Many people are scared of Detroit, a city well known for blight and a high crime rate. But vegetarians and vegans need not fear starving in the Motor City. In fact, if you keep your eyes open and exercise some caution, it’s a fun and fascinating city with plenty of good things to eat. On a recent trip, these three very different restaurants stood out. All are affordable – think entrees under $15 – and offer lots of variety for veg folks.
Detroit Vegan Soul
This only-in-Detroit restaurant veganizes traditional African American soul food. I was especially excited to eat here, as only a few restaurants around the country have embraced this concept.
The owners are two young African American women, Erika Boyd and Kirsten Ussery. “We became vegan for health reasons, just to break the cycle of disease in our family,” Ussery told me during my evening visit. Ussery worked in public relations and Boyd was a master barber. They started out doing meal delivery and catering as a sideline, “Just to see how people would receive it,” Ussery said. “We wanted to share the type of food that we liked to eat.”
Judging from the happy mixed race crowd tucking into dinner, I’d say the vegan soul food concept has been well-received in Detroit. Boyd and Ussery are now planning to open a second location in the Grandmont Rosedale neighborhood.
The décor at Detroit Vegan Soul is light and clean, favoring green and white. Our table of three started with the black-eyed pea hummus and Southern fried tofu bites with spicy buffalo dipping sauce. I’m not the biggest black-eyed pea fan, but can confidently say their transformation into hummus improved them. Calling the deep-fried tofu bites “healthy” might be an overstatement, but they were tasty.
After the tofu bites, I decided to go lighter on dinner, so got the sesame kale salad with added tempeh and avocado slices. The kale was well-massaged so as not to be too tough. Fortunately for my photo opp, one of my dinner companions ordered the soul food platter, which includes mac and cheese, collards, maple smoked yams, black eyed peas and a cornbread muffin. All vegan, of course. My other companion ordered a wrap, which included the restaurant’s house-made coconut bacon, which was dark, crumbly and smoky-tasting.
Detroit Vegan Soul also offers smoothies and vegan milkshakes. The dessert choices were strawberry or peach cobbler, cookies or a moist cinnamon coffee cake. I was too full for dessert, but had the foresight to snag a coffee cake to eat with coffee the next morning, which proved an excellent move.
Detroit gallery owner George N’Namdi was a huge fan of Seva, a vegetarian restaurant first opened in Ann Arbor in 1973. He courted the owners, trying to get them to open a Detroit branch. And he had the ideal spot for it directly behind his gallery.
So the restaurant opened its huge East Forest Avenue space –two large rooms plus a sizable outdoor patio — four years ago. Manager Daniel “DJ” Mataczynski joined the staff a few months after the opening. He attributes the restaurant’s success to location. “Vegetarianism isn’t as popular here [in Detroit] as some places, but Seva benefits from being near Wayne State University and DIA [Detroit Art institute.] They’re at an age where people decide what they want to be. College freshmen often decide they want to be vegetarian.”
A generally accelerated interest in food brings in non-vegetarians, too. “People now are more keen on knowing where their food is coming from,” Mataczynski said. “They want fresh food. People are interested in eating healthier.”
Seva’s menu is accessible to the average American, with a Portabella version of a French dip, a veg Reuben and a grilled pesto pizza sandwich. Owners Jeff and Maren Jackson wanted to take food people missed, and make it vegetarian, Mataczynski said.
My group started with drinks. I got a jalapeno smash, a mocktail made with orange juice, lime and chunks of jalapeno. My server wasn’t too encouraging on this drink – I suspect some diners aren’t expecting so much kick from the floating chunks of jalapeno. I loved it.
For appetizers, we shared two of Seva’s newer dishes, shishito peppers blistered in olive oil, and haloumi bites with house-made almond cheese and garbanzo-lemon salsa. Both were hits. While most of the peppers are mild, the menu warns that about one in ten will make you stand up and take notice. Mataczynski said the most popular appetizer is General Tso’s cauliflower, which involves frying the vegetable in a gluten-free tempura batter.
Seva is committed to making everything possible in-house. The thick tortilla chips on my taco salad were house-made, as is their pad Thai sauce, and they’re currently experimenting with smoking their own tempeh. The pastry chef at Seva’s Ann Arbor location makes seasonal desserts for both places. On Sundays, Seva offers a special brunch menu.
This Middle Eastern restaurant isn’t vegetarian, but has many veg menu items. We visited on a Saturday at lunch and found the restaurant totally empty, except for one server and a cook. Turns out it’s more an afternoon and evening place, our server said. It’s kind of nice to have a restaurant to yourself, but if you visit on a Saturday, beware – they might be out of a lot of items, as this is the time they’re replenishing supplies.
Still, we ordered way more than we could eat. Our falafel-heavy lunch was due to an intriguing section of the menu called “special falafel ideas.” Never having seen these inventive dishes, we ordered several. The Arabi falafel, which our server said is their biggest veg seller, is a big falafel sandwich stuffed with hummus and veggies, then grilled. I was especially excited about the falamankoush, a zaater pie stuffed with veggies and falafel. Zataar pies are pita bread with a special Syrian dried spice mixture of sumac, marjoram, oregano, thyme or similar. This turned out to be my favorite. These were both hefty sandwiches, cut into pieces and shared throughout our table. We also tried a falafel burger. The generously sized portions are a steal at $4.50 to $7.95.
Other intriguing menu items that we didn’t try include a falafel omelet, fruity nutty fatoush salad, a barbeque falafel pita and the Flobby Joe – a falafel burger with veg chili and tahini sauce.
Real Bottom Line: During my visit to Detroit, I encountered more veg awareness than I expected. Detroit has been through hard financial times and has received a lot of bad press. So if you want to help a great American city get back on its feet, do your part by visiting Detroit with an open mind and a big appetite. – Story and photos by Teresa Bergen, RFT Vegan/Vegetarian Editor