Arkansas is home to Yarnell's Ice Cream, the concept of cheese dip, championship barbecue, the world's second largest meat processing company and prime duck hunting.
So can a vegan restaurant thrive in the tourist corridor of the capital city? The state's track record isn't great. In the past few years, there were two vegan restaurants in other towns -- Fayetteville's Something Better and Hot Springs' Garden Secrets. Neither saw its second anniversary.
Little Rock has a larger population, and a River Market stall probably has lower overhead, so we're hopeful for The Veg, which opened May 12 and serves no meat or animal products. But hope isn't going to help if the proprietors don’t set dependable hours of operation. (We’ll come back to that.)
On our first visit, co-owner Shiem Swift, 33, told us he handles marketing and the register, while pulling occasional shifts at a chain restaurant, and his partner works for the U.S. Postal Service and handles cooking.
They’ve personalized the stall with the image of graffitist turned art star Jean-Michel Basquiat, an MC Hammer action figure and, if you can make it out over the high-school-cafeteria-meets-family-vacation din that is the River Market food court, the rhythmic groove of A Tribe Called Quest.
The menu is rudimentary, which makes sense because, technically, this is fast food. The Veg serves veggie burgers and chickpea “tuna” salad or sandwiches every day. Usually, if you get there early enough, there’s another option or two as well.
First, the staples: The veggie burger is a moist combo of black beans, carrot, onion and cilantro dressed with tomato, avocado and some spicy, creamy pink sauce. (Vegenaise mixed with Sriracha, maybe? The effect is akin to a Louisiana remoulade sauce.)
It’s served on grilled Ezekiel bread, which is made with lentils and soybeans and therefore too dense for such a hearty patty. We would prefer something soft and airy, which would probably not be made from sprouted grain, would likely have added sugar and would probably (sigh) be much less wholesome.
The chickpea salad combines minced and whole peas for a texture similar to chunky pimento cheese. It’s mixed with tomatoes and tangy purple onions and probably works better atop green salad than on the bricklike Ezekiel slices. Sandwiches come with hand-cut sweet potato fries — fresh-tasting but a bit mushy. (We waited till 1:30 p.m for lunch. Maybe the fries were crispy earlier?)
A few weeks later we returned, hoping The Veg had worked out its kinks. (Our first visit was on their second day of operation.) Sometimes they have lasagna on the menu, and Swift says they plan to add more pasta dishes using soy based ricotta. But this day, they had quesadillas and tacos.
You’re less likely to fill up with these options, but they work as a light lunch.
The quesadilla is some type of small, tan bean, crispy onion, a sprinkle of cilantro and sweet, tahini-heavy hummus between wheat tortillas, served with guacamole and a commercial tofu sour cream (lighter and less sour than the real thing). The tortillas were thinly stuffed and grilled to perfection, crunchy but not dry.
With cubed sweet potatoes and lentils in a light gravy, the tacos were more West Indies or African-fusion than “Tex-Mex.” The blue-corn shells were a highlight — fresh and only slightly crunchy, not stale or crumbling in your hand. The combo of sweet and slight heat (the lentils are spiced) worked well with the creamy avocado.
This time, we arrived at noon. The Veg was out of the edamame that was supposed to come with the entrees, so we were served something mysterious, starchy and slightly peppery — mashed lima beans, Swift confirmed.
Neither of us had eaten mashed lima beans before. My dining partner enjoyed them, but I’m not a big fan of overcooked vegetables, and lima beans are spongy enough already.
Probably the chocolate chunk cookies are The Veg’s most impressive offering to date. They have a strong vanilla flavor and a near-biscuit texture, but it’s an airy biscuit. We tucked one cookie away for the next day, and it stayed fresh inside its plastic wrap. The funnel cakes are good, too — lighter and not as greasy or sweet as the traditional fair snack.
But when is this place actually open? The Veg has no hours listed on its Facebook page, and calling isn’t helpful as the phone is only sporadically answered. When people ask on Facebook, the answers vary. Sometimes The Veg opens at 8:30 a.m., sometimes at 9 a.m. Sometimes they close at 5 p.m., sometimes at 6. When we called, we were told 9 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.
So The Veg is supposed to serve breakfast. Its Facebook page is resplendent with images of sizzling doughnuts, fruit topped French toast and red velvet waffles. On our second visit, a Friday, we asked if they would be open for breakfast the next day.
“We’ll be open by 9, but we try to get here a little earlier on Saturdays,” we were told. So the next morning, we showed up at 10 a.m., and the stall appeared not to have been touched all morning. We waited till 10:30 a.m. We checked Facebook. We tried to call. We gave up and left, annoyed that we’d bothered. (Downtown parking is no picnic, and wearing pajamas till noon on Saturdays is a ritual not casually neglected.)
So if The Veg doesn’t last, maybe it’s due to a lack of plant-munching enthusiasts in the metro area. Or maybe it’s because, several weeks in, the kinks remain. Some patrons will be patient, but no restaurant should bet the bottom line on the good will of friends. Five of us were involved in these various adventures, and we’re mostly vegans and vegetarians. We’re no longer so enthusiastic, but we remain hopeful.
Weekend on 06/19/2014
Print Headline: Vegan Veg pleases, perturbs