Tuesday, August 5, 2014

South Dakota Eats

The Hackknives recently returned from our weeklong summer excursion to western South Dakota. Why on Earth, you ask, would we spend precious vacation time traveling to a region that one of my neighbors described as "flyover country"? Well, in addition to trying to escape the oppressive Florida heat/humidity (we were mostly unsuccessful at that, by the way - the temps up there were just about as hot), it gave us an opportunity to visit some friends that live part-time on a large parcel of mountaintop Black Hills property that includes (among other oddities) an old monastery lodge, a 400-foot cliff overlooking a canyon, a climbing wall, many derelict outbuildings, untold numbers of rattlesnakes, and a cave complex (a now-shuttered tourist attraction dating back to the 1890s) that ranks as one of the most extensive in the United States. The mini-adventures we had at this High Plains wonderland are story fodder for another day; of course, my main interest when leaving home is always gastronomic and I was curious to see what good things we might be able to eat there. My expectations started out very low, especially after seeing this posting from Thrillist a mere 10 days before our departure ranking the states by food/drink, and I quote:

"50. South Dakota - When you google "South Dakota and food", an image of a hungry child crying comes up, and then the computer goes black."

In all fairness, Thrillist admits that North Dakota could just as easily been ranked 50th instead (it was charitably boosted up a spot to 49), but my sincere hope was to discover something edible that would help refute this ranking. Nowadays, you can find good craft beer just about anywhere in the country, so it seems natural to start there.

The following is a very good craft beer, a Shake Chocolate Porter from Boulder Beer Company (ok, I'm cheating a little here - I had this at the Denver Airport while waiting for our connecting flight). I was elated to find out just a few days ago that our local Total Wine store in Clearwater actually carries this brew. Anyway, I'm happy to report that there is also good alcohol in South Dakota, much of it courtesy of Crow Peak Brewing Company, located in Spearfish. I quite enjoyed this Easy Livin' Summer Ale in the baby blue can (anyone canning their craft beer is ok in my book):

We had no trouble finding other varieties of Crow Peak around town, including Canyon Creek Cream Ale, 11th Hour IPA, and another one of my favorites, the Pile O' Dirt Porter, which paired very well with this baked walleye dish (crusted in panko/Parmesan, served with roasted potatoes and sauteed veggies) courtesy of the upscale Sage Creek Grille in beautiful downtown Custer (our base of operations for the first few days).  I was hoping to eat some good freshwater fish on our trip and I definitely found it here.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention our stopover at the charming Prairie Berry Winery located in nearby Hill City, a destination popular with both leather-clad bikers and Birkenstock-wearing hikers, plus everyone in between. Although I took no photos here, suffice it to say that if you've ever been to a Cooper's Hawk Winery/Restaurant, I found it to be very similar in the layout of the tasting room, the wine tastings offered, and the format of their wine club (one thing they have that CH doesn't is high-end deli products for sale). The missus and I sampled a number of PB's wines, many of which are fruit-based (as it's difficult to grow wine grapes in this neck of the woods), and we most liked the 3Rednecks (a Cabernet Sauvignon) and the Buffaloberry Fusion (a blend of Chenin Blanc and, yes, something called buffaloberries, so called because buffalo like to rub against the thorny bushes to help shed their winter coats - I looked for buffalo fur in my glass, but apparently they fished it all out) so much we picked up a couple of bottles for our hosts.

Speaking of buffalo, as you might expect, there were no shortage of opportunities to dine on this healthy alternative to beef. During our week in South Dakota, I managed to try a bison burger (a mouthwatering patty melt at the Sylvan Lake Lodge), bison hot dog (from the Mt. Rushmore food court, not bad), and bison meatloaf (at the Dakota Cowboy Inn in Custer, mediocre at best). When we reached the Badlands (located very close to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation), I don't recall seeing bison on the menu at the park's commissary, but I did snag an order of Indian fry bread with a traditional berry dipping sauce called wojapi:

I'd describe the fry bread as being a cousin of the funnel cake found at carnivals everywhere, only less greasy and a bit more savory. I'm not sure if the following concoction is considered to be indigenous to Native Americans or is more of a White man's creation, but fry bread also makes a popular substrate out here for tacos (aptly named Indian tacos), which can be found at local gatherings like the Spearfish Art Festival:

My sole experience with the Indian taco (see above) on our trip was at a roadhouse called Cheyenne Crossing, allegedly famous for their version of this dish. I can't decide if it was more like a taco salad without the surrounding shell (and the fry bread underneath) or just a gimmicky taco (like, for example, "taco in a bag" where you throw the toppings into a sack of Fritos), but either way, I don't know that I need to have another one anytime soon.

When we had the taste one evening for real Americanized Mexican food (instead of Native Americanized Mexican), we were fortunate to stumble across Marie's Mexican, a food truck sitting on the main drag in downtown Custer turning out tacos, burritos, and tamales.

