A Taste of Vegan Nashville

Not so long ago, in a much sleepier Nashville, a person couldn’t swing a microphone without hitting a “meat and three” (chicken, beef or pork and three Southern sides), those almost-home-cooked-answers to what’s for lunch or dinner. Meat and threes are still dishing it out in Music City, but their numbers are dwindling (Arnold’s Country Kitchen, a James Beard American Classics Award winner, appears to be filling the vacuum more than adequately). And certainly there are still great barbecue places like Martin’s Bar-B-Cue Joint, Peg Leg Porker and Edley’s Bar-B-Cue.

These days, Nashville’s shiny new culinary scene is expanding in different directions and at breakneck speed with notable additions like Julia Sullivan’s seafood-forward Henrietta Red in Germantown, and Chef Vivek Surti’s Southeast-Asian/American Tailor, among many others.

Amid all the comings and goings, some restaurateurs — acutely aware of the changing tastes of a more diverse and often younger clientele concerned about sustainability, healthy eating and animals rights — are choosing vegan-only menus, or at least adding a range of vegan dishes.

Enter places like Avo with its deliciously confusing chocolate avocado tart (and sustainable metal straws); and the soul-food vegan restaurant, Vege-licious, with its intrepid vegan version of a Philly cheesesteak. Gone are the days when healthy food in Nashville was simply tolerable. The city is now at the point where nearly every vegan spot is at least trying its hand at a plant-based version of Nashville hot chicken — and with surprisingly good results.

Alcohol imbibers, too, can now repair to a plant-based eatery for mixed drinks with a healthy twist, such as the kombucha-based cocktails served at Graze in the heart of East Nashville, or the creamy avocado margarita served up at Avo in its cheeky shipping container environs off Charlotte Avenue.

Kimber Storrs, chef and co-owner of Sunflower Cafe, one of the earlier adopters of vegan food in Nashville, said it’s taken time for veganism to land decisively in a city that gravitates toward hot fried chicken and pulled pork rather than shiitake tacos or kale salad.

“It’s taken a while for Nashville to be interested in a plant-based diet,” Ms. Storrs said. “As we continue to have an influx of people from around the country, we’re also seeing higher demands for healthy options.”

Not only from around the country, but also from around the world. As Nashville becomes a city that increasingly draws immigrants from other cultures that use less meat, it stands to reason those cultures will be reflected in local restaurants — places like Woodlands Indian Vegetarian Cuisine, which offers many vegan dishes, and Vui’s Kitchen, which serves Vietnamese cuisine in Berry Hill, including a vegan pho.

As the arrival of new tastes and cultural backgrounds takes hold, “the negative perspectives or stereotypes about veganism will change,” said Clifton Hancock, co-owner of The Southern V in North Nashville. “We aim to provide an opportunity to at least try it.”

Below: six vegan restaurants offering creative, moderately priced cuisine in fun, casual settings.

Avo operates out of an interesting mash-up of businesses housed in shipping containers with a volleyball court in the middle. The complex is billed as the town’s first “cargotecture” part of OneCity, a 19-acre urban community of shops, restaurants, green space and apartments just west of downtown. Avo started out offering only raw food when it opened in 2015; by 2017 it was a vegan restaurant with raw options.

At 2 p.m. on a rainy day in the middle of the week, the restaurant was three quarters full. My friend and I were greeted quickly and brought to a small table that would soon be overrun with bowls. The restaurant’s interior is a familiar blend of modern and industrial, but in this space, which is bound by white corrugated steel walls, it’s hard to forget that you’re eating in a shipping container. The patio offers front-row seats to volleyball games that continue throughout the seasons, and a cozy waiting area separates the dining hall with ceiling-to-floor shafts of green diaphanous fabric. It’s all quite eclectic and appealing.

