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Tackling Minnesota's 16-ounce Big Sturgeon burger

An Iron Range landmark, Bimbo's Octagon is one of the oldest standing veterans halls in America. For the past 55 years, it's been a bar and restaurant beloved by locals and regular visitors to the community of Side Lake.

Man, eyes wide open in astonishment, inside a restaurant holding large burger with multiple layers of meat.
Weighing in at over a pound, the Big Sturgeon burger is a special order at Bimbo's Octagon.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune
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SIDE LAKE, Minn. — Let's state this right up front, so I don't get in trouble. At Bimbo's Octagon, the Big Sturgeon burger isn't on the menu.

Building a Big Sturgeon is no mean feat, my server indicated. With staffing shortages being what they are, a rush of hungry patrons could slam the folksy restaurant's kitchen, so the owners have limited their offerings.

Fortunately, I showed up just after Bimbo's opened at 4 p.m. on a slow, rainy Thursday. There were only a few other people being served, and I asked very nicely whether a Big Sturgeon might be within the realm of possibility. My server didn't seem the least bit surprised that I'd driven 92 miles from Duluth just for the experience.

My journey to a 16.4-ounce stack of hot, juicy meat and rich, buttery bun (I brought a kitchen scale to weigh it) began last month. I was at a baby shower with some Iron Range residents, and I overheard one woman mention that her growing teen child had an appropriately healthy appetite. Her kid, she said, could put away just about anything — except, maybe, an entire Big Sturgeon burger at Bimbo's.

Exterior view of a low, octagonal restaurant with log sides. A boreal forest is visible in the background, and a few large black vehicles are parked outside.
Bimbo's Octagon, located on County Highway 5 in Side Lake, served as shelter from the storm for hungry visitors on a rainy afternoon.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

As a lifestyle journalist, you don't hear that combination of words and not take note. A little Googling led me to Bimbo's Octagon, a restaurant and bar just across County Highway 5 from Side Lake, in St. Louis County vacationland about 16 miles north of Chisholm.

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Though I wasn't necessarily expecting a religious experience, I fasted for 10 hours before my pilgrimage to the Octagon. As described on a 2006 menu that the owners dug out of their archives when they learned I was a journalist, the Big Sturgeon comprises "1/3 Lb. Burger, Sausage Patty, Slab Of Ham, Bacon, 2 Cheeses, Lettuce, Tomato, Onion & Pickle."

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Mary Ann Pernat told me her late husband, George, invented the Big Sturgeon burger, named for a nearby lake. (There's also a Little Sturgeon — lake, and burger.) The couple were traveling in South Dakota some decades ago, she said, when George encountered a similar superburger and decided to add a Northland version to the menu at Bimbo's.

Above an indoor bar, a large stained glass sign, lit from behind, reads WELCOME TO BIMBO'S with the latter word in large yellow letters.
Matt "Bimbo" Chutich sold the Octagon shortly after it opened in the 1960s, but the restaurant and bar still bears his nickname.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

Mary Ann Pernat no longer owns Bimbo's; 22 years ago, she and George sold to their son, Mark, and his wife, Christy. Mary Ann, Mark and Christy were all working at the Octagon when I stopped in last week. "People say, 'You could volunteer in town,'" said Mary Ann. "I say, 'Yeah, or I could volunteer here.'"

She pointed to a photo of herself with her family from Bimbo's LBJ-era opening, and made sure I understood that the logs forming the Octagon's walls are all original to 1919. So are the windows, which were turned into display cases when an exterior surround was added to increase capacity and help winterize the building.

Interior view of a restaurant and bar, with log walls visible in the background. In the foreground are lamps and beer signs.
Inside Bimbo's Octagon, visitors can still see the original log walls and windows from when the building was constructed in 1919 as a Soldiers and Sailors Club.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

A map mural on the wall dates to before the Octagon was "Bimbo's." It's been retouched over the years, Mark noted, since chairs and tables rub up against it. I thought of the North Shore Scenic Railroad, where general manager Ken Buehler likes to say that the best way to preserve a train is to use it. Perhaps you could say the same of an Octagon.

Bimbo's is well-preserved, and so is the recipe for the Big Sturgeon — complete with sausage made in-house. When my server agreed to accept the special order, she leaned around to call into the kitchen. "Got a Big Sturgeon coming back for you!" she called to the unseen cook. She then turned to assure me, as if I'd had any doubts: "He makes the best burgers. You're in good hands."

A very large hamburger stacked with other meats between the bun, in a basket with french fries and cole slaw.
The Big Sturgeon burger is stacked with sausage, ham and bacon, among other ingredients.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

When the Big Sturgeon arrived, my first challenge was simply to pick it up. As I reached my fingers down into the basket, I kept thinking I'd reached bottom, only to realize there was yet another layer I hadn't grappled with. When I finally succeeded at lifting the burger out of the basket, fries fell away like chunks of ice flaking off a rocket during launch.

A Big Sturgeon, I learned, can't be consumed quickly; eating one is a matter of building a relationship. You take a bite, savor it, breathe, sip your soda, check your phone. Then you dive back in, grateful for the opportunity.

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I was glad I hadn't filled up on lesser foods, because I wouldn't have wanted to waste a bite. It's a lot of meat, yes, but it's all so flavorful that the burger implicitly shames "meat lover's" pizzas and omelets where the morsels are so tiny and dry, they might as well be Bac-Os. I can't deny that there are a lot of good reasons not to eat four meats at once ... but if you're going to do it, do it right.

A mural painted on a restaurant wall: a stylized map of area surrounding Side Lake, with lakes including Big Sturgeon, West Sturgeon, and Little Sturgeon.
A mural dating back over half a century at Bimbo's Octagon depicts the geographic features surrounding Side Lake.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

When my server left the check, she pointed me to the merch on display in the front room ("the Bimbo's butts shirts are kind of iconic") and asked me how the burger was.

"Incredible!" I said, waving my arms in a very non-Minnesotan explosion of emotion that surely pegged me as someone who'd come up from the city. "I'm transported! Transformed!"

She just smiled and nodded. "Good deal."

Related Topics: FOODST. LOUIS COUNTYTRAVEL
Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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