Vegans, rejoice: This new restaurant in East Village Des Moines is redefining vegan food
These vegan and gluten free pancakes are a snap to make and a joy to eat. Poughkeepsie Journal
Des Moines' East Village just landed a new spot specializing in fast vegan food.
Dirt Burger, located at 407 East Fifth Street, in the former space of Tacopocalypse, opened in late June.
The restaurant specializes in vegan fast food revolving around its flagship product: a vegan patty made with ingredients from local and regional farms.
Black tables and chairs — about 40 seats in all — are scattered in front of a hand-painted bright yellow wall with framed movie posters in the 1,500-square-foot space. Butcher-block-style counters made of laminate wood are located beneath three menu screens.
The decor is a tribute to sunshine and the black earth from which all of the restaurant's ingredients come. And the Dirt Burger logo signifies both a shovel digging into the earth and a slotted turner.
Three years in the making, Dirt Burger is a fast-casual concept serving burgers, fries and sodas with a focus on veganism, simplicity and sustainability. The restaurant is employing about 12 people to start.
"The origins of our products are important, and that's why it's taken this project such a long time," said co-owner and culinary director, Chris Place, 49. The Des Moines native owns the restaurant with agricultural director Tony Pille, 46 of Jefferson, and director of operation Shawn Chapman, 44, of Des Moines.
The partners were originally looking at a property on Fourth Street, but when the Tacopocalypse location came open, they jumped on it.
What is a dirt burger?
The Dirt Burger patty had its start when Place and Pille helped opened Proof Restaurant when it was owned by Carly Grobin and only served lunch.
"We made some plant-based patties that we put in these homemade skillet pitas that we made every morning, just hundreds of them," Place said. "They were really good sellers, and we jokingly called them 'dirt burgers.'"
Simply put, a dirt burger is a slang term for a veggie burger. And it's Dirt Burger's main protein.
"Our version is a soy-free, gluten-free, plant-based burger patty with all soil-grown ingredients," Place said. "It's a play on words. Everything comes from the dirt."
The patty recipe contains about 20 recognizable ingredients listed on the menu monitor, and all of them can grow in Iowa. There's buckwheat, black gram beans, ground vegetables, gluten-free grains, lentils and soaked chickpeas. Everything is ground together for texture. Then, spices and seasonings are stirred in, along with brewer's yeast and coconut amino acids — a soy sauce alternative.
"That's about as 'science-lab-ish as it gets, really," Place said.
Technically, this isn't the first time the burgers have made their debut. Dirt Burgers appeared at the Valley Junction and Ames Main Street farmer's markets and also the Jefferson RAGBRAI stop in 2018.
Most menu items are based on this homemade patty that's cooked on a flat-top grill with plenty of variations.
"It's designed for speed and simplicity," Place said. "Plant-based food is better when it's simple. It's about smart, simple food, fast."
Here's how to get your hands dirty
Burgers are $6-$7 for just the burger, or $10 in a combo with fries or tots and a drink.
- Original Dirt Burger — Tomato jam, house mustard seed pickles, aged vegan Wisconsin cashew cheddar, shredded butter lettuce, red onion and herb mayo on a brioche bun.
- The Spartan — Kalamata and cucumber relish, coconut yogurt tzatziki, arugula, grilled onions and sesame butter on grilled whole wheat pita.
- Torta — Poblano chili and almond rajas, avocado, red onion, charred corn pico, shredded butter lettuce and cilantro crema on a brioche bun.
- Bombay Burger — Mumbai curry spiced patty, cucumber and kohlrabi slaw, herb coconut yogurt, spirulina green goddess dressing and sumac potato chips on a whole grain bun.
- Magic Mushroom Burger — Magic mushroom gravy, shredded mozzarella, marinated tomatoes, garlic herb cashew spread and crispy onion straws on grilled sourdough.
