Rice and Shine

Growing up in the age of internet anxiety, there was an intense, irrational fear of the unknown lurking in the depths of the Worldwide Web. I vividly remember stern warnings from teachers when we first climbed into chairs in the computer lab, the information superhighway at our fingertips. We were coached from day one to guard our privacy ferociously; never give out your real name, your phone number or, god forbid, you address, under threat of death or torture.

Now here we are in 2021, meeting up with strangers and buying vegan sushi off of Instagram. What a wild trip it’s been.

Despite that sketchy introduction, Rice Above is a fledgling food purveyor with low-key sales tactics but high-quality rolls. The moment I laid eyes on those brilliantly colored, boldly creative maki, I was hooked. Menus drop at random, and the only way to get in on the action is to watch @riceaboveATX on Instagram. Forget about the standard fusion fare; these are more than mere vegetable rolls. Meatless orange chicken, or watermelon tuna with cream cheese, or fish-free eel are just the beginning. As soon as I saw my opening, I had to place an order, of course, but I also had to know more. Luckily, times have changed since my earliest online interactions, and everything is easily accessible with just a few clicks of the mouse.

I reached out to chef Shane Michael, the man behind the business, to get the inside scoop on above board but below the radar sushi deals.

Hannah Kaminsky: Why/how did you get started in the first place?

Shane Michael: Well, when covid became a scary reality, I took a step back and left work to stay home and keep my family as safe and isolated as possible. When it first really hit us all… everyone was kind of at a loss for how to navigate the new territory. So many businesses closed and options for vegan food slowly began to dwindle. In the beginning, MANY of the normal spots here were closed. So, I really wanted to put an option out there for anyone stuck at home. I did contact-free delivery to help make it easier for anyone that was home bound and hungry. Since then, it’s been an up and up.

HK: Before launching Rice Above, did you have a background with sushi, or cooking in general?

SM: So, the only sushi background I had was just in making it as a hobby to eat at home. I started out rough haha then slowly caught the hang of it. Then really started branching out with what was possible or fun to do.

HK: What inspires the flavors for your rolls?

SM: I really wanted to focus on what wasn’t being represented for vegans, here. I don’t care about an avocado roll.. I don’t care about an AAC roll. These have always felt like cop out rolls on regular sushi menus meant to have a veg option. I wanted to make sushi that didn’t feel like someone was settling for a vegan option. What rolls can be veganized? Then, I just thought of what flavors go well with other flavor profiles. Blueberry + habanero, mango + spam, apples + oranges. It’s been most fun trying to match flavors that aren’t typically an option.

Zero Roll – Gluten Free Sweet Teriyaki Chick’n, Sautéed Cashews, VVhite Sauce, Crumbled Cashews, Eel Drizzle

HK: Is this your side hustle or full-time gig? What else do you do when you’re not rolling?

SM: For the majority of covid it has kept us afloat. But, ultimately, it is a side gig until I can really push forward and make it full time. At the moment I also work at a vegan food truck, down south. RVK!

HK: Does anyone else help you in the kitchen, or are you rolling solo?

SM: It really has just been me. I have had help with deliveries when needed. But, even that is something I’d like to figure out a permanent process for. It’s fun but it’s also a lot of work. It has to be a labor of love haha otherwise I’d lose my mind trying to keep up.

HK: What has been your biggest challenge thus far?

SM: I’d have to say… trying to organize the entire process. Keeping up with demand. Keeping options rotating to hold interest. Some weeks are absolutely insane. Prepping the right amount to fulfill all the rolls that are pre-ordered. Every week is just so different with how many customers are ordering however many rolls.

ShEELa RollAvocado, Cucumber, Wrapped in Vegan Glazed Unagi, VVhite Sauce, Eel Drizzle

HK: Have you faced any unique issues you weren’t expecting, in regards to operating in the middle of a pandemic?

SM: The pandemic propelled it. And Austin is incredible with its support of local vegan business. Our community is unlike any other. I think the pandemic actually forced a simpler process. No contact. So pickups are contact-free. Deliveries are on the door step. Masks. Masks. Masks.

HK: Any plans to expand? Regular pop-ups, food truck, brick and mortar, or something else?

