Looking for chislic? Tiger meat? Meridian Corner in Freeman has you covered
Restaurant at junction of US 81 and US 18 now more than a decade into second incarnation
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in the Battle of the Eats 2022 series, which features stories on favorite small-town restaurants as voted upon by Mitchell Republic readers. The series will appear Saturdays through Aug. 27 this summer.
FREEMAN, S.D. — You’re never quite sure what kind of vehicles you’ll see in the parking lot of Meridian Corner.
Along with the typical commuter cars and trucks, it’s not unusual to see a row of custom motorcycles, a semi tractor-trailer or two, commercial construction vehicles and even tractors and combines.
Abby Streyle, manager of the restaurant located at the junction of US Highway 81 and US Highway 18, about eight miles each from Menno to the west and Freeman to the north, said the mishmash of different vehicle styles reflects the diverse clientele of the establishment, ranging from farmers at harvest time to tourists traveling through the state.
“Part of the charm is that we’re very farmer-oriented. If you’re working in a field and you have mud on your boots, come in and get lunch. No one is going to say anything,” Streyle told the Mitchell Republic in an interview. “If you have to drive your tractor in, absolutely do it. We have enough parking for semis and tractors and combines. If you’re hungry and want something quick and are working in the field, you’re more than welcome.”
Whatever vehicle they arrive in, customers will find a menu and history just as diverse.
The building Meridian Corner calls home began its life as a gas and service station in the 1920s. It served the area in that capacity until 1981, when it was converted by new ownership to a restaurant and reestablished the original name of Meridian Corner.
That owner, Paul Svartoien, and his wife ran the operation until 1989, when they closed up shop to retire and travel more.
Then, in May of 2011, Paul’s son Roland and his wife Jean reopened the establishment, kicking off a second life that has seen the area mainstay return to its popular status as a beloved highway eatery that many different communities consider as part of their own.
“We get customers from all over,” Streyle said. “Menno and Freeman, obviously, but then a lot of people come from Irene. A lot of people come up from Viborg and Scotland. We have a really good crowd from Marion that comes over. And with where we’re located we get a lot of tourists coming through and wondering what chislic is and what tiger meat is. It’s interesting and we get to meet a lot of people that way.”
The restaurant is open seven days a week, with hours of 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. That leaves plenty of time for regulars and visitors alike a chance to sample the menu, which is loaded with gourmet burgers, steaks, dinner combos, specialty salads and soups. They offer lunch specials on items like hot beef and broasted chicken.
And it's homemade fare. They hand-patty their own burgers, bread their own gizzards and make their own fry bread for Indian tacos. They cut their own steaks.
“We have the things that grandma used to make but she didn’t share the recipe,” Streyle said.
The restaurant is also a known outpost for several local delicacies, perhaps the most famous of which is chislic. The popular dish is traditionally made of cubed mutton or lamb served in a kabob style. Out-of-state travelers sometimes stop just to find out what the odd-sounding dish is.
“We have a lot of people ask, ‘What is chislic?’ so they stop in, and we explain the difference between mutton and lamb,” Streyle said. “Mutton is an older sheep and has a little more fat on it, and the lamb is a younger sheep, and it’s a little more tender.”
While the definition of chislic has expanded over the years to include many other types of meat, Meridian Corner usually serves mutton or lamb, though they have offered other kinds on a limited basis. They source their mutton from Kaylor Locker, and they stick it themselves, making it another handmade item.
Meridian Corner has made a name for itself partly on its chislic and has even become an advocate for it on the national level. The restaurant has participated in several Flavored Nation events, where restaurants from all 50 states converge to prepare a well-known dish from their home state. It’s been a great chance to spread the word and even pick up a few ideas for their own menu, Streyle said. Freeman itself is home to the annual Freeman Chislic Festival.
Then there’s tiger meat, a dish with a misleading name. It’s actually ground beef, mixed with onions and spices, cured and served raw with crackers. It’s another item Meridian Corner makes themselves. That makes it unique, as no two tiger meat recipes are exactly the same.
“It’s a cutesy name. I was told it was called tiger meat because it’s what you’d feed your pet tiger. Every tiger meat is a little bit different, so if people have tried it and don’t like it, come and try ours because it’s all so different,” Streyle said.
Fleisch kuchele, another popular local dish that consists of a deep-fried dough pocket filled with hamburger, also graces the menu.
Of course, the steaks and burgers are also popular. The menu features a dozen different burger selections, with many named after family members of the ownership. The Marceen’s Chili burger features Roland’s mother’s chili recipe, along with shredded cheese and chopped onion.
Family has always played a big part in the atmosphere at Meridian Corner.
“We’re very blessed because we have a great staff. Most have been here for multiple years, and we’ve all known each other long enough that everyone says that working here is like working with family. It is really a lot like family, or we grew up together,” Streyle said.
That feeling extends to the customers, as well, some of whom go beyond just enjoying dinner when they visit.
“Our customers are awesome and very loyal,” Streyle said. “We have regulars that come in every day and we are really thankful for those guys. We have a great base that keeps coming back. And if we’re swamped, some of them will come up and start helping.”
And new customers are discovering the spot all the time. Even some former customers who remember the place from its first restaurant incarnation have stopped to say they didn’t realize the establishment was back open. The word continues to spread, even after 11 years of being back in business.
There have been some small ups and downs. COVID-19 put a hitch in the works for a time, but customers still showed up. They utilized the drive-up window that still graces the west side of the building, which was more convenient than carrying food out through the front door for both customers and staff.
And they’re still working on improvements to the operation. A kitchen expansion is in the works, because it’s difficult to have too much room in a commercial kitchen, Streyle said.
There appears to be long life ahead for the roadside restaurant that has a Freeman address, a Menno telephone prefix and customers from about every small town in the area, along with travelers making their way along Highway 81 and Highway 18.
Streyle said they plan to keep it that way. The staff loves welcoming regulars and newcomers alike, and are always ready to help someone satisfy their curiosity, be it a burger or that odd concoction called tiger meat.
“We’d love to have them because we love meeting new people,” Streyle said. “And there is a lot on the menu. If you see the menu — it’s big. There’s something for everyone on there.”