If juice bars on every corner and avocado toast on trendy menus weren’t enough to convince you, the debut of the Impossible Whopper at Burger King should remove all doubt. The vegan diet has gone mainstream.
Not that everyone is rushing to go all in on the lifestyle, by any means. But the growing number of people testing the waters with an occasional meal free of animal products, added to those already fully committed to the lifestyle, has created fertile soil for a new crop of exclusively vegan restaurants.
Earth to Us, Soul Good Vegan Cafe and Vegan Community Kitchen are prime examples. Each of these restaurants has roots in a different culture, yielding a windfall of diverse flavors sure to change the mind of anyone who thought “foodie” and “vegan” were mutually exclusive terms.
Note: In the interest of saving ink (and sparing your eyes), I’ve opted not to use quotation marks to signify vegan versions of traditionally animal-based dishes, like barbecue “chicken.” It’s safe to assume that any “meat” or “cheese” served at these restaurants is vegan.
Earth to Us
1720 Guess Road, Suite 18, Durham
Owner Yanitza “Jenny” Pubill was born in Puerto Rico and moved to the United States with her family when she was 12 years old. She draws on both cultures to produce a menu of what she calls “American and Latin vegan comfort food.”
Cauliflower wings, battered and deep-fried, will satisfy a craving for Buffalo wings (unless that craving includes gnawing on the bones). The mac and cheese plate with barbecue chicken (whose texture comes surprisingly close to the real thing) and slaw is just one item short of a diner-style meat-and-three plate. And if you’re wondering what all the fuss is about the Impossible burger, here’s your chance to find out.
Better still, bring a friend for a side-by-side comparison of the Impossible burger and its chief competitor, the Beyond burger. They serve both here, with lettuce, tomato, caramelized onions and Bang Bang sauce (Pubill’s answer to the sauce served on shrimp at a certain upscale-casual seafood chain). My vote goes to the Impossible burger.
That said, there are lots of places that serve the Impossible burger nowadays. But restaurants that serve vegan arepas? Earth to Us offers two variations: the Domino (black beans and cheese), and La Catira (maduros and cheese). Next time I’m at Earth to Us, I’m getting one of each.
Then I’m going to try a vegan take on the Puerto Rican classic, arroz con pollo. That is, if I can resist the temptation of an encore performance of the aptly named Yellow Bowl: cumin-scented chickpeas, arroz con gandules (another Puerto Rican favorite pairing rice and pigeon peas), and tostones drizzled with Bang Bang sauce.
Earth to Us is a cheery little counter-service eatery whose name is echoed in whimsical touches — miniature globes on the tables, a full-size bicycle with ET riding in the handlebar basket — that will surely put a smile on your face as you walk in. Rest assured, you’ll still be smiling when you walk out.
Soul Good Vegan Cafe
4125 Durham Chapel Hill Blvd., Durham
Turns out we Southerners were wrong about pork being an essential seasoning for collard greens. Soul Good Vegan Cafe cooks up a mean mess of collards, and there’s not a lick of pork in them. I had them recently as one of the sides on a curry chickpea platter. If that combination strikes you as unlikely, it won’t once you’ve had a look at the eclectic menu, which might best be described as vegan soul food with a Caribbean accent.
Alternatively, you might tuck into a platter of jerk chicken with, say, candied yams and sautéed kale. Or pulled jackfruit barbecue with plantains and a pickle-punctuated potato salad. Whichever you choose, you’ll also get a mound of white rice and a square of sweet cornbread with your platter.
Jackfruit barbecue, topped with slaw and served on a toasted bun, is one of a handful of sandwich options on a list that also includes a couple of soy protein sandwiches — one seasoned with allspice (there’s that Caribbean touch again), and one amped up with Sriracha. Sandwiches come with organic blue corn chips and and a house-made sofrito sauce on the side.
The menu also offers a few starters (veggie spring rolls, Buffalo bites), salads and smoothies — none of which I’ve tried yet. But I wasn’t able to resist the siren call of cupcakes on a glass-domed cake stand on the counter. I succumbed to the charms of Cherie’s carrot spice cake, and I don’t regret it.
Soul Good Vegan Cafe is a modest family-run eatery with a sheltered patio tucked in at the end of a strip mall run by Goddess Deborah Webb, her ex-husband, Leroy, and her son Yachdiyel. After operating for two years as Souly Vegan Cafe, the owners recently dropped that clunky moniker for a much catchier one.
Other than the name change, Goddess Webb assures me that other changes will be minor. The menu will get a few additions, including a power bowl, and a couple of less popular items will be dropped. Just as long as they don’t mess with that recipe for collard greens, I’m okay with it.
Vegan Community Kitchen
803 E. Williams St., Apex
In Turkey, the vegan lifestyle isn’t breaking news. It’s ancient history.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Turkish native Sadiye Sezenol turns out a mouthwatering assortment of dishes at Vegan Community Kitchen. Sezenol, whose sister owns the original Vegan Community Kitchen in Istanbul, opened the second location in Apex in January with her daughter, Cansu Sarcan.
While Sarcan tends the order counter with unassuming charm, her mother is back in the kitchen, turning out an impressive variety of sweet and savory fare. Spanakopita is a first-rate starter. Follow it with the falafel combo, which comes with stuffed grape leaves, hummus and pita (or gluten-free bread if you prefer), and you’ve got a most satisfying meal. If you don’t have room for baklava, by all means get some to take home for later.
Or create your own Mediterranean salad sampler, choosing from the tempting display in the refrigerated case. Options cover the spectrum from classic baba ghanoush to a contemporary kale and quinoa salad punctuated with dried cranberries and walnuts. An herb-flecked Italian potato salad is so good, you’ll be excused if you make it two of the items on a four-item sampler.
But what about Turkey’s most famous dish, you may be wondering? What about doner kebab? Sadiye Sezenol makes it with seitan, whose texture comes impressively close to the meat-based version. You can get it in a wrap or on a platter with rice, or — my favorite — as Iskender kebab, served over pita and topped with tomato sauce and yogurt.
Slices of doner kebab also make a cameo appearance as one of the toppings on the excellent Kitchen Burger, one of a handful of culinary tributes to the owners’ adopted home. Others include mac and cheese with broccoli, and a Southwestern-style baked sweet potato stuffed with black beans, corn and avocado.
Oh, and if you like the baklava, you’ll love the apple strudel.