At Urban Vegan Kitchen’s launch party, chef Timothy Pakron, aka Mississippi Vegan, is wearing denim overalls, a pastel pink cap embroidered with the word “Atlanta” and a Realtree camo tee shirt. “I’m a hunter,” he’s quick to announce, “I hunt mushrooms and vegetables and fruit.” Pakron is all movement. He asks the line cooks to prepare a batch of macaroni and cheese, turns to hug a friend who’s just arrived and then carries a beautifully plated burger out to a waiting photographer.
Pakron has been involved in several pop-up ventures over the past year, but Urban Vegan Kitchen (UVK) is the first full-fledged restaurant to feature a menu of his creation. He collaborated with Pamela Elizabeth, who co-owns UVK with David Tianga, to concoct an impressive array of vegan comfort food that doesn’t shy away from salt and fat. Pakron draws heavily on his Southern roots, serving up fried okra and hush puppies alongside American classics like a burger and a BLT. Elizabeth, who started the vegan fast food chain Blossom du Jour more than five years ago, has long been working to disprove the stereotype that vegan food is flavorless, dry and fussily healthful above all else. With its comfort food-centric menu and funky, low-lit bar area downstairs, UVK feels like an ode to plant-based joy.
UVK isn’t the only New York restaurant that aims to show eaters of all persuasions that vegan food is more than kale, quinoa, and bland tofu. Isa Chandra Moskowitz just opened a Williamsburg location of her Omaha, Nebraska hit Modern Love and Brooks Headley’s Superiority Burger made waves last summer with its flavor-packed burgers and sloppy joes. Given this rising tide of plant-based comfort food, UVK distinguishes itself by filling gaps in the vegan junk food landscape.
“We asked ourselves ‘what are other people not serving?’” says Pakron. “I didn’t know where to find great vegan chicken and waffles, or po’ boys, or fried okra. So I made them.” With its abundance of butter and ham hocks, Southern cooking may not seem like an obvious choice for the vegan treatment, but Pakron maintains that it’s herbs and spices that do the heavy lifting in most traditional dishes. “I put celery onions, garlic and bay leaves in almost anything everything I cook,” he says. “That’s my heart. I grew up eating that.” For Pakron, veganism isn’t about compromise. At UVK, he hopes to show people that a diet free of animal products doesn’t come at the cost of flavor.
“Take the shiitake bacon,” he says. “People don’t want to kill a pig and make bacon out of it. What they want is something that’s crispy, salty, chewy, crunchy, sweet, smoky. We can do that with liquid smoke, tamari, sugar and nutritional yeast. Then we take a mushroom and cook it to death so it becomes chewy and crispy just like you want.” The shiitake bacon does indeed live up to all of Pakron’s adjectives. It sits atop the baked mac n’ cheese like tiny jewels, contrasting the mild, creamy cashew cheese sauce with a complex umami wallop.
If anything, Pakron and Elizabeth are amused by the notion that it’s hard to create plant-based versions of dishes that typically contain meat and dairy. “We’ve never once said, ‘what are we going to do because we don’t have beef?’” Elizabeth says, laughing.
Pakron’s favorite dish on the menu is the “chick-un & waffles,” which he pronounces with a heavy emphasis on the “un.” The dish features fat nuggets of seitan fried in a batter seasoned with cayenne and paprika. Between the seitan and the waffle is a layer of garlicky sauteed kale. The waffle itself is quite sweet and fluffy, offsetting the savory toppings. A maple mustard aioli ties the whole thing together with tangy bow.
Elizabeth likes the burger best. Its classic fixings—tomatoes pickles, iceberg lettuce, fried shallots—make for a familiar, nostalgic flavor profile. The mushroom and barley patty at the heart of the dish is smoky and satisfyingly chewy, if perhaps a bit undersalted.
Another standout is the hush puppies, which are made with mashed chickpeas. They are softer and less dense than the traditional cornmeal variety. Bay leaf and green onion give them a flavor reminiscent of crab cakes.
UVK’s space on Carmine Street is the site of a former Blossom on Carmine location. Rather than closing the old restaurant, renovating and reopening, Elizabeth decided to gradually transition the fast food joint to its new incarnation as a brunch and dinner destination built for lounging and lingering. She swapped out menu items one by one and updated the decor along the way. On the night of the launch, large black and white photos adorn the walls of the main dining room. Each features a close-up of a farm animal’s face. There’s a baleful, big-eyed cow and a sheep that appears to smile like someone who’s just told a particularly dirty joke. The portraits may feel a bit heavy-handed, but they’re an apt reminder of the values that undergird UVK’s stylish exterior.
“We are animal activists,” says Pakron. “We may not be protesting with signs, but we’re doing it through food.” Pakron and Elizabeth, who purchase UVK’s ingredients from Baldor Specialty Foods, research each supplier to make sure it is in line with their ethical and environmental standards. “It’s not just food, it is a movement,” says Elizabeth. “It’s not a fad. A lot of people thought veganism was going to be a fad, but we can see it isn’t.”
To those who may still be skeptical of a Southern vegan’s rhapsodic brunch spread, Pakron offers a challenge: “Watch me do it. Come try it.”
Molly Jean Bennett is a writer and multimedia producer based in New York City. Her essays, poems, and strongly worded letters have appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Atlas Obscura, VICE, and elsewhere. Her chapbook Paper Apartment is out now from Essay Press. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyJeanBee.