East Side (Vegan) Story
Plant-based eateries like Strange Town win carnivores over in Milwaukee
Wisconsin tradition has always been largely synonymous with squeaky cheese curds, beer-boiled brats and every respectable Sconnie’s rite of passage: the Friday night fish fry. Yet, as more diners become aware of the health and environmental benefits of a plant-based diet, locals and tourists alike are flocking to Milwaukee’s East Side neighborhood, where two exclusively vegan restaurants are proving vegetable dishes can be just as tasty as—if not better than—typical meat and dairy staples.
Strange Town, owned by brothers Andy and Tom Noble along with their cousin, Chef Mia LeTendre, offers an “un-clichéd approach” to vegan cuisine. You won't find a faux bratwurst here. The menu instead boasts international dishes centered on vegetables, nuts and sea vegetables to build bold flavors that appeal to all foodies—especially those who still make meat a part of their diet.
“Omnivores have been open to our restaurant, and [have been] our number one supporters since day one, says Clare McGuire, a marketing associate for the restaurant. “Strange Town is for people who love food.”
And what’s not to love? Their Korean jumuk bap rice balls filled with marinated seasonal mushrooms and a side of spicy kimchi is just one of the dishes that made Strange Town the winner of OpenTable’s “Diner’s Choice Award” in 2018.
Just blocks away is Celesta, which landed on Thrillist’s “Best Restaurants in Milwaukee Right Now” list. Chef/owner Melanie Manuel’s goal is to normalize vegan cuisine and make it accessible for all diners. Thus, Celesta’s menu is a balancing act between the exotic and the familiar. One of the biggest hits with Celesta’s many meat-eating customers is lasagna with rosemary seitan sausage, almond ricotta and a red sauce simmered with garlic, basil and chili flakes.
“I”ve been told that this dish is as satisfying as any Italian mama’s lasagna,” says Manuel, who boasts a certification in plant-based nutrition from Cornell University. “I was proud to receive that compliment!”
Still, there’s a reluctance by some to opt for plant-based restaurants out of fear they’ll have to give up on familiar dining traditions. Rest assured at Strange Town you’re in the hands of a passionate staff who will expertly curate family-owned and certified organic wine pairings with your meal.
“Wine is a huge component in our restaurant,” says McGuire. “It is meant to be side by side with our dishes.”
And as far as that good ol’ Wisconsin fish fry, Celesta has it covered with “fishless fry Fridays.”
“We love to carry on this great Milwaukee tradition, vegan style,” stresses Manuel. “We had a customer say it was one of the best fish fries he has ever had, and he grew up in Wisconsin!"”
If these two East Side neighbors are proving anything, it’s that plant-based cuisine isn’t just some passing fad. Their doors are open to any and every human, vegan or not, who simply loves great food.
“I see it as part of my responsibility to dispel the myth that vegetables are a hard pill we have to swallow for our health,” Manuel states. “How can roasted cauliflower drizzled in a maple tahini glaze and topped with almonds, golden raisins, capers, mint and dill not be delicious?”