Best Bites of the Bull City: Volume 6
There is a large population of vegans in the Bull City and restaurants are taking note. I feel like more vegan options are popping up on menus throughout the city, so I wanted to ask a couple of local experts to share their favorite “go-tos.”
Our first guest in this special vegan series of “Best Bites” is local dietitian, Ashley Kitchens Swanson. Though Ashley has made plant-based eating her lifestyle, she grew up on an Angus cattle farm where meat was a central part of her diet. Only after healing her lifelong gastrointestinal disorder through healthful, plant-based eating did she arrive at her life’s work as a dietitian. Now, Ashley finds joy in helping others heal themselves, teaching them how to incorporate more whole, plant-based foods into their lives. When she’s not meeting with clients, you might find Ashley walking her dogs in downtown Durham, sweating it out at CrossFit Durham, sipping an almond-milk latte at a local café, or making delicious, plant-based dishes for her friends and family. Check out her website and her Instagram page @veganrdn for amazing vegan meal planning inspiration! Our second guest in this series is Leeanne Siart. Leeanne has lived in Durham for nearly 10 years and has a background in wildlife conservation and animal advocacy. She is co-organizer for the biennial Bull City Vegan Challenge, a friendly competition amongst select Durham restaurants to come up with the most creative vegan options. The event comes around again this April, so keep an eye out! Leeanne also runs the social media for @bullcityvegan, which aims to support and encourage vegan options in Durham. When she’s not eating all the vegan things that Durham offers, she is out hiking or biking with her dog, Jax.
Ashley: Great vegan breakfast spots can be tough to find, but Refectory Cafe offers a couple delicious vegan dishes during breakfast hours. I like mixing it up every time I go between the vegan pancakes and tofu scramble, and on weekends, with their tempeh veggie bowls–it all depends if I’m feeling sweet or savory that morning. You can also simply order a pineapple turmeric smoothie, avocado toast, or grab a cold-pressed juice to go.
Leanne: I have a couple of go-to spots, but agree the tofu scramble and vegan blueberry pancakes at the Refectory are the clear stand-out! Refectory always has a good number of options for vegans all day, but I usually find myself there on Saturdays for pancakes. A close runner-up is Vegan Flava Café’s pancakes and cheesy grits!
Vegan Casual Lunch
Ashley: If the weather permits, sitting outside at Parts and Labor and enjoying some of their vegan street food makes for the perfect casual dining experience. Their menu makes it easy to identify all the vegan options they have to offer. I love how they prepare their tofu (it has the perfect outer crispiness), which is why I always gravitate towards the sesame udon salad and the crispy tofu-banh sandwich. And what would vegan street food be without a side of handcut fries?Leeanne: I’d go with the vegan mac ‘n cheeze at Souly Vegan Café, hands down. Durham is so lucky to have this gem offering up some of the best vegan soul food I’ve ever had. I order the platter with jerk vegan chicken, mac ‘n cheese, collard greens, and corn bread. Decadence!
Vegan Date Night
Ashley: Having a prolonged intimate dinner is always a nice change of pace. I feel like M Sushi offers this with their dimly lit atmosphere, multiple small plates, and great sake list. Their hidden gem is the vegan bento box: It’s a generous sampling of six different Japanese vegan dishes, which makes it nice to share with a date. I like getting the edamame, vegan bento box, and an additional vegan sushi roll to share.
Leeanne: Ever since the 2016 Bull City Vegan Challenge, Guglhupf stepped up their game with the award-winning Faux Königsberger Klopse. After all the positive feedback they received during the Challenge, they committed to offering vegan options on their menus year round. I love going there for special occasions and date nights, not just for the creative vegan items, but also the gorgeous atmosphere inside and out.
Ashley: When I think of take-out, I think pizza! I’ve been eating at Lilly’s ever since I arrived in Durham. Although my favorites have changed over the years, my current go-to pie is The Gaia. It’s an olive oil based pizza with garlic, spicy tofu (my fave), crispy broccoli, banana peppers, and vegan cheese. And their crust is just as delicious as the pizza itself. You can also create just about any speciality pizza here to meet your preference.
LeeAnne: Heavenly Buffaloes offers vegan “wings” with a variety of sauce options. Just ask for the allergen menu to clearly see which sauces and dry rubs you can order. I recommend trying the Jamaican Jerk vegan wings and salt & pepper waffle fries. Bonus: They deliver!
