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Food & Drink

Northeast’s ALTBurger Is a Throwback to the Days Before Impossible Foods Ruled

The vegetarian sandwich shop feels like an old-school classic, for better and worse.

Em Cassel

I’m not a vegan, but I am a meat-eating fly on the wall of the Vegan Minnesota Facebook group. It’s a fun way to keep track of what’s opening and closing around town, learn about good plant-based dishes at otherwise omnivorous restaurants—and, occasionally, observe minor scuffles and dust-ups. 

In one such incident earlier this year, some group members were bummed to discover that ALTBurger, which was heading for the former Sheridan Room space in northeast Minneapolis, would be a vegetarian restaurant, not a fully vegan one. 

“Seems like a huge miss,” wrote one commenter. “Are there really that many vegetarians?” 

Well, yes, there really are that many vegetarians—in fact, they outnumber vegans by a little more than two to one, according to a 2018 Gallup poll. But to that commenter’s credit, you wouldn’t know it from media coverage of veganism, or from the growing number of vegan restaurants opening in the Twin Cities and beyond. While vegetarian joints like Hard Times Cafe persist, these days nearly every new plant-based eatery goes all the way, cutting out dairy and eggs in addition to meat. 

Em Cassel

If we measured meat-free food in waves like we do coffee, most vegetarian restaurants might be like the second-wave shops of the ’90s: cozy, communal, neighborhood spots that predated the modern, third-wave (vegan) establishments. That is very much the vibe at ALTBurger (an abbreviation for “All Love This Burger”), with its deep red walls and tiled floor, its menu scrawled out on chalkboards in funky block lettering. On the weekday afternoon we pop in for lunch, even the music has a ’90s bent; ALTBurger spins vinyl in the same way the Sheridan Room did before them, and Blink-182’s Enema of the State is in rotation as we walk through the door.

ALTBurger offers a streamlined menu of sandwiches and sides, which you can order at the counter along with beer and cocktails. And there are actually surprisingly few burgers here—just three, by my count. The rest of the menu is made up of other sandwiches, like the delightfully named Fauxlet o’ Fish, or the Twin Town Hot with fried seitan, or The Turk, a flatbread with a house-made meat-free gyro mix and veggies.

One non-burger we loved during our visit was the Hot Rossi ($13). Stuffed with mozzarella, American cheese, and tomato basil, it looks like a grilled cheese but tastes like a Margherita pizza, which is a real winning combination. The Whiz Boomer ($14) was another hit—a wild mushroom cheesesteak with a pop of flavor from giardiniera and sweet peppers. Each paired wonderfully with ALTburger’s fries, both the chewy, coarse salt-coated yuca variety served with a lightly spiced aioli ($10), and the crispy, dilly shoestring Ranch Fries ($6/$10).

But the challenge in opening a vegetarian restaurant in 2023 is that there are so many other meat-free options in town, both at vegan-specific restaurants and omnivorous haunts with vegan and vegetarian offerings. The bar is high, which is why we had high hopes for ALTBurger’s 337 Banh Mi ($13). And what we got was utterly lackluster, with unseasoned tofu and a small smattering of pickled veg drowned out by the big, fluffy roll. You can find a half-dozen or more better versions around town, from the Curry Tofu at Lu’s Sandwiches to the Vegan Banh Mi at Buster’s on 28th (though it was a treat to dredge those crispy fries through the mushroom pate).

Em Cassel

Then, there’s the veggie burger ($14), which is made in-house with actual veggies and grains. The pescatarian in our group appreciated a vegetable-based patty that’s not trying to trick you into thinking it’s meat—that’s a rarity following the advent of Impossible products, and a welcome change of pace. But again, there are just better versions out there: One omnivorous diner in our group remarked that this was no better than Shake Shack’s new veggie burger, which boasts a texturally similar patty of mushrooms, sweet potatoes, carrots, and grains.

And to the further credit of those disgruntled vegans on Facebook, it does seem a little odd that a new restaurant catering to such a small sliver of the population (the 5% who are vegetarian, according to that Gallup poll) wouldn’t also have more options for the 2% who are vegan. There was dairy in just about everything here—great for people like me, who love cheese, but not so much for the plant-based eaters who would theoretically be your regulars. 

Dethroning Impossible shouldn’t be impossible. It just might take a little more seasoning.

337 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis
Open daily, 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.

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