208 North Main, Nelson, Wis.
It all started with one hog: J&J BBQ got its start in 1970 when owners Jim and Laura Grandy had their first hog roast on their family farm in Oronoco. In 1978, the owners moved to South Carolina where they perfected their Southern-style pork BBQ. Eventually they embarked on a concession-style business traveling across the U.S. until finally calling Nelson, Wis. home.
Then get some to go: Did you know that you can purchase J&J BBQ’s much-celebrated pork or beef by the pound? Their famous smoked baby back ribs and BBQ chicken is also available in bulk. Here’s a tip: One pound of meat will serve 2-3 people. One pint of sides will serve 3-4 people.
Get a gift while you’re waiting for your order: While waiting for (or after enjoying) your favorite BBQ, head next door to Laura’s Treasures, a unique gift shop that features an eclectic selection of items.
Get there (the scenic route): This is one of our favorite food road trips from Rochester. Take Broadway north (Hwy. 63) past the old-timey gas station and convenience store (Reinke’s Corner) on the corner of 247 and Highway 63 between Rochester and Zumbro Falls. Two miles north of Reinke’s Corner, take 11 East (right) toward Hammond. Follow this for 5-plus phenomenal miles along the Zumbro River until 11 meets Hwy 2. Then left (north) on Hwy. 2 and right (east) on Hwy. 60 through the Zumbro Bottoms State Forest and then over the bridge at Wabasha to Nelson. Then eat BBQ. Then take Hwy 35 (Wisconsin’s Great River Road) south to Winona.
One nearby must-stop: Wabasha’s National Eagle Center was recently—and for the third straight year—voted as a “Top Attraction on the Mississippi” by River Travel Magazine. And it is. nationaleaglecenter.org, 651-565-4989.
Four Daughters Vineyard & Restaurant
78757 MN-16, Spring Valley
Origin story: The owners of Four Daughters Vineyard & Winery do, indeed, have four daughters. Vicky and Gary Vogt opened the restaurant in 2010 with the intent of bringing the family closer together.
Estate sale: In 2020 (and being released throughout 2021), all of Four Daughters’ wines are Estate Wines, meaning that every grape used in these wines was grown and harvested in their on-site vineyard. Four Daughters is also the home of Loon Juice, the largest cidery between the coasts, as well the largest distiller in Minnesota. Oh, and their bourbon is expected to be released in mid-2022.
Hot stuff: Four Daughters Vineyard & Restaurant’s menu features 1000° brick oven pizzas, as well as other shareable items perfect for pairing with their own wines and ciders, all served in their barrel-filled space and on their sprawling patios.
Get there (the scenic route): We love US Hwy. 52 when it returns to a two-lane south of I-90. So we’ll recommend taking that to Preston and into the heart of Amish country in southeastern Minnesota. Then take Hwy. 16—the “Bluff Country Byway”—west into Spring Valley.
One nearby must-stop: With more than 13 miles of natural passages (some too small to be fully explored), Mystery Cave (in nearby Preston) is the longest cave in Minnesota and one of the 100 longest in the United States. The basic one-hour tour involves walking (or wheeling or strolling) for three-quarters of a mile on well-lit, paved walkways and see-through bridges. The feature in Mystery Cave that elicits the most “oohs” and “aahs”? Turquoise Lake. 507-937-3251, www.mnstateparks.info.
House of Coates
16300 Clayton Ave E., Rosemount
Family recipe: House of Coates is a third-generation restaurant, with Riley Tarrant currently at the helm. Riley’s grandpa founded the restaurant back in 1962. It is truly a family affair with Riley and his sisters having worked at the restaurant since they were 10 years old.
Rosemount? Coates? The House of Coates team takes pride in the business, making sure the food and hospitality don’t sway too much from 60-plus years ago. And speaking of hospitality, being housed in the small town of Coates means at House of Coates, “everybody knows your name” as the customers become almost like family. Even though the mailing address is technically Rosemount.
Swanee song: The restaurant’s “world famous” Swanee burger has remained a crowd favorite for years. So what makes it so special? Quite simply, it’s piled high with fried onion, cheese, bacon, and a dollop of blue cheese dressing (if desired).
