It isn’t every day that a McDonald’s shuts down and gets replaced by a vegan sandwich shop — and one that’s a Black-owned, community-oriented nonprofit to boot.
But that was the word on the street when The Veg Hub opened in Oakland’s Dimond District this past December. You know the usual narrative of big-box chain stores infiltrating our cities and driving out all of the little mom-and-pops? This was the opposite of that, pretty much.
This would be a good place to point out, for the sake of journalistic accuracy, that the part about the McDonald’s isn’t entirely
accurate. Chef GW Chew explained that the space he took over was the vacant storefront next door to the McDonald’s, which wound up closing while The Veg Hub was getting ready to open its doors. That former McDonald’s is still sitting empty.
But the basic sentiment was more or less accurate.
As Chew put it, “We didn’t take over the McDonald’s, but we kind of filled in the gap as the main restaurant on that corner.”
That McDonald’s used to serve a lot of the neighborhood’s older residents, who used it as a place where they could buy a simple meal and get off their feet for a while. Now, The Veg Hub has taken on that role, Chew said.
In nearly every respect, The Veg Hub is not your typical vegan sandwich shop. Start with the fact that it serves food that your average McDonald’s customer might actually want to eat. The touchstones of the menu all come from the fast-food world. There’s a vegan Philly cheesesteak, vegan cheese fries, and a surprisingly on-the-nose vegan version of ballpark nachos. Almost every item costs less than $10, and most of it has the salty-fatty craveability of the kind of fare you might get from a greasy-spoon diner or a street-food vendor.
“You want to have food that’s familiar,” Chew explained, noting that some of his customers have never even heard of quinoa or couscous or many of the dishes you’ll find at a more typical vegan restaurant.
The other thing that’s unusual about The Veg Hub is that it’s run as a nonprofit. Chew, a pastor with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, explained that he had been running a vegan restaurant called Something Better Foods in Lafayette, Arkansas, when the Northern California branch of the church recruited him to launch something similar in Oakland. The restaurant’s rather unorthodox business hours — it’s only open Monday through Thursday — stem from its affiliation with the Seventh-day Adventists, who don’t work from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. So, too, does the restaurant’s social mission, which will mostly consist of hosting free cooking classes and otherwise educating the local community about healthy eating. (Chew explained that the restaurant isn’t anti-meat, per se, and won’t campaign against people eating it.)
The chef, who has been vegan since 2000, said that he started experimenting with developing vegan food products in 2004 — a years-long process that culminated in the creation of Better Than Meats, the faux-meat company he started in Arkansas that supplied all the meats for his first restaurant. Chew explained that he didn’t have any formal background in food science, so his creations have largely been a matter of trial and error. Over the years, the chef has experimented with using potatoes and oats. But his signature faux meats are all made with GMO-free soybeans, using a proprietary process that yields a product that has a texture similar to very soft yuba, aka tofu skin — but juicier and more texturally appealing.
If you order one thing at The Veg Hub, let it be the “Philly Cheeze Melt,” which might be the only legitimately delicious veganized cheesesteak I’ve ever eaten. What’s remarkable about the “meat” itself is how Chew, through whatever kind of food-science wizardry, was able to approximate the soft nubs of fat that you get in a well-marbled and properly grilled ribeye steak — an effect I’ve rarely even found in cheesesteaks made with actual steak, if I’m being honest.
The other secret weapon in that cheesesteak is something that Chew calls “Hub Sauce,” which is basically his version of Cheez Whiz or nacho cheese. Made with nothing but cashews, carrots, and a special seasoning blend, the Hub sauce had all of the oozy, salty, addictive quality that makes real nacho cheese such an appealing fast-food ingredient. Dispensed from squeeze bottles, the stuff tasted so much like the real thing that my mind had a hard time accepting that this could be a “healthy” food product — despite Chew’s assurances that it consists almost entirely of puréed carrots and cashews, giving it a higher fiber content than any other cheese you’re likely to encounter. The key, Chew says, is the use of nutritional yeast flakes in the seasoning blend, which helps bring out the umami flavor of a conventional processed cheese.
A nice finishing touch: the smoked cabbage that Chew adds to many of the sandwiches, providing a vegetal sweetness that helps balance out the saltiness of the meats and the cheese.
The menu has a fairly typical mix-and-match format. For each sandwich, customers can pick between the cheesesteak, the “chicken,” and a cheesy sautéed spinach-and-mushroom option, and then one of five flavors — Classic, Bar-B-Chew, Italian Marinara, Teriyaki, and Jalapeño Ranch. The chicken had a slightly lighter, airier texture than the steak, and went particularly well with the mild heat of the Jalapeño Ranch. The not-too-sweet Bar-B-Chew was my favorite flavor of the bunch. The Classic skewed a bit too salty, and the Italian Marinara featured a lot less tomato sauce, and a lot more spinach and mushrooms, than what I expected.
There are also a couple of different bread options, among which the Dutch Crunch is almost always the correct answer. If you aren’t in the mood for a sandwich, you can also get your faux meats in salad form or as a quesadilla, though the latter would be much better if it had crisper edges. Whatever you do, do not accept the cashier’s offer to add lettuce and tomato to your cheesesteak, unless you want to endure the mockery of the obnoxious East Coast transplant in your party.
The most boring thing on the menu is probably the sesame kale salad, which suffers for not being substantively different from any other salad you might get at a health-oriented fast-casual restaurant. Some of the best items were things you’d never expect to find at a vegan restaurant. The “Cheeze Steak Fries,” for instance, which were better and more decadent-tasting than probably 70 percent of the non-vegetarian steak-topped fries I’ve eaten. And the nachos — topped with several liberal squirts of Hub Sauce, olives, pickled jalapeños, and your choice of faux meat — would be an instant best-seller if the A’s ever decided to served them at the concession stand.
In a few weeks, Chew plans to introduce a selection of soul food plates that will include a version of fried chicken (made with garbanzo beans and brown rice), a “Porterhouse Steak,” yams, greens, and vegan mac and cheese.
Like most new restaurants, The Veg Hub has a few consistency issues. At least during my one visit when Chef Chew himself wasn’t in the kitchen, the food quality suffered a bit — the faux meats were a bit drier, and the aforementioned smoked cabbage was nowhere to be seen.
But if we’re judging the restaurant on the extent to which it has become a real neighborhood fixture that serves food for the people, and caters to a remarkably diverse mix of customers in Oakland — rich, poor, old, young, Black, white, brown, and across just about any other demographic? Based on those criteria, The Veg Hub is already as big a success as any other vegan restaurant in town.