Plants: It’s What’s For Dinner

Vegetables on the cutting board // Photo by Wing Ta

Vegetables on the cutting board // Photo by Wing Ta

A new crop of vegans and vegetarian food purveyors are progressing a scene started by pioneering restaurants

For many local carnivores, the thought of even entering a vegan or vegetarian restaurant is frightening. Why would they want to spend their money on quinoa when there are so many great meats out there? While there truly are quinoa bowls aplenty, they hardly tell the whole story of meatless eating in the Twin Cities.

The concept of going out to a restaurant has historically centered on a destination protein: classic American restaurants are places like the steakhouse, the lobster palace, and the burger joint. Plant-based dining has often struggled to upend that assumption and replace the protein void with a positive of their own. It’s hard to sell a restaurant for its lack of “something.”

For Brenda Langton, co-owner of Spoonriver and a leader in the Twin Cities’ vegetarian scene for nearly four decades, making vegetarian food began as a political act—a way to “fight the industrialization of food and farming.” Those feelings, she says, “came out of the early ‘70s with the hippies” and it’s that association that initially allowed Brenda, and other purveyors of vegan and vegetarian food, to thrive.

“I consider myself an educator. I teach customers all the time,” Brenda says. She’s a firm believer in brown rice and unpeeled potatoes, and says that “if you do order meat at the restaurant, it is going to come with three or four other beautiful vegetable dishes.” These are all ways to get the nutrients your body needs, while still enjoying well-crafted food.

Much like Spoonriver, Birchwood Cafe is not an exclusively vegetarian restaurant. But for Tracy Singleton of Birchwood, vegetarian fare is a natural outgrowth of a community-focused restaurant. She’s always intended Birchwood “to be a community hub and to have something for everyone” where, as she puts it, “meat plays a role, but it’s not the star.”

This philosophy is less about promoting plant-based eating than it is about promoting knowledge of locally-sourced food in general. “We hope to highlight the connection” and show “that our food choices do matter,” she says. For example, Birchwood has served different types of fish since its beginning, but has reduced its selection to one: walleye from Red Lake, Minnesota. And when someone orders walleye, it comes with seasonal vegetables from local farms.

A Spoonriver Vegan special, Soba Noodles and Vegetables // Photo courtesy Spoon River

A Spoonriver Vegan special, Soba Noodles and Vegetables // Photo courtesy Spoon River

With these missions, Spoonriver and Birchwood have helped diners face the fact that eating, something you do every day, is not just about improving your personal health, but the health of your community and food system as well. In doing so, they’ve helped move our local conception of plant-focused eating past the cliches of sparse salads and ascetic grain bowls into something more broad-reaching, with more mainstream appeal and opportunity to innovate.

Following their lead, new establishments are ripe to join the cause and forge new ground. Because, generally speaking, plant-eating still has a ways to go on the culinary front. Even Langton agrees with the naysayers that “it’s boring out there” in the vegetarian restaurant scene.

Aubry and Kale Walch, sibling owners of The Herbivorous Butcher, said they noticed a “hole in the market and our stomachs” and have established a strong wholesale contingent to their meat-substitute business. They provide a wide range of “meats,” from steaks to brats and corned beef—all completely free of animal products—to many restaurants, both local and national.

One of its customers is Parkway Pizza, which prides itself on being a neighborhood destination. Sam Nestingen, owner of Parkway Pizza, said he used to feel he couldn’t accommodate as many customers as he would have liked, trying for a few years to provide vegan cheese and mock duck, but their supply chain was limited and inconsistent. Now, with help from The Herbivorous Butcher, and others, they can provide improved meat substitutes from a local source. Sam is glad to say to vegans, “you’re coming in here and you get your own menu,” so they no longer “have to explain that cheese isn’t vegan.”

But supply levels aren’t the only thing changing in the vegan marketplace. The products themselves have shifted. The food at J. Selby’s in St. Paul, for example, hardly resembles the vegan food that Birchwood and Spoonriver provide.

J. Selby's on Victoria and Selby avenues in St. Paul // Photo by Sam Ziegler

J. Selby's "Dirty Secret" // Photo by Sam Ziegler

Above: J. Selby’s on Victoria and Selby avenues in St. Paul; Below: J. Selby’s “Dirty Secret” // Photos by Sam Ziegler

Instead of the more traditional vegetarian burgers, made from grains, beans, and vegetables, J. Selby’s makes products from soy and vital wheat gluten, among other ingredients. As a result, their food is closer in texture to the meat most consumers are used to, hoping to help people bridge the gap from meat-centric diets to purely vegan ones.

“Everybody has to eat,” explains Matt Clayton, the man behind J. Selby’s, “so if you start feeding them food that actually tastes pretty good, and kind of looks and tastes pretty familiar to what they already know, that seems like a better way to at least start moving that discussion forward.”

Some newer restaurants are accomplishing that familiarity even without fully relying on the new-and-improved meat alternatives. Fig + Farro, a fully vegetarian restaurant in Uptown’s Calhoun Square, offers plates from cultures that are traditionally less focused on meat eating, and that derive flavor more from acid and spice. Their North African shakshuka is a heartwarming tomato-based stew with poached egg and feta cheese, best scooped up by their homemade pita bread. Same goes for their “Daal Makhani,” a rendition of the hearty lentil and red kidney bean Punjabi classic.

Regardless of tactic, one thing that the new crop of vegan and vegetarian purveyors shares is a concern over how what we eat impacts the environment. These restaurants agree that working together is the best way to further their missions. Singleton, in spite of not being as vegan-centric as the newer restaurants, supports “anything that will incite people to stop and think about what they’re eating” in the restaurant business. These leaders feel progress is a real possibility. Nestingen says the vegan community is “only going to grow,” while Clayton says, “If a new place opens, they’re going to be just as busy.”

In fact, 2018 has already seen a flurry of local announcements about plant-based restaurateurs making moves. Eureka Compass Vegan Food is joining forces with Evan’s Organic Eatery to make that St. Paul skyway spot 100 percent vegan, while Eureka’s old location on Aldine Avenue will become a vegan pizzeria. The Walches are debuting The Herbivorous Butcher food truck this summer around the same time as Reverie Cafe + Bar’s new truck, while Reverie is currently searching for a new brick and mortar location.

Whatever comes next for vegan and vegetarian restaurants may well look very different than what’s already out there. After all, who 20 years ago could have envisioned a Twin Cities enamored with Korean “short ribs” made from wheat gluten? But regardless of what it looks or tastes like, it won’t just be about healthy eating. It will be next in a long tradition of improving individuals, communities, and the world through food.