Our take on vegan analogues of meaty (and/or dairylike) foods is firm and unwavering: If they taste good, more power to them, even if they’re not a one-for-one for the original item. Vegan cheese generally seems to fall short of the real deal; we don’t have time for it. But vegan meat (like the stuff made at The Herbivorous Butcher) is often good or downright delicious in the right context. And there are enough good veggie burgers out there (Fitger’s leaps to mind, although that’s merely vegetarian) that we’re always happy to give them a shot.
So we were intrigued by all the positive buzz about the Big Mac-ish Dirty Secret ($15) at the recently opened J. Selby’s in St. Paul — two falafel-esque “beaf” patties from The Herbivorous Butcher, onions, lettuce, three slices of sesame seed bun, pickles, vegan mayo (which we quite like, particularly with the menu’s excellent Buffalo wing-ish batter-fried cauliflower florets), vegan American cheese (sigh), all stacked up in a jumbo-sized, meatless approximation of the perennial best-seller at McDonald’s.
This faux Big Mac works. It really, really works. Now, if you closed your eyes and took a bite, there’d be absolutely no chance you’d mistake it for an actual Big Mac. It’s missing the fatty richness of ground beef, and the additionally unctuous gift of legit special sauce, and the plasticlike binding power of American cheese. But there are elements in common: that doppelganger of a bun, which seems to have arrived at J. Selby’s on the back of a McDonald’s truck, and the pickles, which play together with the bun in a way that triggers some strong McMemories. And while the vegan cheese lacks the chewy richness of dairy-based American cheese, and the nicely seasoned and spiced patties are closer to falafel in terms of dryness and texture, everything works well together. The sandwich has a compelling savory depth and a nice balance of bun to “meat” to veggies that puts a lot of flavor into every bite.
Value is the question. While most of J. Selby’s sandwiches are $10, the Dirty Secret is $15, which would be expensive (although not unheard of) for a traditional gourmet hamburger just about anywhere. (It’s worth noting that tip’s included, and you do receive a side, so it’s not as brutal as it looks on paper.)
Our stance is that this particular burger — with a clean, balanced flavor and no horrible post-burger meat hangover — is better than more than 50 percent of its meaty competitors, particularly when you take into account all the depressingly lame $15-$20 burgers at hotel and chain restaurants around the metro. But if your opinion is that your $15 is better spent at Parlour or buying three fancy little burgers at Constantine, or, hell, three Big Macs, that’s a legitimate stance. At $10, the Dirty Secret would be an unmitigated success story, but even as it is, it’s a nice option to have in a town full of compelling burger-related choices.
J. Selby’s, 169 N Victoria St, St. Paul; 651.222.3263
Each Friday, this list will track five of the best things Heavy Table’s writers, editors, and photographers have recently bitten or sipped. Have a suggestion for the Hot Five? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Hot Five is a weekly feature created by the Heavy Table and supported by Shepherd Song Farm.
Grilled Surume Squid at Sushi Fix
This entree size “starter” is gorgeous and delicious. Marinated in ginger soy, the expertly grilled squid is slightly sweet and salty — and not the least bit chewy. Pro-tip: Request extra fresh lemon because the citrusy acid cranks the dish up a few more notches.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Joshua Page]
Oatmeal at Colossal Cafe
Oatmeal is the sort of thing you don’t think about until it hits you like a thunderbolt. There’s a tremendous difference between good, lovingly prepared steel-cut oatmeal and the mushy, characterless instant variety that is the dominant local format for this classic breakfast staple. The oatmeal at Colossal Cafe is perfectly cooked — chewy but tender — and a great receptacle for any of the many add-ins offered on the menu (for my money, you can’t beat brown sugar and raisins, but to each their own). There’s nothing sexy about it, but it’s one of the tastiest (and best priced) restaurant breakfasts in town.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by James Norton]
Grilled Pork Banh Mi at Lu’s Sandwiches
This is one of our favorite renditions of the classic banh mi in a town full of good ones. The fillings are balanced, with pickled veg offsetting the rich flavors of pork and pate, and a house-made mayo tying everything together. The bread has some chew and is robust enough to carry its contents without being leathery (as is sadly sometimes the case with these sandwiches, particularly when they’ve sat around for a while).
