The pancake trail: A cafe that's more than Nice [Updated]
In Minnesota, niceness is as much a cultural imperative as brusqueness is in Manhattan, or a certain kind of enlightenment is in Santa Monica. It's kind of hard to explain without sounding cloying, but people seem to be genuinely interested in being helpful and friendly. Yeah, I know: weird. While traveling through Minnesota I discover what's probably the nicest place in the whole state, though. It's the aptly named Minnesota Nice Cafe only a few steps from Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox in the center of downtown Bemidji.
And probably the nicest thing at the Minnesota Nice Cafe are their pancakes. For some reason, for me road trips demand hotcakes and up until now, my favorite ever restaurant pancakes have been Ole's Swedish Hotcakes from Little River Inn in Mendocino. But I've learned that my heart has room for one more (and my stomach probably even more than that). Proprietor Jeanette Proulx (like the writer) is cagey about her recipe, but she does confide that the secret is combining equal parts flour and ground oatmeal. I had a hard time choosing my favorite: the blueberry or the wild rice. They're both made from the same batter, with the signature ingredient sprinkled over once they're on the griddle. The addition of the oats adds a real complexity to the flavor. I'm going to try to figure out the full recipe for a future column. [Updated, 9:30 a.m.: An earlier version of this column misspelled Proulx' first name.]
Proulx opened Minnesota Nice Cafe five years ago ... in December ... when the average high temperature in Bemidji is 21 degrees. "I couldn't believe we did it, either," she says. "It's funny how it happened: I'd applied for a job and thought I'd gotten it, but there was a big mixup and they gave it to someone else. I was just sitting around doing nothing, so I wrote up a business plan and took it to the bank and the Small Business Administration. I guess I twisted enough arms, because that's how we got going."
Photo credit: Jeanette Proulx and her son and co-cook Greg Archambault by Russ Parsons