SM: The ultimate goal is to have a food truck location. That’s on the agenda for next year. Fingers crossed. Until then… consistent weekly drops. Pop ups. And hopefully some branching out to other cities in Texas.

Appels & Oranjes Roll – Gluten Free Orange Chick’n, Pickled Carrot, Pickled Honeycrisp Apple, Fresh Orange Segments, Homemade Orange Sauce, Sesame Seeds

HK: How can people best support you right now? Aside from ordering, of course.

SM: Oh man. Any advice on this kind of stuff would be greatly appreciated. Something I think that helps massively and is often overlooked… is sharing on social media. The more photos posted in stories or on Facebook always brings more followers… which always brings more orders. It may not seem like something so simple could be so beneficial, but it’s one of the biggest helps for boosting the radar.

Also, some shout-outs to the best teammates in our local vegan community.

@vegmexnissi
@austinkindcakes
@lacalakabakery
@vegans_r_sexy cheese
@zucchinikillbakery
@veggcatering
@funky_mello
@revolutionvegankitchen
@bignonnas
@rebel.cheese
@sweetritual
and of course @bittersweet__

Birthdays with Benefits

With age comes wisdom, grace, and maturity… Or so they say. While I have yet to experience any of that myself, I do keep getting older, despite best intentions. There’s still at least one very good reason to celebrate the passage of time, though: Birthday freebies. I don’t throw parties anymore but darting around town to collect these gifts is its own kind of festive event. My list of national vegan birthday freebies has been immensely popular for obvious reasons, as it would be a shame to leave anyone out of the fun. If you were born, recently or long ago, you too could enjoy these treats! Now that I’m living in Austin, however, I’ve uncovered a whole trove of new local specialties.

Amy’s Ice Creams is a treasured Austin establishment that got its start in 1984 and is still scooping strong. The menu at large is still firmly dairy- and egg-based, but you can always find at least one vegan specialty that will make you melt. Depending on the day, you might find chocolate, coffee, or snickerdoodle ice cream, or a range of fruity sorbets. Snag a free scoop on your birthday when you sign up for the Sundae News email list.

Greasy spoon diners have never been as good as Kerbey Lane Cafe, slinging a full, separate vegan menu for the meatless among us. Pancakes are their claim to fame, so it should come as no surprise that they’d share a free single pancake of your choice or small cup of vegan queso to help celebrate your big day. Sign up for the Kerbey Lane Love Club for your annual gift. Keep an eye out for special seasonal variations; my favorite is the pumpkin spice flavor, but you can’t go wrong with the classic, plain and simple. Best of all, even your pup can be a member of this club! That’s right; your lovable mut will beg for their very own baby pancake on their birthday, too. Hopefully they’ll stop drooling over your plate then!

Mix, match, and stir-fry yourself loco at Woko Loco, where you can get a free box of fresh veggie goodness on your birthday. All you have to do is download the Woko Rewards app and cash in on your big day. You can build your own Asian entree with a base of rice, noodles, or zoodles, tofu, eight flavorful sauces, and up to 16 different vegetables! If that’s too overwhelming, just ask for the Veggie Lover box and they’ll take care of the details. Don’t forget to use my promo code when you sign up: 9984

Which is your favorite sandwich? That’s the very question Which Wich is asking, and they don’t make it easy. This micro-chain is especially vegan-friendly with a clear menu section outlining which ingredients are free of all animal products. Join the Which Wich Vibe Club to get a FREE small sandwich (or wrap, or salad) for your birthday. If I were you, I’d opt for the black bean patty, avocado, jalapeno hummus, and quinoa, but you can build your own combination from the wide variety of vegetable options, too.

If you’re starting to feel the squeeze after so much celebratory indulgence, head over to Juiceland for a fresh start. Sign up on Five Star Rewards and you’ll get a coupon for $5 off, valid for one week before and one week after your big day. That’s plenty to cover a wide range of smoothies, juices, shots, coffee, and even some snacks or light meals. It’s hard to resist the Jackfruit Carnitas Supreme, a meaty Tex-Mex bowl-in-one, but on a hot day, nothing hits the spot quite like the protein-packed Strawberry Mylkshake. Don’t forget, you can add in black pepper, cinnamon, cayenne, sea salt, or habanero to your blend at no charge, any day of the year!

