The Dirty Secret at J. Selby’s in St. Paul

James Norton / Heavy Table

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

Eating Vegan at Hard Times Cafe

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

When The Herbivorous Butcher opened earlier this year, it was to great acclaim and applause for its vegan offerings. But there’s another place that’s been serving up vegan foods for years, and we decided to check out some of its offerings. While Herbivorous Butcher sells meat and cheese substitutes to be prepared at home, the Minneapolis West Bank stalwart Hard Times Cafe sells vegan (and vegetarian) entrees and baked goods to be eaten on site.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

The first thing to know is that Hard Times Cafe, as befits its name, is quite a bargain. A half order of the eatery’s Vegan Biscuits and Gravy is just $3.25, with a full order at $5.25. The half order was a sizable plate, full to the rims with a surprisingly flaky, tender biscuit covered in mushroom gravy. It took a couple of bites for the sausage-gravy fan at the table to come to grips with the lack of sausage, but once she was past that, everyone agreed it was tasty, and had a generous amount of mushrooms and pepper, and a good solid gravy feel.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

The Vegan Helter Skelter (half order $6.75, full order $9.25) was also a bargain. The half order was a dinner plate’s worth of beautifully sauteed fresh vegetables over a bed of minutely shredded hashbrowns, served with corn tortillas. It was lovely to look at and a godsend for people who want a healthy meal. But, puzzlingly, other than the flavor of the vegetables themselves, there was no discernible seasoning, not even salt or pepper. Some fresh herbs along with salt and pepper would have made such a difference. Hard Times has a counter full of condiments and hot sauces you can add to taste, but it would have been nice to have some of the flavor cooked in.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Baked goods were more consistent. A Vegan Cinnamon-Sugar Cake Donut ($2) was a bit overcooked, with burned bits on the outside, but it was still moist inside and had a good cinnamon flavor. The true winner was the Vegan Mexican Chocolate Snickerdoodle ($1.50, above), a luxurious cookie that was slightly lighter than a regular snickerdoodle. Not only did it have a good texture and rich chocolate flavor, but it had a sustained spicy aftertaste that was satisfying and complex. We’d happily buy these anytime, vegan or not.

We finished off the meal with a nonvegan option: the Arabic Coffee ($2.50). This is served in a tiny portion, and that’s fine; the coffee is intense, rich, and full of flavor, with cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg, along with the honey that offsets those stronger flavors but keeps the coffee from being fully vegan. You could ask for it without honey and substitute sugar instead, but go with a small amount so you don’t drown the full flavor experience.

But note: Hard Times expects to be paid in cash, not plastic.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Hard Times Cafe
Restaurant on the U of M’s West Bank

1821 Riverside Ave, Minneapolis
612.341.9261
BAR: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $3-$10
NOISE LEVEL: Varies
HOURS:
Daily 6 a.m.-4 a.m.
PARKING: Metered street parking, paid lot

The Veggie Taco at Taco Cat in Midtown Global Market

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

In December, Taco Cat moved from its shared space in Kitchen in the Market to a stall of its own (#118) just down the easterly wall of Midtown Global Market. The taco and burrito company used to be a delivery- and evenings-only proposition. Now a person craving a taco can get one (or ten) delivered by bicycle or over the counter for lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch. This is a very good thing. We have developed a pretty significant fixation on the Veggie Taco ($8 for 3), and find ourselves strolling up to the Taco Cat stall on a regular basis.

The Veggie taco is a marvel of texture and flavor: a double layer of corn tortilla filled to yawning with tender black beans, lush crema, crumbles of salty cotija cheese, and then the bright corn pico, radish, and cilantro. There are a few crunchy fried corn tortilla strips in there, too, and a charred salsa rojo that heats up the center of the tongue but doesn’t burn the lips off. But the thing that makes it super tasty, the thing we want to wallow in, is the rich smoky-sweetness below it all, pulling the taco together.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

We asked Jordan Shiveley, Taco Cat’s executive chef, where that base note comes from. It’s the braising sauce for the beans, loosely described as smoked chipotle morita, ancho, guajillo, and Oaxacan pasilla chiles pureed together with roasted garlic, caramelized onions, and tamari sauce. “I really dislike the idea of a vegetarian or vegan special that’s just one of the meat tacos with the meat taken out,” he says. “The veggie ingredients should be just as thoughtful, if not more, as what we put into our meat tacos.”

That thoughtfulness comes through in a taco that is beautifully balanced — and satisfying. Three of these guys will do it.

