When even the tartar sauce tastes terrific — heck, when you even notice the tartar sauce, much less wish you had a whole jar — then a restaurant must be doing something right.
And Souley Vegan is doing a lot right. Despite a noisy floor fan and a name that arguably should be spelled Soully or Solely Vegan, it's an animal-free-ingredients oasis in the gritty heart of downtown Oakland. If BART-escalator lurkers, skyscrapers, and fast-food wrappers eddying in an exhaust-scented back draft give you that looming-mortality anxiety — that inchoate aching for an antidote — then Tamearra Dyson's barbecued tofu and gingery fresh-fruit drinks might just be it. Or her garlic-and-pickle-spiked potato salad, cheeseless cheesecake: gleaming golden and red-brown richnesses that flesh-eaters and even old-school vegetarians like us would say had no business being this far from bacon and Crisco.
That her creations were voted Best Soul Food in this year's Express Best of the East Bay readers' poll is "a blessing," Dyson says. "Not 'Best Vegan Soul Food' but 'Best Soul Food' — that's like ... crazy."
But crazy-good. Merging two until-now-disparate cuisines was a brainstorm born of a childhood spent eating one while intently watching another being made.
Fervently health-conscious, "my mom didn't feed us any meat," says Dyson, who grew up in Oakland. "Our desserts were apples and granola. I think it's great that she made that decision. I'm very grateful to her." But Dyson's mother also cooked breakfast daily "for my grandpa, who was Louisiana Creole and from Shreveport. Him? Vegetarian? Forget about it," Dyson laughs. "He was eatin' sausage and bacon and corn and potatoes and grits and biscuits with gravy. She made his breakfast every morning at his house, which was just a couple doors down from ours, and I would go and watch."
But never the twain met — yet. Dyson and a few friends decided at sixteen to go vegan. "For me, it wasn't such a huge leap. But we couldn't eat out in restaurants, because hardly any places understood the concept of vegetarianism, much less veganism. So I started cooking for fun. Then after I had my son at nineteen, I had to cook." Striving to raise a satisfied vegan child, Dyson remembered the vividness of her grandfather's breakfasts and started experimenting. The results were so successful that she started a vegan-soul-food catering service a year and a half ago, then set up shop at Oakland's Grand Lake and Montclair farmers' markets. Many of her patrons were "carnivores who just laughed" when they first saw her fare. "They assumed it couldn't possibly taste like soul food."
So many were proven so wrong that she decided to take the next step and open a restaurant. Only a month old, the setting itself — vintage storefront, near dive-bars and the Tribune building — has a minimalist, embryonic, almost-there air: family photos on the walls, dried flowers in tentative-looking vases. (A Billie Holiday mural is in the works.) Posted on the wall behind the cashier — and nowhere else, so you must order at the counter — the menu's print is too small.
Buy hey, if you order either of the most clearly visible items from the top of the list — the Soul Food Plate or Barbecued Tofu Plate — it's a double win. No eyestrain, plus an instant immersion into velvety-soft collard greens and melty corn-on-the-cob, snappy semolina-flour macaroni and noncheese, sweet-as-middle-school-kisses candied yams, and more, all cooked without white sugar, flesh, butter, or milk: in other words, the realm of the how-is-this-possible?
Well, not necessarily instant. While we were served promptly — we were the only diners in the place, just before 6 p.m. — waits grew longer as tables filled up. The mostly twentysomething crowd sat patiently, but one woman chided the counterman: "It's been twenty minutes, and I've got to be somewhere soon." When her plate appeared seconds later, she tucked into it with a toothier smile than one typically lets slip when alone in public. But she was eating the barbecued tofu, so who could resist?
Almost as chewy-firm as jerky outside but spongy inside, the cubes suck up a thick and plentiful burnt-umber sauce that, through a stop-everything jangle in your head, whispers capsicum and raw cane sugar. Dyson "definitely can't tell you" which actual spices she uses, she says solemnly — because these are her original recipes, she wants no imitators, and she's currently marketing a mass-produced line to stores. The fact that this is tofu, and Southern sauces could pretty much kick tofu's butt anytime, makes her artistry all the more remarkable.
She puts bean curd to another test in her crispy tofu, served as a side dish, as we had it, or in buns as burgers: Dyson's personal favorite. Inside a wrinkly, peppery cornmeal-batter blanket half an inch thick, fried in olive oil — the only type of oil Dyson uses — the tofu doesn't taste greasy. Nor does it taste like tofu. With that stunned surprise-nostalgia gawp you get when realizing, flashbang, what you have lost, Tuffy and I wailed, "This tastes exactly like fried fish." And for that hour, that restaurant brought fried fish back. Without the fish.
Daubed with homemade tofu-based tartar sauce, the tofu proves once and for all what a doctor recently told a friend of ours whom he is helping to turn vegan — It isn't the meat you'll miss, it's the contexts: the sauces, the spices, the sense of place. Remember those funky oh-so-local holes-in-the-wall where, when you were a carnivore, you walked right in (no scouring the menu for the single dish your diet might allow) and just chowed down?
Well, this is one of those. It even feels a bit like time-travel: the sharp raw honesty of eating in the era before processed food. That said, you don't expect to pay quite so much in a place that looks like this. One always pays extra for purity, but as this usually takes place amid self-congratulatorily artsy decor, one usually notices those extra dollars less. But here, they twinge — which makes you notice tics such as the tad-too-small portion size and slight carbohydrate deficit. A few extra spoonfuls of macaroni or potatoes or of rice in the red beans and rice would go a long way. But wanting more of something is one of the best compliments around.
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