"It was important for me to have an Indian-style burger on the menu, because India is truly the birthplace of the vegan burger," Place said. "Their version is really spicy. Ours is a salute to that with spicy Indian green chilies."
Vegan cheese from Wisconsin is available to add to burgers. Rotella in Omaha makes Dirt Burger's vegan brioche-style buns. Other hand-selected ingredients not grown locally come from farms growing and transporting their produce as responsibly as possible.
Dirt balls and dirty desserts
Fries are made from chemical-free Idaho potatoes, hand-cut and cooked in organic safflower and coconut oil ($3).
A side dish made with regular or sweet potatoes called "Dirt Balls" contains quinoa and carrot and are rolled into balls and fried ($3.50-$4).
"It's in between a tater tot and a croquette," Place said. Dipping sauces include Nam Chim sweet and sour sesame sauce, spirulina green goddess dressing, homemade ketchup, vegan mayo and vegan ranch dressing.
A constant rotation of soups and salads will round out the menu ($4-$7). Of course, a dirt burger patty can be the protein in a salad. Grab-and-go options, including chips and snacks, will be available.
For dessert, look for vegan cookies and bars from Vegalicious Confections and Marrianna Colins with DZ Bakery.
Dirt Burger serves soft drinks from SmartSoda, a company with a special water purification system that provides alkaline and mineral-infused ice, still water and sparkling water.
These waters can be mixed with vegan soda syrups made from natural cane sugar in 20-ounce compostable cups ($3), or customers can purchase a reusable bottle with the Dirt Burger logo on them to refill at a discount.
Also look for Agri-Cultured kombucha on tap ($3.50), Vegas CBD water ($3) and local soft brews such as Peace Tree root beer ($3).
The dirt on Dirt Burger
Dirt Burger isn't just focusing on getting vegan food to customers fast. The partners wanted to figure out a way to help people eat better while greatly reducing what goes to the landfill.
Fast food has always been a contributor of garbage in the form of wrappers, bags, cups and cartons. And that's why Dirt Burger uses only compostable packaging to help it become a zero-waste facility.
"Everything we use here has to be compostable," Place said. "There's a little bit of expense involved, but we think it's worth it."
All packaging and wrapping materials, and any food scraps or waste, are collected for composting with the help of RecycleMe Iowa, Compost Ninja. EcoCare Supply and US Foods.
Even catering and delivery will adhere to the composting program. Employees will deliver orders on "Dirt Bikes" made by Dan Koenig of Ichi Bikes, leaving behind totes where customers can throw away their garbage. Dirt Burger will come back and collect that garbage for composting.
Leading up to Dirt Burger's opening, restaurant veteran Chris Place has been finishing a degree in sustainable business management. But he's been wanting to do open a restaurant since graduating from the Culinary Insitute of America in Hyde Park in 1996.
Before culinary school, Place attended art school at the University of Iowa. "I decided I was a better cook than a painter," he said.
Place came back to Des Moines to open Nick's Bar & Grill with Skip Bachman, who he worked for before culinary school. Then, he worked for Orchestrate Hospitality with George Formaro and Paul Rottenberg.
Place's longtime friend from their days at Proof, Tony Pille, studied horticulture and is an organic farmer in Jefferson. Owning Sun Gold Farms in Paton for five years, he recently purchased about five acres of family property and has plans to transform an existing barn into indoor and vertical gardens for year-round produce supplies for Dirt Burger.
Place, Pille and Chapman have worked hard to bring Dirt Burger to life over the past three years, but they credit Adam Feller, a graphic designer and marketer with Avidity Creative, for designing the logo, helping with social media and painting the wall with help of an intern from Iowa State. Friend and carpenter Tyler Pollin built the countertops.
Place has plans to open a separate production kitchen with hopes of opening more locations in the region — all purchasing acres of chemical-free produce while reducing the footprint of their supply chain.
"We want to be as transparent as possible," Place said.
Location: 407 East Fifth Street, Des Moines
Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 a.m.