Let's face it; when it comes to dining along any interstate highway, there just ain't much for choices if you want a good meal. Between Chicago and Minneapolis, I can only think of two. One is the Norske Nook in Osseo. But that's not exactly on the interstate. The other is the Target Bluff German Hous in Camp Douglas. (german-haus.com). And I'll tell you what, the Target Bluff is, to me, everything a "supper club" should be. The bar is staffed with professional bartenders who know how to mix drinks and carry on a pleasant conversation. The food is prepared the same way it was forty years ago, from scratch with love.
Camp Douglas isn't a very large town, only about 600. When I have driven through it, it's a pleasant-looking town, though it's looking as run-down as many small towns are these days. But I am thinking now that I will have to check it out some time. There are a few bars there, and of course they will be needing a visit.
Target Bluff isn't in town though. It's at the foot of a huge bluff just off the interstate, in a strip along Highway 12/I-90/94 that is lined with a couple of gas stations and a hotel. I had gone there long ago, back in the seventies and I recall being struck at how good the food was, even in an age when McDonalds and Hardee's were taking over the scene. But then I moved away to a different life, and for many years the only time I saw Target Bluff was in passing along the interstate.
Then last fall my friend, J, called up and told me that we had to go there. "We have to go this week. They're having smorgasbord!" And I don't know about you, but the thought of "smorgasbord" always conjures up the taste of instant mashed potatoes and dried-up meat and canned gravy all set out in a hot table for hours on end. I was skeptical. But J insisted that it was good, and some of his relatives were coming along. They were always a good time, so I decided that they would all make the ride worthwhile even if the food was bad.
We got there early, as was the plan, solely to hang out at the bar for a while. "You can't do the supper club thing without sitting at the bar first," J's niece told me. When we walked in, we were greeted by festive German music. I recognized it right away as the "Pennsylvania Polka". If you've ever seen "Groundhog Day", you'd know the tune. I was feeling better about this already. (Oh, I hope I have the name of that polka right!)
The bar area was quiet, but the two bartenders looked as if they were expecting and ready for a crowd. There were six of us, and we lined up along the bar and ordered. I decided that I wanted an Old Fashioned. And really, in so many places if you ask for an Old Fashioned, you'll see the bartender pull out a bottle of mix and a bottle of brandy and serve it up. But not here! The bartender--who the women in our group called,"Raoul" for no reason I could think of--asked me what brandy I wanted, and then recommended a good one. Then he mixed the drink right there, with sugar and spices and a cinnamon stick and some garnish. It was a work of art that he had ready in seconds, and it tasted at least as good as it looked.
The "Pennsylvania Polka" ended, and a waltz came on. We all sat back with our drinks while people started filling up the large open dining room. I could see waitstaff moving quickly and efficiently around in there, and the hot tables were all set up and steaming. One table after another got up to join the line of diners filling their plates. We all sat and finished our drinks, then ordered more. At one end of the bar, two old couples sat down with their shots of brandy and glasses of St. Pauli girl. I realized that they were speaking in German to each other, though they looked like retired local farmers. They are a breed that I was familiar with when I was growing up, the men and women who had worked without electricity or indoor plumbing, who had raised and butchered their own meat, grown their own food. They have a look about them that's unlike anything you see today, a hard but friendly look. I hate to generalize about any group, even if it's a family of brawlers--and there are some of them that I have known--or even people who go into business or advertizing. I'm sure there are good and bad in any of them, and they're not all alike. But there is a generation, one that's disappearing here, of people who grew up and made a living, and even retired, on a hundred acres of land. I've known many of them. And they value hard physical work, and family, and neighbors. They put their names on their mailboxes so people could find them if they had to. They shared labor at harvest time, they helped one another in bad times. My own father was one of those people. I found that out a few years ago when I ran into a neighbor in town who told of my father coming over to help him with chores after his wife had died. I never knew about this, I was too young. But that meant that my father would have had to milk his own cows and take care of them, and then drive over there, morning and night, for as long as he felt necessary. Forty years later, this man remembered what I had never known.
Where was I? Yes, at the bar. We had a couple of drinks, and visited, then finally told Raul that we were ready for a table. One opened up in a few minutes. We took our drinks in and then went to the food. And I'll say right now that this was no banquet for a vegetarian. Everything here was meat-centric. There were trays of cabbage rolls (cabbage leaves rolled around meat and veggies) and meat rolls (thin-sliced meat wrapped around vegetables). There was saurbraten, bratwurst, pork hocks. There were mashed potatoes, and German potato salad. And the food was prepared there, not out of a box. The potatoes were fresh, as were the meat. This was all basic German food, nothing fancy, but not really simple either, not to be this good. It took time to slice the meats for the meat rolls, time to stuff the cabbage leaves, to mash the potatoes. It was worth the trip (and I was so glad that we had a designated driver!) to be able to get food this good, and service this good, and an atmosphere that was just happy all around. I don't think it was just the time at the bar that made me feel this way.
I seldom order the buffet. I never eat enough to make it worthwhile. But this time I went back for seconds. The waitress kept our drinks full, kept the water glasses full, and stayed really cheerful. I don't know how they do that, but I admire that ability. We all decided at once that we were full, and retired once more to the bar. Raoul was still smoothly serving up drinks. A group of military kids from Camp Williams/ Volk Field, which is just across the interstate, filled a table. They were mostly drinking light beers, as far as I could see. It seemed like such a waste, with the good German beers that were stocked here. But there ya go. We sat and relaxed with another cocktail while our designated driver looked a little annoyed/amused at the womenfolk who were getting kind of loud now. He was in for a fun ride home. I planned on napping the whole way.