All’s Fair in Love and Sushi

Do you believe in love at first bite? I’m far from the hopeless romantic type, giddy over every vague glimmer of attraction, but I sure do. Far from a mere plausibility, I can assure you that it’s a proven fact; I’ve experienced it on more than one occasion. Locking lips with one powerful bite that sweeps you off your feet in a moment of passion, you lose yourself in the moment. The setting, the people, the noise all melt away, leaving only the lingering taste sensation, and lust for more.

Blue Sake Sushi Grill is the most recent backdrop of one such fiery affair. From the onset, I knew this one would be a compelling catch, boasting a lengthy menu of entirely vegan maki and nigiri that go well beyond the standard vegetable garden. We’re talking about tomato ahi tuna, eggplant barbecued eel, ikura CaviArt– And those are only mere components that make up the larger rolls.

Don’t be shy; a little flirtation is a good way to get acquainted. Ease into the conversation with any of the clearly labeled plant-based appetizers, such as the Crispy Brussels Sprouts that could convert a hater. It’s not hard to find incredible fried Brussels in this city, with immaculately crisp, almost translucent leaves and tender, buttery interiors, but these take it to the next level. Slathered in zesty, savory, and subtly sweet yuzu-miso sauce, that plate alone would score serious points for a first date.

Recommending maki rolls from this fetching lineup is a daunting task, but the good news is that there are no losers here. The Cowgirl roll, which includes pickle tempura, sriracha-fried onion rings, BBQ-flavored soy paper instead of nori, vegan mayo, and tonkatsu sauce, is the overwhelming fan favorite. My personal favorite, however, was the Eden roll, comprised of grilled asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes, sweet potato tempura, and topped with creamy edamame hummus. It truly does taste like a little bite of heaven, swaddled in white sesame soy paper.

Best of all, you can indulge on a budget during their daily happy hour, which naturally includes a wide selection of carefully crafted mixed drinks. If you need an extra push to give it a try, join the Bite Club to get a sweet discount of $10 off your first $20 purchase.

Laying claim to 15 locations nationwide as of this writing, with plans to continue that rapid expansion, it’s clear I’m not the only one swooning. If you’re still waiting for a branch to open up near you, don’t worry, there’s more than just eye candy on offer here! Blue Sake Sushi Grill was kind enough to offer the secret formula for their incomparable Brussels sprouts. If you’re the jealous type, though, be careful who you share them with; anyone could easily fall head over heels for this hot dish.

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The Early Bird Catches the Brunch

The early bird catches the plant-based worm, if you can find it hidden within this upscale corner store. Brunch Bird has taken nest inside RiverCity Market, thoroughly hidden without proper signage. You just have to trust that it exists, and if you truly believe, your faith will be rewarded with some amazing meatless fare.

We’re taking monster burgers with legit (dairy-free!) blue cheese and sauteed mushrooms, paired with spuds slathered with an impossibly rich, savory gravy, or for the sweet tooth, stuffed French toast loaded with cream cheese and raspberry jam. They go HARD on bold flavor, pulling no punches when it comes to sourcing quality, local ingredients. You’ve got your Easy Tiger ciabatta for the sandwiches, Rebel Cheese bringing the funk, and so many more local stars shining brightly within these chefs’ confident hands.

Don’t sleep on the masterfully brined carrot lox, perched atop crisp toast and adorned with a genuinely runny, spherified eggless yolk. Golden rivulets bath each bite; it’s the runny crown jewel on this dazzling dish.

A menu like this is the stuff of dreams, but also worth waking up for. Luckily, you don’t even need to set an alarm, since they’re open until 5PM everyday.

Brunch Bird
2209 S Congress Ave.
Austin, TX 78704

Hit the Snooze Button

Don’t sleep on Snooze AM Eatery. As the name would imply, the door of this establishment opens bright and early, but you’ve still gotta be quick to snag a table. Devoted to all things breakfast, brunch, and lunch, you’re out of luck if you show up in the afternoon. That considerable barrier to entry is just one of many reasons it took me so long to venture out, even though it’s a few minutes away. Tallying up the strikes against Snooze, my hesitancy was not without merit.

For one, it’s a franchise, boasting 46 restaurants spread out across 8 southern states, bringing quality and consistency into question. Second, and this is a big one, the “plant-powered” section of its egg-heavy menu isn’t actually a cheat sheet for vegans. Those helpful suggestions are still littered with eggs and cheese, turning a simple order into a daunting demand. Study up online before arriving and don’t expect assistance from your server, who’s more surly than smiley after dealing with grouchy hipsters in need of a coffee fix. On top of all that, no matter which location you visit, parking is almost guaranteed to be a nightmare, and lines are inevitable. Do check in on the virtual waiting list but don’t forget to clear your agenda for the next few hours, regardless.

Sounds like a terrible experience, right? Speaking to the strength of the food itself, despite those myriad affronts to common sense, I’d still sign up for another round of impersonal insults for another bite. Much as I want to hate it, especially in this sea of brilliant plant-based eateries, Snooze still pulls its weight with some truly winning dishes.

Thank goodness, the cocktail program is equally strong, because you’re going to need a drink to take off the edge. The wait is much easier to stomach with a stiff Cosmopolitan in hand. Tart, bright, slightly sweet, it’s the eye-opener you didn’t know you needed.

For optimal results, pretend it’s the late 90’s again and no one really understands what the word “vegan” means. Stress that all toast comes dry, no butter, cheese, or milk in any entrees, and substitute tofu for eggs. True, some dishes are emblazoned with an unmistakable “V”, like the impossibly light and fluffy Vegan Bliss Pancakes, but don’t let your guard down. It never hurts to make your needs known, especially in an establishment not necessarily built with dietary restraint in mind.