We decided to share a Cali-Burger, a nutty, firm, lentil-walnut patty with coconut queso, coleslaw, onion, jalapeño and guacamole on a sweet potato bun — a tall burger we had to nearly deconstruct to eat. We also asked for the pad thai based on word of mouth, and it delivered: cold raw slivers of kelp noodles and zucchini noodles bathed in spicy peanut sauce. The kimchi spring rolls were huge fists of Swiss chard, cucumber, carrot and cabbage slaw held together with a kimchi-cashew-tamari-sesame paste, and wrapped in classic spring-roll rice wrappers.

For dessert, Avo’s chocolate-avocado tart was dusky, dense, not too sweet and nearly impossibly creamy. And don’t forget the avocado margarita, which seems to have its own lane in the velvety cocktail department, with notes of avocado, cilantro and lime. Or try their Booch Please, made with cucumber melon kombucha and Forthave gin. The restaurant also has a wine list and a number of local beers.

Avo: 3 City Boulevard, #200; eatavo.com. Dinner for two with sides and dessert runs about $50.

Sunflower Cafe is an intentional throwback to those noisy “health food” restaurants that operated in bungalow houses with distressed wood floors in the 1970s. It has been a staple of the local vegan and vegetarian scene since it opened in 2012 in Berry Hill, a charming neighborhood of recording studios, bead shops and cafes. The cafeteria-style diner offers that cheery sense of community that happens when hungry people collectively mull over steel pans of Thai ginger tofu, vegan lasagna and vegan barbecue (if you’re here on a Friday, don’t overlook the incredible Mock Crab Cakes, based on hearts of palms).

In September, the Storrs family opened a second vegan establishment, Sunflower Bakehouse, in a former muffler shop in the community of Donelson on the east side of Nashville. With Sunflower Cafe’s trademark effervescent yellow flourishes, this new iteration focuses on fresh-baked, gluten-free vegan pastries, breads and desserts. They also offer smoothies, burgers, wraps and hot dishes.

I wandered in with a friend for a weekday lunch and the enthusiasm from behind the counter was palpable. We ordered a Diner Burger, a thick, legume-based patty, and the “TBLT,” with tofu bacon and lemon-thyme aioli, each on focaccia bread. Both were satisfying, but, not surprisingly, it was dessert that stood out, specifically, the bakery’s lavender cupcake, moist, light as air, and delicately floral. Ms. Storrs said that as the new location gets on its feet, they will add more savory dishes such as potpies and baked pasta dishes. Hopefully, they’ll keep that cupcake on the menu.

Sunflower Cafe: 2834 Azalea Place; sunflowercafenashville.com. A dinner for two with sides and dessert starts at about $25.

Sunflower Bakehouse: 2414 Lebanon Pike; www.ilovesunflower.com. A dinner for two with sides and dessert starts at about $25.

New to the vegan scene is Vege-licious, an intimate soul-food restaurant northwest of downtown on Fisk Street. Scarcely a year old, Vege-licious offers vegan po boys, tater tots with vegan cheese sauce and black-eyed pea salsa, fried soy chicken and hearty “plates,” including a soul food plate. There are also burgers, gyros, sandwiches and dishes like lasagna, as well as full breakfast and dessert menus.

Inside, you can’t help but notice the big block letters on the wall behind the register reminding patrons to “Eat To Live.” A midcentury Sputnik chandelier illuminates the entire space, which seats 15 when it’s at capacity. On our visit, jazz played in the background and diners talked across tables while the co-owner Bettina Thomas took orders and checked people out. The restaurant is usually packed during peak hours, so Ms. Thomas and her partner and husband, Kevin Thomas, erected a white tent (heated in cooler months) on the lawn with red picnic tables to handle the overflow. The whole feel is Southern and sweet.

Ms. Thomas tells me she’s been a vegan for over 30 years. Her husband, she adds with a little side eye, is “in progress.” The aim of Vege-licous, she said, is to be a “home-style, soul-food restaurant that is opening the eyes of many to veganism.”