Since dropping anchor for their first brick-and-mortar location in South Manchaca, The Vegan Yacht has more space for diners and menu options. That includes their organic soft serve ice cream, made entirely in house. Flavors rotate every few weeks but you can always count on getting a unique seasonal specialty. To anyone who says that ice cream in January isn’t a compelling prospect, just try repeating that when presented with a swirl of marshmallow cocoa like this beauty. Pumpkin spice in the fall and eggnog in December are two other noteworthy bestsellers. No signups or advanced notice necessary to redeem your treat; just walk in and let them know you’re celebrating on your special day!

Anyone would be delighted to snarf down a 7-inch Vegetarian Sandwich at Snarf’s, free of charge, so make sure you sign up for the Insider’s eclub to log your birthday! You’ll get a voucher to use to place your order online or in the app, whenever the craving strikes during your birth month. Don’t forget to leave out the cheese and mayo to make this one vegan. Jazz it up with artichoke hearts or extra mushrooms for that meaty, umami bite.

RA Sushi really pulls out all the stops when you join The Hook Up. On your birthday AND half birthday, you’ll get a full $20 gift certificate to make it rain maki rolls. Don’t miss the lavishly adorned Vegetarian Roll, vibrant and verdant with cucumber, avocado, arugula, asparagus, and romaine hearts, all wrapped in green soy paper. Go to town with garlic edamame, shishito peppers, or spicy cucumber salad to complete the meal. If you dine in, you’ll even get your choice of flavored mochi for dessert, on the house! That’s a  truly sweet AND savory gift!

Bow down to Bao’d Up. These fluffy steamed buns are made fresh daily in each of four central locations. Plump, pillow-y soft, and stuffed with your choice of sweet or savory fillings, you have two vegan options to chose from: Veggie for a healthy snack, or red bean for a light dessert. Download the app, create an account (use my referral code 2271, please!), and snag one free bao on your birthday! While you’re there, you might as well treat yourself to a side of fries, pickled veggies, or slaw, because the mayo is all eggless, too.

Although two dozen cities now host their own Alamo Drafthouse theaters, it was originally founded here in Austin. If you sign up for their Victory program, you’ll get a free movie ticket, delivered on the day of your birth! You’ll still need to pay for food if you go in hungry, but it’s worth the splurge. Their crispy buffalo cauliflower, complete with vegan ranch dressing, is the stuff of legends. Make sure you input all your details correctly because they do check ID at the door.

Remember, these offers are all subject to change, especially under rapidly evolving COVID-19 protocol. Always call in advance to check hours and availability when in doubt. Celebrate to the fullest, and stay safe!

Worshiping at the Alter of Althea

Guru. Pioneer. Celebrity. Savant. God.

Matthew Kenney is many things to his multitude of fervent followers, but one thing cannot be denied: The man knows how to cook. Well, more accurately, he knows how to treat his vegetables right, heat need not be applied. He is not just a chef, but a brand in and of himself. Commanding the table at over two dozen fine dining establishments worldwide, he’s arguably the trailblazer at the head of the raw food movement. These days, his formal education from the French Culinary Institute manifests in less rigid preparations, mandating minimal processing, rather than a complete abstinence of heat.

Three Beet Carpaccio

As a prominent figure in the plant-based movement from the days before it was cool, his name hit my radar sporadically, but my experience with his food has been limited. Only once before, over a decade ago, was I fortune enough to dine at Pure Food and Wine before its scandalous closure. Thankfully, the man is unflappable, soldiering on with new projects seemingly sprouting up everyday. Althea in Chicago offers a compact menu of re-imagined classic dishes spanning numerous global cuisines, along with Kenney’s own fusion creations. The only knock against the place is location. Completely hidden away on the 7th floor of Saks Fifth Avenue, you must navigate through racks of stiff men’s suits and deftly dodge the perfume counter to earn your meal.

Kimchi Dumplings

Stemming from the Greek name that can be applied to either a woman or a man, Althea means “wholesome,” from the verb althos, meaning ‘to heal’. Fittingly, the mission statement of the eponymous restaurant is to meld plant-based culinary art and ultimate nutrition.