Throwing down a Tofu Scramble that could hold its own against the heavy hitters in town, you get your choice of three inclusions from a generous list of options. All the usual vegetables make an appearance, in addition to subtly spicy soyrizo, and even a whole lobe of buttery avocado at no extra cost. Savory, well-seasoned, hot, and deeply satisfying, you can’t go wrong with this classic dish. Plus, it comes with a side of hash browns, which are delicious served in a tight cylinder or smashed flat if requested “extra crispy.”

Branch out just a little bit to try the Sweet Potato Veggie Smash Up, veganized with that eggy tofu scramble crowning two grilled sweet potatoes, infused with a touch of maple syrup. Piled high with asparagus and umami-rich mushrooms, it’s finished with pickled onions for a perfect briny contrast.

You snooze, you lose. Set your alarm clock at least an hour or two earlier to beat the crowds and claim your table. It might sound daunting, but it’s worth the extra effort to start your day on a delicious note.

Over-the-Counter Remedies

While so many of us are redoubling efforts to support small businesses in this particularly fraught moment in time, some of those small businesses are actually doing the same. Literally starting from the ground up, sourcing from local farmers is part of the puzzle that those in the dining room don’t see, but when it goes missing, it’s obvious when the bigger picture doesn’t look right. An essential, core element of the community, Counter Culture is weathering the storm of the pandemic without ever losing sight of that crucial aspect, among many others.

To discuss Counter Culture without mentioning their outreach and impact across all of Austin would do a terrible disservice to all that it stands for. Food is a form of activism here as a way of positive reinforcement, making environmentally-sound, cruelty-free options an easy choice. Inclusivity has been part of that compassionate approach from day one, which means that there’s something for everyone at the table, offered at affordable prices that still allow employees a living wage. It’s a delicate balance to maintain, if not an impossible compromise to strike between ethics and business, which makes the past decade of success all the more inspiring. If every meal is a battle, they’re winning this war.

At the end of the day, it’s the food that keeps customers coming back, after all. Approachable, comforting classics are menu mainstays, but that’s not all. You can also find raw specialties like zucchini noodles and raw cheesecakes for healthier cravings, or on the flip side, strong mixed drinks if you’d rather re-tox than detox.

Sandwiches are the stuff of deli dreams, layered with thick, hand crafted and cured seitan pastrami, or sweet apple jam with “bacun”. Though few people would rave about a green salad, the BLTA salad deserves such praise, sharply dressed in creamy ranch with lavish piles of buttery avocado, smoked tempeh, and hemp Parmesan. Show up for happy hour to get a smart discount on their crowd-pleasing buffalo mac & cheese balls, or the towering plate of east side nachos that could feed an army.

Visitors should put it at the top of their itinerary and plant-based residents should be regulars. Counter Culture is the kind of cornerstone establishment that any city, big or small, would be lucky to host.

Counter Culture
2337 E Cesar Chavez St.
Austin, TX 78702

Wordless Wednesday: Breakfast, Lunch, or Brunch?

Counter CultureGF Breakfast Sammie (Garbanzo Sausage Patty, Mung Bean “Egg”, Local Tomato, Cashew Cheeze and Aioli on a Toasted Organic GF English Muffin)

Burma LoveBurmese Samusa Wrap (A hearty spinach wrap featuring Burmese curried potatoes and peas and crunchy fresh veggies with tea aioli dip)

Casa De LuzSaturday Lunch (Garden Greens Tossed with Basil Dressing, Basmati Rice with Mixed Vegies, Pinto Beans with Steamed Vegetables Sprinkled with Pumpkin Seeds and Garlic, Blanched Kale Topped with Almond and Oregano Sauce, Pickled Red Cabbage and Beets)

Opera CafeChaga Frappe (Mushroom-Based Mocha Blended with Ice and Topped with Coconut Whipped Cream)

Dosa by DOSAButternut Squash Dahl (Lentils, butternut squash, ginger, garlic, onion, tomato and turmeric)

Citizen EateryChorizo Omelette (JUST Egg omelette stuffed with chorizo & cheddar cheese topped with avocado, aioli & salsa verde)

Sunny Side Up

How is it possible for a city that got its name by “keeping it weird,” that celebrates craft beer, and hosts an above average percentage of plant-based denizens hasn’t yet found a way to combine these factors into one harmonious outpost? At least, it hadn’t, up until now. Sunny’s Backyard is the first 100% vegan bar, or pub, as they call themselves, to hit Austin. Still open softly, the interior of the building is still closed, but they’re slinging food fast and furious from the trailer parked out front.

While it’s not exactly a drinking destination yet, until they get their liquor license, the beer is FREE! That said, the food itself is reason enough to trek out to the east side. We’re talking about wonton cheese sticks served with sriracha aioli, giant soft pretzels, and crispy fried banana peppers, just to get you started.

While you’re loading up on all the comfort food your stomach can handle, don’t be misled by the healthy-sounding Brussels sprout salad. They’re actually fried to crispy, cravable perfection, drenched in a sweet and sour ponzu sauce, drizzled with spicy, creamy aioli, and finish with pickled vegetables. It’s brilliantly balanced, and also an impressive pile of food. You definitely get your money’s worth here.

If you can only order one thing, though, make it the street dog. It’s not just a meatless frank; it’s dipped in beer batter, covered in French fries, and slathered in more of that godly creamy sauce. Highly Instagrammable, yes, but also a culinary feat well worth the calories.

Even without all systems go, I’m already smitten with this new watering hole. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine it getting even better, but you can bet I’ll come back to see it happen.

Sunny’s Backyard
3526 E 7th St.
Austin, TX 78702