A guide to Iowa City meatless options
Newcomers to Iowa City who require a certain amount of meatlessness in their diet will enjoy the number of dining options found downtown. Whether observing Meatless Monday or a hard-core vegan diet, downtown Iowa City dining offers a variety of dishes to please the palate.
Case in point: three house recipes for vegetarian burgers can be found at six downtown establishments. For a small city in Iowa--the state known for corn and immigration-violating meat-packing plants--this is a welcome surprise. Vegetarians visiting the city for one of the summer festival weekends or new residents transplanted for university-related ventures need not fear where they are going to get their next meatless meal. These reviews will introduce newcomers to the strengths and weaknesses of Iowa City’s homemade veggie burgers.
The Portobello-Oat Option
Where: Hamburg Inn, 214 N. Linn St.
Price before tax/tip: $7.29
Extent of meatlessness: Vegetarian
Side: Choose 2 of 12 options
Best for: Classic diner experience, photos of presidential candidates, pie shakes
Top it with an egg and call it breakfast, this oatastic option might help you reach your fiber goals for the day. The patty, formed from a mixture of portobello mushrooms, oats, brown rice, and cheese, is served on a Kaiser bun with iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, ketchup, mustard, pickles, and diced onions. The patty was once made with rosemary, which gave it the bulk of its flavor, but the inclusion of the herb is not a guarantee. (And the rosemary flavor of previous versions of the patty would either be overwhelming or welcome depending on a diner’s threshold for strong flavors.)
The condiments may cause the burger to fall apart, which is always a sad moment, but it will please those seeking an earthy and creamy experience. Plus, if a diner wishes to have both french fries and mandarin oranges, the Hamburg’s choose-two-of-twelve option for a side serves that goal. Want a veggie burger with a side of hashbrowns and macaroni and cheese? They’re on it.
The Black Bean Patty
Where: Short’s Burger & Shine, 18 S. Clinton
Price before tax/tip: $8.50
Extent of meatlessness: Vegan upon request
Side: Hand-cut French fries
Best for: Dining with meat-loving companions, imbibing Iowa beer and spirits, patronizing the restaurant of a former football player
The “Shine” stands for shoe polish, but thankfully that’s not what the place serves. Short’s is named after H. D. Short, who polished shoes at this location for 50 years. Now, the owners must believe the “shine” in their name will sway diners in a positive direction, or maybe that’s what the booze is for. Short’s may be one of the localest places for beer and beef in Iowa City--their black Angus beef comes from less than 30 miles away and much of the beer, wine, and liquor they serve is also home-grown.
But this review is about veggie burgers, and a first look at Short’s menu excites an adventurous eater with the many creative flavor pairings. The menu offers five different takes on the classic black bean burger, and this reviewer has experienced three: the Center Junction (think Swiss cheese, mushrooms and bell peppers), Grand Junction (a Mediterranean-inspired burger), and Columbus Junction (avocado!).
While the vision for these creations inspires burger lust, the execution thereof may disappoint. The key culprit in this may be the chewy, firm, unyielding bun, which holds strong while pressuring the patty to ooze out the other side. You may as well be eating a hummus sandwich with all that ooze. Of the three tested, the Grand Junction had the most flavor and was the least messy. Be prepared to eat with a knife and fork.
The hand-cut fries at Short’s also deserve an A-for-effort. The roasted potato flavor can be quite luscious, for being floppy. Looking into the issue, this seems to be a common problem among restaurants touting hand-cut fries. Some Yelp reviews praise Short’s fries, which again begs the question, is that the Iowa beer talking?
Black Beans on Burlington
Where: The Mill, 120 E. Burlington
Price before tax/tip: $7.45
Extent of meatlessness: Vegan upon request
Side: French fries (with pepper)
Best for: Seeing a show, laid-back hanging out, overhearing film student chatter
The Mill and Short’s share an owner in common, Dan Ouverson, which explains the similarity in their veggie burger patty. The Mill serves its veggie burger with lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, and guacamole, which occasionally has a jalapeño kick to it. The patty has chucks of bell pepper mixed in, and holds together better than Short’s. Sadly, it still falls apart on occasion, especially when its ordered with cheese for some reason. For being pub food, this burger satisfies. Without the guacamole, some might find the patty itself bland.
The fries, salt and peppered, are almost always crisp, and they’re hard to replicate at another establishment with pepper alone.
The Lentil Burger
Where: The Red Avocado, 521 E. Washington
Price before tax/tip: $6.50 lunch, $10 dinner platter
Extent of meatlessness: Vegan
Side: Brown rice and grain of the day (dinner only)
Best for: Organic and earth-loving gourmands, distrusting vegans, fans of R.O. water
The Red Avocado is an organic vegan oasis in Iowa. Few of its dishes contain any animal products (they claim 90% vegan on the website), and honor earth-friendly practices by emphasizing organic, local and seasonal produce in its meals.
The veggie burger created by the Red Avocado chefs is served on substantial wheat bread with Vegenaise and seasonal toppings. With the seasons come sacrifice, enforcing the chefs to stay within a limited palette. In other words, Gaia can’t guarantee tomato on your veggie burger. We get tomato when there is tomato.
The ingredients? Green lentils, brown rice, carrots, onion, celery, sweet corn, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, cornmeal, garlic, cornstarch, spices, and salt. (List is courtesy of the packaged patties, which are sold for $8 at the New Pioneer Coop.) The “spices” may include cumin and coriander, and make it the most flavorful, homemade vegetarian patty in Iowa City.
Lentils and Slice
If a vegan finds themselves wanting the most flavorful patty but is out dining with omnivores who don’t eat their vegetables, the Wedge Downtown is a nice alternative. The Wedge, adjacent to the Weatherdance Fountain on the Ped Mall and known more for bizarrely delicious pizza creations (gorgonzola and pine nuts, anyone?), serves the Red Avocado patty with sprouts, red onions, and tomato for $7. Served with a side salad.
Lentils in the Park
Want to picnic instead? New Pioneer Coop’s deli [PDF menu] serves this patty on its veggie burger with red onions, spinach, and tomatoes on an organic sprouted wheat bun ($6, including the pickle). Stroll up to College Green Park for a relaxing meal, trading the TV for a chance of excellent people watching.