MEDORA, N.D. — On the north side of Medora, backed up against the buttes of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, you’ll find the Cowboy Cafe.

It’s a slice of history — a diner where you are surrounded by pictures of local ranchers, real cowboys and a few other peculiarities of Medora, such as Vern and Rita who I remember singing "Streets of Laredo" decades ago in campground at the other end of town, for what had to be the 300th time, even then.

On the menu, you’ll find what is claimed to be voted the best hot beef sandwich ($11) in North Dakota by USA Today. That raises quite a lot of questions, but that there is still such a thing as a hot beef sandwich anywhere in the country, never mind one recognized by the national press, is kind of comforting.

The hot beef sandwich ($11) at Cowboy Cafe. Eric Daeuber / Forum food critic
The hot beef sandwich ($11) at Cowboy Cafe. Eric Daeuber / Forum food critic

Still, it’s not the end of cuisine in Medora which, for me, and for a few days, reminded me of how far dining can go beyond just feeding us.

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For a couple of days, and not far from home, one can watch culinary changes come to accessible, post-COVID Medora and remind us that we will, one day, dine out again as a way of seeing and not just eating. Even on the menu of the Cowboy Cafe, clearly resistant to the winds of time, you can get a pretty good chicken sandwich on a pretzel bun with horseradish sauce ($11) — not that far from hot roast beef sandwich but far enough to know that the times are a-changing.

Only a few blocks away, because everything in Medora is only a few blocks away, you will find Theodore's Dining Room in what is supposed to be the historic Rough Rider Hotel, unrecognizable from either its original 1884 footprint or its duplicate built in 1962. And here is where the culinary misadventures of the Midwest meet real culinary art.

The interior of Theodore's Dining Room. Eric Daeuber / Forum food critic
The interior of Theodore's Dining Room. Eric Daeuber / Forum food critic

So, before you head out east in your pursuit of an indoor restaurant experience thinking you need a Michelin star to break back into in-person dining, try going west. You will find an osso bucco that swaps out the buffalo for veal, dressed with a nice red wine demi-glace and a touch of horseradish ($42).

Bison osso bucco at Theodore's Dining Room. Eric Daeuber / Forum food critic
Bison osso bucco at Theodore's Dining Room. Eric Daeuber / Forum food critic

And before you allow the seeming contradiction of adding horseradish to a French glaze, like you might to a chicken sandwich on a pretzel bun, keep in mind that, long before “fusion” was an upper crust word for mix-and-match, good cooks have used unique combinations of ingredients to say something about the world around them.

A drive through Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and the sight of magnificent bison making their way across the blue grama grass of an untouched prairie, will almost certainly add something of the “wild” to your osso bucco that you can’t get with veal.

Prime rib at Theodore's Dining Room in Medora, N.D. Eric Daeuber / Forum food critic
Prime rib at Theodore's Dining Room in Medora, N.D. Eric Daeuber / Forum food critic

The prime rib is also excellent ($36), but dining, as an experience, has something to offer in a place like Medora that you can’t find in other places — a bit of the myth that makes the west what it is. Yes, the pitchfork fondue is pretty fun, and Medora has more ice cream shops per capita than Fargo has breweries. But it can happen that there is something about a dish that says something about the land and people that gave rise to it. The osso bucco at Theodore’s Dining Room is such a dish.

That said, the cheesecake, made with fresh raspberries and Fruity Pebbles, doesn’t say much about Theodore Roosevelt’s character-building time in North Dakota, but it was pretty awesome. And equally impressive… the lobster bisque, which we can be pretty sure wasn’t made from local lobsters, still adds a touch of the urbane to the otherwise rustic.

Omelet and French toast at Farmhouse Cafe in Medora, N.D. Eric Daeuber / Forum food critic
Omelet and French toast at Farmhouse Cafe in Medora, N.D. Eric Daeuber / Forum food critic

Breakfast on your last day can be had at a number of coffee shops and diners, but the Farmhouse Cafe bridges one more gap between the modern and the historic with a very nicely put-together fresh fruit yogurt parfait ($7.50). Admittedly, it’s not a cowboy breakfast by itself, but, once again, you can opt for the bacon omelet ($11.50). Medora has, over the years, come to appreciate the variety of its own patrons.

The Farmhouse Cafe in Medora, N.D. Eric Daeuber / Forum food critic
The Farmhouse Cafe in Medora, N.D. Eric Daeuber / Forum food critic

Medora is not far away and it’s something you can’t find in downtown Minneapolis. It’s global in reach. Our server at Theodore's Dining Room was from Argentina, the buffalo are local, and the backdrop exists nowhere else in the world.

And the food is pretty good.

The Cowboy Cafe

Address: 215 Fourth St., Medora, N.D.

Hours: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Sunday

Phone: 701-623-4343

Theodore’s Dining Room

Address: 301 Third Ave., Medora, N.D.

Hours: 4:30-9 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday

Phone: 701-623-4444

Farmhouse Cafe

Address: 314 Pacific Ave., Medora, N.D.

Hours: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday

Phone: 701-623-3105

Eric Daeuber is an instructor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College. Readers can reach him at food@daeuber.com.