Monday, July 20, 2015

Minnesota, Part 2

My previous trips to Minnesota included unexpected and delightful encounters with the Snoopy Axe Ride, an OCD polar bear and a giant Jolly Green Giant, as detailed in Minnesota, Part 1. Recently I revisited the state when Mrs. Tires and I embarked on a stadium chasing expedition to Minneapolis with our friends Jon and Katie. This journey delivered several more charming and surprising findings that further solidified my impression of Minnesota as a top-notch, random and fun state for road trips.

The drive from Chicago to Minneapolis is a deceptively long one, but we had an enjoyable trip up filled with conversation, laughter and song. Highlights included a stop at the Mars Cheese Castle (which will be covered in the post on Wisconsin) and an encounter with a Dukes of Hazzard replica on the highway.

When the driver of the Dukes of Hazzard car saw us taking photos, he honked his dixie horn and drove alongside us for a while. Eventually he mimed an invitation to pull over at the next exit, take more photographs, and maybe even drive the thing. It was hard to tell exactly what his hand gestures meant. We declined. Add another tally mark to the count of bizarre occurrences in Minnesota.

When we rolled into Minneapolis at about 1:00 am, we got an immediate reminder of the quirky charm this city offers. Old brick and stone buildings were intermingled with shiny new skyscrapers with glass exteriors. Target's world headquarters greeted us with a trippy animated LED light show at the top of their building. 

Despite the late arrival, we were up and at 'em early the next morning. It happened to be National Donut Day, which intrigued my pregnant wife and lead us to the Angel Food Bakery, where we tried an assortment of their tasty mini-donuts. 

After getting our sugar fix, we wandered on and encountered a funky public art display called mini-polis, a miniature version of Minneapolis with various forms of artistic expression strewn throughout. 

After admiring the display, we walked through a lovely public park and crossed the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge, which brought us to our destination for the day: the Walker Art Center. 

From what we saw of the museum itself, it looked like a really cool place. That's a judgement based solely on the architecture and the gift shop. We didn't see the art inside. We were drawn to Walker for two reasons. The first was their artist-created mini-golf course. This course was eighteen holes of fun and randomness. Each hole featured unique artistic flair, and some came with special rules. One had eighteen different targets, each of which represented a different hole of the Augusta National Course. Another had the players' opponents acting as human obstacles via pre-placed footprints. There was a hot dog-themed hole and a Brillo pad-themed hole. Another was a nod to the Uncertainty Principle. One was a billiards table that required players to use their putters as pool cues. There was one dedicated to constellations and one inspired by the struggle between a mother hen and an eager fox. The hen-themed one had a rule stipulating that a ball hit to the fox meant starting all over again. It was an absolute blast. We all had a great time, despite the fact that Mrs. Tires and I lost the battle of the couples and had to buy Jon and Katie a round of beers as a result. 

Playing all eighteen holes worked up quite an appetite, so after the round we made a stop at the Dog House, a food trailer parked outside the course that offered artist-inspired hot dogs. Mine was as much a nacho plate as it was a dog - covered with nacho cheese, ground beef, onions and tomatoes. Yum. 

The second thing that brought us to Walker was the sculpture garden. This huge area featured some cool sculptures, as well as an atrium, a few gardens, and a pond. The centerpiece of the sculpture garden was Minnesota's famous Spoonbridge and Cherry.

It was a fantastic stroll, and it was enhanced by the gorgeous 78 degree weather. On the way back to the hotel, we wandered through a nice public park that was very green and enchanting.

We got back to the hotel in enough time to take a quick dip in the hotel pool. I stay in hotels with pools a lot, but it's rare that I actually use them, so I am glad we took advantage of it this time around. After the soak, we dried off, geared up and headed off to Target Field. This ballpark is home of the Minnesota Twins, and it was the only stadium in the midwest I hadn't been to. I was pretty excited for the visit.

Target Field was a laid back, fun loving stadium meant to be enjoyed by baseball fans and non-baseball fans alike. Located in the middle of downtown, it was deeply entrenched in its surroundings, so much so that we ended up walking through a random parking garage to enter.

The ballpark greeted us with an open concourse that featured several large and unique statues just waiting to be climbed upon and interacted with. My favorite was the Golden Glove, a tribute to the Twins' gold glove winners from years past. It made for a great photo opportunity. 

There was also a statue of a baseball and a statue of the Twins' mascot in addition to statues of Twins greats Kirby Puckett and Harmon Killebrew. 

The concourse made for a great introduction to the stadium. We would have lingered longer, but we were anxious to get into the ballpark. We shuffled off and found our seats, which were behind home plate and in the highest seating section, my favorite seats for stadium chasing. 

From our seats, we noticed two things right off the...ehem...bat. The first was the old school Twins logo in center field. It featured two players shaking hands, one representing Minneapolis and the other representing St. Paul. I had always liked that logo and was glad to see it get such prominence.  

