Beans & Barley is a cozy spot nestled right off the corner of North & Oakland on Milwaukee's East Side. I have been to this spot for lunch and thoroughly enjoyed it, and thought it was an appropriate time to finally try out their breakfast, as I had scoped out a few options on their menu including their vegan biscuits and gravy.
This spot is super unique, as it serves as a small grocery store and has little trinkets and gifts that can be bought. The exterior is more modern than anything, and really stands out in the sea of older, more historic buildings around and on North Avenue. Likewise, customers can order food from this spot's deli and get it to go versus sitting down to eat, a nice touch for people who are busy and want quick eats. There is even a neat bar area off to the side right before you arrive in the main seating area, which leads me to my meal and experience.
As I sat down to look at the menu, I was debating between vegan pancakes, sausage and potatoes and the vegan biscuits and gravy, and after seeing someone order the latter option, I was pretty much sold. Also, this option was only $6.50, which is a STEAL. Mara opted for the challah almond french toast, which was only $8, and the prices at Beans and Barley are all moderately priced and remind me a lot of Beerline Cafe's prices. A side of roasted potatoes are only $1.50, orange juice $2.25 and a host of other sides are all under $2. Simply put, you can get a bang for your buck here for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
When our food arrived, I was ready to dig in and after taking a couple bites, I was thoroughly impressed with the seasoning, flavor, vegan sausage and gravy that topped these biscuits. There were also scallions in this dish and added a lot of flavor, while there was a little spiciness to these biscuits and gravy and added to the potent flavor of this dish. I have not eaten biscuits and gravy in a long time, and this vegan option was delicious, seasoned and hearty. I should not have gotten any roasted garlic potatoes as a side because I was super stuffed after eating my meal. However, the garlic flavor accentuated my flavors that were bursting from my plate. The amount of gravy to the biscuits was a little too much, but I also am not one to complain about getting too much gravy or fixings in general. The mushrooms in the gravy also provided a nice change of consistency when eating with biscuits, which can be a bit more on the fluffy side.
Although I have been one to call Beans and Barley too simple, all of their food is fresh and made mostly from scratch. I can't really complain in the sense that a lot of their food is always prepared made-to-order. However, my side of potatoes did come out a little lukewarm, but they graciously sent them back and then came back with more hot, fresh potatoes than I had originally received. This quick change to give me fresh food, while also giving me more potatoes was a nice touch, and I was very appreciative that they did this for me.
The ambiance of Beans and Barley feels a bit hipster and only a tad bit grunge. The paint on some of the wooden side panels of seats are chipped, while the floor looks like a linoleum surface that needs some new panels. While the outside looks sleek, the inside could definitely use a touch-up in their restaurant area. Everywhere else looks fine and updated, and the white photos with wooden frames of Milwaukee artists and creators is a nice touch. Overall, Beans and Barley's EXTENSIVE menu that includes tofu-packed burritos, omelettes, chili, walnut burgers, salads, tuna melts and much more make for a great place to grab lunch, brunch (on Sat. & Sun. from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., find meatless options and eat at moderate prices. I'll be back for more soon!
On the Bus is Milwaukee's newest vegan spot, sitting in the Milwaukee Public Market. Food is served out of a volkswagen, and the colors are pretty serene and inviting. I think this set-up will lead people to try this place out even if they aren't vegan. The aesthetics of this spot is super unique, with strong wood-grain countertops that look like they belong in an episode of House Hunters. There has been a lot of media interest about this spot, especially considering it is in a high traffic area and and is the only all-vegan spot in the market. Likewise, there are not many all-vegan places in Milwaukee in general, and a lot of people have visited this spot already after walking past it and hearing about it. Considering I have adopted a mostly plant-based diet for almost a year, I of course was pretty excited to try out this new spot in the market and decided to do so twice in the last three weeks.
