BY DEBRA KEEFER RAMAGE
4047 Minnehaha Ave. S.
Hours: Wed. thru Sun.,
11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
All Square is not like other restaurants; it’s not even like other small neighborhood diners with an excellent but limited menu and a family-friendly vibe, though it is all those things. There are two reasons for this. First, its menu is limited quite deliberately-to grilled cheese sandwiches and their accompaniments! This still leaves considerable scope. The menu comprises 12 sandwich offerings, some of which are cheese and meat, some are cheese and vegetables or fruits, and a few can be made vegan. But the second and primary reason All Square is not like other restaurants is because of its mission and its staff. Its mission is to provide a path to work and financial stability for formerly incarcerated people, probably the most disadvantaged sector in the job-seeking pool. So, its staff consists of such folks, with training from the organization behind All Square to enable them to advance to the level of “fellows.” Or in its own words: “All Square is a civil rights social enterprise centered on a craft grilled cheese restaurant and professional institute.“
All Square the restaurant is the public face of a nonprofit called All Square, and the related program piece is called The Institute. The Institute provides a one-year curriculum for formerly incarcerated men and women called Fellows. The Fellows go on to design dishes and cook in the restaurant. There is an impressive board of directors, including a number of high-powered lawyers and policy wonks, a few of whom have also been incarcerated, wrongly and for a long time in one case. The restaurant and the Institute are housed in a brand-new, architect-designed building on the corner of Minnehaha and 41st Street. Half of the building comprises the restaurant, and the other half, which houses the Institute on Monday and Tuesday for classes, is called the Dream Lab. The Dream Lab also hosts both internal and external events. An internal event example was a kids’ movie party, at 10 a.m. last Saturday (May 18). I don’t see any upcoming public events in the Dream Lab, but All Square is co-hosting, along with Surly Brewing, “We Are All Criminals,” and Squirrel Haus Arts (where the event takes place), a gallery art show opening. This is called “Another Fine Mess,” by artist Russ White and is Friday, June 7, from 5 p.m. Squirrel Haus Arts is located at 3450 Snelling Ave. in Minneapolis.
So, what do they have to eat at All Square? The vegetarian menu has six selections, the omnivore menu has six selections, and the side dish section has three. The sandwiches all come with a very nice salad of artisanal mixed greens and vinaigrette. There is a small but good selection of beers and wines, as well as Coke products. On our visit we had the Basil Pesto sandwich (which contains both basil leaves and basil pesto, with mozz and provolone) with a side of Tomato Basil Bisque and a nice locally-brewed stout (the beer selection rotates). One of the sandwiches is called Kid’s Grilled Cheese (cheddar blend on artisan white bread), but it doesn’t say whether adults can have it too. Fancier fare includes the Apple-Brie-Pecan (with candied pecans) or the cleverly named Did My Thyme, which consists of five Mediterranean cheeses on a bed of hummus and cucumber. In the omnivore section, the Jerk Chicken is popular, according to social media, and there is the Hot Wing (pulled chicken, bleu cheese, hot sauce), the Back to BAC (bacon, avocado, cheddar), and the very elegant Charcuterie (prosciutto, Brie, almonds, onion jam). The other two accompaniments available are Chicken-Wild Rice Soup and some yummy-looking fries.
The vegetarian section denotes a few items that are available as gluten-free and/or vegan. I have a couple of suggestions about that, plus a couple more suggestions for slight improvements (although a lack of customers does not seem to be one of their problems). Vegans care about taste as much as “normal people” and not all vegan cheese is that good. The menu should say from where you get your vegan ingredients. Ditto the gluten-free bread. (And if your bread is baked in-house, for heaven’s sakes, state that on the menu.) Another suggestion-the omnivore menu is chicken times three and pork times three, kind of same-y. The Tuna Melt is a classic sandwich, always good for a gourmet upgrade. How about just a single nod to the pescatarians? And maybe a nice Reuben for people who don’t do pork?
But criticism aside, the fare at All Square is very good. You don’t even need the extra “guilt-free” hook to make you want to go back once you’ve tried it. And maybe slide them some cash on their website too, to keep this worthy idea in operation.