Everybody asks for ranch,” says chef Eric Halverson of Rapids Brewing Company in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. “We don’t have it. Never will.”
In a business where pleasing people is the name of the game, Halverson is hospitable but defiant. The food will always be great, he says—a marriage of mostly local food with a wood-fired oven twist. But there will be no burgers with American cheese and ketchup, because the kitchen stocks neither of those items. There will be no French fries, because there’s no fryer in the restaurant. And there will be, regional tastes be damned, no freakin’ ranch dressing.
“That’s kind of my conversation with this town,” he says, ruefully. “I’m not going to capitulate on something like that. I didn’t spend 72 hours cooking a chicken wing so you could make it taste like Hidden Valley.”
Rapids Brewing Company has operated for a little more than three months in the thoroughly rehabbed former Rialto Theatre near the heart of this 11,000-person town in north central Minnesota. The project is owned by a group of locals who set out to give the city a culinary draw that it otherwise lacks. Between the brewery’s craft beer and Halverson’s quietly ambitious menu, it feels like they’ve made serious progress toward the goal.
Former city councilor Ed Zabinski is one of the brewery’s founders and owners and he says Halverson is a big piece of what has brought this still-new business to life. “Eric took our very abstract notion of trying to provide interesting different food for a local audience and he made it real,” says Zabinski. “And that’s one of the things we’re most proud of, that he’s able to make food in a wood-fired oven that isn’t found anywhere else in our area.”The Rabbit Hole and The Left-Handed Cook in Minneapolis. He started with Kim and Melgaard as The Left Handed Cook found its voice and expanded to its Rabbit Hole incarnation, a second location within the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis. Kim, recalls Halverson, was an intense presence in the kitchen, particularly at the start of their relationship.
“As I grew to know him later, I would refer to that period as ‘Fire-and-Brimstone Thomas,’ ‘Old Testament Thomas!’” says Halverson. “He’d come in and kick through the door and start screaming and everybody would hop to it… I spent probably about 80 hours a week there for five years. And now he and I are like brothers.”
Sourcing, says Halverson, is one of the things he zeroed in on and it’s now a guiding light for his work at Rapids Brewing Company. “There are farms around here, both produce and meat farmers, pork farmers, beef farmers,” he says. “A lot of the people we’re dealing with aren’t big names […] the guy I buy beef from is doing 100 percent grass-fed beef, but he does 15 head a year. One of the guys is a produce farmer and, aside from us buying his produce, his main income is a little stall on the side of the highway. But I love that because I’ve found more in-depth relationships with those producers than being in an area like the Twin Cities.”
That relationship, Halverson says, will mean the world to his menu in future years, as he works hand-in-hand with farmers and ranchers to create what his guests will eat. “I can sit down and plan out my entire next year with say two or three different producers and they’ll literally grow what I want them to grow,” he says.
Fish from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ontario watersheds are a part of Halverson’s mission, too.
“It’s a widely available product we should be proud of,” Halverson says. “And people are like: ‘I want mahi mahi.’ Dude, if you want mahi mahi, go to California. At least it’s good then. But here, we have plenty of amazing products, people just need to learn to eat them. Like herring from Lake Superior, or the smelt—we should be inherently proud of them. It speaks to our food culture and our culture as a state.”
Northern fish is highlighted on the restaurant’s Long Shoreman pizza ($16), which features Apostle Islands Lake Superior trout caught to order in season.
“So I was like, okay, we’ve got this awesome product, it fits everything we’re doing—I need to work this into something,” says Halverson. “Trout and white sauce, obviously.” Inspired by the iconic salmon and sorrel sauce dish by the Troisgros brothers of France, Halverson wove this smoked North Country fish into a remarkably subtle and complex pizza featuring dill, sweet corn, white sauce, and pickled mustard seed.
“The little bit of extra vinegar on the mustard seeds helps cut the cream and cut the fat from the trout,” says Halverson. “You’ve got these little pops of sweet that help accentuate the sauce and the trout from the corn, and then you have the freshness of the dill that not only brings the herbaceousness out of the sauce, [but] obviously trout and dill is one of those Minnesota classics.”
The restaurant’s play on a margherita pizza, the Margie ($11), is also surprisingly formidable. It uses Wisconsin cheese (mozzarella, and “instead of a fior di latte, which is a low-moisture cheese VPN allows for, we use curds from Ellsworth”), features a crust brushed in fermented garlic honey, and features a faint but pleasantly perceptible sprinkling of lemon zest and the classic basil topping. The mild natural sweetness of the honey and the tang of the lemon play against the fat of the cheese and bring a novel—and delectable—depth to the pie.
Is it an “authentic” margherita? No—it’s not slavishly following Neapolitan VPN rules. Is it delicious? Yes. Is it authentic to Halverson’s vision and personal story? Absolutely. And that’s where the conversation about “authentic” food gets complex.
While pizza is the key to the restaurant’s menu, burgers, pasta, and killer duck-fat smoked wings lend interest, too. And the influence of the seasons can be felt, too—when we visited Halverson in November, roasted sweet potatoes, squash culurgioni (stuffed pasta), and a subtle, full-flavored pumpkin soup (see recipe) were lending the menu some autumnal splendor.
What it all adds up to, says Ed Zabinski, is an asset for the community as a whole. “I thought and I still believe that having brewpubs like ours, and Klockow [Brewing] and other places, will make Grand Rapids a better and more interesting place to live,” he says.
That’s no small thing for a man with four adult children, he adds. “I wanted to make Grand Rapids a place they might come back to.”
Recipe for Rapids Brewing Co.’s Pumpkin “Curry”
This pumpkin soup is bolstered by a platoon of warming spices. Says Halverson, “The reason we call it a curry is in this very much Minnesota palate territory, you need to indicate ahead of time whether or not something has spices people will be unfamiliar with or put off by.”
5 cups cooked pumpkin or butternut squash flesh (about two small pie pumpkins)
1 medium onion, sliced
3 cloves black garlic or roasted garlic, diced
1 stick of butter
1½ teaspoon mustard seed
1 cinnamon stick
1½ teaspoons cumin seed
2 teaspoons ginger powder
¼ teaspoon ground clove
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
½ cup parmesan cheese, grated
5 sprigs fresh thyme
1 whole sprig fresh rosemary
4 cups rich brown chicken stock plus 1½ cups water or 5½ cups conventional chicken stock
¾ cup heavy cream
Optional: Croutons, pipits, additional parmesan, and/or sauteed wild mushrooms
1. Split pumpkins in half and remove seeds and membrane. Score and season lightly with olive oil and salt. Roast cut side down at 375º F until browned and flesh is easily removed with a spoon, approximately 45–60 minutes.
2. Toast whole spices in a pan on high heat until fragrant (1–2 minutes), remove pan from heat and add powdered spices, immediately transfer to spice grinder and grind all together.
3. Add butter to a pot, melt on high heat, sweat onions and garlic until lightly caramelized (about 7–8 minutes). Add toasted spices and pumpkin flesh while continuing to stir. Cook until mixture just begins to catch on the bottom of the pan.
4. Add stock (and water, if using rich, brown chicken stock) and bring pot to a simmer.
5. Add cream, parmesan, and fresh herbs and simmer for 10–15 minutes until cheese has begun to melt and herbs are softened and infused.
6. Blend in small batches while hot (blending while the soup is hot can be dangerous but yields a finer and creamier texture) and strain through a mesh strainer. Season with salt to taste and serve immediately.
7. Garnish with croutons, pepitas, parmesan, and/or wild mushrooms.
Read more chef profiles and get other great recipes in The Growler’s Minnesota Spoon column here.