This fall I had lunch at the Duluth Grill. Not only is it near a freeway and right next to a gas station, but its building used to house a chain restaurant. These are not auspicious specs for a transcendent business, but the owners, Tom and Jaima Hanson, are doing everything right. People have responded. The place is wildly popular.
What you first notice as you pull in are the raised garden beds out front. When we were there in September, a double yellow moonflower was in bloom. I am embarrassed to admit that I took a seedpod from it, I was that swept away. I did check to be sure there were lots of other pods before I nabbed one. But still.
My sister who lives up north had recommended this restaurant; she knows I’m interested in locally grown food. She warned me that their business is so good you might have to wait to get a table, but we got right in. I ordered the Banh Mi duck burger and crashed sweet potatoes (which are boiled, fried, then topped with sugar). The burger is thick and juicy, topped with spicy aioli and slaw, and has homemade pate spread on the bun, making for a rich bite indeed.
The second time there I had tacos made from Lake Superior white fish. The fish is deep fried but not greasy, and the cilantro-lime tartar sauce, avocado, and pickled onion and hit several pleasing taste and texture notes. I told my husband, “I want to eat here every day.” I’d never reacted to a restaurant that way before.
The food at the Grill is cooked from scratch with some very locally sourced ingredients. The beds around the building provide peppers, tomatoes, basil, and rhubarb. They have beehives and pumpkin and squash vines on the roof. At their urban farm a mile from the restaurant they raise kale, beets, leeks, and celery, according to their web site. There also incorporate produce from the gardens the Hanson’s planted in the yard of their home.
Not content with all those garden beds, and with how much they have done to improve the neighborhood and serve people excellent diner food, they decided to redo their eyesore of a back lot, and, while they were at it, build a 140-foot-long, 12-foot-wide bed they will call their parking lot orchard.
They created a 6-foot high mound the full length of that bed by filling it with logs that will rot slowly under the soil covering them. The decayed matter will provide nutrients for plants and will absorb and store moisture. What this means is the bed will feed and water itself for decades. They added boulders that will absorb and then radiate heat to further help the plants along.
Here are some of the fruits they will grow: cherries, apricots, paw-paws, plums, chokeberries, honeyberries, black-cap raspberries, hardy kiwis, grapes, and lingonberries. They also plan to include nut trees, herbs, and edible flowers.
The Hanson’s ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the garden, with a goal of $10,000. They have now raised almost $14,000. The bed is built and they will plant in the spring.
Their next project is to build a rain garden to manage the 900,000 gallons of water that runs off their buildings and property each year. They want to keep it (and the silt, salt, and debris it carries) from washing straight into Miller Creek, a trout designated stream that flows into Lake Superior. Other plans include: redo the parking lot with pervious pavers, capture and reuse rainwater, reuse fryer oil for electricity, and compost the kitchen scraps on site.
The Duluth Grill is in a low-income neighborhood. A friend of mine from there told me she had been concerned about vandalism because the gardens are accessible to all. But so far, apparently, they have been more or less left alone (if you don’t consider snitching a seedpod vandalism). As I waited in the parking lot for my husband after our first visit, a guy walked up and asked if I would give him 75 cents for bus fare. I told him sorry, no. As he walked away he said, “If you are about to eat at the Duluth Grill, enjoy your meal.”
Did he mean to point out that though I could afford to eat there, he could not? Maybe. But he had said it cheerfully, as if he were proud of the place.
As I stood out front on that September day, I admired their espaliered pear tree that had a couple of luscious, blush-red pears hanging on it. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. If you ask me, the future has arrived, its epicenter is in Duluth, Minnesota, and it looks pretty darn good, indeed.
Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at the Loft Literary Center.