At Vspot Vegan Cafe, Making Meatless Work for the Buckle of the Beef Belt
Delia Pisarro is a meat eater. She's also a business woman. So when she opened Pure, her small Greenville Avenue Cafe in 2003, it wasn't for her love of coconuts and kale. It was because she saw an opportunity.
"Nobody else was doing it," Pisarro says. On the coasts, sure: Raw and vegan restaurants were popping up like pilates studios. But not here. "Dallas is always the last one to take advantage of the trend."
That lag gave Pisarro an opportunity to cater to an undeserved market in Dallas: diners who wanted to eat out but were so serious about avoiding animal products that even butter was a sin. Kalachandjis, the Indian-inspired vegetarian restaurant housed in a Hare Krishna temple in East Dallas, had been serving up mindful cuisine for the past 20 years when Pure opened, but its menu was lacto-vegetarian, which allows for dairy products. Pure was pure vegan — and all raw.
In a town known for its worship of over-sized and overcooked steaks, opening a restaurant that doesn't even consider a cow's milk an ingredient is like opening a beef kebab restaurant in India. But while Pure closed in 2004, Pisarro says that it was only leasing disagreements that soured the kombucha.
Five years later, Pisarro opened Bliss, a successful raw cafe in North Dallas, and the Vspot Vegan Cafe in Knox-Henderson, which on a recent Friday night was slammed. The full dining room, tricked out in browns and orange and flaunting naked rafters and brick, caters not only to devoted vegetarians but also a new customer base that's growing in Dallas: the meat-fatigued.
Americans are eating less meat. We know that. Meat and poultry consumption here has fallen more than 12 percent since 2007, according to the USDA. Interest groups backed by Meat People blame a government campaign against carnivores and other bovine barriers like the economy; hippies advocating for animal welfare and consumer well-being would much rather take the blame.
Those groups claim that Americans are waking up — that our reduced meat consumption is an active choice based on a desire to be less fat and help the environment by embracing a diet with fewer lamb shanks and chicken nuggets. It's the church of Mark Bittman, and its prophet claims its pews are filling up.
Enter Meatless Monday. The FDA first launched the campaign during World War II, hoping to inspire conservation. It was reinvigorated in 2003 by Sid Lerner, a New York advertising mogul who'd spent his career telling consumers what they should do. Lerner started a nonprofit organization when his doctor warned him that his blood pressure and cholesterol values were out of control.
Lerner's group leverages traditional and social media, food bloggers and celebrity chefs to spread their message, and there's evidence their efforts are working. A study funded by the Food Marketing Institute (which wants Americans to eat lots of cold cuts) asked random shoppers how often they eat meatless meals as part of a healthy eating strategy. That habit has become more common every year since 2009.
Are a savvy ad campaign and a few articles by Bittman and Co. enough to reduce meat consumption by 12 percent over five years? Probably not. But the data indicate a public that is both concerned about the humane treatment of animals, active in matters that affect their own personal health and open and receptive to change. Regardless of the cause, the trend is real. The USDA is forecasting another sharp drop in meat and poultry consumption for the remainder of 2012.
And Pisarro is ready to cash in on that trend. She'll do it using what is probably the best method there is to make Americans eat less meat: making the alternatives delicious.
Vspot may bear an unfortunate name, given its aural resemblance to that erogenous zone, but it isn't what a devoted meat eater might picture when conjuring a hippy-driven vegan cafe. The dining room is sleek, with modern fixtures and that contemporary paint job. It feels like any other trendy restaurant in the neighborhood. While other vegetarian cafes, including the Spiral Diner, cater to cash-strapped and comfortable crowds, the Vspot offers a dining experience worthy of special occasions.
Every meal here should start with an order of chips and guacamole. The warm, crisp chips put many Tex-Mex baskets to shame on their own, but that ubiquitous green puree tastes like grass and fat and springtime, as if the world's freshest avocados had an orgy on a bed of aromatic onions.
Deep-fried strips of portobello stand on their own as worthy mushroom fries and also make a compelling taco filling. And a deep-fried-onion-turned-lotus is at once sweet and savory, commanding an intense but brief voracity during my visit. It's a bit too much for two diners.
There may not be a 14-ounce New York strip here, but there's tender and pillowy gnocchi, as satiating as any other potato dumpling offered in the city — and that's without an egg to bind and set the dough. A fettuccine dish is equally impressive and filling. Chef Toria Zillarreal employs nuts in the sauces for these plates, and the results are compelling and rich.
Don't get too excited if you're a ravenous carnivore, though. If you need a reminder that you're in a vegan restaurant, look to the eggplant dish. The pucks are perfectly fried and supporting curry-laden vegetables worked, but the sauce the "stack" of vegetables swims in is tepid and flat.
Raw dishes are even more challenging. Kale enchiladas are an ode to rabbit food, as raw as the vegetables at a country farmers market. The textures and flavors are exciting, and the plate will obviously appeal to those adhering to the strictest dietary dogmas, but a fan of Herrera's sour cream enchiladas will be underwhelmed. Perhaps they'd prefer the pizza instead?
Vspot won't sherpa steak lovers into a new age of vegan bliss, but it does offer a dining experience capable of bridging the gap between hardcore carnivores and their crunchy counterparts. It also offers a window into a possible future when a city whose dining culture, which was built on the backs of cattle, begins to embrace a dining experience that celebrates roasted mushrooms and creamed spinach as much as the steaks they typically accompany.
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