September 15, 2019

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Getting behind the wheel for a meal

A rural eats road trip uncovers not just a wealth of mouthwatering, innovative food fare, but the young entrepreneurs and immigrants whose vision brought it to the plate

MUNICIPALITY OF RHINELAND — We stand near a cornfield just outside of Altona, attempting to take selfies with a Polaroid camera — which is infinitely more difficult than it sounds — when we see a fox with another animal in its mouth emerge onto the gravel road.

We stop.

“Is that a fox?” we wonder aloud.

“Will the fox attack us?”

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MUNICIPALITY OF RHINELAND — We stand near a cornfield just outside of Altona, attempting to take selfies with a Polaroid camera — which is infinitely more difficult than it sounds — when we see a fox with another animal in its mouth emerge onto the gravel road.

We stop.

RURAL EATS ROADTRIP: BY THE NUMBERS

Number of times we heard Post Malone on the radio: 13
Number of wild animals we saw: Three (turtle, pelican, fox). Four if you count whatever was in the fox’s mouth.
Number of leftover containers amassed: 17


Number of times we heard Post Malone on the radio: 13
Number of wild animals we saw: Three (turtle, pelican, fox). Four if you count whatever was in the fox’s mouth.
Number of leftover containers amassed: 17
Number of kilometres travelled:
817
Number of calories consumed: Who cares?
Number of polaroids taken: 38
Number of unsuccessful polaroids: 7
How many litres of schmaundt fat consumed: Incalculable
How many Google searches for the correct spelling of schmaundt fat: More than one
Number of times we exclaimed “Look, cows!”: Not zero!

"Is that a fox?" we wonder aloud.

"Will the fox attack us?"

"What’s in its mouth?"

The answers to these questions are "yes," "no," and "we don’t know," but what we really learn from this interaction is that we are city girls, through and through.

This is a lesson we re-learned many times on our rural-eats road trip — from our inability to navigate without the internet, to Erin’s poor highway etiquette (and road rage) when trying to pass trucks and tractors, and our unbridled joy seeing cows or horses in various fields along the way.

But being out of our element was kind of the point. We wanted to get out of the city and explore our province — and what better way than through food? We wanted to meet the people who create the flavours of Manitoba, from the perogy-and-pickerel purists to the pioneers pushing the Prairie palate.

So, armed with a list of worth-the-drive eateries that lie beyond the Perimeter, stretchy pants, and a loose grasp of provincial geography, we gassed up our Free Press-branded PT Cruiser — a very conspicuous vehicle we nicknamed Sheila — and set off on our gastronomical tour of rural Manitoba.

 

DAY 1

There are two things the Timberline Restaurant in Richer is probably best known for: its pizza and décor.

ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Timberline Restaurant owner Linda Gauthier (left) poses with Jen Zoratti.</p>

ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Timberline Restaurant owner Linda Gauthier (left) poses with Jen Zoratti.

When we pull up at 10:30 on a sunny Monday morning, there’s already a couple of white pickup trucks parked outside. Inside, server Debbie Griffiths is warming up the coffees of three men clustered around a black Formica table, tattooed biceps peeking out of T-shirt sleeves. From the PB&J carousels on every table to the red plastic water cups that will never be left to go dry, it looks like your average roadside diner — until you take a closer look at the cream-coloured walls.

They are covered in a hundred or so plaques, the kind you find at resort gift shops or craft sales. "Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll sit in a boat and drink beer all day," reads one. "A woman who is looking for a husband never had one," reads another.

"Some of the guys aren’t impressed with it because they think I’m against all the males, but I can’t find any that say anything good about them, so," jokes owner Linda Gauthier. "But I try."

She can always tell a first-time visitor by how much of a kick they get out of her signs. "They start laughing and we can hear them from the kitchen."

That’s another thing about the Timberline: the people who work and eat here have a sense of humour.

"We have fun in here," Gauthier says. "We joke around with our customers, but we still get our work done."

ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The eponymous Timberline pizza.</p>

ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The eponymous Timberline pizza.

Gauthier has owned the Timberline for seven years, but her connection to it goes back further. Her father and stepmother owned it 40 years ago. "I actually grew up right next door," she says.

In the years she’s owned it, the restaurant has become renowned for its pizza.

