In Search of Southern Cooking in
America at Large:
Is there a soul in vegan soul food?
So I’ve moved to California.
Perhaps it was evident from the road-trip posts, or else made clear after my dinner at The Front Porch. But if it wasn’t clear, I hereby state for the record that I am officially a Californian. An East Bay-er, to be exact. As one expects, Northern California is pretty great, and the lack of impending winter makes it even better. But there’s just a slight problem with my new home.
The Southern food trend dominating the country east of the Mississippi hasn’t quite hit. Okay, so maybe there are several Southern restaurants popping up in San Francisco, but so far it hasn’t made the leap across the Bay Bridge. What the East Bay (Oakland, in particular) does have is soul food. (It’s also full of barbecue, but that’s a story for a whole ’nother post). On my drive home through West Oakland and down San Pablo Avenue each evening, I pass signs for “Mama Mae’s Southern Food,” “Suga Hill Soul Food,” and “Wings.” There’s also “Holiday Fish Market,” “Brown Sugar Kitchen,” and “Soul’s Restaurant.” Search “soul food Oakland” on Google or Yelp and you’ll be inundated with options. Frankly, though, most of these restaurants sound the same. They’ve each got a buffet; they’ve each got fried chicken, fish, or pork; and they absolutely have black-eyed peas, collard greens, and yams.
There is one soul food spot that stands out of the crowd, however, and that’s Souley Vegan in Jack London Square. Its hook is obvious from the name—instead of frying chicken, they toss whole blocks of tofu and leaves of kale in simmering (olive) oil. Their corn bread is made with an abundance of butter substitute and they bake their macaroni in “cheeszze” sauce.
At night, the restaurant is packed with the young, skinny, trendy set. Some are eating, some just drinking, others shuffling in between tables of friends. The space is dark and filled mostly with long communal tables and an equally monstrous bar. There’s table service, but you’ve got to wait in line and order at the register first.
A couple of my friends and I had arrived late to a birthday dinner so we hurriedly placed our order and squinted through the din to find our table. The rest of our group was a few beers in, and were finishing up a shared plate of sides. A few minutes later, the food appeared, and was half thrown, half set down in front of our hungry maws. It was a bit unceremonious, but fast and hot nonetheless. I had before me a plate of the okra gumbo, served on a giant sheet of nori, while my neighbors stuck with the more popular deep fried mains: kale leaves and Southern-fried tofu.
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting from the gumbo, but rich, spice-filled notes and toasty flavor from a deep copper roux would have at least been welcome. Instead, I was met with a mélange of spicy, barely cooked vegetables, nubs of crumbly tofu, and whiffs of the ocean from the slowly softening nori sheet. It wasn’t bad, per se, but it tasted more like an omnivorous cook’s attempt at pleasing a vegan dinner-party guest than a real restaurant dish.
The fried kale was at least a more creative take. Each leaf of kale was battered and fried whole to look just like a piece of fried catfish and the breading was crisp and well-seasoned. Unfortunately, the thin kale leaves were lost amongst the breading, and the dish ended up tasting more like the fryer than fresh vegetables. In the end, the Southern-fried tofu was the winner of the entrees that evening, mimicking as best it could the texture and flavor of fried poultry: tender, moist, and salty.
I left feeling disappointed and a little confused—the Internet (and, strangely, the press) loves this place. In fact, the Internet loves this place more than most of the traditional soul food restaurants. Perhaps we just ordered the wrong dishes. I figured their sides were worth a second look.
At an early lunch hour, Souley Vegan is practically empty, but makes up for the lack of bodies with an abundance of music. Pop and hip-hop blasted in my ears as I quietly read news on my iPhone and sipped my lemon-infused ice water. I twisted my hair and tried to look busy as the bored servers did the same: sweeping, wiping counters, and tapping on the cash register. Solo lunch in such a space is a little lonely and awkward.
Also a little awkward was the leaf of green lettuce garnish on of my plates (including the side of corn bread). Naked and sticking off the side like a bright green flag, it felt just as silly as the curly-leaf parsley that used to pop up on “fancy” restaurant plates ten years ago.
The cooked food (mostly) fared better. I stuck with a traditional trio of sides—black-eyed peas, braised greens, and yams—as each are classically prepared with pork or finished with cream and butter. The beans and greens were tender, and the yams were buttery soft. Frankly, the meal was completely unremarkable. In fact, the only distinctive element to each side was the overabundance of spice and sugar. I found my mouth filling with dried oregano, thyme, and cinnamon as if the spice rack could make up for the lack of rich animal fat. Instead of building flavor with slowly caramelized onions, garlic roasted in olive oil, or (oooh!) charred hot peppers doused in vibrant vinegar, the kitchen seemed content to rely solely on their vegan crutch. Most home cooks with a sauté pan and a bottle of olive oil could make this food in their own kitchen and it wouldn’t cost fifteen to thirty bucks a plate.
It’s a shame, actually, that the restaurant isn’t more successful. Preparing healthier soul food is a noble task, and an admittedly tough one. Soul food is notorious for its high-calorie, gut-busting, and nap-inducing food. For a population accustomed to meat-and-threes, Souley Vegan’s swap-the-meat-for-tofu approach seems to make sense, but I’m not so sure deep frying tofu is the healthiest option. Instead, I’d argue that a more integrated approach to healthy soul food is needed. Not only would a restaurant advocating for more gradual dietary change engage more traditional customers (not just the already vegan twenty-somethings populating Souley Vegan’s tables), but it would also embrace an approach already ingrained within the ethos Southern cooking: an embrace of vegetables, respect for the seasons, and frugal use of pork, chicken, and dairy.