Mightyvine Tomato + Zucchini Lasagna

Most raw approaches treat food only as fuel, leaching out all the joy and whimsy from the act of eating. This was one of the rare instances I can look back on the concept and it has the potential to compete with any Michelin-starred cooking.

Kelp Noodle Cacio E Pepe

Truly alive in more ways that old-school “uncookery” would imply, colors vibrate off immaculately plated dishes, flavors explode with incomparable intensity; the full essence of each vegetable is celebrated. You won’t find dehydrated planks of flaxen juicer pulp here. This menu is designed from a place of joy and abundance, from a creative food lover unleashed from traditional culinary boundaries. Defying easy explanation, this is an experience that you simply must enjoy firsthand to properly grasp. Book your table, book your tickets, get yourself out there; it’s worth traveling any distance to enjoy.

Althea
700 N Michigan Avenue
7th Floor
Chicago, IL 60611

A Eulogy for Eateries, 2020

Like so many poor souls infected with COVID-19, a staggering number of restaurants met their untimely demise this year. Well-established eateries and fledgling startups alike were afflicted. Mom-and-pops, national chains, dive bars, bastions of fine dining; none were spared the wrath of this indiscriminate virus. No one could have predicted the devastating impact on business across the board, let alone prepare for it. Restaurants which already operate on razor-thin margins took the first hit, and keep taking the abuse, even as many other sectors begin to show signs of recovery. It comes as no surprise that we have excessive losses to mourn this year, but still, it’s no less sad.

The fatalities, like the number of cases, continue to rise unabated. At the time of this writing, approximately 1 in 6 establishments have turned the tables for the last time. To put that in perspective, that’s over 100,000 individual restaurants, touching countless lives. Their loss is felt profoundly by owners of course, but also employees, devoted regulars, and adjacent businesses that thrive on their success as well.

In the eye of the storm now, between holidays and stifled festivities, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge just a few of these losses. 2020 has been a turbulent for me personally as well, beginning in the Bay Area, and ending in central Texas, so this particular restaurant obituary will follow that same winding path. My deepest condolences to all those mourning these losses.

Before the virus truly sunk its claws into the world and began the first wave of widespread shutdowns, Analog quietly slipped away in February, going gentle into that good night. Lining the walls with records, VHS cassettes, and old school video games, entering through the narrow doorway felt like returning to my ideal 90’s childhood library. Hosting popups for many fledgling vegan chefs, I remember spending one of my earliest nights in Oakland there, tasting Hella Vegan Eats for the first time. Their house menu of thick sandwiches stacked high with all manner of classic deli fare was the real attraction, though. Seitan Reubens, bahn mi, meatless corned beef; they were slinging these thick stacks before it was cool, true to character. With another strong supporter gone, the future of the analog medium itself hangs in the balance.

Crispy, tender, and well-seasoned falafel has been strangely difficult to come by in San Francisco, which is why the arrival of Liba Falafel was such a venerable establishment of Middle Eastern delights. Beginning life as a mobile truck and eventually taking root in Oakland as a brick-and-mortar, their fried chickpea balls were as famous as the rainbow of accoutrements that came with them. Arrayed like the salad bar of dreams, the purchase of one box would allow the voracious eater to fill it with as much Israeli salad, schug, onions, roasted peppers, and pickles as would fit. Clearly, this self-serve approach couldn’t survive such stringent coronavirus measures, and has become a thing of the past. After 11 years on the streets, they leave a gaping falafel-sized hole in SoCal.

Originally unleashed upon the world as Republic of V, Animal Place’s Vegan Republic has undergone quite a few struggles to stay afloat despite widespread support. COVID-19 was just the final nail in the coffin. Opened in 2014 as the first all-vegan store in Berkeley, there’s still nothing that’s equivalent to their selection of specialty plant-based goods in the area. From home goods to clothing to groceries, it was a paradise where everything on the menu was vegan, not limited to purely edible entrees. It also served as an event space, sharing the floor with vegan authors like myself on special occasions, becoming a meeting place for the community at large.

