Eat the Menu: COVID Cuisine


Photo by Ryen Goldsmith

We are halfway through winter and chances are good that you are looking for some fresh restaurant options to get you through your winter doldrums. I had the opportunity to check out two local Minneapolis favorites: the Sample Room and Trio Plant Based. Whether you’re looking for a locally sourced meal made in a scratch kitchen or vegan takes on American bar favorites and soul food, I can guarantee that you will love both eateries just as much as I do.

The Sample Room has been a much beloved staple of Northeast Minneapolis for 18 years. This longevity belies the restaurant’s commitment to creating unique dishes with quality, locally sourced ingredients from Midwestern favorites like Dragsmith, Peterson’s, and Franklin Street Bakery. Longtime chef Ashley Estrada has crafted a menu full of hearty sandwiches and beautiful entrées, each more mouthwatering than the last.

At the time of this writing, indoor dining at the Sample Room is still closed, but the restaurant has heated outdoor seating options and take out is available. Once it is safe to do so, I strongly recommend eating inside as well. The interior of The Sample Room is beautiful: its original tin ceiling and huge front windows make the otherwise cozy restaurant feel incredibly spacious. It is ideal for a romantic evening out with your special someone.

Photo by Ryen Goldsmith

If you are looking for a unique way to enjoy the fare from The Sample Room, the restaurant has been selling meal kits during the pandemic, giving its patrons the opportunity to create their own culinary masterpieces right in their own kitchens. Whether you are looking for a fresh idea for an at-home date night or just want to expand your quarantine skillset, this is a fun way to experience The Sample Room.

The menu at The Sample Room has two parts: a set of classic sandwiches and burgers that are always available, and a rotating of menu of entrees and sides.

Chef Estrada is gifted at turning even the most basic sandwich into a work of culinary art. The classic ham and cheese sandwich is transformed at her hands, topped with butternut squash and huckleberry jam, making for a sweet and salty delight. Similarly, Estrada is constantly reworking the veggie sandwich so it stays as seasonal as possible. Currently a cheesy tour de force: loaded with mushrooms, squash, and red peppers, this sandwich is an easy 10.

The Bottineau Burger is another a permanent fixture on The Sample Room menu. The burger is tender, juicy, impeccably charred, and topped with delicate slabs of pork belly that melt right in your mouth. Add a little cheddar cheese, brandied onion, and smoked tomato aioli for good measure, and this is a burger that will stay on your mind long after you have finished eating.

All sandwiches and burgers are served with hand-cut fries or a salad. I am usually a side salad kind of person and the root vegetable salad does not disappoint, packed with nutrient dense ingredients like quinoa, pumpkin seeds, and parsnips. The hand-cut fries at The Sample Room are also an absolute treat: crunchy, coated with parmesan, and surprisingly good at traveling.

If you have not eaten at The Sample Room in a while, make sure you check out their rotating menu. Estrada recently added a lamp chop entrée to the menu that I have not stopped talking about since I ate it. Nestled on a bright green bed of pureed peas and topped with a spoonful of huckleberry, this lamb chop is as much a treat for your eyes as it is your tastebuds. Against all odds, Estrada manages to beautifully plate this dish in a to-go platter, which I think we can all agree is an achievement in and of itself.

Perhaps best of all, though, is the shrimp and grits. Estrada swears by Mississippi company Grit Girl, but the grits can only do so much on their own. Estrada crafts a cheesy entrée, sprinkles it with fresh, crunchy chives and tops it off with several Cajun shrimp.

For those of you who are craving a little something extra on the side, why not try the brussels sprouts? Glazed with maple syrup and soy sauce and sprinkled with a generous handful of benne seeds, this dish is as crunchy as it is moist, and loaded with sweet, savory, and salty flavors. As an added perk, you do not have to worry about over ordering the brussels sprouts as they keep incredibly well. I have been nibbling on my side of brussels sprouts for the last week and although they have lost a little in the way of texture, they are still delicious.

The Sample Room has been a part of the Minneapolis foodie scene for almost two decades. If you have not yet had the pleasure of experiencing this local favorite, it is past time. Whether you are ordering in, eating outside, or trying your own hand at crafting these culinary delights, make sure you check out this Northeast favorite.