[Last Week on the Hot Five: #1 | Submitted by James Norton]
House-made Limeade at the Old Town Coffee Saloon
The house-made limeade at the Old Town Coffee Saloon in Jordan will wake you right up. It’s light on sugar and heavy on fresh lime juice, and has a sprig of mint to tease you. Yes, this is pretty acidic and spicy, but great if you love the true flavor of lime (and I do), and it will definitely cool you off on a hot day.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Amy Rea]
Green Bee‘s Power Shot
Green Bee Juicery’s Power Shot will knock you on your butt, so be prepared. It’s a fresh, condensed dose of ginger, lemon, honey, and cayenne. We sipped first, then realized what we were getting into, then slammed the remainder of the little powerhouse drink. If you need a pick-me-up in the morning, reach for one of these. Yowza! $3 for the 2-ounce bottle.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Brenda Johnson]
They are really going for it at the new, Erik-Anderson-and-Jamie-Malone-powered Grand Cafe. In terms of technique, ingredients, presentation, and overall ambition, the dishes coming out of the kitchen at the new Grand can stand up to anything in town.
At a recent meal, we encountered hits (plentiful) and near misses (a few), and a couple of dishes so good that we’d have them again tonight, given the chance. One was a bourbon baba that commanded the ravenous attention of everyone at the table. The other was the Chicken Jambonette ($6).
Put crudely, think of the best meatball you’ve ever eaten, wrapped in a crispy, crunchy, deep-fried exterior. This is one of the dishes that lives or dies based on execution. Ruin the fry job or the seasoning or the texture of the chopped chicken and ham, or even the thickness of the exterior, and you bring the whole dish down to mediocre. But the version we ate was impeccable, no edits possible — lovely seasoning and herbal kick; an even, delicate texture that still possessed some rustic charm; a crispy, crackly exterior that wasn’t too tough or thick and clung firmly to its interior. The Savora condiment that accompanied the dish had its own herbal depth and possessed a gentle heat. This is a subtle, crafty mustard, not an acrid blunderbuss.
When you see the Chicken Jambonette on the menu, order it. Maybe order one per diner. It’s a lot of fun to taste a dish that seems so simple while it delivers such a tremendously fun blast of flavor and texture.
Grand Cafe, 3804 Grand Ave S, Minneapolis; 612.822.8260
Today in the Toast: A taste of Duluth including the newly opened Hoops Brewing and Blacklist Artisan Ales, plus Fair State in Minneapolis.
When head brewer Dave Hoops (below) left Fitger’s Brewhouse in Duluth in the fall of 2015, his enormous fan base immediately asked what he would do next. As a major figure in the Minnesota beer scene — among the ranks of Summit Brewing’s Mark Stutrud, Schell’s Ted Marti, and Surly’s Omar Ansari — Hoops wasn’t likely to keep quiet for long. Indeed, his next project was soon announced, but drinkers had to wait until this summer to experience it.
The brewery incorporates Hoops’ extensive brewing experience as well as his knowledge of the North Shore market. His head brewer, Melissa Rainville, also comes from Fitger’s, and the two operate a 15-barrel system. The large brewery occupies the former Timber Lodge Steakhouse space and showcases a shared bar that also acts as a low wall between the taproom and the full-service bar (a separate business called The Slip). This allows those enjoying liquor to join their beer-drinking comrades.
The space doesn’t scream North Woods, but there is a decidedly classic feel, with rich wood nearly everywhere. The brew house is illuminated by green lighting, as is the cooler behind the bar. The warm lights, along with the visible stainless steel, add a modern twist. Natural light permeates nicely.
The current beer offerings are classic, with a few multiples (three pale ales, for example). Nearly a dozen beers were available on tap, and a separate merchandise and to-go beer checkout echoes the model at Fitger’s. The taps are numbered with bold type reminiscent of that at The Freehouse in the North Loop. Table service was terribly rough during one visit but fair during another. We often found ourselves going to the bar for beer despite the full-service model.
Of the two wheat beers, one was pleasant and universally appealing. The No. 17 Summer Wheat ($4.50 for 10 ounces) is moderate in alcohol at about 5.6 percent ABV. The aroma contains spicy phenols with a bright citrus presence. It’s full and soft at first sip, and stays very broad on the tongue. The finish is light, however, placing it in the easy drinking, crowd pleasing department.
