of meat.

I tried to order potato au gratin as a side.  The fact that I didn’t want double potato (or something like that), which she first offered as a side, combined with my accent, was causing problems.  I tried to say “au gratin” again.  Now I do not speak French, and I’m sure I am butchering the true pronunciation every time I say it, so I am not suggesting her ear was the problem.  But I was still not saying it in a familiar enough way to be understood.  Finally we clicked and moved on.  Relief.  I asked what type of pasta the pasta alfredo on the kids’ menu had, recalling how every time I give Jude long pasta, he starts choking on it.  She answered that the pasta is alfredo. I had meant the type of noodle in the dish – was it fettuccine – and she took it to mean something else.

As I alluded to earlier, when the food came it was fantastic.  I had the filet mignon, medium, and Patrick had the bone-in ribeye, medium-rare; both were spectacular and cooked as ordered.  The menu had warned that the chef would not guarantee the tenderness or flavor of any steaks ordered well-done.  Ha.  Dessert was a serious let down after such a good meal.  Don’t get the ice cream sundae Patrick ordered, a sundae with strawberries and cream – it came out with awful supermarket ice cream, frozen strawberries and Reddi-wip.  (Hold out for frozen custard at Culvers which we tried the next day – yum.)

When we were almost done, parents with two elementary-school-aged children came in and sat behind us.  At one point the Dad remarked, “We’z not in Mississippi anymore.”  Jude helped break the ice with the friendly Sturgis rally attendees from Omaha next to us.

When we left Chef Louie’s, it had started to pour and the sky was very dark.  Patrick pulled the car to the front door and I ran out to put Jude in his car seat.  As we were about to pull away, I nearly jumped out the door – I left my bag with our passports in it under the table!

I ran back in and got them, thankfully still in the same place.  This is the danger of going from carrying around one big purse to a little one AND a diaper bag.  From now on the little one goes in the diaper bag.

We drove away from Chef Louie’s in a dramatic prairie lightning storm.  The zigzag across the sky, turning purple and pink when lightning struck, was was like nothing I’d ever seen before.  This was a sight to be seen: scary and fabulous at the same time.  When we hit the first stop light en route to the hotel we realized the electricity was out.  The police were outside directing traffic in the storm.  It was a memorable drive to the Holiday Inn Express, with the sky nearly the same color as the W Hotel lobby in Minneapolis where we had been the night before.

We were greeted at the Holiday Inn Express front desk by a very welcoming young gay man who gave us the wireless password “rainbow.”  I found this refreshing in a part of the country that is not renowned for its tolerance.  (I might also add that there are many, many more diaper changing tables in men’s rooms in Brooklyn and Manhattan than in South Dakota where we have only found them in women’s rooms.)

Mitchell, SD has a lot of water slides in its hotels.  While driving around we saw them advertised on billboards, each hotel chain trying to outdo the others.  Our hotel’s water-fun options did not disappoint (us or Jude) with an indoor adult pool, kiddie pool with a dragon with a slide through the middle, and hot tub.

The waterside looked fantastic, starting inside, winding outside where you funnel down before being shot back inside into the far end of the adult pool.  We were seriously bummed that it was only open at night and of course the hotel had shut it down for safety during the storm so we would not be able to use it on this visit.

The highlight of Mitchell is the Corn Palace, so of course we had to visit.  (Brief aside: on the way to the Corn Palace, we stopped to get gas; we noted that motorists had the option of buying single-serve beers on ice when they stopped to fill up.)  The Corn Palace is a short stop, but well worth it.  It is a building covered in corn and grain designs and murals (“crop art”).  It has Moorish domes, and detailed corn murals inside going around what doubles as the town basketball gymnasium.  Mitchell does not let visitors forget that it has the world’s only corn palace.

The most recent Corn Palace was built in 1921 (the original in 1892), and a new design is made every year.  During WWII it was only partly decorated to save resources for the War effort.  It began receiving Homeland Security money in 2004.  It’s quite a sight and I’m so glad we took some time to explore Mitchell.

I checked the map to see the last city (or large town) to buy food before we got off Rt. 90 to go to Badlands National Park.  I decided that Kadoka, South Dakota was our best bet.  We got off the highway and had circled the town in minutes.  Then I saw a sign that the population was around 700. So much for my idea of a big town somewhat near the Badlands!  We found a grocery store, and then attempted to eat a meal.  I had very low expectations for the meal, but they were pretty much in line.  Here is a photo of Patrick’s salad which arrived before his chicken-fried steak (which came with white gravy, potato fries and buttered toast):

People in the Great Plains sure are friendly and sure do love their meat.  There was almost nothing in the restaurant that didn’t have meat in it.  Reminds me of back in Minneapolis when Patrick ordered “eggs and hash” at breakfast and the waitress said, “but you didn’t order any meat?!?!” Thankfully this tipped him off that he hadn’t ordered what he meant to, roast beef corned hash.

Back on the road, we were soon off Rt. 90 which has a 75-mph speed limit, and onto something smaller. We were immediately pulled over by the police, an officer who looked to be somewhere between Jude’s and my age, though maybe slightly closer to mine.  Since there was no shoulder on the road, the policeman came over to talk to me on the passenger side.  He showed up smiling and said, “Reason I pulled you over… was for your speed.  This is just a warning. License and registration?”  I handed it over. He barely looked at it and smiled again.  “You’re not from around here, so you don’t know the speed limit.”  He was right; I had no idea what it was, so even though I wasn’t driving, I asked him.  He seemed to appreciate that, told me 55, smiled and said have a nice day.

Later when we arrived at the Badlands, we saw he was behind us again.  Thankfully not to pull us over, but just to check things out.  With views like these, who wouldn’t want to drive around the park?  Beautiful area and nice people.




  3 Responses to “Dispatch from South Dakota”

  1. Hi, Neat post. There is a problem with your website in internet explorer, would test this… IE still is the market leader and a large portion of people will miss your wonderful writing due to this problem.

  2. I now live near Minneapolis, but I grew up in Mitchell. Your conversation with the waitress had be giggling so hard my eyes watered!

    I like to leave Mitchell first thing in the morning so lunch time comes on the other side of the badlands at Wall Drug. Even if it means grabbing a snack along the way and having a late lunch. (Although sometimes we eat near Chamberlain either going or coming home, my sister always whips up something delicious)

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