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Real, Good and Vegan: Food to live for

Kangaroo Kitchen & Catering

Kangaroo Kitchen & Catering

Roman Petrack, Kangaroo Kitchen & Catering

Kangaroo Kitchen & Catering

Zach Dodson, Bartertown Diner

Bartertown Diner

Bartertown Diner

Chez Olga

Chez Olga

Chez Olga

Curry Kitchen

Curry Kitchen

Bhim Basel, Curry Kitchen

Grand Rapids' growing foodie culture has not only made vegan food accessible, but has also encouraged the most unyielding carnivore to consider a change of pace on their plate. Tiffany Ewigleben hits the street to report on some of the best local players in the burgeoning vegan scene.
Something is growing here. Something is shifting. There's an undercurrent of change throughout Grand Rapids. You notice it at your favorite café, bistro, or even at your local hot dog stand. In addition to a restaurant culture that is stressing farm to table, encouraging sustainable practices, and locally sourcing its product, chefs and consumers alike are creating an environment that is ripe for more fresh vegetables on your plate -- and ripe, at many places, for the unexpected: vegan options.

Emily Richett Hughes, founder of Richett Media, has seen her choices evolve since she went vegan five years ago. "At first, options were limited to a few designated vegetarian restaurants in town, and it usually meant having to hold the cheese on an entree and settling for a bland dish," says Hughes. She says that these days, there are far more places for carnivores and vegans to enjoy eating out together, listing Brick Road Pizza, Maru Sushi, Erb Thai, and Grove as a few of her favorites. 

This is a good thing, and not just for the vegan. Regardless of your personal stance on this subject, we all can benefit from more plant-based food in our meals. While vegan in some sense has become trendy, with many places jumping on the Tofurkey bandwagon, Grand Rapids is lucky to have an excess of spots that are making real, good, vegan food. 

“I don’t really agree with the commercialization of being vegan because it downplays the importance of it, the substance of it. But it’s also really nice that there are lots of options. I don’t want to talk too negatively, because the more accessible these options are, the more people are likely to look into it. And that’s a step towards change, maybe a step towards a plant-based diet.” For Stephanie Strowbridge, owner of Moxie Beauty & Hair Parlor, veganism is a way of life personally and professionally. Vegan since 2008, she has witnessed the evolution of the food scene in GR firsthand.

“When I first moved here, I was still figuring out where I could eat, asking people, and Gaia and Marie Catrib’s were pretty much it,” says Strowbridge. Well-known spots in East Hills that were around long before the Vegan Revolution, these were the first of many places to come. Since then, increased awareness about the health benefits of plant-based foods and an understanding of the ecology of place have made vegan choices plentiful on restaurant menus around town, but there are some spots that stand above the rest.

Eastown has an abundance of little gems tucked in between the bars on Wealthy Street. The unique building with the intricately carved and decorated door leads you into Chez Olga. A favorite among Eastowners, Chez Olga is Haitian-inspired food made from scratch. Items on the menu can be modified to be vegan, and many options already are, like the accra, a deep-fried root vegetable served with strawberry dip, or their vegetable soup, with a thick, veggie-rich broth and a little kick.
 
Another Eastown hidden treasure is GoJo Ethiopian Cuisine. GoJo, like many other ‘ethnic’ spots in GR, didn’t set out with vegan in mind when developing a menu. Many of their items just are, partly because of cultural and religious influences -- and maybe because of a greater connection with the natural environment that America-at-large seems to lack. GoJo makes traditional Ethiopian food like Misir Wat, lentils spiced with berbere, and Gomen, heavily spiced and flavorful collard greens. These are served piled on top of injera, a flat, spongy bread that is both your plate and utensil. 

Curry Kitchen in Midtown also falls under the ‘ethnic’ sub-heading. Traditional Indian foods from various regions are featured, many of which share the vegan-by-default moniker. It's a great local example of how, sometimes, unintentional veganism is often the best veganism, because no one is trying too hard.

Kangaroo Kitchen & Catering  on East Fulton is a chef owned and operated gourmet take out/dine-in restaurant that focuses on fresh. Chef Roman has an ever-changing menu, with at least one vegan entrée and soup daily, and two or three salad options that are always vegan-friendly. A great spot for healthy grab-and-go and for your catering needs, Kangaroo Kitchen is one of the newest additions to the vegan scene in Grand Rapids.

Among the Downtown Market's butchers, bakers and fishmongers, you’ll also have a few vegan options to snack on. Tacos El Cunado has a tempeh ‘chorizo’ option for their burritos and tacos, as well as napales (cactus) and good old beans and rice. Malamiah Juice Bar and Making Thyme Kitchen also offer vegan friendly fare, and craft ice cream shop Love's usually churns out one or two vegan scoop options as well.

Jefferson Street in between the Heritage Hill area and Downtown GR has become a mini epicenter for all things locally sourced, sustainable and vegan. There, BarterTown Diner is the forerunner on the new vegan front. Opening on June 23rd, 2011, BarterTown was Grand Rapids' first downtown spot dedicated solely to plant-based cuisine. A little bit punk rock, the ethos of BarterTown is worker-owned, worker-operated, locally sourced and sustainable product. It really is a continuation of the vegan perspective, since a world against animal exploitation is a world against human exploitation too. 

A few doors down you’ll find CVLT Pizza. With much of the same philosophy as BarterTown, CVLT asks you to consider not just the workers who make the food on your plate, but also the farmers who grow it. Ryan Cappelletti, one of the owners of CVLT, says they focus heavily on direct trade product, like traceable beets and leeks and the carrots and ghost peppers that make up the spicy drizzle on today’s special. CVLT is all about plant-based food and knowing where the food comes from, even though there is meat on the menu. "We put meat on as an educational piece. Instead of thinking that everyone is going to go vegan, why not [encourage] people to go back to an old way of eating? I see tons of people get one vegan slice and one meat slice, because they don't even know that one slice is vegan. They look at the case, and their eyes tell them what they want," says Cappelletti. 

Hughes surveys the scene and sees plenty of local talent doing what Cappelletti does at CVLT. "Most restaurants in the area have talented chefs that can accommodate a vegan diet," she says. "It helps to leave the self-righteous attitude at the door and don't expect restaurants to accommodate you, but, instead, kindly ask the server if they have anything they can create for you. Pleasant and appreciative vegan customers can make an impact on menus!"

No matter if you're a strict vegan or an omnivore trying to work more plant-based sustenance into your diet, the burgeoning vegan scene in Grand Rapids is a step in the right direction. And as more plant-centric, sustainable food options become the norm in restaurants around town, we'll raise a glass to good food for good food's sake, the growth in culinary options, and a restaurant scene that caters to our taste buds and our lifestyle.

Looking for more? Discover the best of the rest on VeganGR, Grand Rapid's very own vegan resource guide, and add your favorite local vegan menu option in the comments below.

Tiffany Ewigleben is a mother, craft brew aficionado, freelance writer, and a true Michigander in her heart, despite being from Washington D.C. She hopes you won't hold that against her.

Photography by Adam Bird 
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