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
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
ENTREE RANGE: 7.99-9.99 ($2 deliver charge)
10 a.m.-11 p.m. daily
Sunday brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
PARKING: Street and ramp

Taco Libre in West St. Paul

the machete at Taco Libre
Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

The world of lucha libre is one of theatrics. In fact, this form of Mexican professional wrestling translates literally to “free fight” and is characterized by flashy face masks, stretchy metallic outfits, and circuslike aerial maneuvers. It’s thrilling! It’s got swagger. It follows, then, that a Mexican street taco joint called Taco Libre would ooze the same panache, and in a few cases, this fast-casual West St. Paul restaurant hits it just right.

Taco Libre mural
Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

Unlike many small, independently owned ethnic spots in the area, Taco Libre is a polished slice of another world, complete with colorful branding, a slogan, and an Instagram account. It’s big and bright and a bit reminiscent of a Chipotle, but splashed with lots of orange and red, shiny lucha masks, and tongue-in-cheek artistic flourishes. (See also: Bar Luchador in Minneapolis.)

The menu gives equal weight to tacos, tortas (sandwiches), and tamales, with combo-bowl and -plate options if you feel like mixing and matching. And in a serious nod to its clientele, Taco Libre includes four intriguing vegetarian options in its list of proteins (Ever heard of huitlacoche, aka Mexican truffle [or corn smut, to biologists]? It’s a fungus that springs from ears of corn and is known for its high protein content. However, the folks at Taco Libre told us it comes from pumpkin. A mystery for another visit!)

tacos and a tamal at Taco Libre
Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

Tacos ($2.75 each) are generous and arrive topped with chopped onions and cilantro (we craved even more). Try one filled with tinga de res, a smoky, saucy beef with a decent kick. We gave the tripe taco a shot based on a positive online review, even though we haven’t met an amazing tripe dish yet. Taco Libre’s didn’t change our minds–the meat still tasted muddy and bland. However, the kitchen did manage to crisp it up nicely, which transformed the off-putting texture. We were way more smitten with Taco Libre’s beautifully moist tamales ($3 each), and the rice bowl is a great value at $8, packed with black beans, cilantro rice, cotija cheese, salsas, and sauteed veggies.

the machete at Taco Libre
Brianna Stachowski / Heavy Table

But what really knocked us out? The Machete ($9, above). This is Taco Libre’s heavyweight champ, a javelinlike Man-vs.-Food-style taco that’s more than a foot long and best battled with a friend. Unlike the other menu items, this corn tortilla is made from scratch in the kitchen, and it arrives still warm and glistening from the fryer. It’s stuffed with melty Oaxaca cheese, lettuce, chunky salsa, your choice of protein, and cooling sour cream. Sure, the filling is a little Americanized, but it’s exactly what we wanted from such a giant taco — it was both savory and texturally interesting. The tortilla itself was especially stunning, with a tender crunch and a delightful toasted-corn flavor that held its own against the filling.

Sweet Potato Burrito at Tao Natural Foods in Uptown

John Garland / Heavy Table
John Garland / Heavy Table

Two factors have conspired to make Tao Natural Foods in Uptown a much more inviting dinner spot as of late: changes in both décor and weather. The renovation that closed Tao for a month and a half last winter turned a mismatched diner into a cozy cabin of wellness. And now, the return of cold weather completes the look. The large row of windows faces blustery Hennepin Avenue, while inside, candlelight dapples the reclaimed wood. If they replaced the apothecary shop with some snowshoes and mittens, you’d swear you were up in Ely.

For being such a longstanding institution, it’s a wonder that Tao seems to get lost in the Uptown food discussion. It doesn’t have the best sightline from the intersection and the signage could be a bit more pronounced. Maybe folks assume “Natural Foods” portends a meal of an unfrozen Morningstar Farms patty with wheatgrass to wash it down (though the bean burgers at Tao are scratch made, yes, you can get wheatgrass). Or maybe the new health-conscious eatery on the block is taking all the attention.

