A few strands of tinsel sparkle at the end of the driveway where the garbage guys took away the Christmas tree, hostage-style, to be chipped. Your New Year’s Eve hangover has dissipated but your resolutions are just settling. This year, this 2019, end of the second decade of a new century, this is the year I will get in shape, eat right, and so forth and so on. At every gym in the land, membership desks have staffed up. They’ve got new Zumba classes to tell you about and fresh pens with which you can sign on the dotted line.
Restaurants, on the other hand, have finished their monster month of parties and heavy reservations. They are regrouping, restocking, setting the ships back on course. January, for them, is a little slower.
Thus, it’s a good time for resolute diners to embrace some of the new crop of vegetarian, vegan and raw restaurants. We may not have committed to going meat-free, but let’s agree that if we all ate a little less meat (a single meal? Meatless Monday?), we would be better off, as would our planet.
The area has seen a marked uptick in veg, vegan and raw options recently. (For those unfamiliar with raw, it is a style of food preparation that doesn’t take ingredients past 117 degrees, the point at which helpful enzymes are killed.) There were the pioneers like Leafy Greens Café in St. Petersburg and Loving Hut, an outpost of an international vegan chain, in Tampa. Then came excellent players like Cider Press Café, Meze 119, Love Food Central and Lotus Vegan, all in St. Petersburg. (Tampa, this is an arena in which you lag.) Then 2018 kicked off with Ray’s Vegan Soul in St. Pete and another raft of exciting options. Here are a few you should check out.
Golden Dinosaurs Vegan Deli
This past year was a monster one for vegans and vegetarians. So many new places opened. But one thing we really didn’t have until August was a vegan deli.
Mangia Gourmet was a fairly bare-bones veggie-friendly storefront in Gulfport, always seeming a little underfunded. Husband-and-wife team Brian and Audrey Dingeman (vegan for a decade) took it over and did a lot with the straightforward tile floors and popcorn ceiling by adding a pink-gold-chartreuse color scheme and some funky art. It still feels like classic neighborhood Gulfport.
There’s a glass cake case next to the order counter that features Audrey’s truly good cakes and desserts. (I’ve groused about vegan desserts in the past — they frequently seem dry and gudgy simultaneously, an unfortunate textural miracle.) But the real draw is the from-scratch vegan sausages, cutlets, seitan and straight-up solid vegan hot dogs, taken all-the-way Chicago style. They have a beer and wine license (local offerings like Green Bench and Pinellas Ale Works), serve a lot of excellent kombucha and local Bandit coffee, and have a large, light-strung outdoor patio that is robustly pet-friendly.
Top offering among vegans and carnivores alike seems to be the Cuban sandwich ($10), crunchily pressed Cuban bread slathered with mayo and mustard and swathed with pickles, but then the sleight-of-hand part is a layer of vegan cheese and seitan “mojo pork” that has nice tooth resistance and chew. They do two versions of a Reuben sandwich that are laudable ($9.50), both heaped with lively, lovely St. Pete Ferments sauerkraut. (The company has been around for a couple of years; you can find its products at many of the local outdoor markets as well as at Locale in St. Pete, Brick Street Farms and at Inside the Box at Armature Works.) And you have to finish things up with a chocolate chunk sea salt cookie, the chocolate sourced from nearby Pinellas Chocolate Company. For such a tiny, casual spot, the Dingemans’ attention to local and regional sourcing is impressive.
Rawk Star Café St. Pete
Another husband-and-wife team, Karen DiGloria and Adam Kantrovitz, opened the first location of Rawk Star Café in 2010 in Oldsmar. This second, a franchise location, opened in May next to the Chihuly Collection in downtown St. Petersburg. It has built its reputation on dairy-free, corn-free, gluten-free, soy-free and GMO-free foods. Whew, that’s a lot of freedom.
Rawk Star traffics in raw, organic and gluten-free products crafted into smoothies, wraps, salads and entrees like “rawghetti,” zucchini-and-kelp-based pasta topped with veggies and a grated nut cheese. Food is either raw or it is prepared in dehydrators (no grill, oven, microwave, etc.), and there’s a short list of organic wines, beer, prosecco and juices as accompaniment.
It’s a light, airy, attractive space with high ceilings, lots of windows and some lovely hand-painted tile work (also, love the swing chairs). It’s an order-at-the-counter-and-take-a-number kind of place; your food will find you.
I think the biggest gift the restaurant has given downtown St. Pete comes in the morning. There is seriously smart breakfast food here, a meal that can be challenging if you are both vegan and gluten-free. They make a wonderful chia pudding ($4.99), great flavor and texture, which can be gussied up with toppings like mixed fruit, granola, goji berries or cacao nibs for 99 cents each. There’s a tropical acai bowl ($8.99) that competes ably with the growing legion of solid acai offerings in our area, and some buckwheat- and oat-based cereals ($4.99) that are filling, tasty and wholesome. Or, in a totally different direction, there’s a chocolatey cake doughnut ($3.99) that makes a decadent virtue of ingredients like golden flax, agave and coconut.
The rest of the day, wraps ($9.99) like an avocado DLT (that’s dulse, which is sea lettuce flake, mixed greens and tomato) lean too heavily on their huge collard leaf exterior wrap — that’s a lot of raw collard. But there are really successful sandwich presentations, like a basil wrap with eggless egg salad that even a staunch carnivore won’t find lacking.
Farmacy Vegan Kitchen
Alright, this one opened in 2017, not 2018, but it has really found its legs. Located inside the Duckweed Urban Grocery in Tampa, it’s a quick-serve vegan restaurant offering an appealing array of acai bowls, smoothies, juices and wraps. You’re mostly going to take foods to-go here, ordering from the attractive wood-backed order counter.
The biggest strengths are the decadent baked goods: crazy-good cinnamon rolls, things like blueberry lemon doughnuts, s’mores doughnuts and chocolatey ones crisscrossed with gooey sauces. But I’ve also been impressed with their cavatappi mac and cheese made with their house-made cashew cheese sauce ($10, and it reheats at home super well); their version of the Impossible Burger on a toasted Philly roll with provolone ($12); and a whole bunch of great treatments with chickpeas, from a curried roasted chickpea salad to a dish that tosses the little guys in a garlicky/pickly dill mayo, both $4.50. (On a tangent, it’s interesting how many longtime vegetarians and vegans detest the Impossible Burger because it’s just too darned meatlike.) What Farmacy brings to the table is a sophistication option for grab-and-go finished vegan foods as an alternative to restaurant takeout for folks who live downtown or in the burgeoning Channelside area.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines unannounced and the Times pays all expenses.