This one's for Tim. He wrote and wanted to know why, when we had a cover story a few weeks ago revealing the many atrocities being committed in the name of Big Ag, did we run a Dish column in the same issue featuring chicken, meatballs, and crispy braised pork? Well, because we still defend the individual choice to eat meat, of course. Because bacon, of course.
Tim went on:
"We loved the restaurant [Tinto Cocina y Cantina]. We also were really impressed by [owner] Rebecca [Illingworth] and her charm and her passion. But we were sorely disappointed in the lack of vegetarian/vegan options and so have not returned after our first visit." He went on to say that he and his wife called ahead to Heyday and were assured that they would be accommodated, but when they arrived, they only received a laundry list of dishes that could have the meat removed by request.
At first I was defensive about Tim's missive. Why shouldn't that be sufficient? Heyday is not a vegetarian restaurant, after all, and I'm sure they offer plenty of meatless options without having to make something spec—.
But wait. I checked both Heyday's and Tinto's menus, and Tim was correct. I had the notion that a vegetarian could easily put together a veggie-based meal almost anywhere these days, but I was wrong about these two, and probably others as well.
I went over all the restaurants I dined at over the past year. I pinpointed the ones where it was the easiest to make a simple vegetarian meal. This isn't an exhaustive list of all the primo vegetarian spots — the Twin Cities is teeming with them — but it's a collection of some of the best we've seen this year. Because every person, even the ones who smash bacon double cheeseburgers for breakfast, needs a little roughage to even things out sometimes.
Korean is by and large a healthy cuisine with heavy use of vegetables and ferments; the colorful array of pickles (banchan) is like a group of little clown cars that zips right up to your table. These accompaniments alone with a side of rice could make a light meal, but no need to be ascetic just because you're going veggie. Also consider kimchee soup, a bubbling cauldron of fire that will have you reaching for the Puffs; crisp, pan-fried tofu cakes, fried rice with fresh vegetables, and wheat noodle soups — again with just vegetables and piquant, bewitching black bean sauce.
251 First Ave. N., Minneapolis
Gyst is a place for all moods and occasions — before a meal, after a meal, for a drink and a snack, for a drink only, and if you're tenacious, even for dinner. Made up only of things that have been fermented — cheeses, charcuterie, krauts, kimchees, beers, wines, and ciders — the menu is small but mighty. A dramatic, hand-hewn wooden cheese board groans with pickles and other accoutrements practically begging for a bottle of wine and a couple hours' chat. We also love the Sandoor, a peanut butter sandwich with the bold funk of kimchee dancing upon it, and the grilled cheese that cuts through the fat with spicy kraut like the assertive precision of a prow cutting through the ocean.
25 E. 26th St., Minneapolis
The Herbivorous Butcher
These are the kids so devoted to veganism that they've set out to prove the impossible: They can open a butcher shop without meat. The Herbivorous Butcher should be your go-to if you're a diehard vegetarian because nobody's more serious yet charmingly irreverent about the cause than they. They've crafted their own versions of Camembert, deli meat, BBQ ribs, pepperoni, even foie gras if you can believe it. And yes, bacon. Still in the process of opening their storefront planned for this year, you can find them at the Linden Hills Farmers Market as well as various pop-ups. And bonus — they're cuter than any meat man (or woman) you ever did see.
Now is an incredible time to visit the almost-decade-old Saffron, Minneapolis' finest Middle Eastern/Mediterranean restaurant. Chef Sameh Wadi recently completed his first cookbook, The New Mediterranean Table, which among many other things pays respectful homage to the cooking of his Palestinian mother. A weekly dinner at her home means a table practically leaning under the weight of vast numbers of mezze — little dishes to welcome before the main event. See how Wadi does them at Saffron: hummus of course, but also habit-forming giant white beans luxuriating in an elixir of lemon, the finest olive oil, and dill; slow-cooked green beans the way his grandma used to do them; and a fried cauliflower in an ingenious, milky feta fondue with North African spice. Or try the coriander potatoes, spring farroto, Parisian gnocchi, and a vegetarian tagine, too.