John Garland / Heavy Table
John Garland / Heavy Table

We’ve heard some folks in the neighborhood bristle about Tao’s pricing and, to a certain extent, we agree. That turkey sandwich feels slightly dear at $10.50, though not even as much as the grilled cheese does at $9. Then again, you can pay that much for a sandwich at plenty of places that don’t have Tao’s commitment to organic ingredients. And there are some good values to be had. Their massive quesadilla ($10.50) could easily be a meal for two with a side salad.

We think we’ve found the sweet spot on the menu. The sweet potato burrito ($9.50, above) is the meatiest meatless burrito you’re likely to get anywhere in town. Sweet potatoes and black beans get a quick stint on the griddle before being stuffed into a wheat tortilla. They’re held together by a gooey matrix of pepper jack cheese and Tao’s even excellent, rich, chunky guacamole. A drizzling of garlic-yogurt sauce completes the soulful plate with a welcome tang. It’s proof positive that your burrito can skip the barbacoa without sacrificing heartiness and depth of flavor. And make sure to get the house salad with the spectacular tahini-based “Goddess” dressing.

Learn more about this business in The Heavy Table’s Atlas of Ethical Eating and Drinking.

Tao Natural Foods
Uptown’s stalwart organic cafe

2200 Hennepin Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55405
Mon-Sat 8am-9pm
Sun 10am-8pm
RESERVATIONS: Yes, 5pm-close.
BAR: Beer and wine
ENTREE RANGE: $6.50-12

The Thai Tempeh Burger at Modern Times Cafe

The sidewalk sign at Modern Times Cafe in Minneapolis
Aaron Fenster / Heavy Table

Here is a loose handful of reasons why Modern Times Cafe is my favorite restaurant in Minneapolis: the handwritten menus printed on neon blue paper, their legitimately unpretentious but not at all bitter front of house, the sight of crust punks making small talk with their parents over brunch, and the wizard- and burger-themed sidewalk sign. But the one reason to rule them all? In this eater’s humble opinion, it’s their Thai Tempeh Burger ($6.50), a vegetarian (but not vegan!) soy burger that they make in house.

The dish, which Chef / Co-owner Dylan Alverson compares to a Thai fish cake, eschews the traditionally Tex-Mex bean burger formula for something a little more sprightly. It combines the flavor and textural beats of American Thai cuisine — that is, basil, cilantro, soy, cucumber, and hot pepper — with some quintessentially American packaging. Served deep-fried and on a traditional roll with basil veganaise, lettuce, red onion, and cucumber, the seemingly ragtag bunch of ingredients combines in a rhapsodic union that might even impress your Paleo friends.

Rather than fetishizing authenticity, Alverson’s approach to global flavor palettes is a more realistic, Kenny Shopsin-like philosophy. Shopsin, the chef and proprietor of Shopsin’s General Store in New York City, writes in his cookbook, “A lot of times when I name a dish for a certain country… it is not because the dish exists in that country, but because for me the dish has the telltales of that country’s cuisine.” As Shopsin describes it, his dishes “are one thing dressed up to look like another in a way that’s not really fooling anybody. They’re drag queen food.” Like some of the best drag queens, these dishes present an impressive aesthetic that is all their own.

Modern Times Cafe was kind enough to share their recipe with us.

Thai Tempeh Burger
Yields 10 burger patties

1 block of tempeh
½ bunch cilantro
½ bunch basil
2 tbsp minced garlic
½ red onion
5 jalapenos
8 oz. egg whites
3 c panko
¼ c tamari
1 ½ tsp salt

  1. Finely dice the cilantro, basil, red onion, and jalapenos.
  2. Crumble the tempeh and hand mix all ingredients (add egg whites last) in a bowl.
  3. Shape into loosely formed patties and deep fry until golden brown. Alternately, you can fry these in oil in a covered saute pan.
The Thai Tempeh Burger at Modern Times Cafe in Minneapolis
Aaron Fenster / Heavy Table

Modern Times Cafe, 3200 Chicago Ave S, Minneapolis, MN; 612.886.3882

Peppermint Candy Cake and Recipe Roundup

Horseradish mashed potatoes, peppermint candy cake, Szechuan carrot soup, and vegetarian black bean chili.