During my second visit the next day, I got an up-close view.

The second thing we noticed was the huge number of screens that appeared throughout the stadium. Two jumbotrons were supplemented by several rows of shorter, longer screens. There was also a rather unusual screen that was very tall and narrow and displayed head to toe images of the players at bat. I had never seen such a screen before. The cool thing about these screens was that they interacted with one another. A logo or message would slide off the edge of one screen and seamlessly appear on the next. The annoying thing about them was the frequent commands for fans to cheer and make noise. Fans shouldn't need prompts to know when to cheer.

Target Field was fairly feature-light, but there were a few must-see attractions. One was the 2 Gingers Tavern, which housed the stadium's organist, Sue Nelson. She was very approachable and inviting, and she often chatted up fans in between ditties. She was kind enough to pose for this photo with me (sorry it's so dark). 

The bench from the old Metrodome was another cool feature of the stadium. Fans could sit on it when they visited the Twins' Digital Clubhouse. It was worth a visit for the sit, though the rest of the Digital Clubhouse offered little real value. 

Target Field is known as a foodie stadium, and for that reason, I made sure to show up with an appetite. I tried the famous Kramarczyk bratwurst during my first visit and was not disappointed. The thick, juicy, delicious brat was the star of the meal, and it was supported superbly by grilled onions, sauerkraut and a tasty, strong-willed sesame seed bun. Add spicy mustard and you have a fantastic meal that's a top ten ballpark treat. Full disclosure: others in my party were not as impressed.

The next day I tried Tony O's Cuban sandwich, another popular item at the ballpark. They were sold out when I first visited the nearest stand serving them, so I had to go back later to get my hands on one. Despite timing things right so I got there when the next batch was coming straight off the press, I found it to be dry and rather unimpressive. 

Many stadiums in baseball now feature mascot races of some kind. This trend originated with the sausages at Milwaukee's Miller Park. Some clubs' mascots make sense in context, such as the presidents that run in Nationals Park. Others are more random. Target Field's race was definitely in the latter category. Its contestants included the Target dog, Babe the Blue Ox, a mosquito, a loon and a walleye fish. What's more, the mascots totally loafed during the race, and strolled leisurely to the finish line. Mosquito won on the first night we were there. Who on earth can bring themselves to root for a mosquito?

I met the loon on the concourse the next day.

Target Field was gorgeous at night. The installations in the outfield lit up and glowed, including my favorite sign. Furthermore, the Target dog overlooked the stadium from his perch atop the adjacent Target Center (home of the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves), and at night he lit up and wagged his tail. Cute. 

At the conclusion of the game, we were treated to some post-game fireworks. They were odd and underwhelming. For no particular reason, they were set to country music. I enjoyed belting the lyrics to the obscure Garth Brooks song Baton Rouge as they went off, but other than that, I was left wanting more. Many fireworks shot up in the air, but eighty percent of them died out with a loud pop instead of exploding with color. Unfortunately the hometown Twins were as punchless as the fireworks. They lost to the Brewers, 10-5. 

Overall I truly enjoyed my experience at Target Field. While there were a few swings and misses, it was a very enjoyable stadium. I recommend a visit to baseball lovers and non-baseball lovers alike.

During day two in Minneapolis, our band of road trippers split up a few times. In the morning Jon and Katie met up with a friend for brunch at Hell's Kitchen, which was associated with the donut shop we visited the day before. They had a decent brunch and took advantage of the restaurant's serious Bloody Mary bar. Meanwhile, Mrs. Tires and I headed to the Uptown neighborhood for breakfast. Mrs. Tires' main craving while pregnant had been cinnamon rolls. Fortunately, Minneapolis offered some stellar versions of these pastries, chief among them being the cinnamon roles at Isles, a hole-in-the-wall, order-at-the-counter-type establishment. The cinnamon roles lived up to their reputation and then some, and they thoroughly satisfied Mrs. Tires' craving. I had the baked oatmeal, which I had never tried before. It ended up being a nice alternative to the sticky sweet options that made up most of the menu. 

After breakfast and a quick dip in the pool, we met up with Jon and Katie, and then the boys split off to go to another Twins game while the ladies headed off to a local spa. I covered most of our experience in the write up about Target Field above. The Twins were defeated by the Brewers again, this time 4-2. 

After the game our foursome rejoined, and we set out to do a bit more exploring. We started by heading to Uptown to visit Pat's Tap. A few different people had recommended this place to us, mostly because of the bar's old school skee-ball machines. Our visit was a bit of a bust. We ordered a round of appetizers, including a charcuterie plate, homemade Cheese-Its and buffalo chicken terrine. Each of these was disappointing and unappealing in its own way. As Katie pointed out, it seemed like they offered them because they were cool menu items instead of offering them because they had any sort of expertise in making them. After nibbling on the apps (and leaving quite a bit uneaten), we ventured over to the skee-ball to try to salvage the visit. 

