I was reading somewhere a few years ago where a place in Rochester, MN by the name of Newt's may have the best burger in the whole state of Minnesota. I go through Rochester from time to time and I've wanted to give the place a try. The only problem is that I'm usually driving through town in the middle of the day and Newt's never opened until 4 p.m. On one trip recently on my way up to the Twin Cities, I made my way through Rochester for a burger from Newt's. (Newt's sign pic courtesy of doodledee.com)
Newt's is part of the Creative Cuisine restaurant group that runs five restaurants and the Culinary Market, an eclectic wine and food market in Rochester. Jerry Zubay and Mike Currie opened their first restaurant - Henry Wellington's - in 1978. Actually, Cindy and I ate at Henry Wellington's a number of years ago during one of our many weekend trips that we used to make. I remember the food being very good and I believe I had the prime rib that evening. In 2002, Henry Wellington's became City Cafe, an upscale restaurant that has been voted the best in Rochester for many years.
In 1989, Zubay and Currie opened Newt's, a little tavern like place on the second floor of the Henry Wellington building. Newt's is named after Newton Holland, the owner of Holland's Cafeteria and Bakery which occupied the building from 1927 thru 1958. Holland was also a civic and cultural pioneer. Holland was instrumental in a beautification project that he helped start in the late 50's when the city planted hundreds of trees throughout the downtown area. He was also the driving force behind the opening of the Rochester Art Center just after World War II. When Zubay and Currie went to name the place, they felt calling it Newt's would pay homage to a name not many present day Rochester residents know or even remember.
It was around 7:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night when I pulled up to Newt's on First Ave. SW in Rochester (see map), just walking distance from the world famous Mayo Clinic. Parking can be a little tight on the street around City Cafe and Newt's, but I was fortunate to get a parking spot when someone pulled out when I pulled up. Walking past the main entrance of City Cafe down a little alley way, you'll find the stairs that take you up to Newt's entrance. Walking down a short hallway, you'll come to the main dining area for Newt's.
While the restaurant is dark and cozy, there's a number of memorabilia and pictures on the wall, including one of Newton Holland. A blackboard with colorful artwork touting Newt's burgers greets you as you come in. The back bar area is cluttered, but you can still make out the antique walnut woodwork. Televisions in the place were turned on to sports and the place was about half-full.
I sat down at the bar and got a menu and a beer. The bartender, Tim Waby, has been a fixture at Newt's for a number of years. Probably in his mid to late 40's and very personable, Waby had asked me if I'd ever been in before. I said that I've tried to get in during the day in the past, but they were always closed. He said, "Oh, well, we've been open for lunch for a couple years now." He said they still don't open until around 3 or so on the weekends, but they're now open for lunch at 11 a.m.
If you're looking for something other than a burger or a sandwich, Newt's isn't your kind of place. In addition to salads and appetizers, Newt's serves up Fish and Chips and a Chicken Strip platter. But burgers are the name of the game at Newt's. They have about a dozen variations of burger's including The Works (pictured at the left) - a 1/2 pound burger topped with bacon, cheese, veggies and finished with a blue cheese dressing. They also have their variation of a Jucy Lucy, the stuffed cheeseburger made famous by Matt's Bar in the Twin Cities. But the one that Waby said is the favorite of a lot of people is the Peanut Butter burger - a 1/2 pound burger topped with peanut butter and bacon. Although I used to eat peanut butter as a kid, I find the taste and smell of warmed peanut butter repulsive.
However, one burger caught my attention - Dave's Burger. One of the cooks at Newt's came up with this recipe by taking chop jalapenos and garlic and mixing it in with the ground beef. They top it with a sweet and zesty barbecue sauce and pepper jack cheese. Other than the barbecue sauce, it sounded heavenly. I asked Tim if I could get Dave's Burger with the barbecue sauce on the side and he said it was no problem. With the burger came a big batch of hand-cut french fries.
After about 20 minutes wait, my burger was brought out to me. Oh, man! From the first bite it was heaven. Now I know why Newt's is consistently ranked as the best burger in town by the readers of Rochester Magazine. The bun was light and flavorful, the mixture of garlic and jalapenos was a great taste sensation, and the meat was cooked to a perfect medium, but was still moist and juicy. It was a killer burger, to say the least. I dipped a corner into the barbecue sauce to give that a try, but I liked it without the sauce.
Tim came up and asked me, "So, how's our burgers?"
I said, "It was worth the trip and the wait. It's everything I hoped it would be."
It was definitely a meal, that's for sure. I couldn't finish even half of the pile of fries they put on my plate after I devoured the burger. I was overly happy with the burger I had just eaten.
Last summer, Minnesota Monthly magazine listed their top 18 burgers in the state of Minnesota. While I somewhat agree with their number one choice - Matt's Bar and the Jucy Lucy - having Newt's placed at 16th may be an injustice. I've eaten at a couple three places on the list and I think Newt's acquits themselves very well in the race for the top burger. Some of the other burgers listed came from upscale eateries. A burger joint - like Matt's or Newt's - has a certain "down and dirty" flair to them. It's like I say - everyone can make an expensive burger taste good. But getting a great tasting burger for under $10 bucks is an art form. And it's an art form that is mixed with good service and great surroundings like you find at Newt's.