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Vegan food has officially taken root across the Twin Cities. From J. Selby’s to the Herbivorous Butcher to Vegan East – there are so many places offering high quality vegan food. As a non-vegan who loves tasty things, each and every single one of these restaurants has a special place in my heart, but in the last year, Trio Plant Based has become an absolute favorite. Whether you are looking for vegan soul food, a plant-based spin on classic bar staples, or just something sweet and cruelty-free, Trio Plant Based has got you covered.

As of the writing of this piece, there is no seating at Trio due to the pandemic restrictions, but everything I have had from Trio travels well. You can order through DoorDash, Postmates, call in directly, or stop by and order yourself. Trio is right off the Garfield Parking Lot, which makes the restaurant surprisingly accessible by car despite its location in a busy part of Uptown.

Photo courtesy of Trio

The inside of Trio Plant Based is bright, clean, and modern. The walls are covered in art that celebrates black lives, social justice, and Minneapolis. The tabletops are beautiful, upcycled wood and the chairs are bright green, leaf-shaped things, which lends a fun plant-based aesthetic to the restaurant. It is the ideal spot for a casual date night or a long lunch.

Every dish at Trio is crafted with care and that takes time, so be prepared to wait a little. If you order take out in person, treat yourself to a lemonade or a giant cookie and take a walk around the block while you wait for your food. This summer it was not uncommon for me to buy a strawberry lemonade when I ordered, walk around the block a few times to check out the latest additions to the Uptown murals, and return to pick up my meal – and maybe buy a second strawberry lemonade. Have I mentioned that I love Trio’s strawberry lemonade?

Trio Plant Based has blessed us with a large menu. There are classic vegan appetizers like cauliflower wings, nachos, and loaded fries that are sure to set you salivating and plenty of wraps and tacos that prove exactly how hearty plant-based food can be.

Everything at Trio is great, but the burgers and soul food are something else entirely. The Mac Attack Burger is one of the most deliciously messy burgers I have ever had the pleasure of eating. The combo of the creamy buffalo mac and vegan burger on top of a perfectly toasted bun cannot be beat.

The fiesta burger, which is loaded with a fresh scoop of guacamole, is my personal go-to, although I am trying to work my way through the entire menu. And the fries are unreal: coated in Cajun seasoning, these thin-cut fries are hot, crunchy, and impossible to save. I dare you to try to get your burger all the way home without eating at least half of those fries.

The Soul Bowl is probably Trio’s most signature dish and is the ultimate combination of all the soul food favorites that the restaurant has to offer: collard greens, corn bread with maple butter, and the classic vegan mac and cheese all in one flawless bowl. You can add jackfruit riblets to the Soul Bowl or, if you want to customize even further, the Soul Food Platter can include yams or slaw. With house-made sauces and great flavor all around, you cannot go wrong with any of Trio’s soul food options.

If you have room for something sweet, my go-to dessert at Trio is Lillian’s Sweet Potato Pie. The sweet potato does the heavy lifting on this one, making for a sweet, earthy filling on a flakey crust. Or maybe you want a cookie the size of your face – Trio has that, too. It is big enough to split with your special someone at the end of a meal, but I won’t judge if you want scarf that bad boy down all by your lonesome.

Clearly, I love the food at Trio Plant Based, but the food is only half of the appeal. Trio has become a favorite of mine because its owner: Louis Hunter. Hunter has been heavily involved in the movement for Black lives and is dedicated to giving back to his community.

A restaurant does not have to be more than a restaurant, and we all know how tough the last year has been for the service industry, but even in a year like 2020, Hunter found ways to give back. Trio donated 300 Soul Bowls to people who needed food during the uprising and ran a toy drive to help struggling families this winter.

When you eat at Trio Plant Based you are not only getting a kick-ass meatless burger or a mouth-watering vegan mac and cheese: you are also supporting a restaurant with a mission to give back.

Go for the food. Stay for the heart.

And also that strawberry lemonade. You’re definitely going to want to stay for the lemonade.
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