(Story by Amy Morton / Photos by Liz Lopez)
Can farm-to-table vegetarian food be accessible to everyone–from foodie omnivores to muscly weight lifters to budget-conscious families with young picky eaters? It may sound like a tall order, but that’s exactly what Chef Shawn Weed and his wife Danielle Reilly Weed are hoping to prove at their new “comfort vegetarian” restaurant The Acre, which opened just before Thanksgiving in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights, where the couple lives with their two daughters, ages 5 and 3.
The Weeds’ first restaurant, The Acre caps off a multifaceted culinary journey for the chef, who moved to New Mexico from Indiana as a teenager and landed his first job as a dishwasher at age 15. He later worked in restaurants in San Francisco, Calif., Scotland, San Diego, Calif., and New York City, where he became a private chef for a successful restaurateur. Having had enough of the big city, Shawn convinced Danielle to move with him back to New Mexico. After a decade working as an executive chef for the University of New Mexico’s food supplier and as a food and beverage director at a local casino, he was ready to venture out on his own. “It became time that I needed to do my dream,” the chef says.
Tucked into the Montgomery Crossing shopping center, adjacent to Penzeys Spices and across the parking lot from Natural Grocers, The Acre is not your typical vegetarian restaurant. For starters, its chef is not a vegetarian, but someone who simply believes in eating less meat. If you ask Chef Shawn why, you won’t hear him put forth anything New Age or preachy, but rather a way of thinking that’s steeped in old-school Midwestern values.
“My grandparents in Indiana had a farm, and in the summers we would go to help,” Shawn says. “They called it ‘The Acre.’ After working, we’d put these rickety picnic tables together, and everybody would just sit down. They’d bring out these pitchers of tea, and whatever gets cooked, you’re eating it. A lot of times, it didn’t have meat. It was watermelon and roasted corn and amazing stuff.”
Flash-forward to present day, and “we’re in a culture of people who typically believe you need to have meat at every meal,” Shawn says. “I’m not one to stand on my soapbox against eating meat, but I do think we could all take it down a couple notches. If we scale back demand, it would be a better environment for everyone.” He cites small-scale operations like Estancia’s Old Windmill Dairy––The Acre’s local vendor for goat cheese––as a positive, feel-good environment, one that’s in sharp contrast to modern factory farms, which he describes as “bleak at best.”
His solution is not to oppose these practices, per se, but to champion a shift in appetites, starting in childhood. “I really want to take a stand and say that food is delicious that is not meat,” he says. “You go to McDonald’s and get a kids’ Happy Meal. Is there something you can get that’s not meat? No. So what are we training our kids to think?” For the Weeds, it was imperative that their girls could eat at The Acre. “As much as I love providing for the vegetarian community, I also love providing for local families that go, ‘I can take my kids here, and they’re not eating a bunch of crap. Every other place, they eat chicken nuggets.’’’
As part of his playful appeal to eaters young and old, Chef Shawn has put together a casual, reasonably priced menu of quintessentially American items that feel familiar just as they bump vegetables up from side-dish status to the star of the meal. There’s a Comfort Dog, with a marinated, braised carrot in place of the hot dog, slathered in homemade relish; a Mac ‘N Cheese that uses spiralized local, organic vegetables instead of pasta and can be made vegan upon request; a Meat(less) Loaf made of roasted and milled portabella mushrooms and mashed chickpeas, topped with a spicy habanero ketchup; and a triple-decker Comfort Club sandwich, featuring Chef’s flavorful, crowd-pleasing “carrot bacon.”
How might one make carrots resemble bacon, you ask? “It starts with these giant carrots from a farm in California––like Bugs Bunny, ridiculously big carrots,” Shawn says. “We shave them into planks and put them in a brine of amino acids, Tamari soy sauce, garlic, ginger and liquid hickory smoke. Then we let them sit for about a day. We pull them out, they change color a bit and we cook them off. When they hit the fire again, they pick up some of the smokiness from the cooking.” The idea is not to “clone bacon,” he says, but to make something all-natural that’s “reminiscent of something cured.”
While this may seem like a sleight of hand to some, it should be noted that nowhere on The Acre’s menu will you find any meat substitutes like soy isolate protein. The veggie burger, for example, is made from beets, black beans and quinoa. It’s all about a clever use of vegetables here, which Shawn tries to source locally whenever possible from vendors that include Sol Harvest Farm, Skarsgard Farms and the Downtown Growers’ Market. “We don’t have tofu or any of these machine-made products,” he says. “What we do here is made from scratch with a low industrial footprint.” He plans to change the menu quarterly based on what’s in season, and come summer, he’ll be picking fruit from trees throughout the South Valley, having put together a list of people with trees.
Seemingly, for every new-fangled twist at The Acre, there is an old-fashioned one for balance. Yes, there is a Chicken N’ Waffle dish made with chicken-fried cauliflower, but Shawn also makes his own pickles, just like grandma used to. At any given time, there are 100 pounds of vegetables pickling in the walk-in refrigerator, with the current selection of carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers and bell peppers available as part of the simply named “Pickle” appetizer. Soon, that will shift to sweet pickles as well as spicy pickles, once jalapeños come into season.
A similar dichotomy exists in The Acre’s winsome décor. “We tried to straddle the line between modern farmhouse and country cottage,” says Danielle, CEO of the consulting firm Media Tonic, who helped decorate the 50-seat restaurant and also handles marketing, PR and social media. Modern touches include a sky-high ceiling, exposed ductwork and two huge sepia-toned photographic murals, one featuring a wheat field during the golden hour and the other a weathered barn. “It’s a little bit of the bygone era,” she says. While both are stock images due to the resolution requirements, you can see a real 1970s-era aerial image of Shawn’s grandparent’s farm in the hallway by the restrooms.
Grounding these large-scale elements, and imbuing a cozier ambiance, are the mismatched vintage white chairs, grainy shiplap walls, Edison-style pendant light fixtures and cushioned bancos covered in an array of homey pillows. Tableside, there are other retro accents, like white stoneware pitchers and housemade lemonades––the version made with Los Poblanos lavender is the most popular of the five options––served in Mason jars with paper straws.
But the pièce de résistance, as Shawn sees it, is the 16-seat communal table made of reclaimed wood. For him, it’s the embodiment of his grandparents’ picnic tables, bringing people together face-to-face over locally produced food and beverages. (New Mexico craft beers from Marble, La Cumbre, Tractor and Santa Fe Brewing Co. are featured on the drink menu, as are nitro cold-brewed coffee and iced teas from Albuquerque’s Villa Myriam.)
“I see it as akin to people sitting at the bar because they want that engagement. Like, ‘I’m here to be part of this,’” Shawn says. In the seven weeks The Acre has been open, the chef says only two parties have declined to sit at the communal table when there’s been a wait for a private one. As for the makeup of this budding interactive tribe, he estimates there’s a 50/50 split between vegetarians/vegans, and those who are not vegetarian or vegan.
“We get a lot of people that aren’t vegetarian but just want to eat healthy,” Shawn says. “People like me. I call myself a flexitarian. I don’t eat that much meat, and I just try to eat as clean as I can.” As for vegans, he reports that roughly 75 percent of the menu is “veganizable,” a fun word he and his staff coined for modifying dishes based on pre-tested approaches that meet his quality standards. Because everything is made to order, they also have the luxury of being able to leave out or replace certain ingredients on the fly. “We never say no” to diner requests, he says. “That isn’t in our belief system. We have to be extremely flexible, because it’s also part of being inclusive.”
Between “taking the burden off” vegans by anticipating their needs, feeding kids unprocessed, plant-based foods they’re predisposed to like and getting carnivorous New Mexicans to admit that, yes, The Acre’s meat- and oil-free “unrolled” enchilada isn’t missing a thing (which is truly the case with his unconventional, crave-worthy rendition), Chef Shawn’s got a lot on his plate. But judging by the full house on a recent Friday night–with everyone from families with kids to a large, multigenerational birthday party in the mix–change may be easier than you think.
The Acre is located at 4410 Wyoming Blvd. in Albuquerque, 505.299.6973, theacrerestaurant.com.