"We sell about 500 to 600 pizzas a month," Gauthier says. People from as far afield as Sioux Lookout, Ont., order them uncooked so they can have a taste of Timberline at home.

Obviously, we order the Timberline’s eponymous pizza, which comes piled with pepperoni, mushrooms, and crispy bacon, and served up on blue checked paper. The pizza really is a thing to be craved, subtly sweet house-made sauce slathered over a perfect, thin crust. (We also order a side of today’s special, perogy poutine, because how could we not?)

We are, realistically, too full to move. But we do, loading up Sheila with leftovers to make the 40-minute straight-shot drive north to Beausejour — a route that included more gravel than anticipated. Cotton-ball clouds dot a midsummer blue sky, and verdant fields are only interrupted by the line of the road. It’s a beauty day for a drive.


 

ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Inside Blue Haze BBQ in Beausejour, Man.</p>

ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Inside Blue Haze BBQ in Beausejour, Man.

Soundtracked almost entirely by rapper Post Malone (not by choice), we zip up the highway to Beausejour in search of Blue Haze BBQ. Now, Beausejour is probably not the place you’d expect to find some of the best Southern BBQ you’ll ever eat, but tucked away off the town’s main drag is a hidden gem.

Blue Haze BBQ’s unassuming exterior did not prepare us for the charming space that awaited inside: dark-wood shelves lined with as many awards as BBQ sauces (which is a lot), trendy chalkboards explaining all the necessary information and numerous coolers filled with product to take home.

When we arrive at noon, the special for that day — BBQ chicken with three sides — is already sold out.

We take two seats at the bar that lines one side of the central prep station to watch the place in action; the two additional four-tops in the room are full of people. Deli manager Jolene Bespalko is quick to hand us some of their house-made sweet tea, and we are quick to fall in love.

ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Owner Jason Dornbush at Blue Haze BBQ.</p>

ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Owner Jason Dornbush at Blue Haze BBQ.

Owner Jason Dornbush tells us Blue Haze got its start as a catering company six years ago in Selkirk, and then he moved his operation to Beausejour two years later. They bought their current building last year to appease demand from customers for a permanent, eat-in space.

Dornbush got into BBQ after being inspired by a restaurant in Lac du Bonnet, of all places, and started cooking on an old oil drum cooker, and "it all went from there." He built his menu by borrowing from what he thought were the best regional styles from across the U.S. South — Carolina pulled pork, Texas beef brisket, and Kansas City pork ribs.

Since then, business on both the restaurant and catering sides has been booming and Dornbush has been racking up the awards all over North America for his food, so we are anxious to tuck into some of Blue Haze’s specialties.

First, a very hearty spicy turkey gumbo that is packed with turkey and sausage and has the best kind of kick. Next, one of the chicken-leg specials they had snuck to the side for us, complete with tangy slaw, apple-cinnamon baked beans and creamy, dilly potato salad. The chicken is basted with their most popular sauce, the Blue Ribbon BBQ sauce, which is a little sweet, a little tangy and a little smokey.

You may be thinking, "Man, that’s a lot of food," and you would be correct. However, the plates keep coming, this time with massive sandwiches. The El Cubano (with mojo pork, house-smoked ham, Swiss cheese and a pickle on grilled Ciabatta) and the B-Town Club (with smoked turkey breast, ham, bacon, provolone cheese, mango jam and a house-made mayo) come on wooden boards with a side of potato chips. The quality of ingredients really makes a difference here, and you can taste it. Plus, they’re both $10 or less.

Bespalko then hands us a single piece of house-made pastrami; a Blue Haze-style palate cleanser, if you will.

And then came the pie. The "Mile High Banana Cream Pie" is otherwise known as the most delicious banana cream pie you could ever dream of (in fact, Erin literally did dream of it that night when she got home). That pie alone is worth the 40-minute drive from Winnipeg.

We almost literally roll out of there and decide to take a quick lap around the block to encourage some digestion and stave off the meat sweats before heading east to stop No. 3.


Seven Sisters Falls is an idyllic community located about 30 minutes east of Beausejour and 15 minutes southwest of Pinawa. And if you ask Jozef Slavik, it’s a little slice of paradise.

