Growing up, my favorite parts of our trips up North to Ely were fishing and getting to eat great Iron Range food that my family would make. Being on the Iron Range is an entirely different experience from the Twin Cities, so it’s no surprise that the food is quite unique too.
A mixing pot of several different cultures, many of which are Eastern European, the Iron Range has many cultures to draw food from. Potica, Pasty, Sarma, and Porketta are all excellent traditional dishes that fill all kinds of appetites. Up until recently, it has been difficult to find these dishes in the Twin Cities without driving all around or sacrificing quality. Fortunately, the new Iron Ranger restaurant on Grand Ave serves up all these Iron Range dishes and more in a classic setting.
The Iron Ranger is run and owned by Tom Forti, a longtime resident of Hibbing, Minnesota and whose family runs the Sunrise Gourmet food store. Forti opened a shop where the Iron Ranger is now in 2016 selling the same type of goods as Sunrise store, but in St. Paul. It was only this year that he decided to make the switch to a full time restaurant, serving up all the famous Iron Range dishes seven days a week in an authentically made restaurant, even featuring the Minnesota classic Grace painting on the wall.
As you would expect from any restaurant claiming to sell Iron Range food, all the classic dishes are there: Pasty, Porketta or Sarma, and an excellent Potica to finish it off. I went with my mother and my father to have some help in testing menu items as well as be my resident experts on Iron Range cuisine, being that my father grew up in Biwabik and Ely.
To start, I had the Calabrian Porketta Sandwich and it was quite good. The Calabrian version included sriracha, giardiniera and pepper jack cheese with the classic Porketta meat and had excellent flavor. While not as spicy as I expected, it was a great twist on the original Porketta sandwich.
My mother also tried the Porketta Cubano, a highlighted item on Forti’s menu, served with ham, pickles, and mustard. She said, “it was a well done blend of a Cuban and the Ely flavor of the Porketta.”
Our resident Iron Range expert, my father went for the Croatian Sarma, a mix of various meats and rice in a cabbage roll topped with sauerkraut and tomato sauce. While small, he loved the traditional flavors of the rolls and felt like it was worthy of the Iron Range name.
We selected a few appetizers and beers as well as our main dishes and found them to be just as good, if not better than the main dishes. Any good review on this restaurant could not be complete without a Patsy, and it was just as flakey and hot as it should be, making it a great starter during happy hour. But the best items I had during my visit were the cheese curds and accompanying dipping sauce. The curds were fried to perfection and the sauce was incredible, reminding me of Canes sauce but sweeter and tastier.
Other menu items include even more variations of the Porketta Sandwich, more traditional bar food with a twist like the Porketta Nachos, and a huge selection of flatbreads and pizzas, not to mention the craft beers available on tap. They even offer take-home items from the Sunrise store back in Hibbing.
Overall the food was very tasty and varied, providing a great sample of traditional Iron Range cuisine while offering twists of various dishes like the Cubano that brought it to another level. My only major critique is that the prices of the dishes were a bit higher than what I would consider a fair price. Many dishes were $14 or $15 dollars with fries and although they were quality, perhaps a bit cheaper would bring my rating up even more. Just something to consider if you are on a budget.
Bringing in regional Minnesota cuisine in an authentic atmosphere to the Twin Cities that is varied and also high quality, the Iron Ranger is a great option on a Friday or Saturday night to get food that feels homey, yet different, even if the prices can be steep.
4 out 5 stars.