Embers' spicy Buffalo Tofu Melt is soy, soy good

Mary Lindell is a "flexitarian" but she had never heard the word before she read the top of the menu card at the Duluth Grill Embers America. Below it was her favorite menu item, the Buffalo Tofu Melt sandwich, a vegetarian dish whose spicy seaso...

Mary Lindell is a "flexitarian" but she had never heard the word before she read the top of the menu card at the Duluth Grill Embers America. Below it was her favorite menu item, the Buffalo Tofu Melt sandwich, a vegetarian dish whose spicy seasonings are similar to buffalo wings.

"Flexitarian" is a media-coined term that describes someone who is mostly vegetarian but occasionally eats meat for practical or other reasons. It also introduces a new line of appetizers and entrees at the local restaurant -- dishes you don't need to be a "card-carrying vegetarian" to enjoy, according to the menu copy.

Lindell had been a regular customer of the Duluth Grill when she discovered the tofu sandwich a few months ago. "I'm not a vegetarian, but I don't eat much meat," Lindell said as we took our seats at a booth last Wednesday about 5:30 p.m. I scanned the menu and saw a lot of typical casual dining options, but the "flexitarian" menu card intrigued me. We both ordered the Buffalo Tofu Melt. For sides, Lindell chose a green salad, and I ordered the broccoli cheese soup. I added two appetizers -- the Ginger Tofu Appetizer ($3.49) and the Soy Snacker ($3.49), which is salted, steamed green soybeans in the pod, known by their Japanese term, edamame (ay-duh-MAH-may). Lindell described two competing impulses when it comes to her infrequent forays dining out. "I like to try new things," she said. "But at the same time, when you don't go out that much, you like to get it right the first time." She also likes the India Palace, especially some of its more fiery dishes. Lindell's salad and my soup arrived first; she said the romaine lettuce was fresh, and she liked the dressing. Her only quibble: The lettuce didn't appear to have been completely dried after washing, which caused the dressing to be diluted a bit. Our appetizers arrived next, and Lindell tried some of the edamame. "Kind of nutty," she said. When our sandwiches came, Lindell took a taste of hers and described why she likes it. "It's spicy, and I like everything that's spicy," she said. "I think spicy food is good for you." As for the tofu, the star ingredient, "I think it could pass for chicken," she said.


In many ways, this is a traditional melt sandwich -- tomato and cheese layered between slices of toasted bread with a tangy, spicy seasoned slab of tofu in place of a beef patty. The buttered, grilled bread doesn't skimp on calories, but it's hearty and tasty. I'll disagree with Lindell about the chicken comparison; tofu reminds me more of firm-cooked scrambled eggs, both in its texture and mild flavor. But that can be a good thing too, if you don't approach the dish thinking "meat." Dipped in some creamy blue cheese dressing, a bite of the sandwich reminded me of how much the classic tastes of bar food and other casual dishes are tied up in the condiments and seasonings. This sandwich was rich, a little messy and filling. The only thing it lacked was that sock-in-the-gut, I-feel-my-arteries-clogging feeling. I enjoyed the edamame, once we got some guidance on how to eat them. Our waitress suggested two approaches: either shuck them, peanut-style, or use an approach similar to that employed with artichoke leaves. That is, put the whole pod in your mouth, close teeth almost shut and pull, using your teeth to force the beans through the pod. The Ginger Tofu Appetizer also was a simple, enjoyable treat. Several small slabs of tofu were lightly deep-fried in a tempura-style batter and served with a soy/ginger, sweet-and-sour sauce. Although it's growing in popularity in the United States, soy-based food still seems to get a bad rap from mainstream diners. Maybe that's because it has often been marketed as a substitute or extender for meat. I think if you accept soy foods on their own terms, you'll enjoy them more. Of course, this is coming from a long-term "flexitarian," who was a full-fledged vegetarian for a few years in college. I even made my own tofu for awhile, mainly to save money.



Restaurant co-owner Tom Hanson said the Duluth Grill's "flexitarian" menu arose from a desire to cater to evolving dining habits, moving from the days when dining out was an occasional treat to "meal replacement." It also grew from personal experience: he and his wife, Jaima, started getting more disciplined with their diets a few years ago, avoiding red meat and choosing more low-fat, vegetarian options. That's where the edamame came from. "We enjoyed that dish ourselves, and it's a good snacking, grazing appetizer," Hanson said. "In one portion of that there's 21 grams of protein and no cholesterol." Hanson said there still is plenty of traditional short-order, casual fare on the menu, including $4.79 weekday breakfast specials (including coffee) and $6.99 daily dinner specials. The restaurant also has a full coffee bar menu using real espresso, along with fruit smoothies and Italian sodas, as well as homemade pies, cakes and cookies. Their Health Cookie, with no refined sugar or fat, is being entered in a Better Homes & Gardens cooking contest.

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