Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Restaurants

Vegan soul food? It exists, if you know where to look

In a recent commercial for Scion, California chef Bryant Terry visits farmer's markets, works on his garden and prepares meals at home from his cookbook Vegan Soul Kitchen.

Wait? Vegan soul food? Years ago, I would have scoffed at the very thought. My dad was born and raised in Alabama, so family visits invariably featured big, meat-centric meals; even the vegetables were drowned in a ham-based stock. Vegan cooking and the kind of rich, Southern-style comfort fare usually dubbed "soul food" seem worlds apart.

In the 15 years since I became vegan, however, plant-based soul food has become a regular part of my diet. My girlfriend's specialty is Southern-style fried tofu, and even my non-vegetarian mom prepares vegan black-eyed peas, collards and corn bread each New Year's. I can cook a batch of hoppin' john that tastes every bit as flavorful as the traditional version, and I've mastered just about every green one would want to cook.

But sometimes I just don't want to cook. Comfort food is that much more comforting when you don't have to make it, and sometimes you just want an easy Sunday brunch after a particularly rough Saturday night. Fortunately, there are a couple places in the bay area where you can get your Southern cooking fix, all vegan, and all delicious.

Cafe Hey is a hip coffee shop and cafe located near downtown Tampa, and while it offers some great vegan options, the last Sunday of each month is dedicated to the Not Just For Omnivores Brunch, featuring both vegan and non-vegan versions of the brunch classics, with a touch of soul-food flair.

I visited in August and had Dawn's vegan chicken and waffles, with a side of smoky-but-sweet collards and an order of biscuits and gravy. Last month's selections included vegan "eggs" Benedict, vegan chorizo and pepper polenta, and vegan broccoli mac and cheese.

In nearby Seminole Heights, Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe has dubbed every Sunday Soul Food Sundays, and although the selection is generally as meat-heavy as the name would suggest, there's more than enough vegan fare for the hungry soul-food seeker to choose from.

For the main course, Ella's offers a homemade veggie burger decked out with sprouts, avocado relish and crispy onions; as well as a vegan version of a Kansas City-style BBQ sandwich, made from smoked textured vegetable protein and portobello mushrooms. The sides are a must, though, with options like vegan mac and cheese, sweet potato fries, and smoked corn on the cob. You can order three sides for $10, so I'd suggest visiting with a small group, going wild on the app orders, and sharing everything family-style.

While it's not unusual to find a wealth of vegan options at hip, eclectic spots like Café Hey and Ella's, seafood joints are usually slim pickings. Many seafood restaurants include "crab shack" in the name, but few fit the bill like Wild Blue Crab & Shrimp, a tiny, divey eatery in downtown St. Pete's Grand Central district. With a name like that, finding vegan anything seems improbable, yet, there it is, right on the sign: the vegan po' boy.

Yep, at Wild Blue Crab & Shrimp, you can order a hefty, hunger-busting po' boy (although this boy isn't as "po" as the non-vegan options; it's a couple dollars more) made up of Tofurky sausage, Vegenaise, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles and french fries — no one said it has to be healthy just because it's vegan — on a fresh sandwich roll. Order it spicy!

This po' boy is very filling, so you can even split it with a friend and order a side or two to bring up the difference. In that regard, Wild Blue Crab & Shrimp has vegetarian red beans and rice, garlic or hot potatoes, corn, and even Southern caviar itself: boiled peanuts.

If you want to try your hand at vegan soul food cooking, then Terry's Vegan Soul Kitchen is unquestionably the best place to start. But if it's a lazy Sunday and you simply need some good, home-style Southern cooking in your stomach pronto, then it's nice to know you've got some options.

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