“We soak them in soy sauce and gin.”
That’s how the special house wings are made at the Choo Choo Restaurant in Loretto.
Well, that’s not all they do.
“We use seven difference spices, too,” he said, “but those are secret.”
I didn’t catch who “he” was, but I could tell he was more than just my bartender. He’s been working here 15 years. He might even run the place, might even own the place. He said these house wings, these Choo Choo Wings, have been Loretto’s tastiest secret for over 50 years now.
He said these wings used to be set out for free, the way popcorn and peanuts are today. This was back when chicken wings were considered the “the throwaway part of the chicken.” Can you believe that? He said Minnesota Vikings players used to come out to Loretto for them, “back in the day.” The Vikings were a constant championship contender “back in the day.” Perhaps the Vikings ought to come back.
For all that Plymouth is lacking, you’d be surprised how easily you can stumble into a good pile of chicken wings. This week, as my residency comes to a bittersweet end, I’m celebrating the great chicken wings of Plymouth and its vicinity. We covered the delightfully messy Rock Elm Tavern wings Tuesday; and my game-day companions, Grizzly’s blackened wings Wednesday.
Today, we’re taking a short trip out of town and heading into a true classic town bar. They try in the Cities, they try very hard, but all the money in the world can’t duplicate a place like this.
It takes years to become one of these.
Drive to Loretto from Plymouth and you realize how quickly “the metro” becomes “the sticks.” Spend 15 minutes driving up Highway 55 and you see strip mall sub-cities become spread out townhome complexes. Isolated and brick-like, they sort of resemble minimum-security prisons. It’s fun to think of them that way.
Go farther, and you see images that take you back to Wherever You Came From Before You Wound Up in the Cities: an unsupervised sweet corn stand, with its “On Your Honor” payment box; Adopt-a-Highway signs, and stretches of highway that have actually been taken care of; ads hung on the sides of parked semi trailers; a road called Rolling Hills Rd.; and real rolling hills, as far as rolling hills go in this area.
Next thing you know, you’re pulling up in Loretto, southbound in a single-lane, with its big city sign advertising its businesses and Lions Club branch. As of the 2010 census, Loretto’s population was 650. Go at night and you can see what I assume is bar league softball being played on the fields just off the main drag. That a town like this exists so closely to the Twin Cities, without being visibly infected by them, makes me quite happy. Take a right just before you go over the railroad tracks, and you’re at the Choo Choo.
You walk up expecting a railroad sign outside the restaurant. You walk in expecting train tchotchkes and signage on the walls. But did you expect the train?
The Choo Choo Restaurant is so far behind the times, it’s back ahead of its time. The tchotchkes on the wall aren’t “railroad inspired” or “The Great Train Robbery-themed;” they’re train stuff, because trains go right by the place, and the place was built almost 100 years ago, and train stuff was around. There’s a pool table and pull tabs there, too. These sorts of things were all but extinct in the Twin Cities proper, but now they’re being brought back in the worst possible way: as a rendezvous point for hipsters who haven’t fully committed to hipsterism, and bro packs who treat Florida-Georgia Line like real country music.
When I first stepped into the Choo Choo, I knew I’d be coming back quite a bit. Within the next month of my discovering it, I’ve been back four times. I recently, for the first time, made my food order without needing the menu. The need to even ask what I’d like might well be the next thing to go. It’s always the Choo Choo Wings with bleu cheese.
Choo Choo Wings look rugged. They’re a leathery color, and they shine. Sometimes, you see layers of needle-like spices and pepper seeds on them, like dusty shirt sleeves and scuffed boots on an outlaw. Nevertheless, take a bite and you get a really nice crunch. They taste earthy, smoky, and I swear I tasted the gin. It’s the kind of flavor you might make if you wanted to capture, yeah, hopping unnoticed into an empty train car and riding it to Loretto. Maybe that’s exclusive to me – I’ve long fantasized about hopping a train and letting it take me wherever. Wherever your happy place is, you might just find these wings take you back there.
The Choo Choo’s got a pretty extensive menu. They have a $7.75 cheeseburger here, and a French dip for $8.50. They have a two-third-pounder for $11.95 – For the Adventurous! – with sharp cheddar, two strips of bacon, on “a bun laden with a Peanut Butter Brown Sugar spread.” My day with that burger will come. You can get a filet mignon here for $24.95, and a two fillets of Canadian Walleye for $22.95. If you’re hungry for a sandwich at lunch, they’ve got one for you.
What I always found easiest about Plymouth was leaving. What I mean is, you can hop on I-494 and get out. You can take a right turn onto Highway 55, cut off an Audi, watch your life flash before your eyes probably, but get out. Peony Lane, Xenium Lane, Rockford Rd., Vicksburg Lane*: they might change names along the way, but all of these roads begin and end either outside city limits or *at city limits. Loretto was my getaway place when I lived in Plymouth. It might still be when I need to get away from our new house.
Loretto might not have much, but they’ve got a Lions sign and they’ve got softball at night. They’ve got 650 people who don’t live in the Twin Cities, and they’ve got Choo Choo Wings.
Nobody else has Choo Choo Wings.