I took a trip to On the Bus two weeks ago, meaning it had only been open for five or five days. I try to stay away from new places when it first opens (The Ruckus comes to mind) because every spot need time to work out the kinks and figure out logistics and how to best serve its customers. However, my Instagram feed was tempting me with pictures of food from On the Bus (thanks @vegan audio), and I felt an urge to get On The Bus before my taste buds became more angry with me. During my first visit I decided to go for thee BBQ seitan sandwich that comes with mayo, kale onions and a house made barbecue sauce. It was delicious, but it was a little drippy. I almost never complain about having too much barbecue sauce on anything I eat, but it was a tad bit much. However, the seitan was cooked well and I also enjoyed the mayonnaise on the ciabatta roll. The crunchiness of the roll with the softness of the seitan and onions and kale made for an interesting and pleasant contrast. I loved this option, and it will probably be my go-to option in the future.
I opted to get a dish of cookies and cream ice cream after eating this sandwich, and it was very underwhelming. When I think of ice cream, vegan or not, I envision a creamy, slow-churned texture. Turns out only Babes and Ben and Jerry's can give me this creaminess that I desire when it comes to vegan ice cream, as On the Bus offers a more sorbet-like/frozen yogurt dish. My friend Leah described the ice cream as "icy," and that is the perfect way to think about this ice cream. I decided to mix up my ice cream a little to give it a slow-churned taste after accepting that it was less cream and more frozen. Although this critique in texture was apparent, the taste of the ice cream itself was fine. (a good sign) Also, this ice cream was a bit airy and less dense, another oddity that came to mind as I ate this ice cream. However, I do think a slow-churned approach can bode well if they are going to position their ice cream (made with almond milk and/or coconut milk) as the aforementioned treat. If not, the frozen yogurt or sorbet seems like a more appropriate name moving forward.
Speaking of changing menu names, the same goes for the Jamaican jerk sandwich that On the Bus offers, which I bought during my second trip and third MKE food meet-up. When I think of anything jerk as food, I simply think hot, spicy, caliente etc etc. However, this jerk (made with seitan) was much more sweet than I anticipated. Although the server gave me a little heads up it was not super spicy, I did not imagine this sandwich to be more sweet than spicy. I was a little disappointed that there was not more kick, and made me wonder if they should call this an italian beef instead of jerk sandwich. This option also had the meat juice soaked into the bread little, confirming that maybe this should be positioned as a beef option. My brother Justin I also had similar thoughts (go figure) but in all seriousness, this sandwich needed a few more red pepper flake sprinkles or pepper sauce if it's going to keep the jerk title.
As for my dessert, I again opted to try out the s'mores option, but again,the consistency of this ice cream was too icy and airy for me. I need that slow-churned goodness in my life, and as I noted above, there are non-dairy options that have accomplished just that. I do like how one scoop of ice cream in a waffle cone, cake cone, or dish is only $3. The prices are relatively moderate and are not insane. Avocado toast is $3.95 but heard it is a bit soggy (but will have to try myself). I think there are some other unique options including their Buffalo Chickpea sandwich for only $6.95, date shakes and acai bowls. (I still don't fully understand.)
In regards to this spot's logistics, there was a longer than usual wait for my food, but this is understandable considering it is a new spot trying to feed all of its customers and learn how the restaurant business works. However, when it takes almost 10 minutes to get one scoop of ice cream despite the fact that there were 4 or 5 people working inside of the Volkswagen, I get a little concerned. I even left to get a cookie from another vendor to pair with ice cream and since it was taking so long to get this dish, but I expect this type of thing to be resolved with time. That said, the employees were all extremely nice, and one even asked for my website when he saw me vlogging about it. A lot of employees gave recommendations on what to eat as well, which is helpful when a place is new and when it is plant-based and lacks options that people may typically get. Overall, restaurants grow with time, and I expect On the Bus to do just that. With a restaurant that's sitting on wheels and creating plant-based eats for the modern man and woman, I expect them to move forward and grow. It just will take a little seasoning, dash of experience and taste of reality before it heads in that direction.
On the Bus is open whenever the market is open.
You can buy bags and even a little lunch tote from their spot.