Detroit Vegan Soul
8029 Agnes St., Detroit
Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday-Tuesday.
Appetizers: $3-$8; Entrées: $9-$14
Soul food and vegan fare are two things that seem like they would be on opposite ends of the food spectrum. One cuisine is famed for pork and cooking everything in pork drippings, the other avoids using even butter. But after experiencing Detroit Vegan Soul nestled into a row of shops in Detroit’s increasingly populated West Village, the idea of vegan soul food makes perfect sense, as in taking age-old comfort food and refreshing it with something new.
Detroit Vegan Soul got its start as a meal delivery service, providing both lunch and dinner to Detroiters. Orders were placed on its website, and the food was delivered to customers at home or work. Detroit Vegan Soul also honed its menus at several pop-up events. In 2012, it placed fourth in the Hatch Detroit contest, which promotes and supports small business development in Detroit. The planning that went into that competition — and the bonds formed with community development groups and building owners — brought all the pieces together.
The owners’ approach to plant-based food and cooking focuses on quality products and ingredients. Naturally, the lard typical of soul cooking is gone, but without removing the flavor. Many of the recipes, such as the smothered tempeh, are adaptations of the owners’ families’ recipes, both of which have roots in soul cooking.
The meals are well-balanced, and cooked with care. It’s likely many carnivores won’t notice there’s no meat in the dishes. That’s because the stand-ins for meat are tasty on their own — tofu with tangy, sweet barbecue sauce and tempeh cooked perfectly, covered in gravy — instead of overly processed, heavily flavored faux meat products.
Detroit Vegan Soul’s burger ($9) is a standout: tasty and filling, it’s made with savory grains and a tomato base, unusual for a veggie burger. Also, it’s served on a hearty, gluten-free onion roll. One small complaint: While the steamed sweet potatoes that came with it are a good side, they were not the “yam fries” listed on the menu.
The smothered tempeh ($12) is another winner: tender, moist tempeh covered with savory mushroom gravy and paired with mashed potatoes. The green beans that came with the dish were nice and crisp, perfectly al dente. Also, Detroit Vegan Soul has the most unusual and savory veggie bacon I’ve had: smoked coconut, sliced thin and piled on a BLT.
The black-eyed peas hummus ($7) is a great starter — rich, flavorful and sized perfectly for sharing. The okra soup ($4 per cup) is surprisingly filling, with a savory broth that’s laden with black-eyed peas and tomatoes. Creamy macaroni and cheese and lightly sweet corn muffins accompany some of the meals. Even the cole slaw is good: topped with poppy seeds and a creamy dressing.
DVS also does comfort food — hence its Wednesday special of lasagna ($13). It’s a generous portion, loaded with mushrooms, spinach and a creamy blend of vegan ricotta that will make you wonder how the cook made it with tofu. “Catfish” fritters are tofu wedges coated in corn meal and spices, then baked. There’s also a kids’ menu, and a breakfast-brunch menu on the weekends.
There are still some kinks to be worked out here. Portions, especially for the dinners, seem rather small. A lot of vegetarian and vegan eateries suffer from small-portion syndrome — it’s disappointing that a soul food joint would have the same issue. Maybe just heap the plates with more green beans and collard greens? Also, the dessert offerings are meager. The display case is usually empty; only once did they have dessert available, and there was only one choice, German chocolate cake. It ran out of before we could order. The owners say creating more dessert options is on their to-do list. Also, at the risk of sounding petty, the acoustics in this small restaurant can make conversation difficult when it’s busy.
But it’s early days yet, and our complaints are few. Detroit has long suffered from a lack of vegetarian, and, heck, even vegetarian-friendly restaurants. It’s an encouraging sign that more local eateries are stepping up to serve diverse diets — and offering healthier choices. A vegan soul joint helps fill this food gap perfectly.
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