Saturday, December 5, 2020
Dec. 5, 2020

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Sprouting time for vegan meals

Plant-based dishes are having a moment during the pandemic

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The Mighty Bowl offshoot Moo is among the growing ranks of local vegan options.
The Mighty Bowl offshoot Moo is among the growing ranks of local vegan options. (Rachel Pinsky) Photo Gallery

Restaurants are struggling right now, but sometimes adversity creates opportunity. One thing that has come out of the pandemic is a new interest in feeding Vancouver’s growing number of both committed vegans and those interested in trying plant-based dishes. In the process, local restaurants are surprising meat eaters with comforting, luscious food that dispels outdated myths that healthy food has to be boring and flavorless.

“I don’t feel like I have to go to Portland to eat. It used to be a lot harder to get good vegan food here,” said Rachael Stinson, a member of the Vegan Couv Facebook group, the epicenter of vegan culture in Vancouver.

When Stinson joined the group in 2012, it had only 14 members and not much activity.

“The posts used to be tips and tricks on how to modify menu items. Now it’s more like: Here’s this new vegan dish,” she said.

In the past eight years, the group has expanded to 1,000 members and dining out in Vancouver has become less challenging. Both locally owned and chain restaurants are adding vegan options.

“When I first went vegan, no one had vegan on the menu. Now at most places there’s a vegan option,” Stinson said.

Some of her favorites are the vegan items at Rally Pizza and breakfast meals like a vegan egg-and-sausage sandwich from Seize the Bagel. Ice cream at Treat and Ice Cream Renaissance make her especially happy.

“Having kids, I want to go to an ice cream shop where they can get a scoop of ice cream in a cone. Just because I choose to be vegan, I don’t want to live a weird life,” she said.

Janelle Cruz joined Vegan Couv about five years ago when she moved to Vancouver. Back then there were about 500 members and posts focused on vegan food in Portland.

“There’s an increase in vegan options almost anywhere in Vancouver. Some places have extensive options,” she said.

Cruz particularly likes the vegan menu at Sugar and Salt. There are also a lot of vegan pizza choices including places that make their own vegan cheese like Rally Pizza and Nonavo, Cruz said.

In response to an increasing demand for vegan dishes combined with the need for business owners to pivot in order to survive dining room shutdowns, two new 100 percent plant-based food businesses were recently launched by well-known Vancouver restaurateurs.

In late August, The Mighty Bowl’s owner, Steve Valenta, opened Moo, which currently operates Friday through Sunday night in The Mighty Bowl space.

“It seems crazy to open a 100 percent plant-based restaurant here, especially during a pandemic,” Valenta said.

Pre-pandemic, The Mighty Bowl was a popular lunch spot packed with office workers seeking smoothies, grain bowls and salads. When the virus started to spread, Valenta closed his dining room before Gov. Jay Inslee shut everything down. The Mighty Bowl’s indoor space remains shuttered.

“We’re shifting gears to survival during the pandemic,” Valenta said. “Mighty Bowl did OK, but dinner has never been great. We wanted to create something more dinner-friendly. It also had to align with our values of being plant-based.”

Valenta knew there was a growing vegan population in Vancouver. Since opening Moo, he’s discovered a plant-curious demographic.

“I’ve received the best feedback from carnivores,” he said.

Enthusiasm from carnivores may be because the dishes Moo serves aren’t the stereotypical 1970s hippie health food typified by thick slices of dry whole grain bread or a mountain of grassy sprouts. Moo’s menu features Impossible Burgers with four different choices of toppings.

Suzie Herrmann, chef and business development manager for Moo, describes herself as a chef and an artist. When developing the menu, she wanted to have a variety of options — one spicy, one with mushrooms, one barbecue, and one plain.

Valenta and Herrmann felt that burgers must be served with fries. Herrmann created a baked shoestring fry that has become extremely popular with customers.

“The fry thing has been the most dramatic,” Valenta said.

On the first weekend, they sold out of fries quickly and had to substitute another fry to keep up with demand. They’ve since prepared for any future fry onslaughts.

Valenta is working on getting a license to sell beer to go with the burgers. A rotating selection of craft beer with interesting flavors, like a guava passionfruit sour from Modern Times Beer in Portland, can be sipped at the outdoor parklet. Food delivery is available through the Moo website.

Bonnie Brasure, owner of Bleu Door Bakery, became a vegan several years ago and has been trying to incorporate a plant-based diet into her cafe menu ever since. Her vegan macaroni and cheese and plant-based pastries like quiche, key lime pie and decadent vegan chocolate cake are legendary.

Brasure, like Valenta, closed her dining room in the early days of the pandemic. In this empty space, Brasure thought about how she could realize her dream of opening a 100 percent plant-based business. She was also hungry.

“I’m a vegan, I’m starved and I’m tired of cooking,” she said. “Vegan cooking without pre-processed stuff is a lot of work. You need to soak cashews to create a cheese sauce. How about if someone did that for you?”

Unfortunately, Brasure’s new 100 percent vegan food business, three course meals and pints of sauces won’t mean less cooking for Brasure, but will be a boon for Vancouverites seeking ready-to-eat plant-based meals. The three-course dinners will come with a salad, entree and dessert. Ingredients are sourced from local farms like Gather and Feast. Meatloaf and gravy with either scalloped potatoes or mashed potatoes will be the first entree offered. Dessert might be a galette or hand pie. In creating a menu, Brasure is focusing on making luscious, plant-based food that can easily be reheated. Future offerings may included lasagna and fettucine Alfredo with a creamy mushroom sauce.

Pints of pasta-friendly Bolognese and nut-free cheese sauces will also be available. Bottles of paired wine are optional. Although they’re 100 percent plant-based, Brasure intends these meals to taste like an indulgence– the type of carefully prepared food savored between sips of a Sangiovese.

“I’m a vegan, but I get tired of grain bowls,” she said. “I like a meal.”

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