PHOTOGRAPHS BY KARIIM CHARLIER / HEAVY TABLE EXCEPT FOR OWNER PORTRAIT BY JEANNE LAKSO / HEAVY TABLE
This story originally ran in the Tap, a newsletter supported by our Patreon subscribers. Back us on Patreon to support local food journalism and receive the Tap, Hearth, Churn, and Tulip and Schooner newsletters every week.
With nearly fifty years of fine-dining experience between them, ALT-BuRGEr owner Martina Priadka and chef/operator Derik Moran (below) have the skills to take a single recipe and turn it into a fun, welcoming place to get a sandwich and some killer sides. That’s what they’ve done in the former Sheridan Room/Modern Cafe in Northeast Minneapolis. ALT-BuRGEr has the feel of a club you want to belong to. If First Avenue had invested more creativity into the Depot Tavern, it might have been half as cool as this. A near life-sized poster of Iggy Pop takes pride of place in the black-and-red painted room, and Austin cowpunk and ‘80s rock is on the sound system behind the bar. Moran notes that the artwork on the walls is all by staff and neighbors (with the exception of one sweet piece by his daughter).
Moran insists the art-forward atmosphere is not just a nod to the neighborhood. “We’re all ex-music scene people or artists. A lot of our employees are in bands. I played rock drums and trumpet in high school, and after that, art has always been my thing. Some of the art is from people who work here, some from neighbors, some by me. The photo of Iggy Pop is a nod to the old Nick and Eddie’s (the early 2000s Loring Park bistro where Priadka and Moran’s professional paths first crossed).”
And the “alt” in the restaurant name reflects more than the music and art. It stands for “All Love This Burger.” ALT-BuRGEr’s menu showcases Moran’s unique plant-based burgers that are actually made from plants: a blend of legumes, ancient grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables, herbs, and mysterious umami flavor. While the burgers are vegetarian and the staff is more than adequately conversant in vegan, gluten-free and meat-free dining, the restaurant’s menu includes plenty of cheese, eggs, and dairy in the mix, so it’s not a vegan joint. Moran, whose refined bistro-style cooking has gained him fans, is not relying on heavily-processed soy or vegetable derivatives pressed into wing-like or cutlet shapes.
“Don’t hide the product!” Moran insists. “There’s a lot of times in fine dining where people over-process something. We’re not trying to recreate meat. We’re trying to create something that represents protein on the plate, using grains and vegetables. And I’ve always had a lot of vegetarian sides on my [previous restaurant] menus.”
Priadka expands, “Any menu of Derik’s, if you didn’t order one of the meat dishes, you really didn’t miss anything; you didn’t think ‘oh, I ate a vegetarian meal.’ You just enjoyed it. It’s good food that tastes delicious. That’s what we’re looking for: quality, farm-to-table food that tastes good.”
‘HERE FOR EVERYONE’
So where did this impetus come from, for a trained sommelier and hospitality ace and a highly skilled fine dining chef versed in the intricacies of traditional French bistro cuisine to open a vegetarian sandwich shop?
“I’m someone who creates business plans, puts them in a file, and thinks maybe someday, that’s a concept I’d want to open,” Moran says. “After COVID, it got really tough working for other people. Nobody wanted to hire high-level employees or pay us what we were used to getting paid. So it was either this or move on with my life and do something else. This concept made a lot of sense for the climate we’re in, with cost of goods rising daily, meat prices, and cost of labor going up. We wanted to create something where we could mitigate a lot of those factors but still do something unique. This has been a passion project for us for some time; we’ve been talking about a vegetarian restaurant for almost ten years.”
Priadka clarifies. “Since I was in my early twenties, I’ve wanted a restaurant that didn’t have meat but wasn’t a vegetarian restaurant. Back then ‘vegetarian’ was kind of a negative word and it would stereotype you in a way that…well, it still does, but back then it was very different. Could you have a [meatless] restaurant where people didn’t miss anything? That’s what this is. We’re not trying to replace [meat] with anything.”
Moran adds. “We’re here for everyone, and it just happens to be vegetarian. I’ve worked with dozens of farmers, so I have access to great produce. I have a wealth of knowledge and technique, so it’s easier for us to transform ingredients into something delicious and vegetarian. It’s not just putting quinoa in a bowl. And there’s also the health benefits. A lot of alternative proteins are way more beneficial to your body than animal protein, more easily absorbed. From a nutritional standpoint, it’s easier to digest, lighter on your body: you just get more benefit from the food.”
