Here’s our Twin Ports tour by the numbers: six restaurants, 14 hours, a five-year-old, and a baby riding shotgun. We had a blast checking in on the insanely active dining scene in Duluth and Superior, although we caution readers that this schedule and/or this choice of traveling companions may create a noticeable strain on your nervous system (and trying both may lead to some sort of long-term hospitalization). You’ve been warned.
The newly opened Skywalk location of Juice Pharm (31 W. Superior St., #303) offers the same sort of vegan fare as its original (12 S. 15th Ave. E.) location, but in a small, skywalk-friendly format. You may have to wander a bit to find the cozy cafe plus skywalk-facing ordering window; look for Lady Ocalat’s Paranormal Investigations (“cleansings, exorcisms, removal of psychic debris”), located across the hall.
We got the widely hailed PB&J Acai Bowl ($10) and found that it was like nothing we’ve ever tried before, in a positive sense. This mix of acai berries, chia seeds, peanut butter, bits of granola, banana, coconut flakes, and other bright and/or crunchy elements is like the precise opposite of a buttery stack of pancakes: it’s energizing and refreshing.
And while our Lava Flow smoothie ($7; cherries, coconut milk, bananas, pineapple, chia seeds) was surprisingly thin on flavor and substance, our plain old orange juice ($4.50) reminded us of the fresh-squeezed Valencia stuff we used to drink in Spain—mellow (not an acidic drill), really bright, and naturally sweet.
The newly opened Corktown Deli and Brews (1906 W. Superior St.) is the latest in a string of restaurants from the talented team behind the roots-to-table Duluth Grill (118 S. 27th Ave. W.) and shockingly legit BBQ stop OMC Smokehouse (1909 W. Superior St.). The thing with Corktown is its house-made pastrami; we tried a sandwich full of the stuff and it exceeded our inappropriately high expectations.
Here’s the deal: We’ve lived in Brooklyn and eaten in Manhattan, so we’re relatively jaded about Reubens. We’re also therefore comfortable saying that the Pastrami Reuben at Corktown Deli ($12) is likely one of the better Reubens available anywhere, full stop. It’s about two fundamentals: powerfully flavorful ingredients and adroit balance. For example: the rye bread at Corktown was not merely colored like rye bread as it is at so many delis and bakeries. It was bold, and strong, and fully flavored. The meat wasn’t just, as is often the case, piled on and mostly just rich in a fatty way. It was applied in a modest layer but packed so much deep, complex flavor that it was a major player in the sandwich’s overall taste. Likewise, the kraut and Russian dressing were bold and palpable, but in balance with their collaborators. Result: a Reuben we’re tempted to drive 250 miles for. It’s not easy to equal the sandwich firepower of Northern Waters Smokehaus, but Corktown is a worthy adversary.
Likewise, the restaurant’s Knuckle Sandwich ($12) transcends its format (roast beef with horseradish aioli and mustard). The elements are all bold: sharp brined onions, bright red peppers, incredibly kicky horseradish aioli, tender, full-flavored meat. Nothing overwhelms, everything teams up to kick ass and take names. Each bite is a little different, full of fire, or acid, or salt, but somehow everything evens out and tastes delicious.
Right next door to Corktown Deli and Brews is the painfully cute and on-trend bricks-and-mortar incarnation of the high-end, mostly organic, local ice cream maker Love Creamery; we ordered an Affogato ($4) and, as suggested, fell in love. The clean, bright, sharply defined flavor of our Duluth Coffee Company coffee was an ideal cradle for the pure, creamy simpleness of Love Creamery’s vanilla ice cream. We complimented our server on the affogato and it turns out that she has the whole thing worked out: if you immerse the ice cream in the coffee and give it a slight stir, you surround it with coffee and ensure a more even and complete coffee plus ice cream flavor/texture meld. Our two Baby Scoops of ice cream ($3.50) were equally enjoyable—the Nutella was pleasingly understated rather than oversweet, and the leading qualities of our Espresso Fudge flavor were the chocolate depth of the fudge (counterpointed by a tiny but valuable bit of salt) and a quietly expressed hint of coffee.
Over in Superior, the reborn Sclavi’s has been winning converts with its stick-to-your-ribs Italian-American fare at 1106 Tower Ave. “The food is incredible, the cocktails are cheap and strong, and the menu and vibe are hilarious,” wrote Robert Lillegard of Duluth’s Best Bread while recommending the spot to us in an email about our upcoming trip. Our findings: pleasantly incredible-ish, very cheap and very strong, utterly hilarious. There’s something about the place that’s a little bit magical—it’s some ineffable combination of the so-old-they’re-new red-checked tablecloths, the mood lighting, the weird mosaic art pieces hung on the wall, and the unapologetically Wisconsinite approach to cocktails. You’re in an Italian-American restaurant in Wisconsin in 1983; you’re in an Italian-American restaurant in Wisconsin right now. It’s ironic, it’s winking, and it’s dead serious. You need to go in order to get a handle on it.
