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Where We Eat: Chocolate malts fit for a VP at Red's Cafe in Montrose

Following in the malty footsteps of former Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
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Some of Minnesota’s best restaurants are hidden in plain sight, out past the suburbs and miles off the interstate.

We asked readers for their favorite eateries in communities with 10,000 people or fewer — sometimes far fewer. The Where We Eat team will visit some of the top choices and feature them here. Today, we’re talking about Red's Cafe in Montrose.

How to get there?

Red's Cafe can be found along Highway 12 west of the Twin Cities in Montrose, population 3,046. It's about a 45-minute drive from downtown Minneapolis and just under an hour from St. Paul. Here's a map.

What to eat?

The menu is what you'd expect from a roadside cafe – a bit of everything. There's an extensive breakfast menu including omelets and wraps, while the lunch and dinner menu is filled with burgers, sandwiches, broasted chicken, fish baskets, steak, ribs and pork chops, soups and salads.

My server says the restaurant is particularly known for its hot sandwiches, burgers and breakfasts, and as tempted as I always am by an all-day breakfast menu, I opt for a western chicken sandwich that comes with pickles, barbecue sauce, bacon, lettuce and tomato.

When the sandwich arrived it did so accompanied by a mountain of fries, prompting me to ask for a pre-emptive takeout box as I knew there was no way I was finishing in one sitting – particularly since I somewhat unwisely ordered a side of beans (typically sugary and bacon-y) to go with it.

More so that its food, Red's Cafe is known for its malts. I didn't realize this initially, and it was only after finishing my raspberry lemonade that the server mentioned it and twisted my arm into ordering a chocolate malt (full disclosure: I never need my arm twisted to order a chocolate malt).

But instead of serving me a glass of malt, they served me a vat. The serving staff were kind enough to roll me to the flatbed semi I'd rented to take me home at the end of the meal.

The vibe

A long counter greets customers as they enter what is a typical roadside cafe, but there's nothing typical about the history of a diner that has existed in one form or another since 1931.

Elmo Redman and his wife Birdie opened it as a bus-cafe with six stools – and considering the current popularity of modern food trucks, you could argue it was way ahead of its time.

It finally got a bricks-and-mortar building in 1947 – coincidentally the year current owner Larry Miller was born – and was initially open 24 hours to cater for the truck drivers heading to the Twin Cities along Hwy. 12 (back then it was a major interstate highway connecting Aberdeen in Washington state with Detroit).

But this lucrative source of revenue went away with the opening of Interstate 94 about 17 miles north of Montrose, and so did the Greyhound commuter bus service that would stop at Red's, with commuters heading there for breakfast before taking the bus to work.

Nonetheless, Larry Miller has kept the cafe in business since taking over in 1975, building an addition and later adding on to the kitchen during the 1980s as he built up what was becoming an increasingly important part of his business – catering – before remodeling the diner in 2006.

Back to the cafe's chocolate malts – the main reason that particular malt is so notable is it was the drink of choice of Red's most famous regular customer, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who served under Lyndon B. Johnson from 1965-69.

When the VP and former Minnesota senator retired to neighboring Waverly, he would pay regular visits to Red's to talk and joke with locals, and enjoy a malt and a burger with his grandkids in the corner booth to the left where you walk in.

Even near the end of his life, he would still send assistants to Red's to pick him up a chocolate malt.

The prices

A western chicken sandwich with fries, a side of beans, a raspberry lemonade, and a chocolate malt came to $19.79 including tax, before tip.

It's open every day from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. You can find out more about it on its website.

If you have any suggestions for the best rural dining in Minnesota, email them to adam@gomn.com.

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