River City Eatery: Where Pigs Fly and Eating is Easy
Mari Harries, chef/owner
Mari Harries didn’t call her full-service restaurant a “restaurant,” choosing instead to name it River City Eatery.
In her mind, a restaurant has certain expectations put upon it, but an eatery: “Eateries don’t color inside the lines,” she says.
Harries is someone who doesn’t color inside the lines either. For one thing she has strawberry pink hair and her signature dish is Sin Pie. Plus, a second-hand store with vintage clothing and knickknacks like old pieces of luggage cleverly made into Bluetooth-enabled speakers is wedged between the main dining area and the community room. Each table has a different set of kitschy salt-and-pepper shakers, and miraculously customers don’t walk out with them in their purses.
It’s a bit ironic that Harries' dream brought her full circle. When Harries left Windom, a small farming/manufacturing town in southwestern Minnesota, for college, she never pictured herself moving home. “I don’t know what it is about this town that just sucks me in each time,” she says. And although it’s hard to claim you’re a city girl when you live in a town of 5,000, she does “live in the city limits,” she says tongue in cheek.
She moved to Milwaukee for college—“that was as far as my parents would let me go,” she says—but transferred to Winona State to be closer to her family after her grandfather, who she adored, died. Her senior year of college was when she started on her quest to open her own restaurant.
The fact that she doesn’t have formal culinary training—her father, a Danish immigrant taught her to cook—didn’t stop her from wanting to open her own restaurant. “It was like a beast inside me that needed to get out,” she says. “It’s all I could think about.” She started approaching banks right out of college. Unfortunately, all they could see was a young women with no business or restaurant experience. Not at all what she saw in the mirror.
In between knocking on banks’ doors, she worked for Prom Catering, got married and had a baby. With her husband’s support and a loan from her parents, she was able to convince the banks she was loan worthy. “My son was a year old when we signed the papers,” she says. “I always joke that I married my husband for his collateral.”
Her son, who is now 8, took his first steps at the restaurant and learned to ride a bike in the front room.
“My best memories are around the table, the conversations, good food,” she says. That’s the setting she’s created at River City. She sees the restaurant as a connector for people, which is why the community room has become a gathering spot for groups in town.
For her shared recipe, Harries chose Roasted Red Pepper Bisque. “We’re known for our soups,” she says. “Soup here is not an afterthought.” While soups traditionally are important to Minnesotans, she says her philosophy is to keep it simple. The peppers are roasted in house; ingredients are fresh.
The Sin Pie is a cross between cheesecake and pie, but a “fluffier, gooier cheesecake” that comes in flavors like pumpkin and maple bacon. That’s a recipe she won’t share, she says, smiling.
While River City is known for its Minnesota comfort foods with a twist, Harries is about to embark on another culinary adventure when she opens her second restaurant, The Danish Table, in Elk Horn, Iowa, three hours south of Windom.
The opportunity came about when she read that the author of the Danish cookbook her mother used the whole time Harries was growing up was speaking in Elk Horn, a Danish-American community. Her mother had just passed away and that cookbook took on a new relevancy. She asked her father to take a note to the author and see if he would autograph the memory-filled book.
Once she was on his radar, the author and his partners checked out her restaurant and convinced Harries and her husband, Andy, to visit Elk Horn. The visions match and in addition to the autograph, Harries got an offer to be his operating partner in a restaurant he planned to open there to replace the Danish restaurant that had closed. The menu will feature open-faced sandwiches and other Danish favorites, dishes she learned to cook from her parents and from visiting family in Denmark over the years. The prospect of having two “eateries” isn’t daunting. “I’m a dreamer,” she said.
As a reminder of how far she's come, there’s a multi-colored tin pig with wings greeting diners as they enter, and a pair of winged silver pigs hang in the dining room. Both are not so subtle nods to a multitude of bankers’ sentiment about her chances of opening a restaurant on her own. The fact that it’s open and successful is a testament to her fortitude and talent, not an affirmation that pigs really can fly.
“Everyone said I couldn’t do it,” the soon-to-be two-unit restaurateur says, with just a touch of self-righteousness. “I love what I do. I was put on earth to do this.”
River City Eatery Roasted Red Pepper Bisque
Serving size: 8-10 cups
In a medium to large saucepan, combine:
4 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp minced garlic
1/4 cup chopped yellow onion
Sauté. Add 3 1/2 Tbsp flour until fully mixed with ingredients above.
Slowly add 4 cups milk while whisking on medium heat until mixture starts to thicken.
Add 1 cup roasted red peppers*
Place soup base and roasted red peppers in blender and blend until smooth.
Return to saucepan and add salt and pepper to taste.
Optional Roasted Corn Salsa for garnish:
2 Tbsp butter
1/2 Cup corn
1/8 cup of chopped green onions
1/8 cup of chopped red onion
Salt & Pepper
Broil for a couple of minutes
*You can buy roasted red peppers from grocery store or roast your own with olive oil, sea salt and broiling for about 10-15 minutes until soft and charred.