USC

Serving up mind, body and soul food in South Los Angeles

 

The No. 8 lunch special at Vegisoul restaurant in South Los Angeles boasts almost all the makings of a good old-fashioned soul food meal: homemade BBQ sopping with sauce, red beans, brown rice and collard greens. The one missing ingredient? The meat.

South Los Angeles’ dining options have come under fire for being saturated with high-fat, low-nutrition venues following the City Council’s passage of a one-year moratorium on construction of any new fast food establishments. But among the Burger Kings and Del Tacos littering the street corners of South Los Angeles, Vegisoul dishes up 100 percent vegetarian “fast food.”

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Vegisoul opened its doors to South Los Angeles in 2004 with the goal of providing affordable, healthy food to the community. The restaurant puts a strong emphasis on “available, whole, hearty meals.” It uses only fresh produce and distilled water to prepare its meals, and forgoes any microwaves or heat lamps in the cooking process.

Vegisoul is one of several eateries that offers vegan and vegetarian versions of the traditional soul food central to black culinary culture in an attempt to provide affordable and healthy eating options to a community plagued with various food-related health issues; Nearly 30 percent of adults and children in South Los Angeles are obese, according to a study by the Los Angeles Department of Health.

“I would say that black people have absorbed the fast-food mentality more than other cultures so fast food dominates the black culture in terms of how we eat out,” said Melissa D. Haile, executive director of Black Vegetarian Society of New York. “To combine that with the soul food culture that’s heavily meat-dominated, there’s a lot of reeducation that needs to happen.”

While there has been a growing trend toward vegetarianism in black communities, black vegetarian activists say the impetus for transitioning to plant-based diets — mainly health and spirituality — vary from mainstream vegetarian doctrine. Factors such as lack of access to fresh produce and non-meat or dairy ingredients, such as organic prepared meals and soy or nut-based milks, can often make the transition to plant-based diets difficult in predominately black communities.

This is especially true in South Los Angeles, which has not only the highest concentrations of fast food restaurants in the city, but far fewer grocery stores than most areas. According to a 2002 report by the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College, only 18 new grocery stores opened in South Los Angeles in the decade following the 1992 riots.

“A lot of their local supermarkets don’t carry those items which means they have to travel father out,” Haile said. “Even in New York City, predominately black neighborhoods suffer from a lack of fresh produce, and so that presents a problem. You can walk to a supermarket, but you may not be able to get on a bus, because that’s an added expense that you may not be able to allocate for.”

But often all it takes is one taste to warm diners to the idea of experimenting with soy and other staples of a vegan diet.

“I would just say it’s a surprise that you would get the same taste and the same style as regular soul food,” said Ricky Cryer, head chef at the nearby Vegan Village Internet Cafe. “A lot of people are set in their ways and used to eating a certain way is hard to get them to try something different, but once they do, they see what they’re missing.”

Even discriminating palates can’t always tell the difference between the vegan and meat options; Cryer said friends who swear off trying vegan dishes often unknowingly devour his vegetarian tacos and vegan chili— a recipe converted from a signature dish he used to travel the state cooking.

With items like “fibbs,” “seefood gumbo” and vegan mac and cheese, Vegisoul also relies upon giving traditional tastes a healthy twist to attract patrons who might be skeptical to all things soy. Manager Zul Lorthridge loved the full flavors of soul food, but found the very thought of eating soy “disgusting” before he was exposed to the cuisine when he started his job.

“Since I’ve been here, it’s really opened my eyes to a whole different world,” said Lorthridge, who lived right down the block from Vegisoul for nearly four years before ever realizing it was there when he applied for a job last year.

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Haile agrees that one of the challenges of promoting vegetarianism in the black community is exposing patrons to vegetarian options. But she said providing venues for black vegetarians to share their culinary choices with friends and family is important for building acceptance of vegetarian diets in black communities.

“Having these restaurants, especially if they are black-owned or vegetarian soul food, they offer the black vegetarian the opportunity to meet other black vegetarians, to meet other people who think like them,” Henry said.

Lorthridge said the steady stream of patrons lining up for orders at 1 p.m. on a sunny Wednesday afternoon is the same as the typical lunchtime rush of about 50 patrons a day.

Business has been off and on over the past two to three weeks as the economy has worsened, and Lorthridge said he has seen a drop in patronage and appetites —if you base those off how much people order.

People are passing on the more expensive burger combos and dinner plates for tofu bowls and smaller side dishes, he said. Some favorites, like the stuffed yam, which also received the top nod from the other employee working the counter that day, will always sell.

But over the past few years, Vegisoul has developed a devout following of regulars, most of who come from the surrounding neighborhood.
“Once we get people to come, they have a good experience and they come back, he said. “It’s got some bomb food.”

Cryer agreed that though many of Vegan Village’s regular customers are vegans or vegetarians, the restaurants see patrons with all kinds of diets come through their doors.

“We get a lot of vegans and vegetarians, but now we’re getting people that are curious and they’re returning customers, they bring their children, their family, their friends,” Cryer said.

Though many of the restaurant’s orders are take-out, Lorthridge said the ambiance is aimed at getting people to slow down, relax and eat some food with them on-site.

Upon first glance, there’s not much to the sparely furnished room. A dozen or so metal-backed chairs line the type of cheap wooden tables you’d find at a church potluck. But the restaurant emanates an organic vibe, a large mural bountiful with lentils, squash flowers and pea pods filling one mellow yellow wall. A single strand of grain shoots up from the floor on the wall across the room.

USC student and omnivore Matt Breault, who ordered a BBQ “fibbs” combo plate, said Vegisoul’s food and venue offered vegetarian food without the pretension or price he associated with “healthy” restaurants.

His friend, a self-described hardcore carnivore, Mike Greischar agreed.

“I don’t feel like the vibe is yoga world,” he said. “It’s more homey, it’s not snobby.”

Henry said providing a central gathering place where vegetarians and non-vegetarians can congregate around exploring new food options is central to promoting healthy lifestyles in black communities.

“Having these restaurants, especially if they are black-owned or vegetarian soul food, they offer the black vegetarian the opportunity to meet other black vegetarians, to meet other people who think like them,” Henry said.

The restaurant attracts a wide range of palates — from the hardcore vegan, to health-conscious to those just curious about seeing what vegetarian soul food is all about

“I’m not a vegetarian, but I’m getting into vegetarianism,” said Burt, a painter who ordered the No. 8 plate when he stopped in for his first time with some friends while in the area on business. “I’m trying to get away from the red meat.”

Burt was introduced to the restaurant by his friend Frank, who is in his late 60s and frequents Vegisoul to get some good old-fashioned soul food without clogging his arteries with the fat and grease of the originals.

“I don’t eat red meat because red meat is too heavy. … [T]his tastes good without the meat,” he said. “This is one of the better places that serves this type of food

Greischar, who ventured to Vegisoul after hearing about it from a friend, agreed that the food doesn’t skimp on flavor.

“I don’t miss the animal,” Greischar joked as he chowed down on a veggie burger. When asked if he ever considered adhering to a vegetarian diet, he responded, “No way!”