Four Stars: Drive a little, eat a lot of burgers

Nancy Johnson has worked at the Pioneer Club in Wabasha for over twenty-five years.

Have you ever eaten a Monkey Burger?

Neither had I, before last Saturday at Jac's Bar and Grill in Chatfield, and I'm telling you, I shouldn't have waited 55 years to try one. It's good, peppery and has nothing to do with monkeys.

I repeat, PETA activists: No monkeys were used in the preparation of this burger.

Jeff Hare and his wife, Candi, who have owned the Main Street bar and grill since October, were just monkeying around when they named the burger — actually, they kept the name from the previous owners, when the bar was called Tacade's. The burger is 100-percent certified Hereford beef, topped with jalapenos, Swiss cheese and something called Monkey Sauce.

"The sauce has a spice in it called Goob Spice, which is made by the local barber at the end of the block," says Jeff, who's 41 and a Chatfied native, as is Candi. "He came up with this spice and lets us use it."


I called Goob, who also goes by the name Dave Dudek and owns Dave's Barber Shop, and while he declined to let me in on the secret to his spice, he said he's been making it for 15 to 20 years and it's been enjoyed far and wide. He'll make it by the ice cream pail-full for some fans, including the U.S. Ski Team, and if you stop by his store, he'll just give you a jar.

But don't ask what's in it, says Dave — Goob was his nickname in school days. "That was kind of the deal," that the previous and current owners of Jac's could use the recipe but never, ever breathe a word about its ingredients.

Jac's is one of our Four Stars recommendations for great burgers in the Rochester area. Among the other winners is the Pioneer Club, one of the genuinely original bar and grills in the area, the Road Trip in Dover and Seth's Down Under in Stewartville.

The Pioneer is without a doubt one of the best-kept secrets in Southeast Minnesota. It's downriver several miles from Wabasha, perched on the edge of the bluff overlooking the mighty Mississippi just above the Alma lock and dam, and the view from the patio is one of the most sweeping anywhere along either side of the river.

Dawn Johnson, who's managed the place for about 10 years, says the original part of the building, which has been added onto over the years, used to be a chicken coop. Assuming that's true, the chickens had a heckuva view. The Pioneer is now a hangout for bikers, boaters and summer campers. The club's owner, Gary Todd, also owns the trailer park next door, and just downriver is the Pioneer Campsite, with another 60 RV sites, so the area has more people than some small towns from June to August.

Among the many crowd-pleasing burgers on the menu is one of Dawn's own creation, the Aussie, a tribute to the burgers she ate in Australia when she visited 10 years ago — minus the slice of red beet , which I found (and enjoyed) on burgers there a few years ago.

This is my third go-round for best burgers in Southeast Minnesota, so I thought we'd recap the past winners. These were the blue-ribbon winners i n 2010:

Newt's Burgers and Beer , at the original location in downtown Rochester.


King's Place in Miesville, which I believe still has the longest list of burgers this side of Hereford, England.

Chester's Kitchen & Bar , which excels at most things it touches.

And Pappageorge Taverna/Michaels Restaurant , just across University Square from Chester's, which wins anytime the Four Stars decision has to do with beef.

And in 2011:

The Brickhouse Pub and Grille in Red Wing, which has a great deck and an awesome Gouda cheeseburger.

The Smokin' Oak , also in Red Wing, where the wood-fire rotisserie is the first thing you see when you step inside and everything spinning on the rotisserie looks and smells irresistible.

The House of Coates , just south of the Pine Bend Refinery in Rosemount, which has a Vegemite burger — related, in a certain way, to the Aussie burger I had at the Pioneer Club. See if you can connect the dots.

And 300 First in Rochester, which as you likely know is a corporate cousin of Newt's and therefore is genetically predisposed to have awesome burgers and beef.


One place I really wanted to visit but didn't get to was the Stupid Loon Roadside Saloon, in Racine. It's right along U.S. 63 and has an irreverent sign out front that brags about "Cold Food, Warm Beer and Lousy Service" — in other words, it looks like a fun, unconventional place, probably with Loon Burgers. Maybe they'll make it it into next year's Four Stars of burgers?

Next up for your hefty Four Stars correspondent: Sea scallops. Not the pint-sized, sweeter bay scallops, but the ocean-going version that's more like a hockey puck in size. Have some recommendations for me? Call or send a note and I'll go trawling.

Seth's Down Under Bar and Grill

115 S. Main St., Stewartville


Seth's is downstairs from Sammy's Family Restaurant and has the charm of a speakeasy, with high tops, a cozy bar, a small dance floor and lots of TVs tuned to sports. Most important, they have delicious burgers, including the Belly Button Burger, a big half-pound patty with bacon, nacho cheese sauce and, ingeniously tucked away in a hole in the top of the bun, an over-easy egg. The hearty, butter-burnished buns are baked on the premises, which makes all the difference.

