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.
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.
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.
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.
Hard Times Cafe
Restaurant on the U of M’s West Bank
1821 Riverside Ave, Minneapolis
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $3-$10
NOISE LEVEL: Varies
Daily 6 a.m.-4 a.m.
PARKING: Metered street parking, paid lot