Modern Times, at 3200 Chicago Ave. in south Minneapolis, shares a building with the neighborhood's community newspaper. The paper is called the Southside Pride, and Powderhorn often feels like it could use a little more of it. Everywhere there are signs that its residents aren't quite keeping up: gutters sag, concrete crumbles, paint flakes, and lawns go to seed. Dead vines and rusty bicycles seem to predominate as home decor.
Still, the neighborhood has many lovable aspects: the diversity, the colorful community gardens, the exuberant May Day parade, and, now, a new breakfast and lunch cafe that's a literal bright spot—it's painted fluorescent green—along the historically rough-and-tumble Chicago corridor.
The 1909 building has been many things to many people over the years: It was a meat market and then a venue for punk shows before housing a series of restaurants that served everything from Southern to Somali to Mexican cuisine. For a time, the Loft Literary Center even called the building home. The cafe's new owners—Dylan Alverson, Darah Lundberg, and Emily Temte—named their business after the old Modern Times Cafe, a restaurant that occupied the space in the late 1970s and was run by the building's longtime owner, Southside Pride publisher Ed Felien. The new crew discovered the iconic 1940s "Modern" sign, a relic of a former tenant, Modern Cleaners, in the basement, and decided to resurrect the name. It took three people to hoist the art moderne M into place.
The owners did much of the renovation work themselves, with the help of friends, and the space embraces an eclectic, DIY aesthetic. The walls look like they're on about their hundredth coat of paint, the tabletops are covered with rainbows, and the restroom contains a faux potted palm with a plastic chicken roosting in its dusty fronds.
The artwork on the café's walls will change every month, and some of it seems to have taken its inspiration from hoarding disorder. One garish collage manages to incorporate a ratty hair weave with imagery of the pop-music icon Vanilla Ice. A different canvas is covered with a pair of light-wash jeans and splattered with goopy red paint that looks like the result of a ketchup-bottle accident. One of the pant legs is folded back on itself, as if the jeans are kicking themselves in the crotch. Interesting, yes. Would you hang it over your couch? Eh...maybe not.
Alverson runs the kitchen (Lundberg oversees the front of the house while Temte handles the bookkeeping) and serves a menu of mostly American breakfast foods and sandwiches that might be characterized as hippie fuel for eco-conscious, pedal-powered, social-activist sorts. Alverson has been cooking on and off for about 15 years, and even started a collectively run vegan restaurant in Seattle a few years back. He prioritizes local, organic, and sustainable ingredients, yet is mindful of keeping prices accessible to encourage neighbors to make repeat visits. While Modern Times' spread resembles those at a few other local eateries—including Seward Café, Triple Rock, and Hard Times, where Alverson once worked, actually—the newcomer executes the concept with more refinement and consistency than most of its brethren.
There's something a little subversive about ordering your short stack of vegan pancakes studded with bacon crumbles, but go ahead, Modern Times is an open-minded sort of place. The clientele is more counterculture than clean-cut, with men and women alike shaving their heads down to the skull. Patrons with longer locks tend to wear them like they're allergic to shampoo, though they're not going to judge more frequent washers. (You won't be any more incongruous than Kyle Bille, the maitre' d at the haute dining spot Heidi's, who occasionally helps out in the kitchen—though he's hardly in recognizable form, having shed his suit for a T-shirt that shows off a tattooed bicep.)
But back to those bacon pancakes. They seem impossibly feather-light for being not only vegan but made with a portion of whole wheat flour—factors that tend to make cakes gummy or heavy or both. But these flapjacks, glazed with butter and real maple syrup, taste like a salty-sweet cloud. The secret, Alverson says, is using silken tofu as an egg substitute. There are several options for breakfast scrambles, made with either eggs or tofu, and there's also a tasty, rustic Not Your Mother's Migas: tortilla strips in ruddy ranchero sauce with eggs, beans, cheese, jalapenos, and a cabbage-based salsa. The most surprising section of the menu may be its selection of open-faced breakfast sandwiches. The Croque Jean-Paul, a croque monsieur variant that combines brioche with ham, Gruyere cheese, two perfectly poached eggs, and hollandaise sauce, is a luxurious indulgence prepared with the meticulousness you'd expect of a fancy French restaurant. It seems far too elegant to grace the table of a restaurant with a stuffed pheasant in the restroom.
The café serves its lunch menu until late afternoon, and while the midday options do include a tasty grass-fed beef hamburger, they focus on vegetarian items, including a delightfully creamy macaroni and cheese spiked with roasted jalapenos. Too often, meatless dishes are an anemic alternative to their carnivorous cousins, a chef's afterthought. But Alverson, who eschewed animal flesh for eight years, combats that notion with sandwiches that pile on an abundant assembly of lively ingredients.
The vegetarian sandwiches are based on a variety of protein options. Tempeh (cakes of whole fermented soy beans) that's firm but mild-flavored comes piled with enough grilled onion, green pepper, tomato, avocado, and melted Swiss cheese that you'll never miss the pork, chicken, or beef. Seitan (wheat gluten) is made in-house, and the satisfyingly chewy, bread-like sponge can be topped with a mess of griddled onions, peppers, mushrooms, and spinach, along with a swipe of plucky basil mayonnaise and a few garlic French fries thrown in for good measure.
The only downside to those fries—which come piled with heaping spoonfuls of minced garlic—is that they'll likely spoil your breath, which is better kept fresh to participate in the café's collective conversation. Whether you're an older customer reading the newspaper and expressing concern about neighborhood violence, or a young guest praising the Mickey Mouse pancakes, Modern Times welcomes all voices.