Nick’s Kitchen, once booming with three distinct outposts, turned belly-up seemingly overnight. All street-facing locations have closed, but this story isn’t a complete tragedy; this incomparable plant-based Filipino food has been reborn as a special order delivery service directly from Chef Reina. Rumor has it that nationwide shipping will soon be an option for more widespread access than ever. I’m holding out hope for this exciting development, because at about the same time as this announcement was made, I had reached the end of my time in California, too.

Heading down south to Austin, TX, it breaks my heart to have just barely missed experiencing the legend that is Veggie Heaven. Most Chinese restaurants have a token tofu dish or serviceable vegetable plate in a pinch, but now, none exist with a 100% vegetarian menu. Where does one go for sizzling mock meats, eggless hot and sour-style soup, or teriyaki cauliflower wings now? Seriously, I’m asking for myself here. There seems to be no equivalent establishment to reasonably pick up the slack.

Sending shock waves through the community, Mother’s Cafe called it quits after 40 years in Hyde Park. A bastion of old-school, nostalgic vegetarian and vegan dishes with a Tex-Mex twist, the owners attempted to survive on takeout only during these uncertain times, but found it entirely unsustainable. At least, as small consolation, they plan to eventually offer some of the restaurant’s best sellers as packaged food, as they currently do with their widely acclaimed cashew-tamari salad dressing. There’s no replacement for a mother’s love, though. For generations of locals that grew up in this dining room, this loss truly feels like a death in the family.

Best known for moist cupcakes, tender scones, and chewy cookies, Happy Vegan Baker also had a legendary Chick Un Salad along with more satisfying savory delights. Carrying the torch at farmers markets and events year round, their treats would also fill the deli cases at Fresh Plus, Natural Grocers, Tom’s Market, Dias Market, and Rabbit Food Grocery. Though they never had a static outpost, these snacks and staples were always close at hand. I personally regret not loading up my own fridge while I still had the chance.

All that glitters isn’t gold, and Austin will have a bit less of a shine now that Curcuma is no longer serving golden lattes directly to the public, alongside their renowned raw, healing cuisine. The trailer is no more, but the golden paste lives on for homemade turmeric treats. There’s no replacement for their distinctive pecan tacos though, made with spiced pecan “meat” on crisp jicama “tortillas.”

Open in Austin for less than a year, Cosmos Kitchen was taken from us before its time. Though well-liked and highly reviewed, accolades could not save it from the pitfalls of social distancing, with the reduced volume and revenue. Filling tacos with meatless al pastor, chorizo, picadillo, and more, the flavors transcended all dietary boundaries. The absence of this colorful food truck will be mourned by eaters across the city.

To all those that have left us this year: Thank you for all the delicious memories. You will not be forgotten. Your struggles, successes, and inspiration will live on, within us all.

Takeout Take Away

Chinese food is one of the most popular worldwide simply because it boasts such incredible breadth and depth. There are eight primary styles of cuisine that fall under this umbrella term, each with its own flavor affinities and specialties.

Even if you only eat “Chinese food” every day of the week, you would never run out of options. Certainly, you’d never get bored.

Cantonese is one of the most common styles found in America, blending a delicate interplay between sweet and sour, with more braises, heavy sauces, and mild seasonings. This is where you find the usual staples like Kung Pao and General Tso’s.

Sichuan and Hunan lean more heavily into fiery hot spices, with a touch of ma la (mouth-numbing) peppercorns adding a distinct sensory experience. Think of blazing hot mapo tofu and dandan noodles.

Shandong cuisine hails from northeastern China, which explains the strong oceanic influence with much more seafood and salty flavors. Sea cucumbers are a particular specialty (though they’re not related to the vegetable you’re thinking of, and certainly not vegan) along with shark fin soup, now banned in most countries.

Anhui and Fujian both come from more mountainous regions, incorporating more earthy notes, wild foraged foods, and simple, sweet tastes. These styles are rarely found in the United States, sadly. “Hairy” tofu, fermented and pungent, is an acquired taste but highly memorable.

Similarly, Zhejiang and Jiangsu foods are almost impossible to find overseas; a sad omission from mainstream restaurants, as these dishes are lighter, fresher, or even entirely raw. Seasonality is exceptionally important, emphasizing the beauty in simplicity. Ginger-braised or -steamed proteins are popular, often paired with delicate white tea.

When you start craving Chinese food, which is your favorite style?