123 N. Third St., Minneapolis
Used to be, Cafe Brenda was the local vegetarian place to be. Now Brenda Langton's restaurant is just one of the places to be. Langton is not only one of our town's trailblazing chefs (she's been cooking professionally here for almost 40 years), she's also something of a visionary who thinks of food as preventative medicine and aesthetic beauty. It's true, she serves a bit of everything on her menu now, including the most responsibly raised poultry and meat available probably anywhere. But she hasn't left her veggie-forward mindset behind, not by a long shot. Her dishes boast produce so fresh it's likely to jump up off the plate and kiss you, fragrant perfume of herbs and spices, and ingenious and unabashed use of seeds, grains, and legumes — almost the entire menu is naturally gluten free, and about half of it is vegetarian.
750 S. Second St., Minneapolis
Is there any greater essence of all that's green, fresh, lively, and bright on the tongue than Thai? Aside from their expert handling of seafood, it's almost more advisable to leave animal protein aside when it comes to Thai. With the heavy use of fresh herbs, aromatics like nose-tickling garlic and ginger, the enrichment of coconut, and chile enough to set your insides aglow, who needs meat? We've got great Thai around here (Krung Thep and Ruam Mit Thai are two top-five picks), but Tum Rup is an old standby we never tire of. Their egg noodle curry is an example of vegetarian gone really, really rich with potato, yam, coconut, and crispy noodle.
1221 W. Lake St., Minneapolis
This is an elevated cocktail emporium that makes cocktails with the attention of a jeweler setting stones. So we were delighted when Bradstreet 2.0 decided to elevate their eats to match the drinks. The menu boasts considerable Asian and Middle Eastern influence, exceptionally executed in the veggie-heavy sides, where things like a generous tangle of Chinese long beans get a glaze of oyster sauce* and a shower of crushed peanuts for crunch, or the already flashy by nature shishito peppers are enlivened yet more by chili lime gremolata. The portions are big enough to share, so smack three of these on the table, and bang. Dinner. Don't forget the drinks (always vegetarian).
1930 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
We love it when a chef asks not "what does the public want to eat?" but "what do I want to eat?" If you're the smart, savvy sort of public, you'll want to eat what the chef wants to eat. And sometimes, that's not protein + starch + veg, but starch + veg + veg, or protein + protein + protein. You see where this is going. At Saint Dinette you can have veg + veg + veg (+ veg if you want it). Their menu is built like this: a small list of really small things, a long list of slightly bigger things, a slightly smaller list of big things, and a wee list of sweet things. So this means if you want to create a dinner of heirloom tomatoes, beet salad, dilly beans, and kettle corn, well then darn it, it's your vegetarian world.
261 E. Fifth St., St. Paul
It may seem counterintuitive to include a Southern, home-cookin' fried chicken restaurant in a list like this one, but if you're meat averse and can resist the golden mountains of freshly fried chicken, there's still plenty here for you. Fried green tomatoes are a hearty triumph, with the herbaceous acidity of green tomatoes steamed inside a perfect, crisp outer shell. The accompanying "pickle sauce" is a tangy remoulade, though pickle sauce sounds more fun. Also see their vegetarian collard greens; one of the best summertime salads in the city — buttermilk-dressed field greens with fat cornbread croutons; two kinds of coleslaw; and so many ways to eat beans, peas, rice, and grits there's almost no reason to reach for the chicken at all. Almost. 4257 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis
Green and the Grain
800 LaSalle Plaza Skyway, Minneapolis
*Correction: Our keen reader Maria wrote in and made an important point— oyster sauce, containing oysters, is not vegetarian. Though the bivalves, lacking a central nervous system, have been widely called "the vegetable of the sea" and some vegans aren't ethically opposed to eating them. I suppose it depends how deeply your vegetarianism runs, but she also reminded me to keep a keen eye on fish sauce and anchovies when recommending vegetarian delights. Thanks, Maria, and thanks to all of our super smart readers for keeping me on my toes.