And if we are completely at our taco-eating leisure, we like to pair it with a Belgian ale at Eastlake Brewery and Tavern (stall #119), where the folks don’t mind outside food and will sometimes even serenade us, singing over 1970s rock operas.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Taco Cat
Tacos and burritos in Midtown Global Market

920 E Lake St #118, Minneapolis
612.723.5388
BAR: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: 7.99-9.99 ($2 deliver charge)
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
HOURS:
10 a.m.-11 p.m. daily
Sunday brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
PARKING: Street and ramp

Heavy Table Hot Five: Jan. 29-Feb. 4

hotfive-flames

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 editor@heavytable.com.

shepherd-song-banner-ad-horiz-3The Hot Five is a weekly feature created by the Heavy Table and supported by Shepherd Song Farm.

shepherd-song-green-keyline

James Norton / Heavy Table
James Norton / Heavy Table

1-new - oneBarrel-Aged Silhouette Imperial Stout from Lift Bridge Brewery
It was a surprise to encounter one of the world’s best fruitcakes in liquid form, but that’s exactly what happened when we tried this year’s edition of the bourbon-barrel-aged imperial stout known as Silhouette. The monks of the Holy Transfiguration Skete on Lake Superior’s Keweenaw Peninsula make a confection called Abbey Cake, a dense, molasses-based, bourbon-soaked, dried-fruit-studded wonder that lasts just about forever when wrapped in cheesecloth and sealed in plastic, and it always tastes like a rich, funky dream. Silhouette takes many of those flavors (notably the molasses and dried fruit, plus the pleasantly boozy kick of bourbon) and translates them into a drinkable, 10 percent ABV dream. Best served approaching room temperature so all those lovely cocoa and spice notes express themselves fully.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by James Norton]

Amy Rea / Heavy Table
Amy Rea / Heavy Table

2-new - two Pizza Verde at Bricks Neapolitan Pizza
The Pizza Verde at Hudson’s Bricks Pizza is a great combination of salty prosciutto, peppery arugula, a bright tomato sauce, and a slightly sweet cheese, all atop a crispy-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside crust.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Amy Rea]

Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table
Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

3-new - threeThe Sundae at Milkjam Creamery
At Milkjam Creamery, newly opened by Sameh Wadi and team next to World Street Kitchen, you could have a scoop of mezcal and fig ice cream. Or black (“nothing but 100 percent cocoa in there”) or caramelized breakfast cereal. Or you could stop guessing what you want and let the chef behind the counter do it for you. Our chef’s choice sundae started with a scoop of Milkjam’s signature flavor (containing caramelized goat cheese and condensed milk) on a lemon bar, with a sweet-savory coulis and curried peanuts.
[Last Week on the Hot Five: #1 | Submitted by Tricia Cornell]

Paige Latham / Heavy Table
Paige Latham / Heavy Table

4-new fourMacarons at A l’Epi de Blé
The North Kildonan neighborhood of Winnipeg is home to one of the most authentic French bakeries in the entire province, A l’Epi de Blé. Try the Parisian-style macarons in flavors ranging from the familiar green pistache, to the unusual, such as poire (pear). As a bonus, the owner will happily chat in French if cued, and staff is keenly knowledgeable.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Paige Latham]

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

5-new -five Citrus Poppy Seed Olive Oil Cookie From the Seward Co-op Friendship Store
This was not a typical vegan lemon poppy seed cookie. Its interior was moist and chewy, the edges had a lovely crunch, and the delicate lemony flavor with a slight crunch of poppyseed was followed by a subtle slickness (from the olive oil) that made me yearn for more after each bite.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Brenda Johnson]

A Taste of Three Vegan ‘Meats’ from The Herbivorous Butcher

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

There has been no end of hype and hoopla surrounding the Jan. 23 grand opening of the Herbivorous Butcher vegan “meat” shop in Northeast Minneapolis — everyone from the BBC to NPR to the New York Times has weighed in on the effort. That said, the excitement makes perfect sense. The brother-sister team of Kale and Aubry Walch are pushing boundaries with their products — which are designed to powerfully evoke their meaty namesakes without using animal-derived ingredients — and they’ve received some positive and buzzy word of mouth in the process.

We considered profiling the Herbivorous Butcher’s sibling team, but we’d be one of a long line of outlets to take that approach. Instead, we tucked into an array of three faux meats sent our way by the shop: Pastrami ($15 a pound), Korean Short Ribs ($12 a pound), and Porterhouse Steaks ($12 a pound).