I ordered the Soul Food Platter with barbecue chicken, collard greens and mac and cheese. Ms. Thomas uses soy protein to successfully mimic the texture of pulled chicken, enlivened with sweet-savory barbecue sauce with just a hint of molasses. The housemade, not overly sweet ginger beer (made with fresh ginger) had just the right bite. Yams, cut in chunks, were soft pillows sweetened with agave; the mac and cheese was smothered in a creamy cashew sauce.

For dessert, the peaches-and-cream pancakes were tempting, but I decided on vegan cheesecake, which relies on almond cream for its fluffy, rather than dense, texture, and has a crispy, sweet rice flour crust that can rival the graham cracker version.

Vege-licious: 513B Fisk Street; vege-licious.com. Dinner for two with sides and dessert starts at about $45.

Situated in the Buchanan Arts District in North Nashville, The Southern V was opened in 2015 by Tennessee natives Tiffany and Clifton Hancock. The décor is simple and modern, with smooth jazz and R&B playing in the background.

Orders are handled at the register and delivery is picked up down the line. I went alone for lunch midweek and the restaurant was nearly full.

Resisting the urge to order the marvelous jackfruit barbecue sliders that I had tried on an earlier visit, I went for broke and ordered the Chick’n Fried Chick’n with mushroom gravy. I would have bet the farm that the generous mound of lightly breaded seitan was fried in Crisco and that the gravy had something naughty in it, but, of course, that wasn’t the case; it was fried, but in what Mr. Hancock describes as a “sustainable palm shortening,” imparting a rich flavorful crispiness; the mushroom gravy added a nice earthy flavor.

Mr. Hancock claims to have been the first to offer vegan Nashville hot chicken: lightly breaded homemade seitan, spiced to cause some alarm, and then flash-fried into something wondrous. “We’re presenting plant-based food that resembles a traditional Southern meal,” Mr. Hancock said.

The Southern V: 1200 Buchanan Street; thesouthernv.com. A dinner for two with sides runs about $30.

In the prodigiously hip neighborhood of East Nashville, inside a chiseled building with an industrial-designed interior, this “plant-based bistro and bar” that seats about 40 opened in 2016 as a vegan alternative to its popular vegetarian neighbor, The Wild Cow, which is in the process of moving to another location.

A friend and I strolled in on a Saturday night and took the last available table. Graze was humming like a well-oiled engine, with staff gliding deftly by each other, managing to genially keep ahead of orders.

A gaggle of drinkers sat at the restaurant’s massive cherry wood bar. Graze’s drinks are nearly as popular as its food. You’ll find everything from peanut butter stout to specialty drinks like the Paloma, made with Código tequila, grapefruit juice and prosecco. But it is their kombucha cocktails that have people talking. What better excuse to have a drink than choosing one which might infuse your inner microbiome with healthy probiotics.

My server recommended the Patty Melt, an unassuming name for a delicious, generous burger made of black beans, seitan and quinoa topped with vegan Cheddar, hollandaise, lettuce, tomato, grilled onions and pickles on toasted sourdough bread. We ordered the Oven Fries as a side: crispy roasted potato chunks covered with cashew cheese, green onions and then drizzled with Graze’s in-house vegan sour cream. The Sichuan brussels sprouts with green onions and roasted peanuts topped with a lemon wedge and sprouts, were pan-seared, offering a caramelized crunch that left the full fresh taste of the brussels sprouts intact. Graze makes their in-house seitan just spicy enough to flavor their Mac & Chorizo, but for their version of Nashville hot chicken, Nick Davis bakes and grills spiced tempeh and then layers it with spinach, cucumbers, red onion and finalizes it with a drizzling of homemade ranch dressing. It all lands on a fresh baguette.

But it was the warm bread pudding that had me swooning. The in-house baker, Lucia Grilli, douses her fluffy housemade biscuits in coconut cream and then bakes them, giving the exterior a little crackle. Graze chose Nashville’s famous vegan ice-cream purveyors, Kokos, for their bread-pudding topper, a dense and velvety ice cream made with coconut cream and suffused with vanilla.

Graze, 1888 Eastland Avenue; grazenashville.com. Dinner for two with sides and dessert starts at about $50.

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