When I was 27 years old, I was a goof-off posing as a Mesabi Daily News sportswriter. I’d bring four chili dogs with me to the press box when I covered the hockey games. I’d sit up there, eating like I’d never been in public before, occasionally scrawling stats on a chili-stained piece of paper. I farted so loudly one night, I disrupted a radio broadcast. The damn thing sounded like a phone book being ripped in two. The color commentary guy was keeled over laughing for five minutes or more. That’s what I was doing when I was 27 years old.
Carly Storebo and I are the same age. The big difference: when Storebo was 27 years old, she was buying a bar.
With a population of 99, Bruno is actually one of the larger towns on Highway 23 between Askov and Duluth. There’s a post office, a thrift store, and a body shop in Bruno – but you don’t really know you’re there until you roll up to its bar, the Bear’s Den. Storebo moved to Bruno from Colorado with her now ex-husband some years ago. In 2008, she rolled up and bought the Bear’s Den.
“I was kind of a punk kid,” she says. “I was wearing my hat sideways and backward. [Locals were] kind of looking at me like, ‘Oh my God, what the fuck just happened to our bar?’ but I won every single one of ’em over.”
She says bartending was something she always enjoyed, loved being around people, likened her first bar job back home to the atmosphere of the Bear’s Den. She said it wasn’t too different from her first favorite watering hole, either, a bar in Oak Creek called The Colorado Bar. With a population of 914, Oak Creek’s density is nearly ten times Bruno’s.
But you should have seen Bruno’s 99 people rally around Storebo when the Bear’s Den burned down in 2014. Even having won them all over, she was still floored by it.
“They’re good people around here,” she says. “I’ve met some amazing, amazing friends around here. They’re very supportive, especially considering all the shit that I’ve been through.”
Storebo reached out to a local friend, Josh Day, to help rebuild the bar. He did, but under two conditions: there had to be a kitchen, and there had to be a general store.
“We need it here,” he said. “When you live in Bruno, it sucks to drive 16-18 miles to get a gallon of milk. Same thing for a meal. That’s a 35-minute drive [total].”
When the Bear’s Den re-opened in 2016, Day got his wishes. The bar was accompanied by a general store – fittingly called The Bear Necessities – and a simple, burger-centric menu. The store’s got everything you need, and you’ll probably finding yourself saying the same of their burgers.
They don’t reinvent any wheels; they just do a few things, and do them really well. The BBQ and Bacon burger is made with care – not care for dining trends, not care for Instagram, care for You, Omnivore. Bacon slices are halved and laid out evenly over the half-pound patty, rather than just plopped on top in an X shape. They way they apply barbecue sauce, it’s like they actually want you to have some. No stupid side cups or trying to smear a drop of sauce over a whole half-pound patty. This is a burger you can just pick up and eat – and it might surprise you how often I get burgers I cannot just pick up and eat.
And you know what? I think it looks fabulous.
The California burger comes wearing a blanket of American cheese, juicy tomatoes, and big leaf of lettuce you could just about fan yourself with. It’s juicy, bites nice, and it’s just a cool-ass cheeseburger. A good California burgers makes you hold it and think, “This is so f*cking cool,” and the Bear’s Den Cali does that. Think about the Lions Tap double Cali, or the last time you had an In-n-Out Burger on the West Coast. It’s kind of like that. Speaking of which, should they ever start replicating the In-n-Out special sauce (which has been done!) at the Bear’s Den, I’ll lose my damn mind.
They’ve got a burger called All Jacked Up, that features pepperjack cheese and an egg, but their other offerings are pretty simple: a mushroom and Swiss, a classic straight-up cheeseburger, and a bacon cheese. The menu is rounded out by sandwiches, pizzas, and appetizers. They don’t offer chili dogs.
The Bear’s Den is spacious and clean. There’s a 756-pound stuffed bear in the front window, and a much smaller half-bear lunging through a side wall to attack you, but there isn’t much else to obsess over in there. There’s room for a two-piece band and their wacky props in one corner; a pool table stands comfortably in another corner with some arcade games. During the daytime, when I make pit stops between Duluth and Twin Cities Suburbia, there are usually only a couple folks bellied up to the bar. Around this time, you’ll have no trouble finding counter space to slam down your driving gloves, or an open barstool for a balled-up scarf. The sheen hasn’t worn off the bar counter yet. It shimmers like an ice-covered road.
Day says he tries to avoid being there too much; but, between he and Storebo, at least one has been there every time I’ve stopped in – and I’m there quite a bit, too. It’s just part of the drive now. I have “my spot” at the bar, right next to where the bear tracks lead if you follow them across the bar floor. I still can’t believe they have Modus Hoperandi on tap, and it’s $4.50 regular price! I have one of those, or maybe a Summit EPA, or maybe a cup of coffee. I have a cheeseburger, hungry or not; and I plow the French fries, hungry or not. Either way, my days on Highway 23 with an empty stomach are long gone.
Carly Storebo is far from done winning folks over. You can certainly count me in that number.