When Wisconsin’s fourth Norske Nook opened in downtown DeForest 18 months ago, the restaurant and bakery was already famous for its Norwegian food and American favorites at its three locations in northern Wisconsin. Known for lefse wraps, Norwegian pancakes, and homemade pies, the owners of the newest location hoped that locals would embrace their dream. They needn’t have worried.
“On opening day, we seated and served more than 1,300 people and sold 1,380 preordered whole pies,” says co-owner Cindee Borton-Parker. “And it didn’t slow down. For the first six weeks we were open, I don’t think we ever locked the doors. By the time the night crew was leaving, the morning crew was coming in to bake pies. We worked around the clock.”
Today, the DeForest Norske Nook continues to be one of the most popular places in town, with customers trekking from all over southern Wisconsin to order Norwegian pancakes for breakfast, lefse wraps and hot roast beef sandwiches at lunch, and a Wisconsin Reuben for dinner. But no matter the time of day, everybody orders pie. More than 70 types of pie—45 of them national blue-ribbon winners—are available year-round, with seasonal favorites sprinkled throughout the summer.
While the Norske Nook has many a claim to fame, one of its all-time favorites is fresh strawberry pie. The seasonal, signature dish debuts on or around Mother’s Day and lasts only until fresh strawberry season is over. Norske Nook strawberry pies could win awards as works of art, and each pie weighs eight pounds. Yes, eight pounds. One piece of pie can be a meal in itself.
“I think everyone has their own favorite flavor of pie, and so often it relates to the kind of pies their grandmas made or a flavor that brings back a childhood memory,” Cindee says. “For me, it’s our Chocolate Mint pie because my dad and I, when he was alive, used to sit and eat Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies. Eating that pie brings back that memory. I know it’s that way with so many people because they share those stories with us.”
Pie, as with all comfort food, has a way of bringing people together. The restaurant is a popular destination for family gatherings and holidays, but is also steadily busy during the week because of popular daily lunch and dinner specials. Dishes, such as slow-roasted pot roast, stuffed cabbage rolls, and Norwegian meatballs, bring in regular diners. One of the most popular menu items is the lefse wrap, served at breakfast with scrambled eggs and ham, sausage, or steak with cheese and hash browns, and for lunch and dinner with chicken, salmon, bacon, or beef with a variety of ingredients.
“Lefse is very labor intensive to make,” Cindee says. “That’s why many families only serve it at holidays. It’s basically a tortilla made from potatoes instead of corn, and we serve ours every day, all day.”
Also made every day: nearly every item on the menu. Roasts are slow cooked overnight. Potatoes are peeled and mashed by hand. Pancakes are made from scratch, not from a mix out of a box. Every soup and chili is made using original recipes. Pies are made daily, with crusts rolled out and crimped by hand. And fillings are mixed according to recipes, with nothing ever coming from a can.
Even the Reuben sandwich is made from corned beef brisket cut from a slow-cooked roast, not deli meat that you might find elsewhere. In fact, Cindee is particularly proud of the Reuben, as the restaurant puts their own spin on the American classic by serving it on cranberry wild rice bread (or traditional pumpernickel) with traditional Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island dressing on the side.
“Comfort food is what makes the Norske Nook special,” Cindee says. “When people eat here, they often say it tastes like home.”
That’s because almost all of the dishes are made using recipes dating back to the original restaurant’s opening in Osseo in 1973. In fact, what is today four restaurants bearing the Norske Nook name began as one small café in Osseo owned by Helen Myhre. The café was purchased by Jerry Bechard nearly three decades ago. He would go on to add locations in Rice Lake and Hayward while remodeling and expanding the Osseo restaurant. The DeForest restaurant is co-owned by Jerry, along with Cindee, Kim Hanson, and Kaye Rhody, all longtime employees with more than 60 years invested with the company.
Each Norske Nook restaurant is located in the heart of the city, and DeForest is no exception. “You’ll notice that we didn’t build on the edge of town next to the interstate, where we could have had more visibility,” Cindee says. “That’s because we’re committed to being part of a community, and the best way to do that is to build right downtown. We are so pleased that DeForest has welcomed and enveloped us with open arms.”
Jeanne Carpenter is a cheese geek and food writer living in Oregon, Wisconsin.