Published July 28, 2020
Happy and Mike Tsai emigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan and, in 1998, opened a vegetarian restaurant just outside Loop 610. They closed it after one year in business.
“There didn’t seem to be a big enough market for vegetarian food in Houston,” said Happy Tsai.
In 2004, the couple opened Pepper Tree — a vegan restaurant in Upper Kirby serving a variety of Asian dishes. This time, it stuck. Over the years, the Tsais have seen enthusiasm grow among Houstonians for vegan and vegetarian food.
Today, Houston has dozens of 100 percent vegan businesses, from restaurants and bakeries to food trucks and catering companies. Together they make up a diverse patchwork of cuisines, peoples and approaches.
Rising interest in plant-based foods is a national trend. Though there are still few Americans who identify as vegetarians or vegans (pollsters estimate they are 5 percent and 3 percent of the population, respectively), an increasing number of people are making changes to their diets. A January 2020 Gallup poll found a reduced meat intake for nearly one in four people in the U.S. Companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have engineered convincing fake meats and made millions; even conventional fast-food chains such as Burger King and White Castle now serve Impossible Burgers.
Veganism is a step further than vegetarianism: Followers don’t eat any animal products, including dairy such as milk and cheese, eggs or even honey. Vegans all have different reasons for making the leap. The most commonly cited are health, animal welfare and the environment.
In Taiwan, Happy Tsai was a pharmacist and always had a keen interest in health. Growing up, she didn’t like the taste of meat or seafood and gravitated toward plant-based foods; she’s been a vegetarian since the late 1990s. Pepper Tree serves 100 percent vegan food to be inclusive of all diets.
Tramone “Taliek” Terry, the chef and owner of Soul Food Vegan in Third Ward, has been preaching the benefits of plant-based foods for many years. His cousin and mother both had health issues that subsided after switching to a vegan diet.
“The No. 1 killer in the Black community is not police brutality, it’s health deficiencies,” Terry said.
Following research by several holistic practitioners on nutrition and the African body, he created a disease-prevention program that evolved into the restaurant, which opened in April 2015.
At Soul Food Vegan, it’s not just about no meat and no dairy. Terry is meticulous about every ingredient that goes into his food, or as he says, “there’s a method to our madness.” He swaps out canola oil for more-healthful oils such as grapeseed and sunflower seed. He infuses all of his food with moringa, a nutritious plant with anti-cancer properties. He uses pink Himalayan salt instead of industrial salts, which create inflammation and can damage the stomach’s lining. All of his breads are made out of spelt, a water-soluble grain that is easier to digest than wheat.
His approach is quite technical, but delivering excellent flavor is equally important to him. He’s constantly experimenting and tries to think of ways to attract people to his cuisine. One of the most successful items at Soul Food Vegan is the fried oyster mushrooms, a recurring feature throughout the menu: in the po’ boys, the ’shroom basket, and the lo mein (made with vegetable-based noodles), for example. They are vaguely reminiscent of fried chicken but stand on their own merits: sweet yet earthy, chewy and crunchy at the same time.
These mushrooms are a testament to how creative vegan chefs have gotten in the past few years. Jackfruit is another great example; this knobbly fruit’s fleshy insides are often used as “meat” in plant-based foods.
At RayJay’s Feel Good Food, a food truck that now has a kitchen location at Blodgett Food Hall in Third Ward, owners Rick and Janice Rodgers are primarily known for their vegan barbecue. They cook jackfruit in the style of pulled pork, slathered in their housemade barbecue sauce and served as a sandwich or on their mac and cheese bowl.
“We want to appeal to the flavors of a nonvegan,” Rick said. “That starts the conversation.” Janice adds that they’re not pretending to serve meat; rather, they’re making sure they’re offering a great flavor profile to their customers.
Green Seed Vegan also serves a delicious jackfruit barbecue sandwich called the Lil Red BBQ. Owners Matti Merrell and Rodney Perry opened their brick-and-mortar in the Museum District in 2012, after operating as a food truck for about a year.
“In Asian cultures, they’ve been using jackfruit for years,” Merrell said. “We were inspired by other people and put our own spin on it. People love the texture.”
Sinfull Bakery sells a jackfruit salad in the style of a chicken salad: shredded, with vegan mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, sliced almonds, red onions and apples. Owner Dylan Carnes started her business in 2009, when there was little to no vegan scene in Houston. Before the pandemic hit, she had been in the process of opening her storefront in Midtown, which is currently offering takeout.
Carnes sells kolaches, sandwiches, granola bars, cinnamon rolls and all kinds of vegan baked goods. She makes a lot of her substitute meats and cheeses from scratch. The cheese in her savory kolaches is made of carrots, potatoes, oat milk, olive oil, nutritional yeast and a bunch of different spices. In the sweet kolaches, the cream cheese is based on tofu meat and powdered sugar.
Carnes also sources substitutes from other vegan companies, such as Beyond Meat for the sausage kolaches. She swears by JUST Egg, which is sold in a patty or in a liquid form that can be scrambled. When she started Sinfull Bakery, products like this either didn’t exist or were of poor quality, she says.
A diverse scene
The continued improvement of vegan food is the direct result of chefs’ ingenuity, but it’s also due to these technological advancements in plant-based proteins.
Korny Vibes started as a pop-up in 2018 and opened as a full-service restaurant in Montrose in December 2019. It serves more than a dozen kinds of burgers and sandwiches, as well as a few Mexican staples, and leans heavily into mimicking regular meat and dairy through these substitutes. In fact, it’s difficult to tell the difference between Korny Vibes’ menu items and that of other fast food restaurants. This is intentional, says owner Amador Lazo.