Slavik and his wife, Nathalie, run the famed Jennifer’s Picnic on Highway 307. It’s an operation of two, a scaled-down food-truck version of the sit-down restaurant the couple opened a quarter century ago. Trading in table cloths for picnic tables suits Slavik just fine, though.

ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Jen tries a frog leg at Jennifer’s Picnic.</p>

ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Jen tries a frog leg at Jennifer’s Picnic.

"In a fine-dining establishment, people have extremely high expectations," he says. "A food truck is informal, casual, more friendly. You have more freedom to make more contact."

Jennifer’s has tons of regulars he knows "if not by name, by how many decades they’ve been coming."

One such couple is just finishing lunch. "I’ll try something different next time," the man calls over to Jozef.

"Yeah right," Slavik laughs. "Take care, my friend."

It’s easy to see why people would come here to satisfy a particular hankering. While Jennifer’s gets a lot of exotic dishes, including the alligator grilled cheese and the camel burger, you really have to have the schnitzel — perfectly golden, grease- and gristle-free, with a squeeze of fresh lemon and pepper. Slavik, who grew up in Communist-controlled Slovakia to Hungarian parents, is visibly charmed when Erin mentions his warm buttery potatoes tasted just like those her Slovenian nana used to make. We tuck into a paprika-spiced Hungarian goulash and the wasabi chicken — breaded and topped with ribbons of wasabi cream and a handful of pickled ginger — which is another standout. Jen also tries her first frog’s leg ("tastes like chicken!") and a camel kebob ("tastes like camel!")

After we barely make a dent into generous portions Slavik hilariously describes as "snacks," we take his suggestion and visit the falls.

We steer Sheila toward Whitemouth Falls Provincial Park. What we initially think is "the falls" is, in fact, the Manitoba Hydro Seven Sisters Falls Generating Station. The Whitemouth Falls, where the Whitemouth River flows into the Winnipeg River, is a little jewel of a place. Quite literally, it glitters. We stop and take a selfie by the falls and observe some pelicans having some sort of meeting. We startle an oblivious photographer. "You could’ve murdered me and I wouldn’t have noticed!" he jokes.

With that awkward interaction under our belts, we decide to hit the road again.


Logistically, it made sense for us to hit all the north-ish locations on the same day, so Gimli is our next stop even though it’s a good 90-minute haul from Seven Sisters. We find ways to pass the time, including a rousing game of "Was that a turtle on the highway?" and a lengthy discussion about how we are going to accomplish getting a photo in a sunflower field (spoiler: we are ultimately unsuccessful; Jen is scared of sunflowers and kept referring to them as "weirdos").

ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The pickerel at Beach Boy.

ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The pickerel at Beach Boy.

We finally reach the lakeside community and despite the fact earlier in the day a big celebration for the 35th anniversary of the Gimli Glider had taken place — something Jen was inexplicably very excited about — by 4:30 p.m., the sleepy town was back to being sleepy.

Strolling down 1st Avenue, we reach our next and final stop for the day, Beach Boy.

The fast-food joint looks like a cabin, with a large screened-in patio facing the street. We climb the staircase to the front door, a particularly difficult feat when all of our energy is being used to aid the digestion process.

Beach Boy is famous for their pickerel, we had been told, so that’s what we order; one pickerel platter with fries to share.

The meal arrives quickly and smells amazing; the fish isn’t battered, but instead has a lemony-peppery rub, a secret recipe Portuguese owner Lucia Makiaris isn’t willing to share. It’s flaky and fresh and lives up to its delicious reputation.

ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Savvas Makiaris grills up some pickerel at the Beach Boy.</p>

ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Savvas Makiaris grills up some pickerel at the Beach Boy.

Even though it’s now a menu staple, Makiaris says pickerel was a late addition when she and her Greek husband, Savvas, opened Beach Boy in 2000 after returning to Gimli after 10 years away.

The pair started their first restaurant in Gimli, Country Boy, in 1976 as the first fast-food place in town, mostly selling burgers and fries. They then sold the business — which is still around, just a block away from Beach Boy on 1st Avenue — to spend more time with their young kids, and moved to Europe for a decade. When they returned, they didn’t want to buy Country Boy back, so they started up a new place, Beach Boy, and added pickerel to their offerings.

"It goes just as much as burgers," Makiaris says. "All the locals were waiting for us to come back, they knew us, and 80 per cent of all the locals who used to go there all came back.

