Milwaukee isn’t really a city known for its vegetarian cuisine. So when I moved back to the area, I was rather trepidacious about having to navigate my way around local menus. The only places I remembered that served anything even remotely veg-friendly were Beans and Barley and Outpost Foods (100 E. Capitol Drive and 7000 W. State Street) — and Outpost is a damn grocery store! Fortunately, Milwaukee has gone through some significant changes since the last time I lived here, and my search for a decent, animal-free meal was less tedious than I had originally anticipated.
Beans and Barley (191 E. North Avenue), is known as the quintessential Milwaukee vegetarian restaurant. The reputation, though, seems somewhat ironic as they seem to offer more chicken and fish dishes than tofu and tempeh. However, there are a decent number of meatless options, especially if you factor in the rotating selection of soups and salads. But the food is good and quite affordable and the restaurant offers enough variety to satisfy even the pickiest vegans.
The Palomino (2491 S. Superior Street) offers a bevy of vegetarian snacks and sandwiches — all deep fat fried. And thanks to the plethora of Bayside hipster customers, The Palomino labels which is vegetarian and which is vegan. The chicken-fried tofu is excellent, as are the onion rings, fried okra, French fries, tator tots and selection of dipping sauces. Warning: though this restaurant offers vegetarian food, there is no way to kid yourself that it is in anyway healthy. Most of the vegetarian menu is very deep, very fat and very fried. More often than not, you will leave the restaurant feeling like you have a greasy rock in your stomach — albeit a tasty, greasy rock.
Many of the hip diners and coffee shops in the area offer vegetarian cuisine, though are usually limited primarily to cheese, vegetable and hummus sandwiches (most of which are quite tasty). Gil’s Café (2608 N. Downer Avenue) is the standout among the crowd with its decent selection of sandwiches, veggie burgers, pizzas, burritos, salads and nachos as well as outdoor seating and ample alcohol supply. It’s also an excellent place to chill out and people watch. The Hi Fi Café (2640 S. Kinnickinnic Avenue) offers an excellent falafel sandwich, a decent spinach pie and a smattering of salads and vegetarian soups. The Comet Coffee Shop (1947 N. Farwell) is also a safe bet, especially due in part to its famous sandwiches (often called the best in the city) and vegetarian chili.
The more upscale Roots (1818 N. Hubbard St.) has an excellent selection of vegetarian-friendly food including polenta and chili dredged tofu, veggie burgers, salads and an amazing asparagus puree soup that, like the restaurant’s incredible view of the city, is not to be missed. Also, the staff is very courteous if you have to ask long, extensive questions about how the food is prepared and if something is secretly marinated near or around chicken.
Coast (931 E. Wisconsin Avenue) has limited vegetarian faire, which would make sense as it is classified primarily as a seafood restaurant, though what they do serve is excellent. Be sure to try the tomato bisque soup and artichoke and goat cheese ravioli.
Maharaja (1550 N. Farwell Avenue) has an amazing buffet that includes South Indian dosai (thin crepe-like pancakes) and sambar (lentil soup to go on pancakes), something very hard to find in Milwaukee (and apparently only available at lunchtime). But what really makes this Indian restaurant exceptional is their incredible use of flavor! Prior to eating here, I was damn well convinced Milwaukee only produced bland, spiceless Indian food. Maharaja makes excellent food for people who are not afraid of a little curry. Their vegetarian menu is quite extensive and includes favorites like palak paneer (spinach and cheese), vegetable curry and channa masala (chickpeas and tomatoes).
If you’re craving Japanese, Izumi’s (2150 N. Prospect) offers a respectable selection of vegetarian appetizers including fried tofu and goma ae (spinach salad with sesame dressing), vegetable tempura, vegetarian stir-fry and an assortment of vegetable-based sushi rolls.
Lula’s Café (2921 N. Oakland) blends Somalian, Ethiopian and Italian cuisines to offer a flavorful array of vegetable dishes served on traditional Ethiopian and Somalian injera bread. Lula’s also offers pasta and vegetables with rice. However, as it is Milwaukee’s only source for injera, it is the Ethiopian fanatics that ensure the restaurant is never empty.
Despite these options, Milwaukee is still best known for Friday night fish frys and “world class sausage.” In my experience, a person on Atkins is still better served than a lowly vegetarian dieting for a small planet. Fortunately, most grocery stores in the area carry a wide variety of vegetables — so when all else fails, you can always make a salad.
(Originally published July 8, 2004)