Iowa is home to the fifth highest number of organic farms in the United States, so it’s no surprise that the first place to look when seeking out vegetarian fare in the Hawkeye State is at your local farmers market. There you can find fresh, local produce of a bewildering variety sold alongside Amish pies, locally roasted coffee and those spring rolls with that peanut sauce I pine for from November to April.
Beginning in mid-May, veggie-philes at the north end of the Corridor can shop farmers markets bi-weekly in downtown Cedar Rapids, Marion’s Taube Park every Saturday morning or in Hiawatha’s Guthridge Park on Sundays. This year marks the 50th season of the Iowa City Farmers Market, and market-goers can celebrate that anniversary Saturday mornings at the Chauncey Swan parking garage. Coralville hosts a farmers market every Monday evening, or you can avoid the crowds by heading to the West Branch Farmers Market in Heritage Square on Tuesdays.
Those Farmers Markets are often incubator spaces for small vegetarian start-ups, some of which outgrow their market roots to become year-round businesses. This is how Wendy Zimmerman was able to use the fruits (and veggies) of Iowa’s farmers to turn a juicy profit.
“I’ve seen people transform their lives through juice,” Zimmerman explains while sitting in the sun-drenched dining room of her Get Fresh Café. As a teen back in Connecticut, Zimmerman was hired by neighbors to help prepare fresh watermelon juice twice a day for a family member whose cystic fibrosis was being treated, in part, through diet.
“When you have a slice of watermelon, the white part around the flesh contains a natural antibiotic,” Zimmerman explained.
She was reminded of that symbiotic relationship between food and health when, as an adult with children of her own, she noticed the Iowa City Farmers Market had incredible produce, but nothing healthy for her kids to sip as she shopped. She bought a home-juicer and set up a booth. “I would search the farmers market for what was in season, wash it, and then make juice one glass at a time.” Her idea paid off, and even paid back when smoothies were added to the menu: customers got a dollar back when they mixed their own smoothie using the Blender Bike loaned from the Iowa City Bike Library.
The business grew, so Zimmerman opened a year-round retail space in another great culinary incubator: the NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids. NewBo provides space for local food entrepreneurs, including some exciting vegan and vegetarian options. Look for The Full Bowl, where chef Wes Shirley celebrates the humble rice and bean bowl by combining fresh veggies and bold spices from around the world to bring some plant-based fire to your belly with organic black beans, lentils and chickpeas to add some protein and dietary fiber to your body.
“I think the easiest way to save the planet is for people to eat chickpeas,” explains Ofer Sivan, co-owner of Oasis in Iowa City. Hummus, ubiquitous in Middle-Eastern kitchens and a thriving immigrant in American palates, is a rich, savory blend of garlic, lemon, tahini and chickpeas. “They have the same protein by weight as an egg, but they produce a tenth of the carbon by unit of protein as beef. We have meat on the menu, but you don’t need meat. I’m more convinced than ever hummus is the solution to so many nutritional and environmental problems.”
Which is exactly the mission Zimmerman is on as well. “Nutrient density is my thing — how to get the most nutrients into a person’s body. You have to know where the goodness is. For pineapple, it’s the core; for apples it’s the seeds.” When Get Fresh left NewBo for Iowa City in late 2019, the menu expanded to include sandwiches and soups, crafting recipes that maximized flavor and nutritional impact. There is locally sourced meat and dairy for omnivores, as well as tangy, peppery-hot tempeh bacon for the herbivores looking for protein- and nutrient-rich meat substitutes.
Tempeh is just one of the alternatives to animal proteins at Trumpet Blossom Café, the only restaurant in Iowa City to use no animal products in their kitchen. Meyer was a chef and co-owner in Iowa City’s legendary vegetarian restaurant The Red Avocado when developers bulldozed that building in 2012 to make room for highrises charging higher rents. But Meyer wasted no time, opening Trumpet Blossom on her own later that year. The nondescript building nestled alongside Ralston Creek gives little indication of the gorgeous interior, including the stunning decorative wood bar — where gorgeous, cruelty-free cocktails are shaken and stirred.
For those put off by phrases like “vitamin-rich” or “dietary fiber”, Trumpet Blossom’s menu offers luscious American comfort food so decadent that you won’t realize how nutritious it is: tangy, incendiary Buffalo-style seitan wings, tempeh Reuben on grilled house-made bread stacked with pickled cabbage and smothered with Thousand Island dressing, fresh potatoes cut and fried to perfection and, because this is Iowa after all, sided with ranch dressing — house-made and vegan! The dining room is proudly meat-free and TV-free, but there is never not music, whether from spinning vinyl, live local musicians, or as an evening of Feed Me Weird Things, a collaboration with Record Collector to bring eclectic live performances by international artists to the area, from Nigerian heavy metal to Riot Grrrl free jazz to avant electronic marimba soundscapes. Everything goes with ranch.
Just a short float down Ralston Creek towards the Iowa River brings you to Big Grove Brewery & Taproom, offering beer so local you can see the fermentation tanks from the patio. Catch the game on huge TV and projector screens, and relax in open-air seating complete with fire pits and yard games. There is enough meat on the menu to satisfy any carnivore, but the chefs at Big Grove have brewed up a surprising number of vegetarian options, including an incredible vegan crispy Korean BBQ cauliflower appetizer, which warms your tummy up to take on the sweet potato and black bean street tacos, the griddled paneer and coconut curry rice bowl, or the Smashburger, a black bean and chickpea burger topped with tofu aioli created in house by chef Sean Towley. Of course, you can get fries with that.
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And if you linger a bit too long at the brewery, and wake up just a little worse for wear, Get Fresh opens every morning at 9 a.m. to replenish your body with some fresh-pressed raw juice.
“It’s the gold standard for what your body needs,” Zimmerman promises. Ask nicely, and she may even take mercy on you and mix up honey, lemon, coconut water and blue spirulina — the house-made Hangover Helper. You just might live to eat another day.
Don’t Miss These Spots!
Grandma’s Root Cellar
1100 3rd St SE, Cedar Rapids
While the specialties at this small business are jams and fermented foods, they also feature a damn delicious, fully vegan menu with options ranging from posole to peanut wraps and chilaquiles.
The Full Bowl
1100 3rd St SE, Cedar Rapids
The Full Bowl serves “globally-inspired grain bowls” offering both menu staples and rotating specials. Everything is vegetarian — and almost completely vegan aside from one appearance of Colby cheese on the menu — and made with organic ingredients. It’s healthy and nutritious comfort food.
1101 3rd St SE, Cedar Rapids
This raw, vegan restaurant is something just about everyone can get behind. Their delicious and healthful preparations are as creative as they are savory.
This article was originally published in the 2022 Bread & Butter dining guide.