Hard Times Café
1821 Riverside Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55454
QISA (4,4,3,3.5), $5-10, Vegetarian
There is something exciting about discovering Hard Times Café, like you’ve stumbled upon a secret that you alternatively want to share with the world and keep close to the vest. According to Wikipedia, Hard Times is located in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis and is best known for its punk and hippie ideology, gritty ambience, large selection of vegetarian/vegan food, and late hours, being open 22 hours a day.
The restaurant lacks all vestiges of pretention. My best description of the place is “Urban Homeless Chic," and I mean that in the best possible way.
The restaurant lacks all pretention and draws a mix of students, professionals, and scruffy looking men with long beards who may or may not be students or professionals. The “gritty ambience” includes beat up benches covered with tape under clean and smooth wooden tables. Local artwork covers the walls; the artist de la semaine was apparently a photographer specializing in candid portraits of street performers. A corner of the restaurant is dedicated to books and board games, which you can play while you listen to new agey music or Styx belting out “Come Sail Away.”
The menu is an eclectic mix of vegetarian and vegan dishes, complemented by a variety of teas, tisanes, coffee drinks, and sodas (including Jolt Cola and Reed’s Extra Ginger Beer). The prices are very reasonable, especially for the generous portions they give you.
I ordered the tempeh jambalaya soup, seitan gyros plate, and a cup of jasmine tea. The soup was a hearty, chunky mix of kidney beans, onion, bell pepper, and tomato, along with small pieces of tempeh that were almost an afterthought to add a complete protein. The jambalaya balanced a little bit of heat with a little bit of sweet to make a very flavorful soup.
The seitan gyros plate included large pieces of delicately spiced seitan cooked to chewy perfection, wrapped in a giant soft pita with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and red onion. Whereas the seitan itself had a very mild flavor, the accompanying tahini on the side was very garlicky, giving it a very strong tang.
I ended the meal with a vegan rice crispy bar. The crispies were anything but, but the whole bar was coated with so much chocolate that you almost didn’t mind the lack of crunch.
Be warned: the restaurant only accepts cash. Also be warned: the Cedar-Riverside is definitely NOT the ritzy side of town. However, the place obviously has a loyal clientele that love it for it’s food, low prices, and “gritty ambience”. Once you discover Hard Times Café, you may find it to be an addictive habit.