Going Vegetarian at 112 Eatery

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Out of the approximately 40 savory items on 112 Eatery‘s menu, seven are strictly vegetarian, while a few more are — let’s say — vegeflexible. We’ve singled out the restaurant before for its lack of kosher options. At first blush, the flesh-heavy menu might be overwhelming to a vegetarian — let alone a person who needs to stick to kosher or halal options — especially given the absence of any strictly meat-free entrees. And these days, one can hardly go out with a group of friends without a vegetarian hitching along. With nary a warning, we recently paid the Warehouse District staple a visit to see what they had to offer the meatless masses.

Once at 112, our server didn’t miss a beat, navigating the menu’s vegetarian and negotiable offerings for us as we munched on the restaurant’s customary candied almonds. His appetizer suggestions included: the lettuce salads [insert your beleaguered sighs here], ricotta with truffle honey, cauliflower fritters, fried padrón peppers, and Minnesota-grown sweet corn with miso and a soft-poached egg.

Our table of two opted to share the romaine salad with a Roquefort cheese dressing ($6), the corn ($8), and the peppers ($5) to start off. The salad was served already split: We each got a neat little canoe of Roquefort, minced parsley, and breadcrumbs. My dining partner and photographer remarked that the crispy bread crumbs were “a nice alternative to croutons,” which he tended to find unwieldy at times. It’s a really well-conceived salad; there must be something about the Warehouse District, as Black Sheep Pizza, Haute Dish, and Be’Wiched Deli also have some great ones on their menus.

Romaine and Roquefort at 112 Eatery
Aaron Fenster / Heavy Table

112’s corn with miso and a soft-poached egg tasted very fresh, and — at the possible risk of sounding like a total stoner — looked like sunshine on a plate. For this dish, chef de cuisine Dennis Leaf-Smith seems to have taken a page out of NYC chef David Chang’s book, quite literally: page 121, in fact. The dish, titled, “Corn with Miso Butter and Bacon,” is described in haiku form in Chang and NY Times writer Peter Meehan’s food magazine, Lucky Peach. It’s always a treat to find out that chefs are reading the same cookbooks as you are; it’s almost like spotting a celebrity on the street, except you get to eat it.

Corn with Miso and Soft-Poached Egg at 112 Eatery
Aaron Fenster / Heavy Table

At a mere $5, the fried padrón peppers make the perfect bar dish. Served with a wedge of lime and a cilantro-yogurt dipping sauce, the thumb-sized peppers were oftentimes sweeter than spicy. Though we were trying to save room for the next courses, we found ourselves snatching more from the plate. “Just one more!” “Last one!” “OK, this is it!” A plate of these and a beer would comprise the late-night snack of champions.

Cooking Up the Good Life: Creative Recipes for the Family Table

Cooking Up the Good Life
Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

If I ever need to feed a commune, this is a book I want by my side. The recipes in Cooking Up the Good Life: Creative Recipes for the Family Table pack in plenty of nutrition from inexpensive ingredients — and they do it in quantities that defy my definition of nuclear family and are starting to strain my freezer space.

Chef Jenny Breen and writer Susan Thurston, both Minnesotans, take the value of eating sustainably as their starting point; they assume the reader doesn’t need a lot of convincing to buy local vegetables in season and substitute beans and whole grains for animal protein. Thurston’s introduction interweaves the history of Minnesota’s local food movement with Breen’s own story. She cooked at the Seward Cafe for seven years before starting her own catering business and restaurant. (The book takes its title from her Good Life Catering.) Among roughly 140 recipes, perhaps a dozen involve dead animals, and most of the rest are vegan, as well. The ingredients, with a few exceptions, all grow here in the Upper Midwest.

The subtitle, “Creative Recipes for the Family Table,” comes into play in short tips for getting kids involved in the kitchen. Some of these may seem obvious to parents who are used to having little ones hanging around in the kitchen — kids can shape croquettes into patties or cut polenta with cookie cutters — but for cooks who are used to going it solo, these small encouragements that, yes, children can be safe and useful in an environment filled with knives and fire are certainly useful. (Other tips are just useless. “Kids love soup.” Hah! Let me introduce you to my children.)