Get there (the scenic route): A quick side trip to the east takes you on one of the semi-secret sportbike haunts of the south metro. Exit at Cannon Falls and take 19 east to Welch Village Rd (Goodhue Co. Rd. 7) north. The stretch from 19 to Hwy. 61 is a winding stretch of pavement that attracted a menagerie of riders on weekend nights. Quieter now, it still is one seriously fun road.
One nearby must-stop: After lunch or dinner, head 15 minutes east to Hastings for Vermillion Falls Park to check out the spectacular 35-foot Vermillion Falls and limestone ravine. When visiting this urban waterfall, make sure you view it from the observation deck, which gives you an excellent top-down view of the Vermillion Falls and the Ardent Mills.
121 Main Avenue North, Harmony
We always ask: For many restaurant patrons, asking the wait staff what they recommend is paramount. Well, at Estelle’s the staff’s favorite item—and we’ve asked a few times now—is the carne asada tacos. It pairs very well with the new house-made slushy margaritas.
(Nearby) farm-to-table: Located in the delightful farming community of Harmony, Estelle’s prides itself on being a family/chef-owned restaurant that features farm-to-table local ingredients with a widely varied menu. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Even some of the alcohol is made nearby: Estelle’s features a variety of craft cocktails featuring Harmony spirits, their micro distillery in town as well as 12 craft beer taps and a lovely wine selection. They also boast a new renovated 2,000-square-foot covered patio that will be opening up in the beginning of June.
Get there (the scenic route): This is Amish country. For a quick tour, take 52 south to 16 east (just past Preston). Then head right (south) on County Road 21 just before Lanesboro. Roughly 10 miles south, just past Henrytown, take County Road 115 (head east, then backtrack west), which takes you past several Amish farms. Look for the powerline-less, shutter-less houses (shutters are considered ornate) on farms dotted with hand-baled hay. Windmills turn water pumps, horses pull plows.
One nearby must-stop: Just outside Harmony, Niagara Cave’s one-hour tour features its awesome centerpiece and namesake—a 60-foot waterfall framed by a 130-foot-high ceiling. See fossilized snails from 300 million years ago embedded in the cave’s walls, as well as several other species of fossils that lived millions of years before the dinosaurs. The cave’s stalactites (the ones from the ceiling down) “grow” one inch every 300 or so years. The Crystal Wedding Chapel, a chamber deep in the cave with a limestone ceiling reminiscent of a cathedral dome, has played host to more than 400 weddings. 507-886-6606, www.niagaracave.com.
The Front Porch Bar & Grill
100 North Sheppard Street, Kellogg
Hey, you look familiar: The Front Porch Bar & Grill is owned by Andrew Craw and Heather Packer, a pair of veterans who met while serving in Afghanistan. They bought The Front Porch in 2018. Heather’s sister, incidentally, is Jennifer Becker, owner of the Bleu Duck.
Music. And mushrooms: Things are always happening at The Front Porch, including live music on Monday nights. And mushroom contests. That’s right, mushroom contests. Morel mushroom lovers unite! The Front Porch Bar & Grill features a tallest morel shroom contest whereby the owner of the tallest shroom (measured at the restaurant) wins $5.
It’s #1: We always take the regulars’ word for it. And the top dish, as voted by diners at The Front Porch? The jumbo shrimp. It can be ordered by the piece or by the dozen and you get to choose the batter: beer batter or broiled with a blend of garlic and butter. Simply… yum.
Get there (the scenic route): We love the drive through Whitewater, so take Hwy. 14 east to MN74, one of the oldest highways in the area. Some portions of MN74 date back to earliest public roads in the territory. Passing through Whitewater State Park, MN Highway 74 is a mix of curving pavement in the southern section and winding gravel on the northern end. Once in Weaver, jump on 61 north.
One nearby must-stop: If you’re near Kellogg, that means the mandatory stop at LARK Toys. Take a nostalgic look through the display cases featuring 25,000 antique and vintage toys and ride the hand-carved carousel creatures before shopping for classic, old-school toys.