For meat eaters, vegetarian dining can seem like a penitential act, something to be suffered through in search of a healthier diet that’s less harmful to the environment.
I’ve returned from a recent meal at The Acre to tell you it doesn’t have to be this way.
The restaurant, in a strip mall at Wyoming and Montgomery NE, shows how creative, thoughtful preparation can make vegetarian versions of even the meatiest comfort foods taste like a revelation.
The Acre’s small, rustic dining room is a refuge from the busy shopping center around it. A long wooden table divides the room, and banquettes line both sides under wall-size black-and-white photographs of a farm and a wheat field. The menus come on a clipboard, and the water is served in Mason jars.
There are a daily brunch/lunch and a dinner menu that overlap considerably. The brunch/lunch menu has eggs, pancakes and biscuits with gravy, which aren’t served at dinner. There’s a decent wine and beer menu, too.
The menu, described as “comfort vegetarian,” inventively swaps out the meats central to some familiar dishes for vegetables and fruit. A starter of barbecued pulled-jackfruit sliders ($10), for instance, uses a large, spiny fruit native to India whose unripe flesh mirrors the texture of pulled pork.
Cauliflower wings ($10), another starter, are a marvel. The pile of florets cooked to fork-tender pick up plenty of fire from Buffalo sauce, one of three sauces available, with the ranch dipping sauce standing by to cool things down. While not quite at the “red-hot” level promised on the menu, it’s a lively, great showcase for cauliflower.
Dinner offerings include meatless “meatloaf,” pasta and paella with saffron rice. We wanted to try the latter, but they were out of the rice that night, so it was the papa quesadillas ($10) instead. The description – blue corn tortillas filled with mashed potatoes – made it sound like a starch extravaganza, but the filling was well balanced with cheese and green chile.
The “Favorites” portion of the menu, consisting of six dishes served with a side for $10-$13, epitomizes the theme of the place. You can get macaroni and cheese, a meatless burger and a club sandwich with carrot bacon. Comfort dogs (two for $10) are made with whole carrots trimmed in the shape of a hot dog and marinated in a spice mix. Striped with grill marks and served under a pile of relish, they look and smell like hot dogs. The texture of the carrots landed almost perfectly between crunchy and mushy. Even without the snapping casing or juicy fat, they made for a passable impression of meat-based hot dogs. Accompanying housemade potato chips – thick, flat and lightly seasoned – were outstanding,
Enchiladas ($13) appeared as a haphazard deconstruction, with the tortillas and roasted veggies piled together under a crown of avocado. However, the balance of flavors, underpinned by sour lime crema and tangy red chile sauce, was compelling.
Accompanying the dish, a small bowl of posole made with regular corn instead of hominy and cooked to a stew-like consistency, was forgettable. Or maybe it’s just that the posole I had a couple months ago at the Jealous Fork – made with pork, alas – has spoiled me for anyone else’s version.
The Acre does not have a set dessert menu. Instead, it offers daily specials, such as three sugar cookies for $3 on a night during holiday season. Wines, mostly from the West Coast, are available for $8 a glass or $30 a bottle. You can get bottles of beer from local brewers for $5-$6, along with seasonal drafts.
The two servers working the room that night were cheerful and accommodating, even when a party of six showed up about 30 seconds before closing time.
The Acre is a reminder that vegetarian dining need not entail compromise. Chances are even devoted meat eaters will leave the place satisfied.