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Appetites: Vegetarian butcher shops

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The meatless porterhouse steak
The Herbivorous Butcher in Minneapolis sells meatless meat substitutes like this porterhouse steak.
Courtesy of Becca Dilley | Heavy Table

A new business in Minneapolis called the Herbivorous Butcher has made headlines worldwide with its approach to creating and selling meatless meat substitutes. 

The brother-sister team behind the shop, Kale and Aubry Walch, are unapologetic in their butcher shop flair. But they've also shone a spotlight on one of the food world's lesser-known corners — the world of faux meat. 

James Norton, editor of the online culinary journal Heavy Table, joined MPR News host Tom Crann to talk about vegetarian meats and the Herbivorous Butcher. 

This idea of meat substitutes that have plenty of protein — this has been around for a long time. What has the Herbivorous Butcher done, other than be a bit oxymoronic here, to make such a splash?

They're doing a couple of really interesting things. First, when you're dining in the world of vegan cuisine, I think there's a tendency to emphasize the health and the morality of what you're eating at the expense of flavor. I say this as someone who is perpetually curious about new vegetarian and vegan products and always hoping for the best, but I'm kind of regularly disappointed by flavors and textures that are bland, they're washed out, they're kind of artificial, or they're hovering in that accursed place known as the Uncanny Valley. They almost taste like the dish you were hoping to eat, but they fall short in a way that kind of renders them a creepy, zombie-like impostor. 

So what is it about their approach, then, that's different?

The Herbivorous Butcher in Minneapolis
The Herbivorous Butcher in Minneapolis has made headlines worldwide for its approach to creating and selling meatless meat substitutes.
Courtesy of James Norton | Heavy Table

Well I think they're really taking a culinary approach. You can taste the fennel in the Italian sausage for example. The glaze on the Korean short ribs is a lovely mix of sweet and tangy. The Sriracha brats have a really great well-balanced heat to them. Most of the dishes are based on vital wheat gluten and nutritional yeast with additions like chickpea flour, apple juice, tomato paste. There's a real emphasis on subtle blends of real spices and flavorful foods. If you've had mock duck, you have a sense of what they're up to, but their stuff is considerably more thoughtful from a flavor perspective.

Second, I think they're taking on this mantle of meat without any apology. They call the shop a butcher shop, they name all their products after meats directly without the cutesy, punny names that we've come to expect in the realm of alternative meal proteins.

So just to be clear, they are selling things like sausages and chops that you'd get in a regular butcher shop.

Yeah, that's exactly right.

Korean BBQ ribs packaged up.
A package of meat-free Korean BBQ ribs are wrapped up nicely courtesy of the Herbivorous Butcher. "The glaze on the Korean short ribs is a lovely mix of sweet and tangy," says foodie James Norton.
Courtesy of Becca Dilley | Heavy Table

And what does it look like when you go in? Does it look like a butcher shop?

It does. The space is actually really gorgeous. They've got bright white tile walls. They've got a prominent logo, these art-installation-like items of decor like knives and butcher blades, seemingly sunk into the wall, and a great unobstructed view back into the make room where they create the product. They've really gone all out to make it feel like an ultra-clean butcher shop.

You talked earlier about their culinary approach. Tell us about some of the specific things you've eaten that you think work well.

At this point, I've tried five of their dishes. And for each of these names, add your own quote marks if you like. The pastrami, the Korean short ribs, the porterhouse steaks, the Italian sausage, and the Sriracha sausage. They're all good, and actually I would happily eat any of them again, and this is speaking as an omnivore. The real high point for me was the short ribs, which had a lot of soy-hoisin-sesame flavor to them and worked really well in a rice bowl that I whipped up. Now I had mine with a poached egg on top, but it would have been perfectly delicious without.

Meat-less pastrami
This meatless pastrami is just one of the many vegan offerings available at the Herbivorous Butcher in Minneapolis.
Courtesy of Becca Dilley | Heavy Table

The pastrami was also surprisingly good. There's a fatty richness that real pastrami will have and this didn't have that, but the spices were totally on point. And with some rye bread and some mustard, after a few mouthfuls I was totally pleased with the experience. I finished my first vegan pastrami sandwich and I had another one the next night.

What about the prices of these compared to the real deal?

Well I think the value prospect is kind of fascinating on this sort of a product. There really aren't a lot of vegan "meats" competing on the same culinary level, so they can kind of name their own price. It's $12 or $15 a pound for a lot of what they're selling. I paid, for example, $9 for four vegan sausages. As an omnivore, even though I like what they're doing, I can endorse their flavors, I probably won't come back all that often with Kramarczuk's selling terrific traditional meat-based sausages right around the corner. 

But if I were entertaining vegetarians or vegans — which I happen to do a fair bit — I know this product would hold a lot of interest, and it would be something I'd probably purchase regularly for special home cooked meals and dinner parties.