Great Grains Market & Cafe

Albert Lea, Minnesota


Image for Benjamin Kutschied

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How on earth did a 100% vegan cafe open somewhere other than the Twin Cities?! Ah, well.

I enjoyed my lunch at Great Grains. The service was fantastic and we had a good time chatting with one of the folks who runs the place. I had their special of the day, Jamaican rice and beans with pico de gallo. Not bad, but nothing to write home (or reviews) about. My partner had the avocado sandwich, which was pretty awesome for an avocado sandwich. I guess I'm just not terribly impressed with the menu. I can get a veggie burger and a baked potato anywhere. Also, if their mission is to support the health of the local community, they could probably come up with some more health-focused dishes.

In short, Great Grains is good, but they will need to exercise a little more imagination before I can call it great.

* Keep an eye out if you are shopping. A few items in their store are not vegan.

Image for Sholly

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Atmosphere: 4.0
This isn't a place to take someone for a romantic date out. It is, as it says, a cafe -- and it does that cafe-type feel very well. It's an adorable little place, with seating downstairs -- sort of typical, average cafe-style, though the very high ceilings were nice -- as well as seating upstairs -- a staircase in the back leads up to a little loft-like area, arranged like someone's living room. The upstairs area, where we sat, was absolutely homey and adorable, with low, beautiful ceilings, a couch, several padded chairs, and dining tables, and which overlooked the rest of the cafe and market.

Service: 5.0
First of all, everyone who worked there was extremely friendly, made us feel welcome and at home, and made sure we got everything we needed. Secondly, though the smoothies took a little longer to come out, that isn't saying much, since everything, including the food, came out practically instantaneously. I literally ordered, went to wash up, and then went to sit back at our table, and the food was there.

Food: 5.0
It's a cafe, so it has cafe-type food, which I usually think of as simple and easy to veganize, and therefore not all that exciting. That said, Great Grains Cafe's food blew me away. Everything was absolutely fresh, the flavors for the sandwiches and wraps (especially the avocado sandwich and the mediterranean wrap) were delicious, the ingredients playing well together. Even the (homemade) bread was the best bread I've ever had. The entire, not-very-expensive meal was extremely filling, but in a way that felt healthy, rather than heavy. The baked goods we tried -- the apricot pastry, cinnamon roll, and date roll -- were, of course, also delicious. Both the pastry and the date roll's dough was extremely flaky and perfectly textured, and the apricot pastry was still warm.

Image for conde.kedar

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This place is awesome. Who would have thought that Albert Lea could produce a vegan cafe faster (and better) than the Twin Cities? For one thing, it's non-profit and has an admirable mission of promoting healthy vegan foods. Everything here is prepared from-scratch without preservatives. It's also remarkably cheap.

I had a cajun chicken sandwich ($5.50) which came with baked fries. The sandwich was delicious. The multigrain bun was fresh and wholesome, while the mock chicken was spicy. The sandwich also had a nice set of greens on it, along with tomato. The fries were great and the ketchup was home-made (I normally don't like ketchup, but this was more like a great marinara sauce instead of a gooey, sugary concoction). And, for less than six bucks, it amounted to an amazing value considering the lack of shortcuts in the preparation, and the fresh, substantial tastes that were produced.

For dessert I had a cup of "teechino" (a coffee substitute) ($1) and a slice of banana bread ($1.50). The teechino had a great smoky flavor without the bitterness of coffee. The banana bread was moist and not too sweet.

The menu also offers different soups daily, taco salads, a veggie burger, and a variety of other sandwiches.

The service was super friendly. Norah, the director of the cafe, seems to take great pride in getting to know her customers. The chef also came out to chat with me. You could just tell that these people really care about what they do, and how they do it.

The front part of the store has bulk vegan staples (soy flour, bulk goods, gluten-free stuff, etc.), while the spacious, nicely-decorated cafe has two floors of seating and great atmosphere.

Great Grains will soon feature an expanded coffee and tea list (they will be installing a coffee bar area), and will also be open for brunch on Sundays. I can't wait to visit them again.

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Great Grains just opened up a couple months ago, and I finally had a chance to check it out when I was home visiting my parents. If you know Albert Lea, it is almost unfathomable that a place like this would exist there. I had to go there to believe that there was an actual all vegan cafe in the small place I had grown up in.

On the day I went, the lunch special was shepherd's pie and some kind of chowder soup, I believe. Other things I saw that they offer included a veggie burger and fries, an avocado sandwich, and a chicken wrap. I opted for the chicken wrap and was not disappointed. I think the wrap was tomato flavored, and it was huge. It had some tasty mock chicken, lettuce, tomatoes, and a bit of a light "cheesy" sauce. I had a nice glass of raspberry iced tea with it.

I went back to the cafe later and got an apple raisin turnover and a strawberry banana smoothie. Those two things were also delicious. I would highly recommend checking this place if you happen to be in Albert Lea.

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