Skip The Drive-Thru: Vegan Comfort Food Finds a Permanent Home in Benton Park
Until recently, “craving vegan food” might have been dismissed as a contradiction in terms. But for those acquainted with Chris Bertke’s vegan pop-ups at the South Grand vegetarian cornerstone Tree House, the concept isn’t as far-fetched. A far cry from the “rabbit food” cliché, the comforting, drive-through-inspired fare that will debut at Bertke’s new restaurant, Utah Station, is the sort that could stop traffic—but unlike its fatty, fried counterparts, it won’t stop your heart.
Bertke’s plant-based riffs on late-night fast-food staples like Big Macs and Jack in the Box tacos have become something of a calling card for the chef, garnering praise from vegans and the vegetable-averse alike. But finding a more permanent place to call home has been nothing short of a labor of love: Refurbishing a historic filling station on Utah Street proved to be a Herculean task, dotted with the kind of renovation pitfalls that are de rigueur on reality shows.
“We’ve been working on Utah Station for years,” Bertke says. “It’s taken so long because the building is a historical landmark. We had to follow certain guidelines, get the neighborhood’s approval, etc.—we’ve had to jump through a lot of hoops. The most time-consuming [part] was getting a grant so we could change the flow of water to support the natural water garden we had put in.”
Still, Bertke’s punk-rock spirit was undeterred by the unforeseen challenges. After all, one doesn’t become adept at vegan cooking without a flair for the improvisational. “The pop-ups have been all over the place—barbecue, vegan drunk food, fast food, brunch; they gave me something to do [during construction] and were a good opportunity for me to experiment with some of the stuff I want to do [at Utah Station],” he says. “Most vegan food you get is what I call ‘California vegan,’ which is healthy, good-for-you, salad-type stuff. I’m trying to bring something different to St. Louis.”
For Bertke that means introducing vegan-ized guilty pleasures, such as toasted ravioli (an instant crowd favorite), and turning the traditional menu layout on its head. “Usually, when you go to a restaurant, it’s 99 percent meat, plus a couple of really crappy vegan options. So I flipped the menu concept—Utah Station will be 95 percent vegan/plant-based, with four or five meat options.”
Bertke’s thoughtful approach is uniquely tailored to create community—he doesn’t want to alienate any type of consumer, whether they ascribe to the vegan lifestyle or not. “With the wide variety of dishes that I’m creating, I hope Utah will attract a melting pot of people: meat-eaters who are curious about plant-based [diets], as well as vegetarians and vegans who are looking for fresh takes on this type of cuisine.”
The physical space of Utah Station echoes this collaborative ethos. “From the food we’re making to the landscaping with multiple gardens to the incredible use of found materials, I would never call this just a restaurant,” Bertke explains. “It’s an ongoing project that involves so many talented people.”
Primed to become a well-loved neighborhood hangout, it seems the venue itself may be as enticing as what’s served inside. When the long-awaited spot opens later this month, one can expect even carnivores will want a taste.
Images courtesy of Chris Bertke.