Quarters in hand, each of us took up residence at one of the four skee-ball lanes. We each dropped a quarter and pulled the lever to release the balls. Only then did we realize that each machine was a different form of broken. One spit out only two balls. Two returned nothing at all. The last one could not accurately report the score. We complained to the staff and they kindly refunded our money and said they'd get the machines fixed. Twenty minutes later, they came back and said that two had been repaired. They malfunctioned again on the second attempt. We settled for playing a few games on the one with the broken scoreboard. Not the skee-ball experience we envisioned. Needless to say, I do not recommend visiting Pat's Tap.

We changed up the pace when we left Pat's Tap and cruised across town to Minnehaha Park. It was a fairly long drive from Uptown, but well worth it. Minnehaha waterfall is the centerpiece of the park. It's impressive, serene and easily accessible. We were able to park close to the waterfall, and from there it was just a short walk towards the sound of rushing water to see the waterfall in all its glory.

It was an impressive waterfall that featured a fifty-three foot free-fall that seemed taller. A short hike down an easy trail delivered a straight-on view. We stood there and enjoyed the beautiful scenery, the gentle breeze and the sound of rushing water for quite a while.

From there we headed on to our final stop of the evening, and also our favorite. Betty Danger's Country Club was a hilarious, amusing and fun bar that was wrapped in tongue-in-cheek classy pastel decor. There were several references to fancy things like horse racing, golf and afternoon tea, while giant pink horse heads and menu offerings such as an estate in the Hamptons for $32 million reminded patrons that the style of the bar was all an elaborate joke. What's more, Betty Danger's featured a mini-golf course that was intermingled with the outdoor patio seating and sported tall plastic statues of various wild animals.

As if that wasn't enough, the bar also offered its own ferris wheel. A ride included a cocktail, making it the only ride I've ever heard of that not only allows drinking while riding, but encourages it.

Unfortunately the ferris wheel didn't allow pregnant riders, so we passed on it. We were also a bit mini-golfed out after our experience at the Walker Art Center the day before, so we opted to just sit at a table, enjoy some delicious apps and tasty margaritas, take in the style of the place and do some people watching. The bar presented such a terrifically fun atmosphere that just sitting there and being immersed in it was entertainment enough. It was yet another example of the delightful randomness that's found in Minnesota. If you're in the Twin Cities, you MUST make a point to visit Betty Danger's.

We made one more stop in Minneapolis the next day before hitting the road. We had reservations for brunch at Ice House MLPS, a restaurant with great food and live music. We passed on the chance to see the three-piece band that was playing that morning so we could sit on their back patio and enjoy the Minneapolis sunshine. The meal was fantastic, and it set us up perfectly for our drive back to Chicago.

The return trip was gorgeous. Wisconsin greeted us with some wonderful scenery, and it was complimented by amazing weather and subtle, perfect clouds.

During the drive, we amused ourselves with a Weird Al polka medley medley, which consisted of Weird Al's polka versions of pop songs that are strung together into collections. We dug way back into his catalog and laughed like crazy as each one played.

Our stomachs were quiet for most of the trip, but they started making noise as we approached Madison. We were in the mood for a sandwich, and when we googled "best sandwich in Madison," the first result was Cheba Hut, a weed-themed sandwich joint. I didn't think the style of this place would jive with the collective sensibilities of our road crew, but when further googling showed the other top options were all closed on Sundays, we decided to go for it. Good choice. The sandwiches were outstanding and the marijuana theme was enough to satisfy pot fans but not too much to turn others off. Madison's Cheba Hut is one of several in the US, but the only one in the midwest. To be blunt, I highly recommend it.

From there it was smooth sailing back to Chicago. The whole road trip was wonderful, and I am so glad I got a chance to further explore the strange and enchanting city of Minneapolis.

For more on this trip, check out #twincityrollers on Twitter.

Whether it's hyper-capitalism, quirky members of the animal kingdom, roadside attractions or sarcastically themed nightlife, Minnesota has a ton to see and do, and it's all delivered with a side of quirk, charm and fun. If you're driving through this area of the country, make sure to allot some extra time to explore all that Minnesota has to offer.

Must See in Minnesota:
  • Walker Art Center & Mini-Golf 
  • Target Field
  • Betty Danger's County Club
  • The giant Jolly the Green Giant

Check it Out:
  • Mall of America
  • Como Park Zoo and Conservatory
  • Minnehaha Park
  • St. Paul's CHS Field (Home of the Saint Paul Saints)

Skip it:
  • Pat's Tap
For more on Minnesota, check out Minnesota, Part 1.

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