We, as confirmed omnivores, found all three to be exceptional pieces of work. Forged from the likes of vital wheat gluten, nutritional yeast, tomato paste, and other prosaic ingredients, the meats depend for their success on the strength and balance of their seasonings. These are fine tuned to a degree that the meats vividly evoke their namesakes without coming off as imitations (or mockeries) thereof.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The pastrami was flavored with such skill that except for a somewhat less unctuous mouthfeel, it was nearly indistinguishable from the real thing when served on rye bread with mustard. The expression “cut the mustard” most certainly doesn’t originate from the idea that a flavor has to be strong and true to stand up to mustard’s potency. That’s a shame, because it would be nice to say that this vegan pastrami cuts the mustard in both meanings of the phrase. Well, we’ve said it anyway, so there you have it.

The Vegan Salsicce Pizza at Pizza Nea

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Vegan meat. That term might as well be the definition of the word oxymoron.

And yet, it’s exactly what you’ll find topping a few new pies at Northeast Minneapolis’ Pizza Nea, purveyor of wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizzas. Recently, Pizza Nea began offering simulacrums of traditionally animal-sourced toppings like pepperoni, sausage, and ham from the brother-and-sister team behind The Herbivorous Butcher, a vegan butcher shop slated to open in Northeast this fall.

All too often, meat-like products fail in their attempt to mimic the real deal, leading us to wonder why anyone would bother at all; veggies themselves can be so delicious without having to play meat charades — and require far less work to manufacture. So skeptical yet hopeful, we ordered one of our favorites pies from Nea — the Salsicce — with vegan meat. The Salsicce ($12.50, either vegan or regular) is defined by spicy Italian sausage, with roasted red peppers, mozzarella, and fresh basil along for the ride, so we felt it’d make a good test case. We’ve eaten it many, many times. So how did the version with the Herbivorous Butcher sausage (made from vital wheat gluten, vegetable broth, pinto beans, nutritional yeast, sun-dried tomatoes, and other flavorings and ingredients) hold up?

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Really well, it turns out. In appearance, we wouldn’t have been able to ID this pie as meat-free. But the proof is in the pizza, and after our first bite, we were impressed — in both texture and rich umami flavor, the meat-free-meat evoked pork. The only thing lacking was the characteristic rich fatiness of real sausage, which might be a plus if you want a “cleaner” meat flavor. Overall, the Herbivorous Butcher product delivered what we love most about a good Italian sausage — strong fennel and garlic flavor, with plenty of red pepper flake kick.

So we say to you, vegans and the vegan-curious alike, fear not the not-meat. We look forward to trying the pepperoni and ham variants, and also to the opening of the Herbivorous Butcher, if this is indeed a fair hint of what they have up their cholesterol-free sleeves.

(Pizza Nea, 306 E Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis, 612.331.9298)

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Broiled Trout and Morels in Cream and Recipe Roundup

Kebab pizza, mango tapioca, broiled trout and morels in cream, vegan walnut pecan pate, cannellini chowder with shallot chips and chili oil, cinnamon streusel muffins.

The Banh Mi Breakfast Sandwich and Recipe Roundup

Girl Scout-esque chocolate mint cookies, minestrone soup (and once again: “Minestrone” by Fujiya & Miyagi), beer-cooked spaghetti squash, wasabi snack mix, the banh mi breakfast sandwich, creamy tomato pasta bake, l.c. finn’s roasted pears, and vegan chocolate Bundt cake.

Dark Molasses Cake and Recipe Roundup

Wisconsin mascarpone chocolate blackberry witch stockings, dark molasses cake, granola for a Minnesota winter, and vegan breakfast cookies.

Bee Free Honee

Jill Lewis / Heavy Table

Honey without bees? That seems as implausible as the time when I was 16 and my Israeli host parents offered me “ice cream without milk,” which totally blew my mind until they finally handed me the container from the freezer and I realized they just didn’t know how to say “sorbet” in English. But yes, there is a locally made sweetener that offers the sticky, oozy, candy-like sunshine of bee-made honey without involving a single insect. Bee Free Honee, a happy accident created by Minnesota native and former baker Katie Sanchez, harnesses the sugary goodness of apples to make a vegan-friendly sweetener that’s a close-but-not-quite replica of the real deal.

The daughter of a beekeeper who grew up on an orchard, Sanchez became a pastry chef who worked at D’Amico Cucina before moving onto an all-natural bakehouse in St. Paul. After a flawed attempt at making apple jelly one day, she noticed that she had in fact created a honey-like substance that could be used as a substitute for other vegan sweeteners. Years of experimentation helped Sanchez perfect the recipe without having to add chemical or gum ingredients, and by finding a cooperative of Midwestern orchards to provide the apples and a McGregor, MN, winery that allowed her to manufacture her product on site, she was able to take her honee to local co-ops and grocery stores.