"This is home for us. This is not a business, this is home."

On summer weekends, Beach Boy often has a lineup out the door, with pickerel and burgers flying out of the kitchen. Customers will even call from out of town to let the Makiaris’ know they’re on their way for the fish, which, of course, is locally sourced.

Makiaris takes us to the kitchen to meet Savvas, who is where he always is, working the grill. The pair spend every day in the restaurant from May until September, and then Beach Boy shuts down for the season.

At this point, we are also ready to shut down, so after a quick walk around town to enjoy the beautiful day, we saddle up Sheila, who’s backseat is now packed with take-out boxes, and ride off into the sunset back to Winnipeg.

 

DAY 2

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The Ole’ Farmhouse Café in Rosenort, Man.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Ole’ Farmhouse Café in Rosenort, Man.

We get a later start on Tuesday; our jobs can’t entirely stop to just eat for three days straight, so we spend the morning working on other projects before rolling on out to Rosenort.

Our only stop today is the Ole’ Farmhouse Café, a former farmhouse turned tea house turned café and bakery around 100 metres off of Highway 205.

Owner Meletta Goossen is in Winnipeg on business, but she has made sure we’re taken care of by chef Vicky Thompson, who has been at the café almost since its inception four years ago.

WE HEARD GOOD THINGS...

Click to Expand

For this feature, we asked you, our readers, for direction on where to go and what to eat. The feedback received was overwhelming; we were reminded, once again, of the breadth of culinary talent that exists beyond the Perimeter Highway.

As we are but two women, we could not get to all the places you suggested. Below is a list of other spots that came highly recommended.

L&J’s Drive Inn – Treherne
Blue Hills Bakery – Brandon
Gopher Creek Coffee Company – Virden
Pine Ridge Hollow – Birds Hill
Roxi’s by the Red – Selkirk
Whytewold Emporium – Matlock
Viet House – Steinbach
Sonia’s – Lockport
Summit Café – Stony Mountain
Beach Hut – Killarney
Papa Carlo – Lockport
Grunthal Bakery — Grunthal
The Spicy Radish – Whitemouth
Lyets Café – The Pas
Rock City Diner – Flin Flon
Madoco – Swan River
Lady of the Lake – Brandon
McLeod House – Stonewall
As Told in Legends Bakery — Morden

The Farmhouse is just that: a farmhouse built in 1910 that has been converted several times, but is now a two-floor restaurant with a bakery in the basement which pumps out breads, cinnamon rolls and other treats to supply both the eat-in customers and to stock the takeout shelves up front.

Goossen took it over five years ago after moving to the area from B.C. with her family, recognizing the need in the community for something other than a Subway and a Chinese food place.

It’s taken a few years, but the Ole’ Farmhouse Café has now become something locals support heavily — they are able to turn over the whole place in 90 minutes during the lunch rush — and Thompson says it’s all down to Goossen’s love of the place and her customers.

"I love feeding people," Goossen later says when we chat over the phone. "Everyone knows when they come to my house they’re not going to go away hungry… I love the satisfaction of giving someone a home-cooked meal that they love, even down to a cup of homemade brewed tea."

We are taken upstairs to a table that is set with a knitted table cloth for high tea, one of the services the Farmhouse runs during its quieter afternoon hours, from 1p.m to 3 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

Food-wise, the Farmhouse is all about homemade everything — soups, breads, sauces, dressings, jams, creams — you name it, it was probably made from scratch in the tiny main-floor kitchen.

"We do bring in some buns from another bakery but everything else is all fresh, lots of whipping cream and butter, like all the desserts. If there’s no butter and whipping cream we’re not even bothering," laughs Thompson.

"We love to put a spin on stuff too," Thompson explains as we are presented with the famous Farmhouse Salad, which features apples and candied nuts, and a traditional-style chicken salad (complete with whole red grapes) on house-made bread.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Erin and Jen demolished this beautiful spread in exactly 12 minutes.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Erin and Jen demolished this beautiful spread in exactly 12 minutes.

"We of course have our staples but we also do a lot of things you wouldn’t find in Rosenort otherwise. We’ll do lettuce wraps or sushi bowls or a super-stacked burger… we love that fun part too. Classic, from scratch, but with a twist is what I’d say."

