The corner of Crutcher Street and Haskel Avenue has been pretty sleepy the past few years. I've passed this small standalone building hundreds of times now on the way home from the gym and for the longest time a sign out front offered hamburgers and other pedestrian specials. It just didn't look welcoming. And then it closed.
About a month ago, though, a new sign was hoisted into place. Sykamore offers Asian cuisine and a juice bar. And as a bonus for all the health nuts and diet conscious, the entire menu is vegan.
Just inside the front door, a door chime waits to pummel unsuspecting customers in the head with its shrill tone. It's loud but easily forgotten -- until the next customer comes in and it sounds off yet again. Not that the chime is enough of a deterrent to keep the veggie nuts away. Owners Sean Wong and his wife Katie Chan have a lot going for them after you make your way through their audio curtain.
There aren't a lot of restaurants branded strictly as vegan in the area, and Wong and Chan, themselves vegetarians, are giving the neighborhood something new to bite into: a set of standard Chinese dishes, reinvented with textured soy protein instead of chicken.
To be honest, I've not eaten a lot of vegan Chinese food, but I've eaten a lot of Kung Pao Chicken from questionable takeouts. The meat that's used in the places that serve your meal in paper boxes is often mostly fat and breading that never tastes that good. And so the "meat" in Sykamore's Kung Pao chicken is oddly reassuring and familiar. The only difference is it's better for you.
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Otherwise the stir fry was loaded with snappy, well-toasted peanuts and the leathery paper of large, dried chilies. There were radishes and peppers and thin slices of carrots and for a dollar extra you could get a big serving of brown rice that was cooked till it was soft, but not gummy.
There are a number of tofu dishes, if fake meat isn't your thing, and rice and noodle dishes, too. There are also a number of soups, salads and sandwiches, all of them vegan.
The biggest weakness of the place is the dining room, which is spotless but very small. Three tables huddle together at one end of the narrow space, and around five stools line up against another wall. While the place was empty when I went to visit, if a lot of customers hit the place at once it's going to get cramped.
Sykamore, 4029 Crutcher St., 214-826-0305