A NEW YEAR is traditionally the time to address your diet. If you’ve been thinking your meat consumption is a little over the top, there are lots of easy ways to incorporate more plants into your meal plan, without taking drastic, life-altering steps. We have more restaurants than ever that serve exclusively vegan menus, and even spots that cater to meat lovers are bringing in creative plant-based choices that make eating green delectably doable.
$6-$15 | 1978 N. FARWELL AVE. | 414-231-3030
For so many restaurateurs, hustling is par for the course – now more than ever. Besides making fishless fish fries and “chicken” Parm sandwiches for her plant-based Celesta, Melanie Manuel recently dipped her hands into the national pizza chain world, creating a series of vegan pizzas for the Wisco-based Toppers restaurants. Coaxing out and developing flavors has long been Manuel’s strong suit. She takes on classics, like Buffalo chicken, and makes them the sort of meatless creations craveable in their own right. When I want to be the poster child for clean eating, I crave her ratatouille with brown rice; when I detest skinny jeans (which is pretty much all the time), it’s lasagna with basil bechamel, rosemary seitan sausage and almond ricotta.
2. Café Manna
$4-$18 | 3815 N. BROOKFIELD RD., BROOKFIELD | 262-790-2340
With its recycled light fixtures, bamboo floors and walls covered with nontoxic paint, Manna lives the green credo. It’s also the only restaurant in the area that devotes part of its vegetarian-rooted menu to raw foods – things like nachos made with dehydrated corn chips, raw “refried” beans, turmeric nut cheese, raw nut meat, cashew sour cream, guac and salsa. Eating healthy is actually an adventure here. Must-tries: spicy cashew cauliflower with udon noodles and veggies in a ginger-cashew sauce, and the barbacoa burrito bowl, which uses jackfruit, believably and deliciously, in place of beef.
3. Strange Town
$6-$16 | 2101 N. PROSPECT AVE. | 414-885- 0404
Here, plant-based eating has never meant a prosaic menu. Even though these days she’s only doing curbside service at this 3-year-old East Sider, owner Mia LeTendre hasn’t moved her focus away from unconventional, comforting and delicious vegan dishes. This isn’t diet food; it’s connecting-to-the-earth food.Replace thoughts of Impossible burgers with housemade tagliatelle with butternut and roasted garlic sauce, Turkish apricots, fried sage leaves and caramelized onions; or whole roasted cauliflower on a bed of whipped mojo tahini with dried cranberries and celery leaves. LeTendre offers specials (check Instagram @strangetownmke) and posts her daily offerings – like mushroom tartine, sea vegetable salad and forbidden (black) rice balls with kimchi purée – at cashdrop.biz/ strangetownmke.
$3.50-$12 | 1901 E. NORTH AVE.
Reliable and consistent, B&B always has loads of options that lean green, both from their online menu and the prepared food cases. I’m a sucker for the $4 pint of homemade soup. There are always two varieties a day – one vegan, and one with meat – as well as the hearty vegetarian chili thick with bulgur wheat and red beans. They also mix up the routine by adding a lasagna of the day, rotating stir fries, curries, a vegetable of the day, and if you’re lucky, the killer black bean enchilada casserole. Call the B&B hot line (414-278-7878) to find out the soups of the day and the ever-changing contents of the hot and cold deli case.
$8-$17 | 4905 S. PACKARD AVE., CUDAHY |414-800- 4005
A serious health diagnosis led Arielle Hawthorne to embrace a plant-based diet. Her husband, Brandon, followed suit. Their lifestyle change was the catalyst for a food truck that became a brick-and-mortar location whose debut took place in the midst of the pandemic lockdown. The couple hasn’t stopped being busy. Now, Twisted Plants is devoted to plant-based eating, but it’s also about indulgence. Dairy-free, deep-fried mozzarella sticks, plant-based hot dogs dressed Chicago style and meatless burgers loaded up with onion rings, dairy-free cheese and fake bacon are not foods you’ll be eating every day. But they’re satisfying and delicious, plus increasing your “meat consciousness” cannot be a bad thing.
$3-$9 | 2076 N. COMMERCE ST. | 414-265-5644
There’s a best-kept-secret quality about this Commerce Street gem. It serves my very favorite veggie burger – the mushroom barley burger with caramelized beer onions on toasted focaccia – to which I add cheese and avocado, because why not? They just meld into the burger. But this is only one part of a voluminous menu that includes so much plant-based goodness: chickpea chorizo tacos, the “tuno” melt on sourdough, super savory crepes and lots more.
$5-$13 | MILWAUKEE PUBLIC MARKET | 400 N. WATER ST. | 414-553-7110
When I’m working out of my Third Ward office, I often beeline it over to the Public Market for a salad or (massive) sandwich from this place. Through their online system you can still build your own salad for a set price – pro tip: order your dressing on the side, unless you like your greens on the wet side – and get one of the sammies that’s almost as big as your head. The hot handhelds are my fave, including the crispy-chewy pressed mozzarella and pesto and tangy herbed portobello with goat cheese, spinach and roasted red pepper.
8. Lulu Café
$10.50-$15 | 2265 S. HOWELL AVE. | 414-294-5858
This Bay View institution is a natural for salads and sandwiches – from the dynamite spring greens topped with pears, chevre and champagne vinaigrette to the Mid-east falafel pita topped with fresh tabbouleh and feta-yogurt sauce. Owners Cam Roberts and Sarah Jonas have operated Lulu for a street-cred-earning 20 years. Their side of ramen-peanut salad is so legendary, I know folks who’ve served it at parties.
9. Bowls to Go
$8-$13 | 207 W. FRESHWATER WAY | 414-800-5667
After COVID shut it down for many months, Bowls returned in late 2020 with a new concept, operating as more of a virtual restaurant offering meals for takeout and delivery only. Diners need to pre-order their fresh or frozen bowls by Friday for pickup or delivery on the following Tuesday. Frozen bowls come with heating instructions. One of my favorites is the North African with quinoa, cucumbers, pickled peppers, dried apricots, pistachios, feta, arugula and pomegranate molasses. Family-size meals are also available.
10. Simple Café
$9-$14 | 2124 N. FARWELL AVE. | 414-271-2124
One of the many, many restaurants I look forward to being back inside for dining – so primary-color bright and cheerful! – Simple is rocking its curbside menu of breakfast-lunch items. I’m not sure why but this year, while I crave old comforts, I’ve been trying more and more new things, experiencing menu adaptations fueled by our current world. That means the anytime-good Korean BBQ breakfast bowl (with brown rice, an over-easy egg and sundry veggies) might just have taken a backseat to the tofu forage bowl, a version of the brown rice bowl with lots of farm vegetables, avocado and pineapple teriyaki. Also delish is their garden burger, made with walnuts, brown rice, black beans and panko crumbs.