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Vegan fried chicken at Herbie Butcher's Fried Chicken

Let's just say that when Herbivorous Butcher owners Aubry Walch and Kale Walch pledged to a create a vegan version of the fried chicken they were craving, the sister-brother duo certainly weren't overpromising and underdelivering.

Their ingenious "chicken" strips capture so many hallmarks of the real deal: the "meat," fashioned from seitan, closely approximates the texture — and more than hints at the flavor — of fried chicken, and the thick and peppery breaded coating, all tantalizingly golden brown, has a wonderfully appealing crispiness. Even better, like the best fried chicken, the coating isn't easily separated from the meat.

It's sold in buckets ($13.99 to $43.99, served with tater tots) and also available in a biscuit sandwich ($8.99).

Those biscuits! They're the impressive work of Alicia Landucci, and they have all the tender, multilayered attributes that biscuit lovers associate with butter, minus the actual butter.

And the shakes? Terrific. The Walches have somehow convinced oat milk and coconut milk to mimic the creamy richness of ice cream made with cow's milk.

Well done. Although they should be allowed to wallow in their success for at least a few minutes, I can't wait to see what these enterprising siblings do next. (Rick Nelson)

735 E. 48th St., Mpls., herbiebutchersfriedchicken.com. Takeout only, open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thu.-Sun.

The Burnt Ends Plate at StormKing Brewpub and Barbecue
The Burnt Ends Plate at StormKing Brewpub and Barbecue

Nicole Hvidsten • Star Tribune

Burnt ends plate from StormKing Brewpub and Barbecue

Sharing is caring, especially when it comes to barbecue.

That's the best way to attack the small but mighty menu at this North Loop brewpub, where meat is king. Chef/owner Jordan Smith, who's also behind Black Sheep Pizza, puts the emphasis on the seasoning and the smoker, not heavy sauces, allowing the meat to shine.

And shine it does. We sampled the brisket, pulled pork, ribs and burnt ends plates ($14-$19) and would order all of them again without hesitation. But the burnt ends were a hands-down favorite. It takes skill to prepare them well, which they do: caramelized and crunchy on the outside, yet tender and bursting with flavor on the inside. It almost tastes like meat candy, in the best possible way.

And while meat is the star of the show, the sides — coleslaw, beans, fries and potato salad — also deserve a mention. (Each plate comes with two sides, sandwiches with one.) Be sure to try the beans, which turn to pork and seasonings for flavor, not heavy sugars.

The "brewpub" in the name refers to StormKing collaborator Rapids Brewing Co., which brews the well appointed rotating selection on site to complement the barbecue. And that site is really a pleasant way to spend an evening. The roomy interior is light and bright, and the patio has plenty of seating. If you're looking for a spot before or after (or during) a Twins game, put this on your list.

But I do have a couple of regrets: not trying the brisket nachos or the pulled squash. Next time. (Nicole Hvidsten)

618 N. 5th St., Mpls., stormkingbrewpub.com. Open 4 to 10 p.m. Tue.-Fri., noon to 10 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

Avocado Tomato Bruschetta from StellaBelle Cafe
Avocado Tomato Bruschetta from StellaBelle Cafe

Nicole Hvidsten • Star Tribune

Avocado tomato bruschetta from StellaBelle

Think of this St. Paul breakfast-and-lunch newcomer as that friend who's a good influence but who also knows how to have a good time.

And the avocado tomato bruschetta ($11) is a great example. Grilled bread is topped with chunks of creamy avocado mixed with perfectly ripe cherry tomatoes, oregano, olive oil and shaved Parmesan and finished with a just-sweet-enough sherry glaze, which was a nice surprise. It tastes like summer — and fun.

The menu is full of other healthy and creative options, including many vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free offerings, which chef/owner John Occhiato said is a key focus of the restaurant. (StellaBelle is a sister restaurant and neighbor to Cafe Astoria.) You'll find several egg sandwiches, steak and eggs, bowls, sandwiches, wraps, soups and salad. The spicy salmon quinoa wrap ($16) was a hit, as was the Romesco and egg sandwich ($10). Both came with fresh fruit or a salad.

It's also worth your while to get one of the fresh juices ($6.50); the Spring Zinger, with strawberry, rhubarb, apple and ginger was a nice pick-me-up on a hot day.

And because even the best of influences have their guilty pleasures, there's a well curated bakery case, too. Everybody wins. (N.H.)

325 W. 7th St., St. Paul, stellabelle-stpaul.com. Open 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sun.

The coconut pastelito at Guavas Cuban Cafe
The coconut pastelito at Guavas Cuban Cafe

Nicole Hvidsten • Star Tribune

Coconut pastelitos from Guavas Cuban Cafe

Speaking of guilty pleasures, I think I found mine at this charming Minneapolis cafe. I went for the Cubanos, pork and plantains, but the pastelitos stole my heart.

The Cuban pastry is traditionally filled with meat, cheese, coconut custard or guava jam. The cafe had both sweet and savory pastelitos on display (a steal at $2.50), but as a big coconut fan, it wasn't even a choice. Think macaroon wrapped in puff pastry, with a light glaze on top for good measure. Heavenly. Be sure to have it heated up, even if it is a hot day — the flavors meld together even better. (If you want to take it to go and heat it up at home with a drizzle of chocolate, we won't judge.)

But the pastelitos shouldn't be the only reason to stop by. The flavorful Lechon Asado bowl ($15) was great. Braised pork shoulder was marinated in sour orange and served with rice, beans and maduros (sweet plantains slowly cooked to caramelly crisp — so good). I also have my sights set on the cafe's Wednesday date night, when you can get a small plate or side, house wine and two paellas for $40.

If you're really not sure what to order, ask. The service is great, too. Bonus if it's a nice day, as the cheery front patio is a great place to unwind. (N.H.)

5607 Chicago Av. S., Mpls., guavascubancafe.com. Open 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat.

Rhubarb pie shake from Hot Hands
Rhubarb pie shake from Hot Hands

Rick Nelson • Star Tribune

Rhubarb pie shake at Hot Hands

Why bother with a Dairy Queen Blizzard when chef/owner Tara Coleman is blending slices of her expertly crafted pies — mixed berry, banana cream, peanut butter and other delights — into vanilla ice cream shakes ($8.50)?

Happily, Coleman is a rhubarb fan, and her rhubarb pie shake is a joy to behold.

"I'm big on tart and bitter things, and I love how sour rhubarb is," she said. "I also love the color. That deep red, those green stalks. It's fun."

She sources rhubarb from Good Courage Farm in Hutchinson, Minn.

"And from my backyard, and from my neighbor's backyard," Coleman said with a laugh. "That's the cool thing about rhubarb. It's everywhere."

Anyone who has encountered the spectacular Hot Hands chicken pot pie is well aware that this is a woman who knows how to handle a rolling pin. Coleman's golden, flaky pie crust, obviously laden with butter, refrains from sogginess despite its milky surroundings.

There's over-the-top goodness at every turn. Coleman inserts an extra-luscious note into her vanilla ice cream by adding cream cheese ("I love cream cheese, it makes everything better," she said), and she wisely bakes off any pie crust scraps, using crumbled pieces as the world's most inspired shake topping.

The kitchen's single-spinner shake machine — a gift from a friend, and remind me to thank them — is getting a lot of use.

"The pie shakes are popular, people are starting to catch on," said Coleman. "If we get any busier we're going to need a bigger shake machine." (R.N.)

272 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul, hothandspie.com. Open 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Sun.

Nicole Hvidsten • @Nicolehvid

Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib