Spirited Northland eaters could fight about our best pizzas, burgers or sandwiches for days.
There's plenty to fuel the debate because the area is chock-full of tasty dishes. But few enjoy the kind of fame that has followed some for decades, such as the Pickwick’s pepper cheeseburger and onion rings, a Sammy’s pizza or an Anchor burger. Others haven’t been around as long — less than 20 years for the Northern Waters Smokehaus Cajun Finn, and a few years for Pak’s pad Thai burrito — but they have fans who will travel hours to get their fix.
I picked this handful of popular locally-owned restaurant meals to examine with a fresh eye and to ponder how they earned their reputations.
Pad Thai Burrito from Pak's Green Corner
1901 Tower Ave., Superior
We were introduced to this novelty of a burrito in the first version of Kamolpak Williams’ Thai fusion restaurant in 2012. It skyrocketed to fame after appearing on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” Pak closed that West Duluth location in 2014 and reopened in 2018 in Superior. The burrito is back, and it’s as fun as ever. For the uninitiated, Pak makes a traditional pad Thai — carrots, egg, chicken (or another protein), and noodles bathed in glorious saucy heat — stuffs it inside a tortilla, and there you go. Carbs on top of delicious carbs.
The Pickwick's Pepper Cheeseburger and Onion Rings
508 E. Superior St., Duluth
Because I value my heart health, I don’t usually order this burger when I go to the Pickwick. But I understand why it’s a classic, and why the new owners kept it on the menu when they took over from the Wisocki family in 2010. It’s a deep-fried monstrosity with a mellow heat and a pepper-jack cheese hat. Being deep-fried, I was surprised how juicy it was on a recent visit. If you love this burger, you will always love this burger. But don’t we all go to the Pickwick for the real draw, that step into Duluth-past? The Pickwick’s classic thick, fat onion rings should be a required order for admission into the grand, century-old establishment.
Pepperoni Pizza from Sammy's
Lakeside shop: 4631 E. Superior St., Duluth
While Sammy’s was born in Hibbing, its longtime shops in the Twin Ports probably mean that for a lot of folks, it tastes like home. Each pizza, with that distinct Sammy’s taste, has the right amount of cheese, sauce and crust so that you experience each layer. That’s actually hard to do, to use restraint. And no matter the location, the pizza is pretty much the same, and has been for more than six decades. I’m not comparing it to fast food. It’s a nostalgia thing, because this is a homegrown product. I’ve been eating the pepperoni pizza since I was a wee tot, and the one I had last week tasted like the one I had a month ago, one I had in 1998 and one I had in 1984. If you don’t like those tiny, cheesy little squares, then you’re probably not from here.
The Anchor Bar's Olive Burger
413 Tower Ave., Superior
It’s debatable whether the olive burger is more famous than the cashew burger. But I have a penchant for the combo of salty olives and cream cheese, so I tend to go for that. The Anchor is probably the most widely recommended burger joint within a 100-mile radius, and I think a lot of that has to do with the historical and nautical decor, the incredibly cheap menu and the way the bar lets you disappear into its dark, cramped quarters. Who doesn’t love the book nook, the most coveted table around? I don’t think the Anchor is famous because it serves the best burger. I think it serves the best $5 burger. And taken with a Grainbelt Premium and the life story of the dude next to you at the bar, it will remain hard to get a table for years to come.
Northern Waters Smokehaus' Cajun Finn
394 S. Lake Ave., Duluth
The spicy Cajun Finn is the Smokehaus’ best-selling sandwich by half. And they sell a lot of sandwiches. Like, a lot. The Cajun Finn is not my favorite sandwich. I’m ride or die for the Cold Turkey, the Northern Bagel. But I recognize the Cajun Finn for the superb creation that it is. Its beautiful colors, contrasting textures and flavors, the freshness of the ingredients. That gorgeous salmon. I understand the hype. Owner Eric Goerdt and his band of merry sandwich makers were cranking out quality products long before national fame made it so you had to scream “Laker headed under the bridge!” to clear the line. Reputation earned, tenfold.
Jana Hollingsworth is a former News Tribune reporter turned freelance writer, and a Twin Ports native. You can reach her at JanaHDNT@gmail.com.