Asheville, North Carolina, has become a mecca for seekers of all sorts and sensibilities — New Agers who believe its mountains are a powerful energy vortex; early 20th-century literati such as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald; outdoors adventurers; and food lovers who flock to the craft breweries and farm-to-table restaurants that have sprouted like mushrooms after a good rain in the Southern Appalachians.
But the cozy mountain city of less than 90,000 residents surely has more vegetarian- and vegan-friendly watering holes per capita than other cities of similar size; it even had a two-day vegan festival in June. But if there are still relatively few all-vegan spots and a common overreliance on “harvest” bowls brimming with quinoa and green goodness, Asheville offers much to those who eschew meat and dairy. And true to Southern traditions (forget about the undiminished regional devotion to pork), Asheville’s vegan visitors and residents can find hearty breakfasts and sweets made without dairy products.
Plant is Asheville’s upscale vegan restaurant; don’t be alarmed by the fact that it uses “vegan” and “vegetarian” interchangeably. Using local and mostly organic produce, Plant is always reaching into the global pantry for ideas: a tofu bibimbap that nods to the Korean one-bowl meal sans the egg; seitan chile con “queso”; and a lasagna cruda with watercress pesto and slow-dried tomato.
Its menu features some mainstays whose ingredients and flavors change with the season. I’ve had different iterations of Plant’s take on the South Indian bread, uttapam, often made with rice flour, lentils and savory toppings baked into the batter. Plant’s latest is uttapam rolls with a coconut chutney, avocado and a chile-orange sauce.
But — and I never expected to say this — I go to Plant for delicious dessert (and because its patio is dog-friendly). Vegan or not. Somehow, Plant manages to churn out coconut-milk ice creams with nary a hint of “coconuttiness” and the telltale iciness that often afflicts such desserts. The blackout pie is a more refined cousin to Mississippi mud pie but still delivers an intense chocolate punch. Carrot cake, saffron crème brulee, and a “cheese plate” often round out the offerings.
Green Sage Cafe is a good choice if vegan biscuits are a priority. Green Sage’s are made of soy milk, a touch of sugar, and wheat flour that gives them a surprising nuttiness. From the brunch favorite of a tofu scramble (pictured at top) to a spicy peanut hempeh burger (pictured above), Green Sage is a crowd pleaser. Each day, the cafe has a handful of freshly brews teas to choose from. And if you go to the Westgate location (70 Westgate Parkway), you’ll be next to Earth Fare, an Asheville-based grocery chain that’s like a smaller, local Whole Foods.
While Plant is a relative newcomer to the Asheville scene, the Laughing Seed Cafe in Asheville’s bustling downtown is one of the city’s grande dames of vegetarian cuisine (with all vegan dishes clearly marked on the menu). And Laughing Seed’s maturity shows in well-balanced dishes such as its raw-food spinach pesto manicotti. In this case, the “pasta” are slivers of zucchini stuffed with a cashew “ricotta.” But the ultimate element of the dish is the chunky, raw tomato sauce that seems to channel the essence of the vegetable and sun directly onto a plate. Other vegan favorites: the sloppy Jo (served with slaw North Carolina-style and tahini mustard) and the seven seas filet sandwich, consisting of quinoa and mushrooms wrapped in nori and fried.
At West Asheville’s Sunny Point Cafe, there are plenty of substitutions (and subtractions) that can make can turn a breakfast into a vegan meal. But there is only one vegan destination dish, and it makes me brave the weekend brunch crowds that pack the restaurant’s outdoor courtyard as early as 20 minutes before opening. Minus the blackberry butter that comes with them, the organic cornmeal hot cakes are a filling way to satiate a morning sweet tooth. The menu describes them as “orange-scented,” a wholly accurate summary that nevertheless can’t convey their citrusy aroma. Sunny Point also has a dozen tables on a covered patio and kitchen-side seats at the bar if diners want a firsthand look at the back of the house (or how it handles meat and dairy with vegan delights).
Say you want wings, nachos, and things that look suspiciously like bar food (no judgment). Go to Rosetta’s Kitchen, where the wings are tempeh strips, the nachos come with vegan queso and no carne, and the Reuben’s sauerkraut is actually kimchi. Rosetta’s downtown location and buchi bar (111 Broadway Street) also stays open until 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday — a good thing to remember in a city where most other vegan-friendly establishments shutter hours earlier.
Little more than a year old, new-kid-on-the-block Elements Real Food sells its own nut “mylks” and smoothies with everything from spirulina and maca, a South American tuber. On the cafe side, Elements has a unique sipping broth (a good anti-cold elixir with its chaga tea, chickpea miso, ginger, and sesame); an ALT (an avocado, lettuce and tomato sandwich with veganaise and on bread from artisanal baker Farm and Sparrow); and raw food desserts such as an avocado-vegan chocolate pie.
For a frozen treat, pop into The Hop Ice Cream Cafe on Merrimon Avenue, and check out its vegan selections, which can include berry-rich sorbets but also decadent ice creams crafted from their own housemade almond and other milks. Other vegan flavors have included chocolate banana creme, a lemon basil sorbet, a smoked vanilla with a cashew foundation, a kombucha sorbet, and an Earl Grey concoction including a hemp milk base. Vegan whipped cream and gluten-free cones are available.