On its own, the Bee Free Honee tastes remarkably similar to the bee-derived sweetener, but when sampled alongside real honey, the honee’s true apple flavor shines. Its sharp sweetness is quite powerful and can overwhelm the palate. The one-note sweetness of the honee stands out compared to the multi-tonality of a traditional clover honey, which has a floral quality that offers a variety of harmonious flavors. Paired with another sweet food, the honee might take the sugary sensation to 11, so it’s a better match for more bitter or spicy accompaniments. If you use it as a substitute for honey in baking, you may want to decrease the suggested amount on the first go-around to make sure you taste more than just honee.

So while I’ll probably stick with the familiar honey in a bear-shaped bottle as the dip for apples or pears, the Bee Free Honee will find its place on my table for drizzling on strong blue cheeses or a hearty slice of multi-grain toast. It may not echo every note in honey’s flavor rainbow, but honee admirably does its part in making your plate a little sweeter.

Bee Free Honee is available at several metro co-ops, Lunds / Byerly’s, Whole Foods, Surdyk’s, The Golden Fig, and Coastal Seafoods, among others.

 

Transatlantique Kriek Caramel Rolls and Recipe Roundup

Salmon fajitas, chile puree, vegan thin mints, Transatlantique Kriek caramel rolls, and cucumber and strawberry quinoa salad.

Vegan Baking Tips from Cake Eater Bakery’s Emily Moore Harris

Emily Harris of Cake Eater Bakery in South Minneapolis
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Editor’s Note: Cake Eater Bakery is now closed.

Cake Eater Bakery, located in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood, has undergone some major changes since its opening one year ago. The departure of co-owner and chief baker Sheela Namakkal for Chicago’s Bleeding Heart Bakery at the beginning of the year meant that partner Emily Moore Harris has moved from the back office to the kitchen, bringing new recipes and shifting the bakery’s focus from cupcakes to brunch and a wider variety of baked goods. But there’s one constant that Cake Eater fans can count on — the availability of vegan pastries.

“We try to have something for everybody, so that’s where we come in with the vegan treats. And everyone has an allergy today — especially kids. It breaks my heart when a little kid comes in and there’s nothing they can eat. There’s nothing sadder than a sad kid in a bakery!” Harris says. “I try to have a vegan scone or muffin and a vegan cupcake every day. We usually have a vegan soup every day, and we have bagels [from St. Paul Bagelry], which are vegan. We try to have enough in there for the vegans because a lot of people in the neighborhood are vegan.”

Vegan Baking Cake Eater Bakery
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

A former vegan turned “vegan sympathizer,” Harris takes the kitchen skills she’s honed since she first started cooking at age 14 to create dairy- and egg-free muffins, scones, and cupcakes that mimic the flavor and texture of treats made with animal-derived ingredients. When made with alternative ingredients that retain the level of moisture found in traditional batters or doughs, vegan baked goods have the power to make believers out of people who shudder when the “V” word is mentioned.

“I think a lot of people approach food with this ‘Oh God, gross, vegan!’ attitude. I think they don’t understand what ‘vegan’ really means. It just means there are no animal products in it — it’s not just tofu. There’s a stigma that people who don’t have a lot of exposure to that world will have,” Harris says. “The last two muffins in the bakery will be vegan and people will say, ‘I can’t eat a vegan muffin.’ You usually can’t tell the difference!”

As a baker who typically uses non-vegan recipes as the basis for experimentation, Harris developed several techniques that would help home bakers convert their favorite traditional recipes into vegan treats. Though some trial and error can be expected when adjusting recipes, Harris offers three tips to help speed the process:

1. Beware of excess moisture when using vegan substitutes.

Though soy, almond, or rice milk can often be substituted for cow’s milk on a one-to-one ratio, many egg replacers — such as Ener-G powder or ground flaxseed mixed with water — result in a more liquidy batter or dough. Oil, the most obvious fat alternative to butter, also changes the balance of wet and dry ingredients.

“It’s easy to make vegan batters or dough too wet – the replacement items are often wetter than the original ingredients,” Harris says. “Eggs become just a part of the sugar. But if you put egg replacer in the sugar, you’ll get slime. It turns into something really, really great, but you have to think, ‘Maybe I’ll put [in] a tablespoon more flour and a titch more baking soda.'”