I’ll admit I was skeptical of NuVegan Cafe at first. For one, the Georgia Avenue restaurant’s name, which sounds like it was plucked from a dystopian sci-fi novel, does it no favors. What’s more, vegan soul food — NuVegan’s specialty — sounds like an affront to both vegan cuisine and soul food. I made up my mind to visit only after reading glowing reviews from just about every corner of the internet and was still unconvinced it would be anything worth writing home — or, for that matter, a column — about.
My mistrust toward meat-imitation dishes is well-documented: In my experience, the best vegan and vegetarian dishes are not imitations but rather original creations, embracing the possibilities of plant-based cooking rather than skirting its limitations. NuVegan’s approach, perhaps by necessity, doesn’t fit those criteria.
It’s no surprise to say soul food has always been animal product centric. The cuisine — which has roots in black as well as southeastern Native American culture — is defined by dishes like fried chicken, pigs’ feet, and macaroni and cheese, none of which are particularly vegan-friendly. NuVegan’s mission is no small one, and it’s not humble about its aspirations: Its website makes that ambition abundantly clear, declaring its intention to “become the motivating force that sparks a movement toward global awareness by redefining the perception of vegan cuisine.” That’s no small order.
NuVegan, formerly called Woodlands Vegan Bistro, is the brainchild of Mickiyah and Vernon Woodland. The restaurant has earned a place for itself as a leader in the vegan soul food movement: In the past, it’s served the likes of Kanye West, Kal Penn and Russell Simons, though I think it’s safe to say the restaurant doesn’t seem like the sort of place where the rich and famous congregate. The interior is, in a word, ordinary — the black couches near the entrance are the fanciest furniture in the restaurant.
The kitchen, located in the back, featured a number of classic soul food entrees behind a transparent glass panel. My eating partner and I opted for drumsticks, a chicken curry, sweet kale salad, mashed sweet potato, okra and mac and cheese.
Though the vegetables held their own, they were by no means spectacular. The okra was initially somewhat bland, but generous amounts of cayenne pepper and salt resolved that problem nicely. The mac and cheese had a pleasant creaminess, but the flavor was a just a little bit off — truthfully, I’d take the real thing instead any day of the week. The sweet potato was also enjoyable, but no better or different than any other mashed sweet potato dish. The sweet kale salad fared slightly better, boasting a balanced, light sweetness that contrasted nicely with the other foods in the ensemble. Still, at $14.50 for a meal, I’d be hesitant to return for the salad alone.
The meat-imitation dishes were NuVegan’s saving grace: The chicken dummies were the best mock meat dish I’ve ever had, bursting with flavor and perfectly seasoned, with a texture worth lusting after. The chicken curry was reminiscent of something I’d get at an Indian restaurant back home in San Jose: a navratan korma, perhaps, but with a distinctly Southern flair.
More than just the food reminded me of the hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants that make the Bay Area a mecca for foodies: It was the endearingly unadorned interior, the hinged plastic containers and the warm, friendly service.
NuVegan dispenses with the pretensions of the expensive, upscale eateries that dominate Washington, D.C.’s food scene. Rather, it focuses on the basics: making hearty, comforting, deliciously oxymoronic vegan soul food.
I was as surprised as anyone else at the quality of NuVegan’s mock meat dishes. I’d always thought, for good reason, that fake meant inferior. To be frank, though, I don’t particularly care if NuVegan’s offerings were Frankenstein-esque approximations of the real thing — they were fantastic nonetheless. I can say with certainty I’ll be going back for seconds.