Next time I'll try the Salty Dog (sour cream, olives and Swiss cheese) or the Stewie, which puts the coleslaw and french fries inside the bun, rather than alongside. But I guarantee you, I'll never have the Gooey Burger — bacon, cheese and peanut butter — or any other peanut butter burger. That's where I draw the line.


Jac's Bar & Grill

129 S. Main St., Chatfield


I really wanted to have Jac's Gopher Burger, another of those fried-egg burgers, but they serve it on grilled Texas toast, and I'm a purist — burgers must be served on buns (unless they're patty melts — see my Four Stars review from February of last year). So I kept searching the menu and they had one called the Monkey Burger ($8.50), which is a third-pound of Hereford beef with jalapenos, Swiss cheese, thick-cut bacon and something called Monkey Sauce. I asked the server for a general idea of what monkey sauce is, thinking of a "60 Minutes" story I saw long ago about some Asian culinary traditions regarding monkeys. The waiter said, "I dunno — but it's my favorite burger."

Long story short, that was good enough for me, and that monkey sauce turned out to be a light and delicious curry-like sauce with a hint of ranch dressing. Some half-pound burgers with all the fixings are too big to handle, but this one's not — it holds together in part because it's a good bun and they don't overload the goodies. The bacon is smoky, thick-cut and meaty. There's also bacon in Becky's Beans, which are the tastiest side dish beans you'll find in the Rochester area. They're named for Becky Irish, the long-time kitchen manager, who might just share the recipe if you ask.

Road Trip Bar and Grill

217 Main St., Dover



I meant to get to the Road Trip during last month's search for great ribeye steaks, but alas, so many ribeyes, too little time. After checking out their burgers — and hearing from a waitress that the menu may be scaled back soon — I regret it even more. The Road Trip is half-biker bar, half-steakhouse, with 10 or 12 appropriately named burgers for a classic roadhouse. I went with the Oil Slick ($8), a half-pound patty topped with a jarful of sliced green olives, raw onion and mozzarella. Just to be clear, it was lean and mean, not oily at all.

There's a warning on the menu if you go with the Roadhouse Signature Burger, which is awash in barbecue sauce: "Be prepared to get your fingers sticky."

Honoring the highway and railroad culture in Dover, you can also choose the Roundabout Combo ($8.75), a heaping sampler of rings, potato skins, curds and mushrooms, light and crispy-battered. Other enticing options are the I-90 Plain Wings ($7.50), a dozen wings and there's no need here to ask for bone-in or bone-out — don't get me started on that subject — and the Highway 14 Loaded Fries ($6.25), topped with cheddar cheese sauce, sour cream, bacon bits, green onions and jalapenos.

Among the things I like best about Dover and the Road Trip: you park diagonally in the middle of Main Street. Every town should have at least one major street where that's still done. For your planning pleasure, the Road Trip has an excellent website. I'm amazed, as a dedicated diner, how many restaurants just wing it with a Facebook page or no website at all. The Road Trip puts their money in all the right places, including quality ingredients, swanky menus and a cool logo.

Pioneer Club

14026 657th St., Wabasha


I almost hate to blow the cover on this place — it's a well-kept secret outside the Wabasha area and I think they like it that way. The Pioneer is a true roadhouse, overlooking islands and lakes on the Mississippi just above the Alma dam, with huge windows, a long and winding bar, a big deck with window service, a dock for boaters (though good luck with the shallows in the river) and live music on the weekend.


The place is remote enough, especially with the roadwork in the area, that you feel something like an outlaw or a pirate when you get here. On a weekend afternoon or evening, you can count on a party atmosphere.

The burgers are appropriately exotic. I had the Aussie burger ($6.95), though I doubt I would have been any less satisfied with the prime rib sliders, the Popper (pepper jack cheese, sour cream and jalapeno), or other burger options. The Aussie is one of those fried-egg specials and the Pioneer does it well, with a yolky egg, lettuce, tomato, a thick slice of onion and a lean burger.

As the Pioneer Campsite's website says, the road work on Wabasha County Road 30 "has made getting here even more complicated." If you're driving there from Rochester, go to Wabasha and follow the detour signs to County Road 30, then take County Road 24 and follow it around. Owner Gary Todd says the access from U.S. 61 just north of Kellogg may be ready to go within a week or two, which will make everything easier — and then the world will beat a path to Gary's door, after reading this review.

Jay Furst

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Nancy Johnson holds an Aussie burger on Friday at the Pioneer Club in Wabasha.

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