By Jason DeRusha

MENDOTA HEIGHTS, Minn. (WCCO) — It is hard to overstate how big a risk it was in 2010 to open a chef-driven restaurant, focused on local sustainable produce and proteins, in a strip mall in the southern suburbs of St. Paul.

“There was this idea in the beginning that we wanted to break that suburban mold,” said Ann Ulrich, who along with her husband and chef Robert, opened Mendoberri Café and Wine Bar in Mendota Heights.

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Nearly a decade later, it continues to thrive. “In one way it’s gone by in a flash, in another it’s been a long haul,” she laughed.

Chef Robert Ulrich spent his life traveling the world, cooking at four-star restaurants, hotels, and cruise ships. But like so many now Minnesotans, love brought him closer to his wife’s hometown, and brought them to their dream of opening Mendoberri.

“It’s a little mix of Austrian and Minnesota nice,” Bob Ulrich said.

The name is also a mash-up, “Mendo” for Mendota Heights, “berri” for the grapes that populate the wine bar component. The culinary ambition was lofty.

“We just wanted to break that mold that people don’t want healthy food or something that’s more chef-driven,” Ann Ulrich said.

At first Mendoberri was going to be counter-service for both lunch and dinner, but customers told the Ulriches that they wanted a more traditional restaurant experience for dinner. After all, there were no other chef-driven, locally-owned restaurants in their suburb.

“We listened to what the customers wanted,” Robert Ulrich said.

The menu today is a combination of comfort and healthy. Salads with locally-sourced produce and cheese are all over the menu, as are healthy grain bowls. But the restaurant also uses its pizza oven to create fresh flatbreads, and to toast sandwiches.

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“We wanted to bring in local growers and farmers. Obviously this is a movement that’s been going for quite some time now,” Robert said. “The first woman I met, Lisa from Hidden String Farm out of Elgin. I went to her farm and knocked on her door and said, this is who I am.”

The chef’s German and Austrian heritage creeps into some of the dishes; his strudel is legendary.

“It’s basically a pastry filled with apples, along with clove and other spices,” he said.

The dinner menu has a chicken schnitzel with Viennese-style potato salad, and some German favorites show up as specials. “Last week we did some cabbage rolls, very simple things, and people say ‘When are you gonna do it again?'” he said.

But the pulse of this restaurant is local food, served with love for their local community, nearly 10 years.

“We really wanted to create a place that we wanted to go to with our kids, and we have,” Ann said.

The success of the restaurant is leading the couple to open another restaurant in a nearby suburb, West St. Paul. This won’t be another Mendoberri, rather it will focus on burgers, sandwiches and craft beer. Listening to their guests, creating memories and quality food for the suburbs.

“I wouldn’t change anything,” Robert Ulrich said.

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Mendoberri Café & Wine Bar
730 Main Street, Mendota Heights
Open Monday-Saturday;
Lunch 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.; Dinner 4 p.m. – 8 p.m.

Jason DeRusha