The No. 5050 Hefeweizen (5.4 percent alcohol by volume, $4.50 for 10 ounces) is heavier overall, missing the mark for its style. The aroma has a strong canned-pear note and the flavor is phenolic, but not in a desirable way. It ventures into plasticlike territory. It is perfectly carbonated and lacks excessive residual sweetness, though. This was the least appealing beer of the otherwise successful offerings.
The No. 21 IPA was a beer that left us in complete awe. It is rare that an unassuming IPA with no specialty ingredients, creative brewing technique, or even a name can stand out in a market saturated with hoppy beer. The strong aroma is resinlike and herbaceous, an indicator of the brewing prowess behind the recipe. At 7.5 percent ABV, the crisp Pilsnerlike malt remains present with a sustained moderate bitterness. As each taste finishes with tangerine and marmalade, the roundness of flavor and texture fulfills its design ($4.50 for 10 ounces).
Hoops Brewing, 325 S Lake Ave, Duluth, MN 55802; 218.606.1666
Blacklist Artisan Ales Taproom
Once a producer of bombers only, Blacklist Artisan Ales now boasts some serious new digs in downtown Duluth. The location — in the former (and infamous) Last Place on Earth storefront on Superior Street — will draw visitors and natives alike to an area that is slowly being revitalized.
Blacklist beers have been available in the Twin Cities for a few years, and brewer Brian Schanzenbach has been using a warehouse as a production-only space since debuting in 2012. The model has entirely changed, though, as the new facility has allowed for an immense increase in production and distribution. Blacklist signed a distribution agreement with Clear River Beverage Company and also started canning as a result of the move.
Visitors to the taproom can expect good service in an inviting environment. The narrow but long space was stripped down to the bricks, which remain exposed in many areas. Natural-wood benches line the walls, and pennies are used as tiles behind the bar. The stage at the front of the taproom creates a good balance between music venue and brewery so that neither feels like an afterthought.
We’d heard rumors that there was a new Indian place in Chaska that defied suburban stereotypes, so of course we had to check it out. And we’ll be the first to admit we viewed its location with skepticism; it’s part of a morass of short strip malls curled around each other, with the restaurant in the same strip as a Sprint store, H&R Block, and Beadville USA, with SuperTarget, Cub Foods, and The Home Depot all looming on the outside rings.
Fortunately, India Bar and Grill outshines its location. From its soothing, tasteful interior to its friendly staff to its thoughtfully prepared food, it’s a welcome addition to the western suburbs.
As an appetizer, we tried the Gobi Manchurian ($10, above center), a hearty portion of fried battered cauliflower in a chili sauce. The cauliflower still retained some crunchiness, and the sauce was tear-inducing — in a good way. Instead of dumbing down the sauce, the restaurant went full-scale hot, something we don’t often see in Indian or Asian restaurants outside the central metro, and we salute them for it.
The Butter Chicken ($15) was every bit the decadent comfort food it should be. The chicken was tender and juicy, the tomato sauce velvety and rich with a subtle subtext of seasonings that was mild, yet flavorful.
The Goat Kadai ($17) had a more assertive, earthy sauce that was thick and rich, with a minimally hot aftertaste. The goat itself was cooked beautifully, not tough or stringy, and full of flavor that was more akin to pot roast than anything gamy. A Mango Lassi ($4) was creamy and lightly sweet and was a perfect counterpart to the robust dishes. Note for vegans: India Bar and Grill has several options that don’t involve animal products.
Even something as simple as Garlic Naan ($3) was special. The bread was airy and puffy, generously seasoned with garlic and cilantro, and wonderfully crisped on the bottom. It’s worth noting that the eatery has daily buffets, but those who choose the buffet will also get cooked-to-order naan, rather than bread sitting under a heat lamp.
If you’re venturing into the western suburbs, brave the clump of strip malls to check out this gem.
India Bar and Grill
Indian food and drink
162 Pioneer Trail
Chaska, MN 55318
Daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
BAR: Beer and wine
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $7-$23
NOISE LEVEL: Peaceful