Monday, June 29, 2009

Red Ox Cafe: Don't Want to Fix What Ain't Broke

Painted by Michelle, the daughter of one of the cooks, 1984

FROM THE AGES OF FIVE TO 18 I grew up in a suburb 27 miles north of Minneapolis, Minnesota called Ham Lake. At a young age I saw an aerial photograph of the town's namesake lake. To me, it looked like a pork chop, complete with a small circular island where the bone would be. I was familiar with what pork chops looked like, being my father's favorite dinner meal, and my least favorite. From then on I joked that the town was named after the shape of the lake. For the fun of it I even drew a plump pink pig swimming in a lake; I still have it.

My cousin's rendition
Recently, I decided to look up the actual reason behind the odd name of the then sparsely populated suburb, only to confirm that my childhood joke was in fact true.

Another detail I hadn't given a second thought to until recently is a cafe my elementary school bus would drive by in the mornings and afternoons. Everyday I'd see the small, dark red cafe with a porch
accented with white support beams. What I would pay attention to from the windows of the bus however, was not the cafe, but the giant sculpture of a man holding a muffler next door. The Red Ox Cafe -- I remember it having ox horns over the front threshold -- didn't seem as interesting to me at the time. After all, maybe I could get inside the giant muffler man and drive it around town. That would be much more exciting than sitting and drinking coffee in the cafe, which I remembered as always being heavy with cigarette smoke and filled with men wearing those trucker hats with logos on the front and bright plastic mesh on the back.

The cafe had always been there, at the corner of Highway 65 and Constance Boulevard NE; and to my relief, it still is. I feel a bit guilty that all of these years later only now is my curiosity peaked. To make amends, I decided to track down the history of the little cafe as soon as I could.

I had my reunion with the Red Ox on a Sunday because I was told "Saturdays are too busy" for any of the staff to be able to sit down and talk with me. I had just finished the Number 11: two eggs, hash-browns and toast made from homemade bread. It was lunchtime, but they serve breakfast all day. This a greasy-spoon, for sure, and there was real butter on my toast. The entire meal had that homemade taste, just like I remember from when I visited as a kid. I admit I was a little surprised the cafe hadn't changed in all these years (though the cigarette smoke was gone). Even the interior wood-paneled walls remained with various framed, faded western prints of cowboys and scenery. Several white-boards and chalkboards listing the daily specials filled the restaurant, too, along with a couple of homemade construction paper fishes announcing an all-you-can-eat fish fry.

By the time I finished, eating the crowd had thinned out which allowed Cindy some time to sit down and talk with me between attending to other hungry customers. Before it was the Red Ox, the cafe was named Mellow Lane, which was a combination of the two original owners' names, Mel and Elaine.

"The building is close to 60 years old," said Cindy, who has been a waitress at the Red Ox since 1984. "It was originally a fruit and vegetable stand, and there was a drive-through." Now that Cindy had said that, the white support beams for the overhanging roof of the porch did resemble a former produce stand. The original part of the building is the main dining area, just as it was back then, though the drive-through has been closed off to the outside and all that remains of it is a small alcove near the cash register.

She went on to say that Don Boustrom (sp?) bought Mellow Lane and had an addition built to make room for more dine-in customers, which is where we were sitting. This addition kept the integrity of the original architecture, which is very simple. We sat at a small square table in the middle of other tables and booths just off the main room, each topped with a small bowl of creamer cups and a sticky napkin dispenser, all of which are surrounded by tchotchkes sitting high on shelves.

It was Fran and Dean Refshaw who bought Mellow Lane and re-named it Red Ox Cafe. "They would vacation in Germany once a year and they ate at [a restaurant named] Red Ox there. I don't know what town that was in, but that's what they named this cafe after." In 1993 Dean Refshaw died of liver cancer and his wife decided to sell the Red Ox to Tom and Paula Wherley. "And they've been the owners for 14 years now," said Cindy.

Despite changes in ownership over the years, it was clear that not much had changed in the kitchen.

"We don't want to fix what ain't broke," said Cindy. In addition to the homemade bread, they make their own mashed potatoes and gravy, and one of the waitresses even makes homemade Mandarin Orange Cake, a notable dessert among many at the cafe. The cake is quite moist and served cool out of the refrigerator with a heaping amount of fluffy, fruity frosting. In addition to the cake, another popular item is "definitely the hot beef sandwich." Even if some of the food isn't made in-house, such as the pies and hash-browns, "We try to get the closest to home that we can," said Cindy. "The customers wouldn't let us change it. If we try something new, the customers will let us know if they don't like it and we'll stop serving it."

The regular customers, for the most part, are retired folks. Historically these folks would sit and talk at what is called The Long Table, which is two of The Red Ox's 6-person tables pushed together making one, well, long table in the center of the main dining room.

"They used to be farmers," said Cindy. "They'd be people who'd plow each other out of their driveways in the winter. They'd come in and have coffee and talk about stuff. Now [the regulars are] mostly retired people and they come in and they just talk, drink coffee and talk about stuff." On the first Tuesday of each month at 9am there's even a group of retired truck drivers who regularly gather together for breakfast, some of them from as far away as Mille Lacs.

The Red Ox Cafe offers special food events from time to time, such as the previously mentioned Friday night fish fry. More unique though, is the lutefisk. "Starting the first Wednesday after Thanksgiving, for three to four weeks, we start serving lutefisk. We get it from the Day Fish Co. in Mora, Minnesota, but we bake it here, with cream sauce or butter." But that's all Cindy was willing to divulge. "We don't want to give away too much of the recipe," she said.

As more customers came in for lunch, Cindy got up to help serve and I stayed a little longer to finish the last crumbs of my mandarin orange cake and take a few photos. Before I left I said goodbye to Cindy, who had her arms filled with two large, oval plates each with a turkey dinner drowning in homemade gravy. And suddenly I was hungry again.

16310 Highway 65 NE
Ham Lake, MN 55304-5313
(763) 434-4340