“That’s what draws people into vegan food, you want to give them similar foods to what they’re used to,” he said.
The results are wildy popular; a stream of cars filled the small parking lot and spilled onto a side street on one recent Sunday evening. Lazo wants to eventually start offering more vegetable-based foods, but that will come later, he says.
As well as differences in style and approach, the Houston vegan scene shows diversity in its cuisine and demographics. In this story’s accompanying directory of vegan businesses — a comprehensive, yet not exhaustive, list of what’s available — the overwhelming majority are helmed by people of color, and most of them are Black-owned.
“Veganism is cross-cultural, cross-racial, cross-nationality,” said Rick Rodgers of RayJay’s. “It’s about food, it’s about the environment and sustainability, it’s about animal advocacy. Those things transcend everything.”
Additionally, vegan food is not so much a type of cuisine as it is a qualifier: In Houston, there’s vegan soul food, vegan Asian food, vegan baked goods, and of course, vegan Mexican food.
Jesse and Denisse Hernandez started Veegos in November 2018 as a pop-up, then a food truck, mostly making appearances at breweries around town. As Houstonians know, beer and tacos are a classic combo. In February 2019, they opened a restaurant in Westchase but outgrew the place within just three months. They moved to their current location down the road on Westheimer, where they’ve been for more than a year now.
They serve classic Mexican food — but it’s all vegan. They use two different cheese substitutes. One of them is a cashew cheese they make in-house, which is smothered on the nachos. The other one is a mozzarella-style cheese substitute from a brand called Follow Your Heart; they sprinkle this one on the quesadillas and enchiladas.
“The goal isn’t really to have you here every single day, the goal is to bring awareness,” said Jesse. “Eventually, people start eating more and more plant-based foods.”
Not all customers vegan
This taps into a curious phenomenon. Most of the business owners interviewed for this story estimated that, on average, only about 50 percent of their customers are actually vegan. The rest are either trying to incorporate more plant-based foods in their diet, or are simply curious about the movement and want to check out the major players in town. At Sinfull Bakery, Carnes says some people just like the product, whether it’s vegan or not. At RayJay’s, the Rodgers’ observed that customers seek them out because they’re looking for information about the lifestyle.
Veganism seeping into the mainstream has greatly improved and developed the scene in Houston. There are now many restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops and food trucks to choose from. There are catering companies and meal-prep services. For those who want to introduce plant-based foods into their home, there’s even a cooking school.
Chef Nadia Ahmed started Green Roots Kitchen in 2012 as a personal-chef service for people with various dietary restrictions. Four years later, she was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, and decided to transition to a plant-based diet. As she did, she found that her symptoms lessened significantly. In 2017, she went back to school to become a registered dietitian and started teaching cooking classes in her Greater Eastwood kitchen that same year.
Ahmed says between 85 and 90 percent of her students are not vegan or plant-based, they’re just curious or considering a lifestyle change. She loves this, as it gives her the opportunity to educate a broad swath of people and bust myths about veganism. No, it’s not all salads. Yes, she eats plenty of protein. No, healthy food doesn’t have to be bland.
On HoustonChronicle.com: The rise of plant-based ‘meat’
“I love food. I was a chef first, a vegan second,” she says. “I’ll teach you how to make these vegetables taste amazing.”
As a classically trained chef, she’d love to see more vegan fine-dining come to Houston in the future. Dylan Carnes, of Sinfull Bakery, seconds this. While most vegan businesses here are casual, the newly opened Verdine, in the Heights, hints that the city may gain more of these upscale options in the years to come.
Denisse Hernandez at Veegos wants to see a city where vegans don’t have to drive across town to eat at their favorite restaurants. She is confident that within time, the vegan scene will have even more diverse options at people’s doorsteps.
Taliek Terry, of Soul Food Vegan, sets his sights even further. He wants to bring his concept and vision to other cities and states, such as Dallas, Atlanta, California, and even the East Coast. But first, he’s planning a second Houston location of Soul Food Vegan, which is currently in the works — a sign that there’s growing demand for vegan cuisine in the Bayou City.
“We’re very fortunate to be a part of it, to be one of the pioneers in Houston,” said Green Seed Vegan’s Matti Merrell, who watched the vegan scene explode in the city over the last decade. “I only see it as getting bigger and better.”
Support our journalism. Subscribe today.
Emma Balter grew up in Paris, France, where she got an early taste for good food and wine. She studied English Literature at Newcastle University in the U.K. and got her start in journalism as the lifestyle editor of the student newspaper. She moved to the U.S. in 2012, and spent six years on staff at Wine Spectator magazine, first as a tasting coordinator, then as an editor. She has also contributed to Condé Nast Traveler, Food & Wine, Eater, PureWow, Chowhound and VinePair, among others. Balter joined the Houston Chronicle in March 2020 as a reporter for Preview, where she covers entertainment, food and drink. She can be reached by email at [email protected] or by Twitter: @EmmaBalter
Steve Gonzales is a senior staff photographer at the Chronicle. He came to the Chronicle as the Director of Photography in 2005. Before moving to Houston, Steve was the Assistant Managing Editor/Photography at the Kansas City Star. He worked in Kansas City for 18 years as a staff photographer, night photo editor, features/sports photo editor. Before Kansas City, he was a staff photographer at the Topeka (Kansas) Capital-Journal. He began his seven-year career in Topeka as a lab technician. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or by Twitter: @stevegonzaleshc
Design by Julie Takahashi