Cornmeal-Walnut Shortbread
Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

As for the recipes, let’s have dessert first: The Cornmeal-Walnut Shortbread will definitely become part of my repertoire. (Especially for bake sales. While the recipe claims to make two dozen, it calls for a full pound of butter and I easily got 50 good-size shortbread cookies out of it.) These are grown-up treats, with the flavor of the cornmeal right at the forefront and very subtly sweet. I used a coarsely ground heirloom variety, but I imagine even the bright yellow stuff in the blue canister would make a sophisticated cookie and I plan to give it a try very soon.

Wild Rice Crackers
Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

I’m also definitely going to make the Wild Rice Crackers again. With whole wheat flour, cornmeal, and cooked wild rice, these are packed with flavor and fun to serve. Unfortunately, I had to modify the recipe to make it work. The instructions say to roll out the dough to ¼-inch thick and bake at 400 degrees. That’s a good way to make rubbery flatbread. But with the oven at 450 and the dough rolled out nearly paper thin, the crackers turned out crisp and delicious.


The Vegetarian Tasting Menu at HauteDish

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

On November 2nd, a little bird told us that HauteDish, Chef Landon Schoenefeld’s precocious toddler of a restaurant, would be starting to offer vegetarian prix fixe meals on Sunday evenings (along with a limited a la carte menu of their regular offerings for customers of more bloodthirsty predilections). Though this was a highly unexpected move for a restaurant whose logo is a cheerfully sectioned pig, it is a very welcome expansion of options for vegetarians, for whom the only options on the regular menu had been, up to this point, soup, salads, and the Med Plate appetizer.

When we inquired as to the impetus behind Chef Schoenefeld’s decision, we were told that he was inspired by a recent trip to New York City, where vegetarian tasting menus are apparently the Next Big Thing. A recent article in New York Magazine has already issued the brazen declaration that “vegetables are the new meat.” And it shows in the massive hype that hangs like a Los Angeles fog over Dirt Candy, the all-vegetarian restaurant helmed by Chef Amanda Cohen, whose menu features some of the best and most imaginative manipulations of plant matter in town. And Per Se, that frighteningly well-oiled machine of a restaurant, the steely Yankees to Cohen’s Bad News Bears aesthetic, routinely offers 12 vegetarian courses for the haute price of $275 per person.

Schoenefeld’s prix fixe menu, priced at an unbelievably affordable $30 per person, is at once familiar and perplexing; the result is uncanny, yet gratifying, like hearing an unexpectedly good rendition of a Fleetwood Mac song at a combination barbecue joint / karaoke bar. The crew at HauteDish means to prove that they can cook great vegetarian dishes, and their enthusiasm for the challenge shows. Like Cohen’s menu at Dirt Candy, HauteDish’s prix fixe is designed to showcase specific vegetables and fruits: mushroom, squash, beet, and apple. Generally, the dishes which included multiple treatments of the same ingredient fared better and garnered more obscene adulatory gestures than the others.

Aaron Fenster / Heavy Table

First was the mushroom dish. A tiny green flag of crispy fried sage hailed and welcomed us to a single serving of bruschetta topped with a hefty dollop of wild mushroom and cashew pate. It towered over a mushroom broth that tasted like the umami gods were urinating into our mouths. Roasted grapes and dehydrated tomatoes were cheerful spikes of sweetness and tang.

Veg-Giving and October 26 Tweet Rodeo

@FACESMearsPark invites you to the BOOs Crawl in Lowertown this weekend, @CommonRoots taps @SurlyBrewing Darkness at 5pm, @CakeEaterBakery plans a Halloween party prior to their reset to winter hours, @BetsyKroon seeks a vegetarian Thanksgiving night out (via @DeRushaEats), and, if you’re in Duluth, @Brewhouse1 has 1/2 price wine bottles all day — so drink off the cold!

BARS Bakery and September 13 Tweet Rodeo

Want a high-end veggie restaurant in the cities? Sound off to @YoungChef2, @BARSBakery (former Swede Hollow Cafe owner Sandi Younkin’s latest project) opens its doors, @FoxyFalafel dreams of owning a food truck, @SewardCoop offers fresh hen of the woods mushrooms for your cooking pleasure, and @DandelionKtchn posts their schedule for the week.