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Review: The Good Life in Park Rapids shows tastes are changing in lakes country

Pretzel rolls and clam chowder

PARK RAPIDS, Minn. – At The Good Life Café, you can substitute a black bean, tempeh and rice veggie patty on any burger on the menu.

They are rare options in lakes country. For those who think up-north dining consists of burgers, ribs and battered walleye, there’s a risk of missing some truly original dishes and creative expressions of solid vacation-land staples.

The Good Life Cafe offers a fairly complete lunch and dinner menu. Recognizing that their dinner menu can get a bit heavy and expensive, their lighter and very reasonably priced lunch menu is available in the evenings.

The lunch menu is fun and a bit cheeky. You’ll find an eclectic mix of sandwiches and salads, many of which are a twist on the traditional. Try, for instance, the apple chutney added to pulled pork on ciabatta ($7.75) or the walleye BLT ($10.75).

But serious thought – and a little courage – has gone into the dinner menu.

The earthy, dark beef short ribs with spaetzle and root vegetables in a zinfandel pan sauce ($18) seems best suited to winter nights, while the gorgonzola- and walnut-topped salmon with crisp, bright and near-naked vegetables ($17.50) seems designed for summer. But the ribs smell of open-pit barbeque, and the salmon is served with a red pepper and cream sauce that reminds you of Christmas.

It’s a delightful contrast, and these contradictions are sprinkled throughout the menu.

Starting the meal with house baked pretzel roles and smoked Gouda, and a slightly sweet chunky chowder made with potato and clam, proffered a taste in which individual ingredients were expected to carry the weight of the dish rather than hiding behind spices and techniques. A little more salt wouldn’t hurt, though.

End the meal with a near-perfect homemade cheesecake ($5) dropped down a notch by the strange Midwestern habit of dressing culinary art with artificial whipped topping. Close your eyes and pretend it’s not there, and you’ll be nearly overwhelmed.

This culinary fusion shows itself in the ambiance, as well. Some might find it unpretentious and homey. Others might find it funky in an if-we-had-more-money-we-might-have-done-it-differently sort of way. It’s not uncomfortable at all, but it certainly doesn’t seem deliberate in the same way the food is prepared.

The service is extraordinarily friendly and very attentive, but our server seemed unclear on the menu. For example, he wasn’t sure if the perch on the menu was ocean perch or freshwater perch, two very different fish. He was also not familiar with any other fish on the menu. This made it hard to offer recommendations beyond descriptions like “phenomenal,” which is not a very useful culinary adjective. It wasn’t enough to encourage me to cough up more than $30 for the tuna.

To say that lakes life is coming of age is too simple. But culinary options that weren’t part of the dining experience for those outside high-end Minnesota resorts are starting to appear in pretty accessible places like Park Rapids.

I’ve heard it said that if you are lucky enough to spend the day at the lakes, you’re lucky enough. The Good Life Cafe is one more reason that this adage may be true.

The Good Life Cafe

220 Main Ave. S., Park Rapids, Minn.

• Cuisine: American

• Ratings out of 4 stars:

Food: 3.5 star

Service: 2.5 star

Ambiance: 2.5 stars

• Hours: Summer: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.

Labor Day to Memorial Day: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

• Reservations: Yes

• Phone: (218) 237-4212

• Alcohol: Full bar

• Dress: As you like

• Credit Cards: Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express

By Eric Daeuber / For the Forum

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