We moved to Minnesota in 2007. It took us eight years to finally get around to eating lutefisk and only another four to finally go to not only our first fish fry but also to our first smelt fry. “What is a smelt fry?,” you might ask—particularly if you don’t live in Minnesota. Well, it’s a Minnesota tradition, albeit one that doesn’t stretch back further than the middle of the 20th century. Smelt are not native to the Great Lakes region and were not found here till 1946. (The story of the rise and fall of smelt in Lake Superior is a neat little allegory of human impact on nature.) The population is now far reduced from its peak but the smelt fry tradition remains and the catch in March/April is one of the harbingers of spring in Minnesota. Smelt are gathered up by the bucketful, fried and eaten by the handful. The major schisms seem to be between those who behead the fish and those who cook and eat ’em whole, and between those who batter and those who bread. For those without direct access to the tiny fish, smelt fries spring up in church basements and clubs and also in some restaurants. And it was to a restaurant we went, to Ettlin’s Ranchero Supper Club in Webster.
There were nine of us, five adults and four small children (ours and two belonging to two of the other adults). Of the nine the four of us were the group members of the non-white persuasion. I note this because we were, I think, the only such people in the very large restaurant over the course of that meal, and it wouldn’t surprise me to be told that we were the first non-white family there this year. One of the other group members had been there before with his partner who is Asian-American, and he’d told us beforehand that we should be prepared to be stared at a fair bit. He was not lying. None of the staring was hostile but there was a fair bit of it. Webster, you see, is not one of the more cosmopolitan pockets of southern Minnesota: it is solidly white and rural.
And in the Ranchero Supper Club on Wednesday our group both brought the average age of the adult diners down sharply and raised the melanin count dramatically. I note all this because while it may seem like extraneous detail to some readers, for people of colour walking into a place like the Ranchero Supper Club is not a banal, neutral experience and it is hard not to be aware of your visible difference. This is not to say we were treated in any untoward fashion. Our server, a feisty older lady, was businesslike and friendly all at once. Still, I don’t know that we’d feel entirely comfortable going back there just the four of us or if the feeling of difference would have been more heightened still if our reserved table had been in the middle of the large dining room and not in a corner of the smaller dining room off to the rear.
I should also add here that this issue of feeling one’s status as a minority diner is also very much in play when we go out to eat at fine dining restaurants in the Cities. While we’re rarely the only people of colour at those restaurants, with a few exceptions, those too are not really pockets of cosmopolitan diversity in a state that is still overwhelmingly white. In other words, it’s not only in rural Minnesota that the non-white diner/visitor can feel their difference. But it is also true that the combination of race and class make for a different feel at a place like Ranchero Supper Club than at a place like In Bloom.
So far, so sociological—how was the food? Before getting to it let me describe the restaurant a bit more. As noted above, it is very large. There’s a large dining room as you enter, a bar off to one side, a smaller dining room in the rear and another large space in the lower level. This is not what I was expecting to find in Webster which is an unincorporated township with a population of less than 2000 at the last census. I’d guess the restaurant is a larger community fulcrum—it plays host to local Lions’ Club gatherings and so on. The restaurant itself was founded by Swiss immigrants, Rudolph and Ann Ettlin, in 1972 and is currently run by their daughter and her family. It is, I’d hazard, in a broader continuum of Germanic establishments across the Upper Midwest—lots of wood paneling, German beers and a menu with German/Swiss specialties alongside a lot of old-school preparations of meat and fish–from chopped steak and walleye to duck a l’orange and also a couple of preparations of frog legs. The restaurant, you feel, has not changed much in the intervening decades; as to how the regulars feel about changes in the world outside, I’m not sure (Webster township went for Trump by a large margin in 2016 as did most of the county).
Okay, the food: we were there for the smelt and the smelt is what we largely got. Four of the five adults and one of the four children asked for smelt. This was served family-style in all-you-can-eat quantities. In sharp contrast to a table of four men behind us who each ate a platter, we only managed to finish two platters between the four adults. Our boys split an order of their pork schnitzel with spaetzle (which I unaccountably did not photograph) and the other brat got the fried cod from the kids’ menu. The remaining adult ordered the smoked pork shanks from the “specialty entrees” end of the menu. The smelt came with fries and tartare sauce, cole slaw, a plate of pickles. Sides with the other dishes included red cabbage and apple sauce (for the kids). The smelt was fine. I would have preferred a crispier fry and a bit more seasoning but it was good with the acidic tang of the tartar sauce (both it and the cole slaw—not slathered in mayo—were rather good). The schnitzel was unremarkable but the boys inhaled it (they were indifferent to the spaetzle). The massive smoked pork shank, however, was a disappointment. Billed as being “so tender they fall off the bone” the meat was in fact hard and stringy and chewy.
To take a look at the restaurant and the food, launch the slideshow below. Scroll down to see how much it cost and whether I’d go back again.
It was a lot of food—portions are large—but it was not very cheap. For all of the above we paid about $135 plus tip. If not for the pork shanks debacle I might have been able to talk myself into putting another group outing together to try the rest of their specialty dishes but it seems like an expensive chance to take. The bottomless platters of smelt and fries at $16.95 a pop are a much better deal but frankly, I think I’d be fine waiting another 12 years for my second go-around. It was a lot of fried food and tartar sauce and I still feel a little bloated as I type this up a day later. Now if the smelt had been fried to more of a crisp and had roe in them, I might feel differently. Oh yes, at Ranchero Supper Club the smelt are headless and are battered not breaded.
If you are in the area and are intrigued, you should know that they have one more day of the smelt fry left: next Wednesday, April 10 (I recommend making a reservation). After that you’ll either have to wait another year for smelt fry at Ranchero Supper Club or find a church basement somewhere.