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New vegan bakery brings cupcakes and specialty cakes to White Bear Lake

Sheila Nelson began baking vegan goodies for pop-ups and festivals two years ago, never dreaming that the sweet treats would someday become her livelihood.

But after months of steady growth, she now has a full-time title: pastry chef. (She was previously an administrator at U.S. Bank and with the city of Roseville.)

“That really wasn’t the intention,” said Nelson, who recently debuted Vegan East at 2179 4th St. in White Bear Lake with husband Reid Nelson. “It was kind of just a hobby for me. But the client list kept growing, so we began seriously looking into getting a space.”

She found that space in White Bear Lake – a former tea room on a shop-lined street not terribly far from their East St. Paul home (thus, Vegan East).

“The spot was just super cute, and since it was a bakery before everything was here,” she said.

Vegan East specializes in cupcakes and specialty cakes and also touts cinnamon rolls (gluten-free and gluten-filled varieties), cheesecakes and cookies. The website displays photos of decadent-looking cakes and cupcakes piled with whipped cream, Oreos, caramel, pretzels, chocolate sauce and more.

Nelson hopes to expand to making quiche, muffins and offering a light lunch eventually, given the 25 seats the space holds.

“It’s a lot of work,” she said. “But we’re really excited to have so much support from the community. We’re first-time business owners, we’ve never worked in the restaurant industry, so we’re just figuring it out one day at a time.”

Vegan East is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays and is closed on Mondays. Customers can also order a number of sweets online.

State Capitol restaurant cheeseburger is worthy of the building's splendor

The burger: When I visited the just-reopened Minnesota State Capitol around this time last year, I was wholly unimpressed with the phoned-in fare sold in the basement-level Rathskeller Cafe. What a disappointing mismatch to the building’s architectural splendors.

Times, thankfully, have changed. One standout example of the improvements made by operator Taher Inc. is a remarkable cheeseburger that’s totally worthy of the honor of being served in House of Cass Gilbert.

After all, showcasing the best of the state's best should be standard operating procedure at the People's House. This “Butcher Burger" is an edible representation of Minnesota's agricultural and culinary supremacy. That's a lot of symbolic weight to place on a cheeseburger, but this delicious exercise in simplicity can handle it.

No beefs with this beef. Third-pound patties are fashioned from an exceptional single-steer product (sourced from pasture-raised cattle from a Blooming Prairie, Minn., farm) that's coarsely ground at Lowry Hill Meats (that explains the "Butcher Burger" name) in Minneapolis.

“The grind is from the entire animal,” said Taher chef Matt Quist. “It’s not just chuck or brisket, it’s also the tenderloin, and other premium cuts. And it’s just from that single animal. You go to [the supermarket], and there could be the meat from 50 different animals in the ground beef.”

The patty is pressed relatively thin and cooked on a sizzling flattop grill, removed from the heat when the inside is just beyond medium and the exterior starts to form bits of crispy edges.

Then there’s the spectacular bun, baked at Baker’s Field Flour & Bread.

“That bun is the best,” said Quist. “And it’s worthy of Lowry Hill Meats’ beef.”  Yes, it is.

To say that we’re fortunate to have baker/owner Steve Horton working in our community is a vast understatement. At his fascinating facility in the Food Building in northeast Minneapolis, Horton controls every aspect of the bread-making process, milling flavor-packed, single-origin grains from Midwestern farms on the premises, then channeling the results into naturally leavened breads that are baked in a wood-fueled oven. (Get a glimpse for yourself; the facility is open to the public, viewed through large interior windows).

The bun's chewy exterior gives way to a tangy, not-too-dense interior, one that easily soaks up any of the beef’s juices without any loss to its necessary structural strength. (Calling all home cooks: the buns are sold in Twin Cities natural foods co-ops and supermarkets; find the list here).The inside of the bun gets a brush of clarified butter before it’s lightly toasted, a step that slightly accentuates that slightly sour flavor. (One minor complaint: this is not a petite bun, and its heft may throw the crucial beef/bun ratio slightly off kilter. But when the bun is this good, does it matter?).

On the finishing-touches front, the kitchen demonstrates remarkable restraint. The beef is topped with two slices of a slightly sharp, Minnesota-made Cheddar from Bongards. That’s it. Any other flourish is strictly self-serve.

I skipped the long line at the condiments station (at least for the no-frills photo, above), but Taher doesn’t skimp on the selection. Beyond the basics – tomatoes, lettuce, onions, ketchup, mustard – there are impressive house-made pickles, and a rich, made-on-the-premises Thousand Island-esque sauce. My suggestion? Keep the add-ons to a minimum. With beef, bun and cheese this good, anything else tends to get in the way.

Price: $8.49.

Fries: Not included (an additional $1.79). There’s a Tater Tot ($1.79) option, too.

Other improvements: Kudos to Taher for adding a few Minnesota-themed items to the menu. There’s a hoagie-style walleye sandwich (walleye is the official state fish), the fish freshly cut, battered (in a panko-Parmesan blend) and fried. A hearty chicken-wild rice soup is available, daily; yes, zizania aquatica is the official state grain. Locally produced beverages – Joia and Tree Fort sodas, Bootlegger Brewing kombucha – plus sweets (from K’ul Chocolate and Abdallah Candies) are also sold. Nice.

Where he burgers: “I live in Uptown, and I’m out almost every day,” said Quist. “I was at the new Blue Door Pub at Lyn-Lake last week. They’ve got a special on Monday: $3 for a [single-patty] burger, and another 50 cents for a slice of cheese. That burger? It was amazing. Then there’s the Bryant-Lake Bowl, it’s still my favorite Kim Bartmann restaurant. I like the Bad Breath burger [a Cajun-seasoned beef patty topped with caramelized onions, blue cheese and roasted garlic aioli], and it’s great because they don’t serve fries. We should all be sick of fries.”

Primo freebie: Yes, you should take the (free!) 45-minute guided tour of the Capitol. It’s fascinating, no reservations are required and you’ll learn (and see) lots more than if you just wander on your own. Get the details here.

Friday fish reminder: For a recent Burger Friday ranking of nine inexpensive fast-food fish sandwiches -- the top-rated version, at My Burger, is pictured above -- go here.

Address book: 75 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., St. Paul. Cafe open 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday. Restaurant open during legislative session only, which ends on May 21. (Note: the Legislature will be in recess for the Passover/Easter holidays beginning March 30 through April 8).

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