Contributions from Elizabeth Elving
The plant-based dietary lifestyle may seem to just be in fashion, but it’s no surface trend. Meat consumption is a heavily charged ethical and political topic, with international organizations such as the United Nations warning that a vegan diet will be vital to our planet’s future. The movement is even picking up steam in MKE, as the number of vegan venues climbs and mainstream omnivorous restaurants (Odd Duck, Braise) respond to demand.
Most locals who eat green know Beans & Barley – reliable, unchanging and vegetarian-focused (but also serving poultry and fish). Ten years ago, Brookfield’s Café Manna became the resource for people whose diet is dairy- and meat-free, and/or raw. Manna was able to make plant-derived dining satisfying and delicious.
The movement is now humming along, with Beerline Café, Urban Beets and most recently Strange Town offering more innovative ways of presenting vegan foods. And after testing her Beatrix Foods meatless model as a pop-up, Melanie Manuel is set to open a small restaurant and seitan “butcher” counter – a first in this city – on the East Side. Dining without meat or dairy is, in essence, easier than ever. Take a closer look at the local plant-based players:
2101 N. Prospect Ave.
A cozy bar space with the unhurried, artlessly stylish feel of a Parisian café, Strange Town goes the route of “mindful” imbibing (small-production wines, botanical-based cocktails) and food with deep flavors and textures – food that’s personal to its owners. Cousins Andy Noble and Mia LeTendre, who took over the old Allium digs in 2017, are doing the opposite of “dumb bar food,” as Noble calls it, or derivative faux meat-based dishes. Theirs is a small kitchen without bells and whistles, and they work around it, making baked rice balls, mushroom tartine, beets in Japanese marinade shio koji and a really inventive sea vegetable salad with ginger crema and spirulina, a high-protein algae. They make the edgy seem simple and somehow familiar.
3815 N. Brookfield Road, Brookfield
Since its 2008 opening, the trailblazer has evolved too. Raw food was an unexpected hit from the beginning and remains popular thanks to healthy-but-tasty dishes like raw nut-meat nachos and Thai rolls with collard greens. “Food is powerful,” says founder Robin Kasch, who adopted a plant-based diet for health reasons. “So we work to create a better way to eat.” Certified by the Green Restaurant Association (GRA), Manna walks the low-carbon-footprint walk, on bamboo fl oors. In the kitchen, there’s not a deep-fryer or microwave to be found.
1401 N. King Drive
In 2017, Urban Beets expanded into an adjacent space to keep up with the city’s growing appetite for the healthy fare it serves. It will also open a second location, in Tosa, this year. The growing awareness of what people are putting in their bodies, says GM Nicole Cornejo, has helped Milwaukee’s burgeoning plant-based movement coexist with its longstanding brat-and-burger culture. Vegans and dabblers alike can enjoy fresh juices, acai bowls and entrées made with whole-plant food. Raw desserts crafted from dates, oats, nuts, and coconut milk are available as grab-and-go bites. Using walnuts as a meat substitute is genius when it’s in the raw taco salad. Also good is the UB poke bowl, featuring a cucumber salsa and ginger-soy sriracha dressing folded into quinoa and veggies.
At first, it was going to be two months without meat or dairy. James Price, fresh out of Marquette University in 2016 with an advertising degree, was well-versed in blogging and social media. Instagram, he decided, would be the method to chronicle his adventures in the plant-based dining world. Price’s odyssey has unfolded in hundreds of Instagram photos shot everywhere from a vegan pop-up to the food court at Summerfest.
Of his Instagram (@jamespriceless_), Price says its purpose was to “highlight the journey,” not be preachy. “In my mind I’m on that bridge helping people to the ‘ship’ [of veganism] without the divisiveness or the politics.” Price says that banishing seafood from his diet was harder than meat and dairy and recommends adopting lifestyle changes in phases. “Instead of [aiming] for six months, try it for a month” and see how you feel. Having more energy is the biggest physical benefit he’s noticed. As for sticking to the regime long-term, without any cravings for what he’s given up, Price says he’s “all in this now.”
2076 N. Commerce Street
The menu goes well beyond the crepes it started with in 2015 to a mushroom barley burger, veggie-heavy Buddha bowl and Ethiopian lentil-sweet potato wrap. The GRA-certified venue strives for sustainability with LED lights and water-saving faucets. Recipes favor organic ingredients and avoid the packaged meat alternatives that used to prevail. “Vegan cooking has taken a big turn,” says head chef Corissa Grundman. Beerline “is a place where everybody can eat.”