My dinner (see above) consisted of black beans, rice, pineapple soda, and one each of pork and chicken tamales, among the best I can ever recall having, further evidence that this whole food truck concept is really starting to take off.

One thing I've noticed about most Old West towns is that just about every structure you encounter was the site of a famous stabbing, shooting, robbery, or lynching at some point.  Such was the case at our chosen destination for Sunday morning breakfast in Custer, Baker's Bakery Cafe, located just up the street from Maria's Mexican.

Rachel Ray touted Baker's as the best breakfast joint in South Dakota, and I can tell you that it's a good thing we got there early (around 8:30) because, by the time we left about an hour later, the entryway was standing room only (perhaps the infamous shooting commemorated above was a dispute between hungry patrons over a table).

The breakfast burritos at Baker's (stuffed with scrambled eggs, sausage, hash browns, salsa, and cheese, then smothered in homemade green chile sauce - the Rachel Ray special) are outrageously good (and I consider myself to be a connoisseur of these things) and, um, amply-sized.  I pleaded with Mrs. Hackknife to have her make sure that I didn't finish the whole thing (lest I be laid up in agony the rest of the day) and, true to my word, I left a few bites behind on the plate, painful as it was.  Whatever stomach space that remained was subsequently occupied by part of the gargantuan sticky pecan bun below that the missus and I split.

From a gastronomic standpoint, I'd say that the most interesting thing I found on our sojourn was that South Dakotahns sure seem to know how to put together a good dessert. Our first dinner in Custer was at an historic German hotel and restaurant called Bavarian Inn (being hardy folk, many Germans and Scandinavians emigrated to this formerly-inhospitable part of the country in the late 19th Century to start homesteads) and, while they serve up a pretty decent weinerschnitzel, the house streusel (a secret recipe brought over from the Fatherland) is what the locals stop in for. Available here in apple, berry, or Belgian Chocolate, streusel (a crumbly mixture of butter, sugar, and flour placed atop baked goods) is not to be confused with strudel (the layered pastry found in every grocery store bakery), which is what I first thought I was ordering until it arrived at the table (see photo below). The chocolate version featured a filling of supercharged flourless ganache, topped with whipped cream, a pale yellow ribbon of sweet custard (sour cream based?), and the most dense, yet somehow crystalline and ethereal, streusel that could possibly be produced by human hands. There might have been a bottom crust (I was too blissed out to notice) and it came with vanilla ice cream (totally unnecessary); regardless, after a few bites, this confection received my immediate nomination for the Dessert Hall of Fame. My only regret was that we ran out of time to come back for the other varieties before we had to go home (I'm still daydreaming about the streusel now).

The following night, we popped in for dessert at an eyecatching purple Victorian house that happened to be within walking distance of our rental cabin, Bobkat's Purple Pie Place, home of the Black Hills' most beloved pies. The line of waiting customers was out the door, a good sign when you're in my line of hobby.

I opted for the most unusual version of pie on the menu, a raspberry/rhubarb/jalapeno combo that artfully balanced sweet, tart, and spicy flavors in a crispy brown crust (actually, the jalapenos provided a little more kick than I was expecting). While it's no Hoosier Mama, we were more than happy with our selections.

One last dessert of note is the Thomas Jefferson ice cream available at Mt. Rushmore. Although President Jefferson didn't actually introduce ice cream to the colonies (that had occurred some time earlier), he appears to be the first American to record a recipe for it, probably brought over from France by his French butler, Petit (the official Monticello website has a nice discussion of Jefferson's connection to ice cream in America here).

Some employee in the National Park Service came up with the idea of re-creating the Jefferson ice cream for the mass consumption of Mt. Rushmore visitors. The recipe itself makes no reference to vanilla flavoring, however, the modern version has vanilla bean in the mixture. I can attest to this since I tried it myself - it's ok, but nothing spectacular. I was much more impressed with the "ice cream equals Jefferson" t-shirts that were for sale.

So there you have it. After going through all of my notes and pictures, I think I've made a pretty strong case for South Dakota to be ranked at the very least the 45th best food state in the nation, and that's not even taking into consideration the foodstuffs we missed out on. Black Hills Burger and Bun Co. in Custer allegedly serves some of the best burgers in the country, but we gave up after two aborted attempts to dine there (they keep banker's hours like Hot Doug's and have perpetual long waits as a result). We tried to buy some of the official state dessert, kuchen (the German word for "cake" that we've been mispronouncing as "koo-chen" - it's actually "koo-ken"), in a local grocery store (it was cherry and frozen and it looked really good), but it thawed out in our cheap gas station foam cooler and spoiled before we could consume it. There are even rumors of a restaurant in Hill City serving something called chislic, which are marinated and deep-fried sirloin tips, that appears to be more common in the eastern half of the state (something we'll have to seek out next time). If Thrillist wants to use my research when updating their food ranking list next year, they can send me a small check and I'll be happy to part with it...

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