Jeffrey Merlot
Mr. And Mrs. M.

Beans & Barley

By - Sep 3rd, 2010 04:00 am
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Construction around the North Ave. sinkhole

Though a giant sinkhole still keeps the intersection at North & Oakland impassable, Beans & Barley (and other shops beyond the beleaguered intersection)  is still open for business.

Judging by the huge crowd of patrons occupying nearly every table and booth – inside and out – this past Saturday evening, the sinkhole has apparently not made Milwaukee forget about this long-standing culinary icon.

Founded in 1979 as a neighborhood health food store, Beans & Barley eventually earned a reputation throughout southeast Wisconsin as a unique specialty grocery and eatery. In 1993, fire gutted both it and its popular nightlife neighbor below, Esoteria (remember Eso!?). The restaurant was rebuilt by the fall of 1994, and the newer version has now been with us longer than the original!

The café menu features appetizers ranging in price from $2.50 to $6.50, such as hummus dip and pita bread, El Rey tortilla chips and their homemade salsa or guacamole, black bean dip with quesadilla corners, artichoke-parmesan dip with warm French bread, and garlic bread.

Salads range in price from $3.50 to $9 and are served with a roll and one’s choice of creamy garlic parmesan, garden ginger, herbal vinaigrette or tahini dressing. They include chicken or tuna salad, mixed greens tossed with grilled mushrooms, red pepper, onion, zucchini and broccoli, and a classic Caesar salad.

House-made quiche is served with mesculin salad and fruit, or you can opt for a nice vegetable stir-fry with a spicy ginger sauce, served over brown rice (or you can choose the spicy Thai-style coconut curry sauce).

Two sandwich menus – hot and a cold – offer diners a unique items like tuna salad containing capers, dill and red onion with sunflower seeds, sprouts and mayonnaise for $7.50; pita bread stuffed with baby spinach, tabouli, tomato, cucumber, sprouts and house-made hummus with tahini dressing for $6; baked turkey breast on French bread, with cucumber and horseradish mayonnaise for $6.50; grilled Portobello mushroom with roasted red peppers for $7; a lovely tuna melt on whole wheat toast with melted brick cheese and sprouts for $8.50; and a “TLT” – baked strips of marinated tempeh with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise on whole wheat toast for $6.

Also, a tempeh Reuben with sauerkraut, melted Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing on toasted rye is only $7. Vegetarians and meat lovers alike should find the tofu burger delicious and satisfying (tofu and vegetable patty, toasted and served with mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato – $6.50). A unique “walnut burger” is offered for $8 (seasoned walnut & cheese patty from Wisconsin’s Historic Trempealeau Hotel).

Breakfast offerings range between $4.95 and $7.95 and include classic pancakes with a number of options for toppings, omelets, firm tofu scrambler, eggs to order with chicken sausage links, frittatas made to order with caramelized onions and potatoes, mushrooms, leeks and melted cheese, bagels and Lox, Eggs Benedict, and an egg burrito filled with peppers, onions, tomato. The biscuits and gravy are not what you think: Two vegetable-studded biscuits served with mushroom- and vegetarian-sausage gravy.

Items with a Tex-Mex twist include queso blanco and scrambled eggs served with salsa, a tofu burrito filled with peppers, onions, tomato and Mexican spices, and classic Huevos Rancheros made with two poached eggs topped with salsa and cheese, served with breakfast potatoes and warm tortilla.

Beans & Barley Burrito and Quesadilla

Beans & Barley always has vegetarian chili available by the cup for $2.75, by the bowl for $3.50 or by the quart for $7.00. That goes for their soup of the day, too!

But let’s face it – nothing really quite compares to the fresh, herbal Beans & Barley burrito experience, right? It’s funny how elements of Mexican cuisine permeate this place’s main offerings, though we really don’t think of it as being a Mexican restaurant.

We like to order the hot green salsa with our burritos here. It’s Mrs. Renfro’s brand, which is sold at most grocery stores in town. But it is strange indeed how you can buy a jar and eat it at home with your favorite tortilla chips,  but it just doesn’t taste quite as good as when ordered with your burrito at Beans & Barley!

Mexican choices are the menu’s highlight, and range in price from $4.25 and $9. The basic burrito has refried beans, Mexican white cheese, onion and tomato. The “Works”  comes with refried beans, Mexican white cheese, onion, tomato, black olives and sour cream, whereas the “Super” burrito has refried beans, Mexican white cheese, onion, tomato, black olives, sour cream and avocado. Each comes with your choice of hot, medium or mild salsa.

There is a chicken burrito on the menu for die-hard carnivores made with salsa chicken, Mexican white cheese, onion, tomato, black olives, sour cream and avocado. There’s also a bean and chicken burrito (refried black beans, salsa chicken, Mexican white cheese, tomato and onion). The tofu fajitas are made of strips of marinated tofu which are sautéed with peppers & onion, served with flour tortillas, black beans and sour cream (chicken is also available).

After sharing an order of the black bean dip and quesadilla appetizer for $4, Mr. M. ordered a classic margarita on the rocks for $7 (two, actually) to accompany the deliciously complex black bean burrito,which is dairy-free, and made with Mexican rice, avocado, onion, black olives and tomato.

Black bean dip and Quesadilla appetizer

Mrs. M. had the simple, but quite tasty and satisfying quesadillas – topped with Mexican white cheese, scallions, black olives and tomato and served with a side of sour cream and chips (chicken is also available with the quesadillas). A nice glass of crisp, earthy chardonnay for Mrs. M. was a stiff $6 (but that’s okay, considering that the food is not at all pricey).

The Mexican Plate features any of their burritos, tostadas or quesadillas and includes fresh guacamole, Mexican rice and tortilla chips.

Even if you don’t have the time to dine in and admire the works by local artists displayed on the walls, stop in to peruse the amply-stocked food market and deli, even pick up a birthday card or small gift for a friend or relative!

Beans & Barley
1901 East North Avenue, Milwaukee
(414) 278-7878

Black Beans & Rice.

This is called Gallo Pinto in Spanish. It means “speckled rooster” because the color resembles the pattern of your typical yard bird’s feathers. A healthy, vegetarian (non-dairy vegan) dish, black beans and rice is an ancient Latin-American favorite!

Recipe makes 4 – 6 servings.


1 pound dried black beans
1 medium-large Spanish/yellow onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
2 – 3 tablespoons regular olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar
4 – 6 cups cooked, white rice
Chopped, fresh cilantro and/or sliced scallions (for garnish)


Wash the beans and soak them in a large pot with three quarts water overnight.

The next day, discard the water. Fry the onion, garlic and peppers in oil in a large (at least 4 quart) stew pot. Add three quarts water, the soaked black beans and the sugar to the pot. Cover the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer gently for 2½ – 3 hours (uncover the pot the final ½ hour), or until the beans are tender and reduced to a thick, but creamy consistency – we remove about a cup of the cooked beans, mash them in a separate bowl, then add back into the pot right at the end in order to make them nice and creamy. Add the salt and check that it’s seasoned enough.

Serve over cooked rice (we like serving about 1½ cups of the cooked beans over 1 cup of cooked rice), and garnish with a sprinkling of chopped cilantro or sliced scallion (or both!). We are also fond of dousing our Gallo Pinto with spicy salsa (and also topping it with a little Mexican white cheese)!

Of course, this may also be served without the rice as a dip.

Categories: Mr. and Mrs. M.

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