The ALT signature meatless blend shines in an assortment of smash burgers served on toasted brioche buns, with condiments ranging from just cheese (the “Plain” ALT-BuRGEr) to a fig, thyme mayo, and gruyere-topped F.O. ALT-BuRGEr. You can also order it sauced into a sloppy Joe, served on a skewer with gyro spices, and in a walking taco.
If those are not what you’re craving, there’s a Twin Town Hot featuring fried seitan (a hot chicken sandwich-a-like). Moran uses the naturally savory/umami flavor of mushrooms in an appetizer pate that’s used in the vegetarian banh mi with pickled veggies and crispy tofu. The concentrated flavors of roasted mushrooms star on the Whiz Boomer, a meatless Philly cheese steak sauced with house-made cheese whiz made from real aged cheddar.
Attention to realness and quality pervades the menu, which includes an array of appealing sides, like seasonal salads, broccolini served with Parmesan cream and Calabrian chiles, and stuffed poblano peppers. There’s a bowl of nixtamalized Carolina Sea Island red peas, sourced from Anson Mills and treated like the very nicest baked beans, laced with molasses and smoked cabbage.
Moran and Priadka’s desire to appeal to all dietary persuasions includes picky kids, too. There’s a mac and cheese made with that cheddar whiz, ranch-seasoned fries served with a side of ranch dressing, tomato soup with oyster crackers, and what’s reputed to be a killer grilled cheese to go with that soup, as well as fresh-daily cookies.
Moran is a long-time supporter of pay equity, fair wages, and a healthy work environment, which he and Priadka are committed to at ALT-BuRGEr. “The prices are all-inclusive. People have to keep that in mind; we’re a no-tipping establishment. We’re paying our employees a fair wage with this no-tipping model; I’ve been a huge proponent of that forever. A lot of us worked together in our previous jobs, and it was the same there [equitable pay], so we’d already adjusted to that model. We’re doing this for the greater good and for what we believe in, which could be a bigger thing down the road.”
He continues, “Pre-COVID, I could make $100K a year, charge someone $45 for a steak, and they could pay $112 for a meal. That’s not happening so much now. I wanted to create something that had the perceived value, but in a way where we could still break even or do okay with it. It’s a balance between value, profitability, and meeting your margins, right? And making sure the boat floats. We’re not in this to sink.”
SO, HOW’S THE FOOD?
On my initial visit, I tried the California-style ALT-BuRGEr ($14), decked out with lettuce, American cheese, tomato, onion, special sauce, and pickles, like a born-again Big Mac, and the NE Altburger ($14), a nod to Northeast’s heritage with a topper of Swiss cheese, a mild beet sauerkraut, and creme fraiche. The chickpea-based patties were crisp-edged, with a satisfyingly nutty, grainy texture and a sufficiently meaty flavor, spiked with herbs, breadcrumbs, and (guessing here) mushrooms. Both are beautifully constructed sandwiches. Moran’s attention to detail shows in the demi-sec tomato on the ALT-BuRGEr. The slightly dried tomato prevents the bun from deconstructing and concentrates the tomato flavor.
The restaurant’s Banh Mi ($13) suffered a bit from a lack of fish sauce funk that the pickled vegetables didn’t quite cover, but the crispy tofu provides a toothsome foil to the mushroom pate. Crinkle-cut Yucca Frita ($10) were a hit with the table: crave-makingly crispy, with a squirt of lime, a sprinkle of cilantro, and swipe of habanero mayo.
Asked what to expect at ALT-BuRGEr going forward, Priadka says, “Derik’s been known for his bistro dishes, but had to stick with that traditional French concept. Here we’re not just into French food; we’re not in the Italian lane or Mediterranean. We plan to have fun and play around with the food and a multitude of world flavors. Derik’s handmade pastas are amazing, and they will be on a future menu.”
“I always want people to be surprised,” she continues. “If I talk to someone about ALT-BuRGEr, I say it’s farm-to-table food made by someone with experience in bistro cuisine, but in a fun fast-casual atmosphere. And then I let them discover it for themselves.”
ALT-BuRGEr, 337 13th Avenue Northeast, Minneapolis, 612-564-4999, MON-SUN 11am-11pm.