We are then treated to the high-tea service; a three-tiered tray is packed with the cutest mini sandwiches you’ve ever seen — cucumber and radish, ham and cheese and others — and sweets including scones and mini cakes.

We demolish this beautiful spread in exactly 12 minutes.

Of course we can’t leave without sampling some of their famous desserts; two of the most popular items on the menu are the coconut cream pie and the bread pudding, so, naturally, we have one of each. The pie is massive and fluffy, with the perfect amount of coconut flavour; the bread pudding is served warm and with a heaping scoop of vanilla ice cream melting across the top. It tastes like home.

After a quick stop at the bakery racks on the main floor to pick up some treats for our coworkers who are doing less fun jobs than ours, we decide to give our tummies a rest and head home to recharge before another four-stop day Wednesday.

 

DAY 3

The third day of our rural eats adventure takes us south, through the Pembina Valley. The land of sunflowers and schmaunt fat.

ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Kevin and Ashley Funk are the owners of The Olive Tree.</p>

ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Kevin and Ashley Funk are the owners of The Olive Tree.

Our first stop is Morden, a small but rapidly growing city of 9,000. Kevin and Ashley Funk, and their three small children, are one of the young families who are contributing to that growth. Three years ago, they opened The Olive Tree — a charming children’s store on leafy Stephen Street. Tucked at the back of the store is a bright, family-friendly café that turns out mouthwatering creations dreamed up by Kevin.

"When we bought the place, it was originally a bookstore, but we have three little kids so we thought we’d go in that direction because there was nothing in town," says Ashley, who just gave birth to their third child two months ago. "My husband has always enjoyed cooking, never professionally, and we moved out here when I was on maternity leave. And then when that was done, we didn’t know what we were going to do. We saw this place was for sale and we’re like, ‘Hey, let’s give this a shot.’"

Ashley is from Fort Frances, Ont., while Kevin was born and raised in Morden — a fact reflected in one of the café’s most popular dishes. "What we’re known for is our Mordenite Perogy Soup," Ashley says. "We’ve done over 10,000 bowls so far."

We end up slurping down the last bowl of it; by 12:45 p.m. they are already sold out. It’s a cream-based soup, bursting with perogies, bacon, farmer’s sausage, cheddar and onion that could be a meal on its own. We also try the rich, comforting French onion soup, garnished with a flower. The veggie burgers are also well worth the hour-and-a-half drive from Winnipeg; it took Kevin a year to devise his chickpea-based patty, which you can get topped with warm brown-butter mushrooms or a fresh mix of cucumber, sprouts, and tomato.

And then there’s the decadent cinnamon buns. "Our cinnamon buns are definitely a huge hit," Ashley says. "We sell out every single day. He’s done over 100 different flavours of cinnamon bun." We try the salted caramel — which is finished off with warm brownie pieces — and the blueberry, which is piled high with fresh whipped cream.

"Our cinnamon buns are definitely a huge hit. We sell out every single day. He’s done over 100 different flavours of cinnamon bun”

Still, as Ashley notes, the café’s offerings were regarded with a bit of skepticism on the part of Mordenites. "It took a while for people to trust Kevin and what he was trying to do because he had some crazy ideas, like perogy soup and lasagne soup," she says. "Now, everything he does goes over really well."

In fact, the Morden and District Chamber of Commerce named The Olive Tree Business of the Year in 2017.

We free up the table, and say we’re going to have to walk to Winkler. Ashley laughs at our dad joke politely. "You could if you wanted to," she says.

We don’t want to. Onwards, Sheila.


The drive from Morden to Winkler is less than 20 minutes, but the two places couldn’t feel more different.

While Morden has more of the small-town vibe, Winkler, with a population of more than 14,000, is a bustling agricultural hub.

JEN ZORATTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The Smokey and the Bandit burger and pulled-pork poutine at Charley B’s.</p>

JEN ZORATTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Smokey and the Bandit burger and pulled-pork poutine at Charley B’s.

Charley B’s Classic Grill and Ice Cream Parlour fits right in — the old-school drive-in format suits the industrial nature of the area and the kitchen is stocked with locally sourced ingredients from nearby farms. Even the cream used in its house-made ice cream is from a creamery just a 20-minute drive away.

