Meatless in Milwaukee
Vegetarian Cafes Serve a Growing Interest
It didn’t surprise me when my father stopped for a Usinger’s brat before exiting the airport terminal during his Milwaukee visit, and it really didn’t surprise me that it wasn’t the only sausage he ate before departing three days later. But what dropped my jaw and swelled my heart with MKE pride was what he said just before saying goodbye. “Man, that cabbage was good.”
There he was. An out-of-towner with a carnivorous appetite, savoring the memory of September Flemish-style cabbage and alebraised onions in a town renowned for brats. Admittedly, these particular veggies were served under not one, but two different styles of sausage at the St. Francis Brewery on South Kinnickinnic Avenue— even still, the cruciferous bits managed to rise above.
“As people become more interested in food, the vegetables can’t be left behind,” says Melissa Buchholz, co-owner with partner Ross Rachhuber of Odd Duck in Bay View and the newly opened vegetarian cafe in the same block, Hello Falafel. “And that’s rad. More people are ordering vegetarian items now,” she says. “It’s not just by people who don’t eat meat. It’s everyone.”
That’s part of the reason why Hello Falafel came to be. That and a few keen observations. “There are tons of places serving sit-down food, serving meat, serving alcohol, so we were striving for something that would add to that, not compete with it,” Melissa says. A former vegetarian of seven years, Melissa wanted the menu items to be thoughtful, complete dishes and not just “entrees sans the meat.”
For Ross and Melissa, falafel is the star of the quick-service Middle Eastern cafe and juice bar. A handful of different styles of ground chickpea patties served in laffa bread [a Middle Eastern bread, thicker than pita] or atop saffron carrot rice are the main courses. It’s a short list, but customizable and designed to accommodate varying dietary preferences. Much like the all-plant-based menu at Urban Beets Cafe & Juicery, downtown on the corner of Vliet and Martin Luther King, where sandwiches are stuffed with enticing combinations: avocado and smoked jalapeno kraut or cranberries, walnuts and chickpeas.
A mile north along the river, you can sub in vegan cheese or add tempeh bacon to breakfast crepes at Beerline Cafe on North Commerce. The entire menu is vegetarian and includes items like gluten-free vegan mac & cheese and fresh juice blends of kale, chard, cucumber, celery, ginger and apple. Owner Michael Allen, a vegetarian of 25 years, never doubted the concept. “I believe the vegetarian market in Milwaukee is under served,” he says. “For a city this size, there are far too few vegetarian or vegan restaurants in my opinion. I wanted to be a part of expanding Milwaukee’s restaurant diversity in that direction.”
How Healthy Is It?
Longtime vegan Nicole Kerneen, owner of Way of Life Nutrition and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, admits that options for vegetarians and vegans have improved in the last couple of years. Battling food allergies from a young age, she’s learned to navigate Milwaukee menus with a focus on plant-based items, making meals out of side dishes from steak houses like Eddie Martini’s and Mo’s. “Yes, I’m a vegan who loves steak joints!” she says. “My friends can go to meat-town while I feast on what seems like the best veggies in town. They always create the most beautiful veggie plates.”
Kerneen’s buoyant cheerfulness is hard to stifle, but there’s a sense of frustration with the misconception that vegetarian or vegan entrees equal healthy. Common sense tells us that chips and soda, while vegetarian, might not be the most nutritious options. But what about good-for-you ingredients like almonds or avocado? “Sometimes a dish is filled with a ton of nuts or seeds,” she says. “Good fat, yes. Still, studies tell us that one to two ounces (tops), based on your caloric needs, is beneficial for heart health. That amount also includes any nut butter you may have had in the day,” she adds. If you’re wondering, 14 walnut halves is about an ounce.
At vegetarian and vegan restaurant Cafe Manna in Brookfield, Kerneen orders the raw lasagna. Layers of zucchini and yellow squash are sandwiched with creamy vegan cheese, sun-dried tomato marinara sauce and pesto under a handsome handful of arugula. She compliments the menu by saying, “It’s simple for me to find something that fits my needs … and I always have another meal the next day.”
For balance, she’s a fan of dishes with beans, quinoa or soy (for protein), matched with veggies or fruit (for fiber and vitamins) and whole grains (for protein, fiber and B vitamins). “Some restaurants understand the power of quinoa and do a nice quinoa and veggie bowl,” she says, reminding us that a serving of quinoa is one-half cup. Even for a super grain, “two cups is probably overkill, unless you just exercised a whole lot.”
From the Chef’s Perspective
Even without the cost and labor of procuring and preparing meat, chefs in vegetarian restaurants are still met with day-to-day complexities. “We have a lot of special diets to contend with,” says Chef Jordan Short of Cafe Manna, where he also teaches vegetarian cooking classes. “And a lot of daily prep,” he says. Because many of the items are served raw, fresh inventory sourced from farms with sustainable agriculture practices is a priority. From there, it’s a balancing act based on “nutrition, seasonality, flavor and tradition,” he says.
Keeping costs down can be tricky, too, according to Allen at Beerline Cafe. “Some of the vegan and vegetarian proteins can be expensive,” he says. “Also providing items that people feel comfortable or familiar with can be a challenge,” which explains the vegan mac and cheese. “We don’t suffer from a lack of menu ideas, though,” Allen adds. “It’s more challenging to decide which one to execute next.”
For the gang at Hello Falafel, engineering a vegetarian menu that’s dynamic and interesting is a welcome dare. “We are always trying to push ourselves to make something better, to grow as people, always striving to add new techniques, cuisines, and products to the repertoire. That’s what’s fun about our industry. Constant learning,” they agree.
“We spend all our life and love and energy to feed people, no matter what they like to eat,” says Melissa. So why not open a vegetarian restaurant and give vegetables a chance to shine the way we want all our food to shine?”