As much as I can't stand football, I am a big fan of people coming into my community and spending buku bucks on local establishments. Thus, I have come to terms with the absurdity of Vikings training camp. I have no idea why anyone would want to watch a bunch of roided-out behemoths run into each other at high speeds (for practice) on a hot day, but if that sort of thing is the bag that wets your whistle (or some other confused/mangled colloquialism) then let me tell you a thing or two about Mankato, the area and a few things to do on the way down to the jewel of south central Minnesota.
- Jim's Apple Farm (Minnesota's Largest Candy Store), just south of Jordan. Do you like candy? Do you like root beer and apple pie? Do you like candy smokes? Then Jim's is the place for you. It looks kind of kitschy (it is) and full of useless crap (there's definitely some of that), but it also has great pies and some fantastic candy finds. If you are going to spend a few hours out in the sun on MSU's campus, you could certainly do worse than stopping at Jim's to pick up a few pieces of good candy and a few bottles of really, really good root beer.
- Minnesota Valley State Park, access points from Jordan to Shakopee. This is one of my favorite places to hike and run. I'm really hoping that one day I can hike from Jordan to my parent's house in Bloomington. Until then, if you want to get out and stretch your legs or get in a good trail run on the way down to Purple Hell, this is the place to get your rocks off.
- Emma Krumbee's Orchard, Belle Plaine. This is a cool little orchard where the kiddies can pick their own apples and berries while also being able to run around and get some energy out. Belle Plaine is also 1/2 way between Mankato and the cities and is a good place to stop for a breather. I also mention it because Belle Plaine is a notorious 169 speed trap and you should definitely not go over 55 while in town. I rarely pass through town without seeing someone pulled over for going 60-65 (or higher).
- Lau's Czech Bakery, New Prague. This one is a bit off the beaten path but is well worth the trip. Unfortunately, the best place to eat in New Prague (Schumacher's) closed due to the health concerns of the owner's wife, but Lau's is an acceptable alternative. It is an old-fashioned diner (think stools, formica counters and regulars) with a wonderful bakery that features mind-blowing pastries and fantastic buns. While you're in New Prague, stop at Skluzacek's Quality Meats to pick up some jaternice. You can also stop at Cedar Summit Farm for some locally-owned grass-fed beef. The SnP family has a neighborhood-famous burger night once a month and we always get our buns from Lau's and the beef from Cedar Summit Farm.
- Hog Wild Saloon, Henderson. Henderson is an interesting little town just off of 169, south of Le Sueur. When not flooded, it is one of the more scenic little towns in all of Minnesota. It is also the unofficial redneck capital of southern Minnesota (closely challenged by Kasota). I do not promise good service or even good food. I do promise a Henderson experience.
- Treaty Site History Center, St. Peter. Learn about the 1851 treaty while hiking through a restored prairie on the Minnesota River.
- St. Peter Coop, St. Peter. We've (I'm a member/owner) moved into a new building on the west side of Minnesota Avenue (169) and if you are looking for a good healthy meal on your trip (crazy, I know), then the coop is the place for you. It has a veggie and olive bar, a sandwich bar, a potato bar, a burrito bar, coffee, pastries, soups, you name it. It also carries local produce, like goods from Adam and Lupita at Living Land Farm, the hard-working young local farmers we buy our CSA share from. If you do not know about CSA shares, click here. I cannot say enough good things about them and they will completely revolutionize the way you eat and live. Each week we get a box full of veggies and we plan our meals accordingly. Each week the box gets bigger and is filled with a wider variety of goods. We also have a local dairy/poultry share that provides us with 24 eggs/week as well as a (gigantic) block of cheese and a chicken. If you are looking to improve your health and well-being, eating seasonal local food is one of the best (and easiest) things you can do.
- Seven Mile Creek Park, just south of St. Peter. I love running in this park. Nothing beats running through a creek bed alongside a horse trail. Just 5 minutes south of St. Peter, you can completely lose yourself in nature with some pretty damn awesome trail running.
- The Coffee Hag. Located on north Riverfront, the Hag offers the best coffee in town, free wi-fi, a locally grown and constantly rotating menu and live music.