The drive-in is literally steps from Highway 14 — a "quiet little corner," jokes co-owner Katelin Letkeman, who pops her head out of the delivery window as we arrive, unintentionally showing off her adorable forearm tattoos of the same cartoon ice cream, burger and fries that decorate the restaurant’s custom napkins.

Letkeman and her business partner, Charllotte Guenther, have worked in the food biz since they were teenagers, and it had long been Guenther’s dream to own a drive-in. After years of working for other people and a few failed attempts at owning her own place, Guenther jumped at the chance to buy Charley B’s (then Warky’s, another drive-in where both women worked). It opened in 2014.

"People responded really well to it," Guenther says. "It takes a while to get into a community, but we tried to do as much community exposure as we could, not just in the restaurant but outside as well, volunteering for stuff and stuff like that. It’s very important to be known in the community in a positive way."

ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Katelin Letkeman smiles from the window at Charley B’s Classic Grill and Ice Cream Parlour.</p>

ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Katelin Letkeman smiles from the window at Charley B’s Classic Grill and Ice Cream Parlour.

Somehow, we had both been craving a proper gut-busting burger, so we decide to tackle the Smokey and the Bandit burger, which features onion rings, cheddar, mozzarella, bacon, BBQ sauce and a homemade bacon aioli and is one of the restaurant’s most oft-ordered burgers. Paired with that, we order a pulled-pork poutine.

"Order for Erin," a young lady loudly declares into the pick-up window microphone despite the fact we’re the only ones around. There are a lot of fresh faces at Charley B’s, and that is intentional.

"I have a soft spot for teenagers and things are so different than they were even when I was growing up, and this kind of restaurant, it appeals to teenage employees so our staff is all 21 and under," Letkeman says. "It’s just kind of a nice leg-up for them in the community, and we know it’s a starter job just to kind of get them going in their workforce lives. It’s a young atmosphere and, when we started, that was kind of our target market. We have a lot of customers (whose) kids are working here now."

Erin grabs the bag of food, which carries significant weight considering there’s only two things in there, and, after snapping a few photos for posterity, we dig in.

The freshness of the ingredients and care in their preparation is evident in the flavour, of course, but more in our body’s reaction to the food. Typically, eating a big fast-food meal makes both of us feel ill, but not here; we are able to eat an admirable amount before conceding and packing up the rest to go.

Before we head out, Letkeman passes us a single scoop of one of their hard ice-creams — peanut butter Nutella brownie. This is absolutely as good as it sounds.


JEN ZORATTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p></p>The signature potatoes at Annajo's Bistro.</p></p>

JEN ZORATTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The signature potatoes at Annajo's Bistro.

We attempt to get our Google Maps going with little success. This is the first time we’ve struggled to get a cell signal and our inability to navigate highways without internet is almost embarrassing.

After a brief moment of unnecessary panic, Google finally figures out where we want to go. We swear we hear Siri sigh with derision as she barks directions to Annajo’s Bistro in Plum Coulee (though Siri hilariously pronounces it "an-A-jos").

A short 15 minute trip from Winkler and we’re there — we know we’ve arrived in the right spot because of plum-coloured street signs. This 800-person town is very on brand.

ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Annajo’s Bistro owner Jodi Giesbrecht (the Jo of Annajo’s) chats with a patron.</p>

ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Annajo’s Bistro owner Jodi Giesbrecht (the Jo of Annajo’s) chats with a patron.

We waddle into Annajo’s Bistro still full from Charley B’s, so picking out something else to eat is the last thing we want to do. However, when we see the Mennonite classic Kielke with schmaundt fat gravy (that’s egg noodles with a creamy, bacon-fatty sauce, for you non-Mennos out there) and locally sourced farmer’s sausage, we order up a plate.

The dish arrives with fried onions and a rhubarb jam, which seems like an odd combination until you eat it all together; the delicious rhubarb really cuts the heaviness of the gravy.

Like many of the stops on this trip, Annajo’s Bistro specializes in homemade items; owner Jodi Giesbrecht bakes breads, whips up jams and salad dressings, makes her own perogies and pasta, cuts her own steaks and has a display case full of cakes and pies made in house.

"I opened it with my sisters, always with the intent of buying them out and doing it myself because it’s always been my dream," she tells us. "My mom taught me how to cook when I was young and it was just always something I had an interest in."

