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.
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.
We stir-fried our vegan Korean short ribs with garlic, ginger, hoisin, and two kinds of soy sauce (one conventional, one smoked) and put them in a rice bowl along with similarly stir-fried peas, a bit of kimchi, and a poached egg. The result was one of the better rice bowls we’ve made in recent years, the protein uniformly clean and light in texture and rich with sweet, tart, and nutty (think sesame) flavors. The ease of preparation and consistency of the protein means that we will go back for more of this delightful stuff just for stir-fry and rice bowl use.
We included the porterhouse steak in a simple pan-fried steak and eggs breakfast. Here, the earthy, smoked-onion umami of the protein nicely complemented the salty richness of the fried eggs. We should add that the steak was at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the Korean short ribs and pastrami. The ribs could lean on their sweet and sour marinade plus sesame to lend them additional flavor, and the pastrami could rely upon its intense spice profile. The steak (which is to say wheat gluten, nutritional yeast, tomato and apple juice, etc.) had to stand more or less on its own. This therefore opened up the widest gap between the vegan product and its namesake — while the pastrami and short ribs would stand a chance of passing as their target meats, the steak was clearly in the realm of faux meat. That said, in the same way that we dig, and will sometimes order, mock duck in our Thai food, we enjoyed the porterhouse on its own merits.
Herbivorous Butcher meats are already shaking things up at restaurants such as Pizza Nea. We hope that their stuff will be popping up elsewhere in the area, offering vegans (and meat-weary omnivores) a flavorful respite in a Big Mac world.
Herbivorous Butcher (opens Jan. 23), 507 1st Ave NE, Minneapolis