The thing about dinner is you need to eat it seven days a week. Or six. Or at least five. And if you’re feeding a family, the urgency and repetition of the need are all the more oppressive. “Really? You’re hungry again? Didn’t I just feed you yesterday?”
Daily dinner can be a grind. It’s not all project cooking and steaks on the grill and Instagrammable vegetable tableaus. It’s making sure everyone gets their stomachs filled with something reasonably healthy and fast in between work and ballet and doggie obedience lessons and filling Grandma’s prescriptions and collapsing in front of Netflix. “Protein? Check. Vegetable? Check. Organic? Ah, hell, I’ll check that box next time.”
So, where can you get a fast meal that you would feel good about cooking at home —were you to have the time and inclination to do so?
Agra Culture wants to fill that niche for you. Preferably if money isn’t a huge concern.
Two locations opened within the past month, one in Uptown and a larger one on the Minneapolis side of 50th and France. And, if anyone is willing to take me up on the bet, I would place money on more locations popping up soon.
Aaron Switz is the CEO of Agra Culture and a dad of young kids who knows what it means to face the daily dinner grind. (You can thank him for your kids’ — or your own — addiction to frozen yogurt. He’s part of the team behind Yogurt Lab, which went from one location to 10 in just a couple years.)
He says he took his inspiration from the small “healthy fast casual” chains popping up on the coasts, places like Sweet Green in the Northeast and Tender Greens in California. They were created for people who want food fast, but not fast food; i.e., less processed, more local, more organic, heavier on the veggies and protein, light on the carbs, and, oh yeah, classier, too.
Switz took the classy counter service inspiration from the coasts, along with the healthy eating, but he knew that in the Minnesota market, he’d need to take the menu beyond salads. (No matter where you’re buying the lettuce from, how many takers will there be for cold salads during the next polar vortex?) So he brought on Tim Scott, who was the executive dining director at Macy’s for two decades, Diana Bassett, who has worked with Giada de Laurentiis, and a couple of nutritionists.
“The food we eat [in America] is really poisoning us. Working with nutritionists has made me passionate about this,” Switz says. “[At Agra Culture] we make everything from scratch, all our sauces, all our dressings, everything. There’s literally nothing bad in there.” All of their juices are 100 percent organic, and they purchase the “dirty dozen” organic as well. Switz says he’s working with suppliers to buy local when possible.
That is going to go over very well with the food-conscious crowd in the Southwest metro, as will the restaurant’s comfortable, upscale vibe. They’ve nailed the farmhouse chic trend. With weathered wood, industrial-chic lighting, tractor seats at the bar, picnic tables, and deep, wooden booths, it feels exactly like 2014 in here.
The menu is right, too. You can choose from a dozen salads and a half dozen sandwiches, but the core of the menu is like a Southern meat-and-three: Pick a protein (beef, salmon, tofu, etc.). Pick a sauce (tzatziki, pesto, romesco, etc.). Then add sides a la carte (broccolini, sweet potatoes, rice, etc.). It’s exactly the way you probably put together a meal at home. The kitchen sautes your meat, tosses it in the sauce, and puts together a nice hot plate for you. You can even order meals family style. What’s more, this place is staffed to the gills, so your food comes out almost instantly.
On our first visit to Agra Culture, there were a fair number of disappointments: sandwiches that were cut from the tiny heel end of a loaf of bread; tough meat; sad, dry sweet potato wedges; thin, wan salad dressings; flavorless pickles. To be honest, it was rough.
But I was rooting for Agra Culture. It is such a promising space, and I saw signs of promise in the tender, wowee-hot bits of chicken on the Sriracha Chicken Salad.
Indeed, things were looking way up on subsequent visits. We can recommend a perfectly seared, and very generous, piece of tuna on the Nicoise salad ($15); a banh mi (American-style, minus the liver pate) that would have been excellent on a more crackly baguette ($9.5); a big bowl of truffle-y mushrooms; a surprising herby grapefruit salad; and a bright, tart Thai Greens Juice with celery, kale, pineapple, cilantro, and lime ($8) that almost convinced a juicing skeptic that there was some point to liquid vegetables.
The prices, as you can see, aren’t everyday prices for every family, but the food is, as are the atmosphere and the philosophy.
And, that’s what Switz and his team are going for. “Everything we do is something I want to serve my family and my kids on a regular basis.”
Healthy fast casual in Uptown and at 50th and France
2939 Girard Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55408
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No / No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $8–15
PARKING: Street parking