Vegan Tales: How to survive in a brat & cheese city

Vegan Milwaukee almost sounds like an oxymoron. In a city known worldwide for beer, brats and cheese, many might think a vegetarian meal in Milwaukee means the garden salad at George Webb. But they couldn't be more wrong.

If you or your animal-friendly friends are looking for a quality breakfast, lunch or dinner, don't worry; meat and cheese aren't necessarily in your dining forecast. Leave it to Milwaukee to cover all the square meal bases and even have a vegetarian tavern, serving up tofu wings and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

For breakfast, the Riverwest Co-Op Grocery & Cafe, 733 E. Clarke St., offers outstanding vegan and vegetarian dishes that even meat lovers will enjoy. The cozy café seats around 12 and is attached to the Co-Op's small grocery store which sells a variety of organic, vegetarian and vegan products. Dining at the Co-Op is like eating in a friend's kitchen. Someone will take your order on a paper pad at the cash register and give you a mismatched ceramic mug for bottomless morning coffee. Vanilla soy milk and cream are both available. Hanging on the orange walls are artwork and photography by local artists.

The Co-Op prides itself on using local and organic ingredients. Stefanie Klopp, a Riverwest resident, actually moved across the street from the Co-Op so she could spend more time volunteering there. Klopp has been a vegan for about five years, and decided to adopt the lifestyle out of concern for animal rights.

"Milwaukee does a great job offering vegan options. It's probably on par with Chicago in that respect," said Klopp, noting that Milwaukee beats out both Madison and Kenosha for vegan-minded alternative eating options.

These breakfasts will leave you more satisfied than any Grand Slam breakfast plate — honestly. The Co-Op isn't fooling around with their choices. The eggs and toast entrée ($6.50) is customizable for either vegetarians (who can eat dairy) or vegans (for whom tofu scramble is substituted for eggs). It comes along with toasted sourdough bread, roasted potatoes with jalapenos and onions, and soy sausage patties with a hint of ginger and an eye appeal no different from the real thing.

The Co-Op also dishes out sweeter breakfasts — like vegan pancakes ($5-$5.50) made with your choice of organic blueberries, vegan chocolate chips, coconut or bananas and served with local maple syrup. Rich smoothies like the PB Cup ($4) are blended with dairy or soy milk, fair trade bananas, vegan chocolate syrup and peanut butter. If the friendly staff was any more laid back, they would be lying down. It's refreshing to enjoy breakfast (or just coffee) in a place that doesn't smell like meat frying in grease. Also, vegetarians won't have to worry that their food shared the griddle with animal products.

For lunch, steer toward The National, 839 W. National Ave. On the corner of National Avenue and 9th Street, this place in the heart of Walker's Point may seem a bit out of place. The café just opened last December and still sees inconsistent business, although it is worthy of a steady clientele. It is one of the most aesthetically pleasing cafes in the city and fits great into a student's budget, with most entrees priced between $5 and $7.

More than 20 hand-screened posters of bands like The Swell Season, She & Him and Broken Social Scene adorn the light blue walls, and one can be yours for $30. The place seats about 16 and has a retro feel with orange-patterned curtains, hanging glass globe lights and a vintage cooler left behind by the previous tenant, a deli. Besides the posters, other crafts from local artists are also for sale, including picture frames made from recycled materials ($12 to $25) and reusable grocery bags ($15).

For lunch, cross your fingers that the tomato and walnut soup is soup of the day. Since tomato basil soup is as common as water in cafes, it's a nice change to get a hearty bowl of tomato soup with a delicious twist. Diners can assemble their own grilled cheese sandwiches ($5.25) by choosing from chipotle cheddar, mango jalapeno, provolone or chicken noodle soup cheeses, which are then grilled on Old World-style Vienna bread.

The staff is extremely gracious and appreciative. The chef, A.J. Dixon, stopped by the table to ask how the food was, and our server checked to make sure the black bean sandwich ($7) wasn't too spicy. The brownies from City Market are to die for — they are topped with a half-inch layer of thick caramel and nuts and have the rich flavor of a cherry liqueur. If you get one (and you should), best eat it with a knife and fork so you don't have to gnaw through the thick caramel to get a bite.

Finally, for dinner or drinks and appetizers, get to Palomino, 2491 S. Superior St. But be warned — you'll have to be 21 or over since it is classified as a "tavern" and cards hard — and, no, you can't stay "just here to eat." Brought to us by the same people who founded Comet Café, Fuel and Hi-Hat, Palomino may be called the "diviest non-dive bar," if that makes sense.

Vinyl booths line the walls, which are adorned with velvet artwork of horses, cacti and other various Southwestern scenes. The pool tables and cigarette machine may make many people think again about their notions of vegan restaurants as snobby, sterile eateries that take themselves too seriously.

Palomino offers a solid beer list with brews organized by region. Vegetarian appetizers include Southern comfort foods like fried okra, hush puppies and red beans and rice (a small order costs about $4.50). Also available are tofu buffalo wings ($8.95). Health concerns should be thrown to the wind here; Palomino offers vegan or vegetarian options but not in the most health conscious ways. It's a great place for the friends or family most skeptical of vegetarian fare.