Homage to Hazel

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February 14, 2011
By: Carla Waldemar
Carla Waldemar
Back then, they didn’t call it “comfort food”; it was just food. It wasn’t “retro,” either, simply how you fed your family. That’s all Hazel Sieve was trying to do on the family’s Long Prairie farm, which produced more rocks than crops. To supplement the bread and ketchup sandwiches for her brood, she took to baking pies (at 60 cents apiece) for the local diner.

Two generations later, grandsons Adam and Andrew recently opened Hazel’s,  a Northeast café named in homage to grandma, whose hand with pies eventually enabled the family to buy the diner, which two sons still run. Hazel’s carries on the tradition of hearty, carefully-prepared classics (except they didn’t call them “classics” either — just “menu”) in the digs Pop formerly occupied.

The place has been smartly remodeled by designer Jim Smart, replacing the Warhol colors with a scheme that’s softer, more relaxing: white beadboard topped by walls stained sage. Booths face the miniscule kitchen, while tables line the room beyond.

Friday night, and a line out the door (I expect there always is) of family trundling infants, couples on date night, seniors stepping out. Plus me, with a young mom and two tweeners in tow, whose job was to rule on the mac, burgers and fries that constitute the kids’ culinary trinity.

Four thumbs up. The greaseless, slim-cut fries segued from crisp to tender, just as fried potatoes should. The “appetizer fries” (only in Minnesota) proved even more enticing, strewn with blue cheese and hearty bits of bacon, with a side of ranch ($7).

The three-cheese mac won a “good as home” rating from the young ladies — for fussy me, a little bland (What? No truffle oil?). So did Lucy’s burger, plump and juicy under its mantle of melting cheddar. They drank milk; we sipped a Summit and glass of tempranillo.

What else to order? Well, duh: the downright-diner fare. I chose the hunky pork chop — thick-cut, robust yet tender, and big enough for Paul Bunyan. Sided with haricots verts (er, green beans here), slim and crunchy, plus ecstatically lumpy mashed potatoes and a swipe of green-apple chutney (tasted like applesauce, and that’s just fine).

Lucy’s mom, Martha, called for the Turkey Commercial, familiar to small-town diner fans as a hot turkey sandwich: Texas toast piled with moist and juicy white meat atop garlic mashed potatoes, the whole shebang drenched in gravy and sided with a sweet-sharp cranberry-orange relish. It comes with a snappy side salad composed of greens probably unfamiliar to Hazel back then in the Long Prairie, and a modest blue-cheese dressing. The Swedish meatballs made the cut, too.

Did we want dessert? Dumb question if I ever heard one. Lily pronounced the ice cream-crowned, granola-crusted brownie “yummy” (clearly, a food critic in the making). Martha and I deemed the bread pudding the best ever — chunky yet moist, mined with berries, topped with whipped cream and bathed in the same homemade caramel sauce that laced the chewy brownie. I suspect breakfast is equally wonderful here. The Drunken Banana French Toast (cinnamon swirled French toast with warms bananas, rum soaked raisins, caramel and toasted pecans sounds) sounds enticing.