Ashley: If you thought Cocoa Cinnamon Lakewood’s churros were delicious, wait until you try the Morros de Toros. It’s a freshly made churros coil, tossed in cinnamon and sugar and topped with The Parlour’s vegan vanilla ice cream and chocolate drizzle. It is heaven on a plate! It’s also very tough to share. Helpful tip: Ask for the Morros de Toros without the condensed milk drizzle to ensure it’s vegan.Leeanne: This one easily goes to The Parlour. They offer at least two vegan ice creams and one sorbet on the menu at all times, and they also have a variety of house-made pastries that are vegan, including cookies and brownies. My favorite is when they have the vegan girl scout mint chocolate ice cream…it’s almost that time of year again and I can’t wait!
Ashley: I really love the message behind Happy and Hale, not only that, but they offer a beautiful variety of vibrant vegan dishes. As soon as you walk in, you can feel the energy and positivity exuding from its staff and the fresh produce. Not only do they offer a variety of vegan fare, but you can tweak just about any dish to make it vegan or create your own masterpiece. My favorite lately has been the falafel grain bowl, but…I have them “wrap it” in a large spinach wrap, which is then warmed in this huge panini maker. It’s incredible! I occasionally sub the falafel for tofu or avocado to mix it up. I also enjoy the City of Oats smoothie, acai bowl (sans honey), and the avocado toast (because capers!).
Leeanne: I’m so appreciative that so many restaurants in Durham have realized how in-demand hearty vegan options are, but the growth in vegan options does make it hard to commit to just one in this category. Juju on Ninth Street has a surprisingly good variety of vegan options on its meat-heavy menu, and they are all full of flavor and satisfying. I could eat the Gado Gado every day! But I can’t not mention Luna Rotisserie & Empanadas as well. Not only is the menu very vegan-friendly, but they offer the most amazing vegan specials every Tuesday that are full of creativity and make my taste buds so happy. One of my favorite specials was jackfruit encocado with quinoa pepita arepas, charred broccoli and vegan bacon bits.
Ashley: Desserts have the power to win the heart of every family member. I’d go for The Parlour in this category because it offers a variety of handmade vegan ice creams, sorbets and baked goods and is a great place for families to hang out, whether inside or outside in the plaza. My favorite here is picking out one of their vegan baked goods and topping it with coconut whipped cream. I also love that you can special order ice cream cakes (vegan and gluten-free option) for special events.
Leanne: Pompieri Pizza makes their own fresh vegan mozzarella and vegan sausage. Both are options on the “build your own” pizza toppings menu. I love to order them both along with fresh basil, mushrooms, and garlic.
Vegan on a Budget
Ashley: If you’re looking for a budget-friendly, vegan dinner, check out the Durham Co-op! On Thursdays they offer $3 dinners from their hot bar, including a vegan option. The menu changes every week and you can take it to-go or sit down and eat with the local community.
Leanne: Parts & Labor has several vegan options on the menu and they are all reasonably priced. The vegan eggplant taco is only $5.00!
Spot for Both Vegans and Meat Eaters to Dine Together
Ashley: If you want to impress your meat-eating friend with some “heavenly” chicken wings, take them over to Heavenly Buffaloes. Their menu boasts a variety of wet and dry rubs and appetizing sides of waffles fries. I like to get the vegan wings with sweet Thai coconut chili and a half order of sweet potato waffle fries with salt and pepper.
Leeanne: When I want a nice night out with a mixed crowd, Dos Perros is one of my top suggestions. You can’t go wrong with the complimentary chips and salsa plus an order of guac to accompany your margarita. And then the sweet potato empanadas with chipotle-fig sauce and vegan flautas stuffed with beans, plantains, and peppers topped with a corn cream sauce. I always walk out stuffed and happy!
Road Trip: Best Vegan Within One-Hour Drive
Ashley: I feel like this is an obvious answer, but whenever I want to impress visitors with a vegan-friendly restaurant outside of Bull City I take them to Fiction Kitchen in Raleigh. Brunch on Sundays is always a win. These days I rarely branch out from their farmer’s plate with tempeh bacon and root vegetable hash. It’s a delightful showcase of several vegan dishes all on one plate. On Sundays, the seasonal fritters are a must! If there’s a wait, which there always seems to be, you can stroll on over the Videri Chocolate Factory and sip on an oat milk latte in their enchanted outdoor patio while you wait.
Leeanne: Well, since Mozzarella Fellas in Winston-Salem is more than an hour away, I’d also have to say Fiction Kitchen. Chef Caroline, in my opinion, is the best chef in the Triangle and appeals to vegans and omnivores alike! She definitely makes the best tempeh, so ordering the daily farmer’s market special with added tempeh is my fave. But the “chicken” and waffles is a great alternative too.