- Guenther's Cafe. If you are in the mood for a burger, skip the fast food joints and head on over to upper Madison for some good ol' fashioned greasy spoon burger action. They have the best burgers and onion rings in town. They also serve a good (and cheap as hell) breakfast. If you do want to break down and eat from a chain place, Five Guys just opened a new place up by the mall and it's pretty decent.
- Mankato Moon Dogs. Mankato is home to one of the most entertaining teams in the Northwoods League. I'm not much of a baseball fan but I am a sucker for an outdoor game at the Frank on a breezy summer night. Outdoor ball + family = a pretty fun time and the quality of play is pretty good.
- Mankato Ribfest. August 4-7 at the new Riverfront Park. Mankato just built a really neat riverfront park with an outdoor amphitheater (it also sits on a set of trails that runs south to Minneopa State Park and east to Faribault). This year's ribfest is headlined by Tracy Lawrence and Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Other acts this summer have (and will) included Buddy Guy, Lucinda Williams and the Jayhawks. We're still kind of a backwater town, but the amphitheater is the real deal and I think it will slowly start to draw larger acts. Plus, there are some legit BBQ cooks that show up at ribfest and you'll be guaranteed some good eats.
- Wagon Wheel Cafe. One of the best local diners in southern Minnesota. Do you like cheap breakfasts and good conversation? If so, the Wagon Wheel is the place for you. You might even meet a bullshipper.
- El Mazatlan. One of the things that really bugs me about Mankato is the St. Cloud-esque strip mall hell of upper Madison Avenue. It really is terrible. It is filled with chain restaurants and a lack of sidewalks. It also is home to one of the great abominations of "Mexican" cuisine, Mexican Village (no link provided). Night after night, Mexican Village is filled with people looking for gigantic vats of frozen margaritas and over-sauced fried tortilla-based cuisine. One block to the south lies the best Mexican joint in Mankato, El Mazatlan. Don't be an asshole and eat at Mexican Village. Head on down the block towards the Pizza Ranch and Godfathers (next door to one another...further highlighting the stripmall hellish atmosphere of upper-Madison Avenue) and eat some real Mexican food at El Mazatlan.
- Tokyo Sushi and Hibachi. Yes, we have sushi. It is good. We even have bento boxes.
- Pho Saigon. We have pho. It's pretty decent. It's up on upper Madison.
- Pagliai's Pizza. First things first: there is nothing wrong with Jake's Stadium Pizza (in a new location this year...away from the washed up football players selling their old jerseys). That being said, the best pizza in southern Minnesota is downtown at Pagliai's. The competition isn't close. They even have a few craft beers in the fridge. If you go, try the palace pizza. They even offer hoagies and spaghetti.
- Johnny B's. This isn't my first choice for a place to eat, but if you don't want to leave campus during your training camp trip, Johnny B's is the local place to be (along with Jake's). Otherwise, you're looking at Chipotle, Noodles or Leann Chin. Eat local.
- Token BBQ, Mapleton. One of Minny's top 3 BBQ joints is 17 miles down Highway 22 in Mapleton. As a honorary southerner and BBQ snob, I can honestly say that there are only 3-4 good BBQ places in the entire state of Minnesota and this is one of them. The ribs are to die for and they also have an amazing selection of root beer and a vanilla bread pudding to commit a crime for. They also have fantastic breakfasts. Token is one of those places that would completely blow up with a visit from Diners Drive-Thrus and Dives or Man vs. Food. It really is fantastic and worth the drive.
- Rapidan Dam Store. Do you like good pie? I do. I just did a 12 mile run to Rapidan and back built around getting a slice of pie at the Dam Store. It is smack dab on a great bike/running trail and you can get some good walking/hiking/running in while you're out there.
- Schell's Brewery, New Ulm. 30 miles away from Mankato lies the most German community in all of the United States. Visit the brewery. Eat at the best German joint in the state. Run the trails in one of the most scenic state parks. I love New Ulm. They have one of the best heart health campaigns in the country. They have the Backerei and Coffee Shop. They have a classic American Legion baseball field (home of Terry Steinbach). They have multiple festivals. It's a fantastic place to visit.
- Lyle's Cafe, Winthrop. Home of the Pie Lady of Winthrop, Lyle's is one of the better small-town gossip joints in southern MN. It has great food and great conversation.