If you have forged a blood bond with an order of carnivorous brethren and will only ever use the word “vegan” as a punchline, please stop reading.
This really isn’t for you.
If you are vegan, or curious about veganism, or even willing to try something different: Welcome. We’re here to talk about J. Selby’s, the plant-based eatery that opened this spring in St. Paul.
But of course, if you’re a vegan, J. Selby’s needs no introduction. You’ve likely been there for dinner, lunch, and weekend brunch. I’ve seen the packed tables and the line that, even when tightened up to bring as many in from the cold as possible, still stretches out the door.
You likely also know by now that this is not vegan fine dining, the gastronomical plant-based plate-art you’ve been not-so-patiently waiting for all this time. This is the American burger without the meat; the classic cheesecake without the cheese; the breakfast sandwich without the eggs. This is vegan food for everybody. And it’s really quite good.
Owner Matt Clayton came into the vegan restaurant business in an indirect and somewhat harrowing fashion. He was a practicing surgeon in the Twin Cities until a brain tumor left him deaf in one ear, which in turn brought on balance issues that forced him to discontinue his practice. After getting an MBA and trying a stint in health administration, Clayton took a blind leap: He earned his Plant Based Nutrition certificate, and started work on a vegan restaurant concept.
Clayton’s vision came into focus after dining at the vegan restaurant Green New American Vegetarian in Tempe, Arizona. “I walked out saying, ‘This is exactly what we need in the Twin Cities. This is the kind of thing that makes plant-based eating acceptable to everyone—whether you’re plant-based or not,’” says Clayton. “A lot of vegan restaurants have a certain vibe. A vegan restaurant vibe. Our goal from the beginning was to appear as mainstream as possible.”
Back in St. Paul, he walked by the corner storefront on Selby and Victoria and thought it was the perfect place for his vegan-for-everybody concept. So he talked to the owner, and after more than a year of prep, he opened his own place, J. Selby’s, on April 17.
It closed less than a week later.
Within the first four and a half days, a crush of diners, two to three times as many as Clayton had expected, descended on the fledgling shop and emptied its larders. The staff was shell-shocked.
“We’d prepped all this food that we thought would get us through the first week and we more or less delivered it out the first day. We had no clue how many people would be coming through the door. We were literally out of food.”
The hiccup, which only temporarily hobbled the business, was a sign of the demand for vegan food in the Twin Cities—and how meagerly the market had risen to meet that demand.
“It was really hard to gauge the demand in advance,” says Clayton. “When I was shopping for financing, I was frequently told by people that they did not believe there was a market for this sort of place, that if the market wanted it, it would already be there.”
When it reopened on May 2, J. Selby’s was a different restaurant, not in terms of its menu or decor, but in nearly all aspects of its operations. Clayton’s team was twice as big and more prepared, its processes more streamlined.
Which is not to say that Clayton opened without planning. For over a year, he and then-chef Rick Bergdahl worked on the menu.
“Rick and I spent all of 2016 cooking for each other,” says Clayton. “‘Here’s my take on BBQ beef, what do you think?’ ‘Here’s our burger, what do you think?’”
The preparation shows. J. Selby’s has finessed vegan versions of familiar dishes to entice any kind of diner.
The biggest seller is the cauliflower wings—“We sold 1,400 baskets in November”—followed by the Dirty Secret, a faux Big Mac that combines a patty from local vegan deli Herbivorous Butcher with cheeze (as dairy-free cheese is often called), special sauce, pickles, and onion. It’s different—earthier, more substantial than the glide-down-your-gullet fast food original—but delicious.
That’s an accurate review of the entire menu: different but delicious. Plant-based facsimiles of your favorites—biscuits and gravy, cheesecake, nachos—will never taste exactly the same as the original, of course. But if they tick the same boxes (crunchy and tangy; cool and creamy; spicy and buttery), and if you let yourself relax into something a little different, you might come to see how a diet without meat and cheese can work, regularly or at least occasionally, and still be fun.
Take those biscuits and gravy, for instance. A wonderfully fluffy lump of buttery dough hides under a blanket of truly creamy, truly spicy gravy made with Herbivorous Butcher’s breakfast sausage. And in the cheeze cake, best served cold for textural parity, you’ll find a rich and crumbly crust topped with a smooth, sweet, custard-like filling and tart raspberry drizzle. Different, but delicious.
The nachos are enormous, piled with soy chorizo, nacho cheeze, vegan sour cream, guacamole, and pico. Wash them down with a beer and see if you aren’t satisfied in that way only a giant plate of nachos can satisfy. In a similar vein, the ample portion of street tacos with chorizo (a winning ingredient on this menu), pickled cabbage, and black beans hits the spot, with all the crunch and chew and salt and spice that you want from a taco. Pro tip: Get it with guac. Vegans have been working with the stuff since time immemorial.
Where J. Selby’s struggles is in sourcing, an unforeseen wrinkle that Clayton admits can get in the way of a consistent menu. (It’s a struggle made more difficult by the fact that J. Selby’s is also one of the few kosher restaurants in the city.) Once, they were unable to make their cheeze cake for eight weeks because of an issue with the vegan cream cheese supply. Even as we speak, an employee pops down to ask Clayton if there are any more Herbivorous Butcher hamburger patties left. There aren’t.
“Having Kale and Aubry from the Herbivorous Butcher in town is awesome,” Clayton says. “The only difficulty we have is that they’re a craft shop, they’re not mass producing.”
Sourcing is also one of the reasons Clayton says he earnestly wishes there were more competition in the Twin Cities. Companies make vegan products in food service sizes, but J. Selby’s can’t get them because they’re the only ones in the region requesting them.
“What we’ve learned is that with more competition, we wouldn’t be competing for different slices of the pie,” he says. “The pie is so large that none of us can eat it all. What we really need is help getting our ingredients.”
All the same, this sleek, bright eatery is plugging along healthily. And speaking of healthily! Here we find ourselves at the end of the story, having uttered not one whiff of a lecture about the health, environmental, and animal welfare benefits of a plant-based diet. Instead, we’ll note -- without commentary -- that this approach to eating is catching on in a big way. And it makes the future of J. Selby’s look promising.
“There’s been some talk about a food truck. Maybe next summer,” Clayton says. “And when we get to the place where I don’t need to be as involved in the day-to-day running of the restaurant here, then I think we’ll definitely look at another location.”
Click here to see more photos of J. Selby's
169 N. Victoria St., Saint Paul