Vegan Flava for healthy eaters
By Greg Cox
Review originally published 8/18/2016
Are you a vegan? Into the raw foods lifestyle? Then you know how severely limited your options are at area restaurants, and will welcome this newcomer to the local dining scene.
Vegan Flava Cafe
4125 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., Durham
Entering Vegan Flava Cafe, you’re transported from a nondescript strip mall on a busy commercial thoroughfare to another world. Or rather, worlds – plural – might be more accurate for the exuberant jumble that includes a wall-spanning replica of an Egyptian papyrus covered in hieroglyphics, framed color photographs of the historic Thrilla in Manila boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, and an abundance of potted plants. On the wall behind the counter, next to a display of international paper currency notes, a chalkboard is covered with the menu and daily specials.
On Fridays, one of those specials is “fish” cakes. An impressively accurate vegan rendition with a pan-crisped cornmeal breading, they’re served with fragrant coconut rice (brown basmati), fried sweet plantains and a kale salad so tender (thanks to massaging in olive oil) that you’ll rethink your decision to swear off anything containing raw kale.
The fish “cakes” are toothsome evidence that, while some vegans may turn up their noses at dishes that try to emulate animal-based proteins, owner/chef Yah-I Ausar Tafari Amen is not one of them. Amen, who worked in health food stores from his native Brooklyn to Atlanta, then sold his creations from a food truck at the Durham Farmers’ Market before opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant a year ago, is all-embracing in his pursuit of dishes that are as tasty as they are nutritious.
The search may lead to India for the likes of curry lentils or chana masala, or to Mexico for tacos with a ground walnut filling that nails the flavor (and comes reasonably close to the texture) of the spicy ground beef it seeks to replace. Come on a Tuesday or Thursday, and you can get a special that pairs a taco with Amen’s take on Creole red beans and rice.
Closer to home, a vegan riff on tuna salad made with shredded carrots captures the essence of the deli classic, though the color and underlying earthy-sweet root vegetable flavor leave no doubt as to the main ingredient. Barbecue jackfruit uses the tropical fruit’s relatively neutral (albeit a bit tangy) flavor as a canvas for a Midwestern-style barbecue sauce.
The popular cashew cheesecake wasn’t available when I visited Vegan Flava Cafe recently, but a pecan pie with a filling as rich as pralines was a hit at our table. So was the Island Smoothie, thick as a milkshake and bursting with the flavors of mango, pineapple and banana puréed in a base of organic almond milk.
Portions are generous and prices are eminently reasonable, topping out at $12 for those plate-loaded daily specials – which, on Sundays, include the Full Brunch: organic black beans, non-GMO grits, kale salad and a side of gluten-free pancakes. The wait staff (it’s full table service here, notwithstanding the counter) are friendly and helpful.
In short, if you’re a vegan purist, you’ll have to pick and choose your way through the menu to avoid dishes whose proteins are in quotation marks. But if it’s flavor – er, flava – you’re after, then the worlds are your oyster.