Annajo’s has been open since 2011, and Giesbrecht, a Plum Coulee native, has been running it solo since 2014, with the help of around six staff members.

Despite the fact cheesecake is what Giesbrecht is known for, we literally cannot fit another bite in our mouths at this moment, so for the first time in three days, we politely decline and make ourselves scarce so Giesbrecht can close up shop for the day.

On to Altona, our final stop.


ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p> Pizza Haven owner Ken Penner (centre), with his sons, Shawn (left), and Graham (right).

ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Pizza Haven owner Ken Penner (centre), with his sons, Shawn (left), and Graham (right).

Moody clouds are gathering in the sky by the time we hit the sunflower capital of Canada, which sits just 10 minutes from the Canada-U.S. border. The yellow fields are made brighter by the darkening sky. Squint, and it looks like a painting.

We pull up to Pizza Haven, which isn’t just a pizza place — it’s an Altona institution.

That was one of the reasons owner Ken Penner bought it four and a half years ago; it already had a solid reputation in town.

"Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, it’s Guy Fieri’s fault I bought this place," Penner says with laugh. We’re in the dining room, which Penner expanded when he took over; Pizza Haven also used to house a Movie Haven. Most of his 25-person staff — which, in the summertime, includes his sons Shawn and Graham — is under 18. "I’m always training," he says.

Penner worked for his own dad, who owned Pioneer Meat in Altona. The younger Penner moved to Winnipeg for three or four years —"because I ‘knew better,’ smarter than your parents, everybody is" — but returned home to Altona, taking over Pioneer Meat with his brother before striking out on his own.

Pizza Haven is a family-friendly joint, by design. "I don’t have any TVs in here where I have a baseball game or a football game playing, I don’t want that kind of crowd. We close at 10 p.m., and I’m done by that point. I don’t gotta worry about turning the game off when it’s in overtime and guys want to stay. I try to keep it family."

JEN ZORATTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The Chipper (top) is the best-selling pizza at Pizza Haven.</p>

JEN ZORATTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Chipper (top) is the best-selling pizza at Pizza Haven.

And, sure enough, families begin filing in. We ask Penner what the most popular pizza on the menu is.

"The Chipper, 120 per cent," he says. "Chipotle ranch sauce, chicken, mozzarella and bacon. That is it. We sell more chicken here than pepperoni. If we didn’t have the Chipper, we’d have dead phone lines forever."

So, we order the Chipper. The chipotle ranch sauce is tangy, and the crust has a pleasing chew to it. In Penner’s estimation, it’s the house-made dough that keeps people coming back. "You could spread anything on there," he jokes.

We also sample the Mennonite Delight, which is slathered with the ubiquitous schmaundt fat, and one of the best Greek salads we’ve ever had, dressed with a house-made vinaigrette and topped with generous handfuls of feta.

The dinner rush begins to fill the room, so we relinquish our table and begin our trek back to Winnipeg, but not before we pull onto a back road and take some photos. Pale blue sky breaks through slate-coloured clouds, meeting the golden wheat at the horizon.

Turns out, you can live in this province your entire life and still be knocked out by its beauty.


ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Erin and Jen snap a selfie in a corn field outside of Altona, Man.</p>

ERIN LEBAR / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Erin and Jen snap a selfie in a corn field outside of Altona, Man.

We left town with a full tank of gas and empty stomachs. We returned with an empty tank and full stomachs. Very, very full stomachs.

But we also returned inspired. Many of the people we met were not professional chefs. Their training happened in smaller kitchens; their teachers were their parents and grandparents, from family recipes written by hand. Many of the places we visited were owned and run by young entrepreneurs and immigrants who saw the potential that existed in hometowns both original and adopted.

We learned that travel doesn’t have to involve an airplane, and discovery can happen in your own back 40. And that if you want to do something, you should just do it — whether that’s open your own restaurant, or drive 50 minutes for a slice of banana cream pie.

erin.lebar@freepress.mb.ca

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @NireRabel @JenZoratti

Erin Lebar

Erin Lebar
Multimedia producer

Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

Read full biography

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Tuesday, August 7, 2018 at 9:22 AM CDT: Changes R.M. to Municipality, removes restaurant (now closed) from sidebar

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