The house Sauce Flight ($10) at Sclavi’s is a bit dear for what is essentially five shot glasses full of sauce, a shot glass full of green peppers, and some lightly grilled (albeit deliciously light and crispy) bread, but it’s a lot of fun, particularly when you’re one or more over-sweetened, over-carbonated, satisfyingly alcoholic Wisconsin Old Fashioned-ish cocktails into your meal. Four of the sauces were red, one was mostly olive oil, and yet they all had their own distinctive thing going on, whether it was heat (Arrabiata) or basil (Marinara) or meaty comfort (the house special red lead the pack).
Their Agnello Ragu ($11 + $3.50 for an optional meatball) is a roasted red pepper and lamb sausage sauce that we found to be bold, earthy, and lamb-y, arguably to excess (one of us dug it, the other thought it too jungly in flavor). The suggested ziti pasta struggled to hold the sauce, however—penne rigate might’ve more effectively corralled the stuff. The meatball, however, was an undisputed win: it was silky in texture, fully flavored, nicely browned, and light without being insubstantial.
And the restaurant’s Sausage and Peppers dish ($12) is just that: snappy, tasty, grilled Italian sausage that you can mix up with beautifully browned onions and sliced peppers cooked in olive oil and then slap atop a crunchy piece of carefully grilled ciabatta.
A final note about Sclavi’s: our pre-meal bread and olive oil plate and surprisingly enjoyable, light lettuce-and-raw onion slices salads with French onion dip dressing seem to be a complimentary part of service, and generously offset the mysterious $1 service charge required for credit card payment.
Over the past couple of weeks, the Twin Ports have been toasting the recent return of the originally Duluth-based Pak’s Green Corner (1901 Tower Ave., Superior). This cult-favorite Thai fusion spot was featured in a 2014 episode of “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” on the Food Network and closed shortly thereafter; its rebirth is something of a miracle in the rough-and-tumble world of restaurants, which doesn’t typically feature a lot of come-back stories. We tried a red curry with chicken ($10.50), a summer roll ($7), and the nightly special: a pork belly with sausage and rice dish that resonated with some of the Hmong food we’ve eaten in the metro ($13.50). Without fail, the dishes and their richly flavored accompanying sauces were distinguished by a quiet, graceful sense of balance—a red curry, for example, that had heat and funk and sweetness, but all in harmonious proportions and at a politely mellow intensity. The place was packed when we dined (5:10pm on a Thursday), and seems to have regained its cult status in a jiffy.
The eclectic approach of Martha’s Daughter (107 E. Superior St.), which serves ramen, gourmet Coney Island hot dogs, and rainbow trout, among other things, has attracted notice throughout the state. In a casual town, it’s a polished dining room; it made us think of Saint Dinette or Parlour, places that are accessible but thought-out, gathering places you feel comfortable dropping by but also might feel inspired to dress up for.
Our Chicken and Waffle dish ($16) was ridiculously on point. We’ve tried dozens of iterations of this dish all over the place. Our all-time best: Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland, California. Second place? Martha’s Daughter. There was a cornmeal theme going on in the waffle and on the chicken breading that hoovered up the high-quality local maple syrup and made it an intimate partner of the other components. The waffle was crisp as a new Italian suit, the chicken was tender as a repentant ex-whatever who is hoping to drop the “ex,” and the Yker Acre candied bacon was bold, bright, and sweet, setting off the waffle and chicken and shaking hands with the syrup.
Our Pickled Shiitake Ramen ($12) reminded us that when you start messing with the Japanese noodle arts, there are dozens of ways to succeed and dozens of ways to fail; between the broth, the noodles, the vegetables, and the accompaniments, there’s a dazzling spectrum to explore. The Martha’s Daughter version was solid—a hearty kick of umami, as we’d hoped, a strong backbone of salt, tender noodles, and a big sesame presence. We could have used a broth with more perceivable depth and layers of flavors, but that’s a minor point—the dish worked.
That should be enough to get your Duluth tour kicked off to a solid start, but if it’s not, a few other tips from our trips in years past: Duluth Coffee Company (105 E. Superior St.) has been crushing it on the third wave coffee front for the past several years. On a good day you can tie, but you essentially never can beat, a sandwich at the rightfully legendary Northern Waters Smokehaus in Canal Park (394 Lake Ave. S., #106). Duluth’s Best Bread (2632 W. 3rd St.) serves up some of the best chocolate croissants we’ve had anywhere, and they’re kicking off a new, weekends-only breakfast cafe at Endion Station Public House (200 Lake Pl. Dr.,) starting July 7.