It’s hard to say what constitutes American cuisine. Most is borrowed from one place or another.
But so are most Americans, so it’s not a surprise. Still, there are some places where the output is uniquely American regardless of source. What’s more American than New York pizza or a Chicago hot dog? The pizza may be Italian and the hot dog German, but it’s the “New York” and the “Chicago” part of those foods that make them what they are.
And it’s the “Horace” that does the same for Big Erv’s. From the backyard bar, you can see the grain elevator and the water tower like it’s some kind of Disney rendition of North Dakota. Except it’s the real thing. Blue Moon and Bud Light meet burgers, bacon and beef in a place that feels like America felt before it started using beard oil and too much hops.
Once you get past menu items with names like What the Cluck and Cod Darn It, the menu is really about comfort foods. Burgers, mac and cheese, and sandwiches.
The menu aims to be fun, but the food is really quite serious. The mac and cheese, for example, is, at its core, a curious mix of slightly sweet, with a bit of aged bite and a hint of white wine. It feels familiar, like the consolation that waited for you after school on a fall afternoon. But it's dressed up enough to not make you feel bad that your mom didn’t make it.
The bacon topped Squealer version (get it?) includes all the parts of traditional mac n’ cheese, complete with the apostrophe “n” where the conjunction belongs, but the Run Forrest Run adds Cajun shrimp for a slightly less down-home Midwestern winter take on comfort foods. At between $13.99 and $17.99, they are creeping into “cuisine” territory, but the culinary compromise between the everyday and the unique has its price.
Something similar happens on the burger side of the menu. At one end, you have the $7.99 Scoot Bang (?), your basic burger, but at the other you see it dressed up with some pretty creative, but not random, combinations of toppings like the less-spicy-than-the-name-suggests 5 Alarm made with cheese, jalapenos, bacon, onions, mushrooms and something Cajun. And $10.99 isn’t bad for a half-pound burger done very nicely and free from the density forced on it by overzealous short order cooks.
Appetizers are fun, and the menu for bite-sized beer buddies is expansive, so Big Erv’s is ideally set up for an evening of fun and munchies. The pickle wraps ($8.99) are delightful — complex and manageable as finger foods go.
Service is good. The servers are helpful and responsive. But something happens between the order showing up in the kitchen and its arrival at the table. There are a lot of places in the food-production process that might explain why the food arrives cooler than it ought to, but burger toppings like fried onions and melted cheese don’t do well after a double-digit drop in temperature.
One expects delivery to be a little slower than non-bar dining. You’re enjoying the atmosphere and your friends, so you don’t notice a few minutes of delay. But what it does to french fries can be pretty damaging.
Big Erv’s tries to turn a small-town bar into the kind of full-service dining experience that many smaller towns can’t support and, on the whole, it does a good job. Family friendly, fun, some unique takes on everyday foods and a thing or two that’s special, like the mac and cheese, makes Big Erv’s worth a trip out west.
Eric Daeuber is an instructor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College. Readers can reach him at email@example.com.
Big Erv's Bar & Grill
Address: 412 Main St., Horace, N.D.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Friday and 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday
Alcohol: Full bar
Ratings (out of 4 stars)
Food: 2 1/2 stars
Service: 2 stars
Ambiance: 3 stars