Forty-year-old Soul Veg City has decades on the vegan food trend
When Prince Asiel Bin Israel first opened Soul Vegetarian East in Chicago’s South End in 1982, it was the only place to sell vegan soul food — an anomaly for a cuisine that often relies heavily on chicken. and pork. These days, however, the category has blossomed: in 2021 alone, New York welcomed plant-based Cadence, and pop-up VTree secured a permanent location in Los Angeles with the help of Nick cannon. Even Chicago is now home to other vegan soul spots like Majani Soulful Vegan Cuisine, which opened in 2017. But Arel Brown and Lori Seay, the second-generation owners of the restaurant now dubbed Soul Veg City, are true vegan royalty in Chicago – in more ways than one.
Arel was “born vegan,” says his sister, Lori. “So the only soul food he knows is vegan. I’ve been vegan since I was seven and I’m 53 now, so for us, this soul food is what we eat.
Vegan has always been their norm, but their longstanding expertise in this category hasn’t blinded them to the evolution of plant-based eating in America.
The number of vegans in this country might, at first glance, seem to remain relatively weak – somewhere between 0.5 and 2% of the population, depending on who is asking. The sector seeing a marked rise, however, is sometimes vegan (aka flexitarian), with 39% of Americans saying they are at least strive follow a vegan diet, according to a market studyand another survey showing that nearly half of Americans allegedly attribute to a flexitarian mindset. In other words, people are taking Michael Pollan at his word by consuming “mostly plants.”
Unsurprisingly, this change has resulted in a striking growth in the availability of plant-based alternatives to bleeding milk, cheese, yogurt, steak, and even plant-based burgers. Stars from Colin Kaepernick to Alicia Silverstone to Venus Williams have jumped on the plant-based bandwagon. All in all, it’s pretty fair to say that vegan food has entered the mainstream.
These changes in the perception of vegan food in the United States contributed to the couple’s decision in 2021 to rename themselves Soul Veg City: according to Lori, although the restaurant is still plant-based, their father initially chose to use the word “vegetarian” due to a lack of familiarity with the word vegan. The new name, Arel explains, is meant to evoke their new expectations for the space that raised them.
“I said to myself: what do I want us to be? And what came to mind was the one-stop-shop as well as the first vegan restaurant in the world,” he says. “So wanting this to become a reality sent me to Soul Veg City.”
The restaurant now offers something for everyone: pea protein forms a savory base for Cajun “shrimp” and rice; a spicy ‘chicken’ sandwich is made from the couple’s own seitan recipe. International flavors like vegan gyros or stir-fried noodles join the offerings, not to mention sandwiches, pizzas, a salad bar, fresh juices and an ever-changing flavor of soft service.
“Everything is done in-house here, and that’s one of the things we’re proud of,” says Arel.
“We wash, pick and chop the vegetables every day,” adds Lori. “Every day.”
“God gave us seeds, and he gave us soil, and he gave us water, and also, he gave us time,” Arel says. “And we use those four elements.”
Here they talk about their favorite foods and the state of veganism in America today.
InsideHook: Veganism is so trendy right now. What is your favorite thing about increasing herbal offerings?
Arel Brown: I love everything, if I can be completely honest. I just love the whole trend of veganism. It’s not a thing, like a spicy chicken or a chicken burger. Or that ten years ago people were like, “Oh, let’s try almond milk,” then two years ago, everyone was like, “Oh, let’s try oat milk.” Overall, for me, I love the whole transition that the world is taking now from veganism, and wanting to eat healthy for whatever reason they want, whether it’s the planet, whether it’s their health, whether it’s whatever thing they think they should just do right now is a part of their life.
Lori Seay: I would say the younger generations, more enthusiastic about being healthy, eating and trying different vegan foods. To care more about the planet and themselves. That’s what’s exciting to me. Because we’ve reached another generation that wants to live and eat differently, which I would say would help keep veganism going.
IH: With the increase in plant-based eating, there has also been an increase in plant-based ready meals. Do you have favorites in this category?
Brown: I have four children at home. My youngest is five years old; my eldest is 15 years old. So if you have kids, you know you need to have food available. So a few items I depend on are Daiya cheese, and we make cheese sandwiches from it at home. Field Roast has corn dogs, and they love them.
Seay: I love So Delicious coconut milk ice cream bars. It’s kind of my favorite. I usually only cook vegetables and stuff like that at home, but my snacks are either kale chips or So Delicious ice cream bars or ice cream sandwiches.
IH: And on the other hand, what is the vegan trend that you don’t like?
Brown: That they put millions of dollars — I mean millions of dollars — behind this lab-grown meat. Meats as well as meat substitutes. And that doesn’t excite me at all.
Seay: As for those meats that bleed like a burger, I know they’re trying to get meat eaters to eat that, but for me, that taste is a little too strong, you know? So I prefer the more natural taste of food, which is why you can enjoy our food so much. Because it’s only food! We’re not trying to do anything else with it.
IH: Speaking of which, what is your most popular offering?
Brown: We’re known statewide and nationwide for our greens and macaroni and cheese. We make a homemade soy cheese and use whole wheat macaroni noodles. And it’s a family recipe for soy cheese that impresses everyone. And then because most people – if I had to use an ethnicity, I would say most African Americans – they eat green vegetables, but they would normally have collard greens. We sell kale leaves, and it shocks them that we don’t have any meat in them, and yet they’re still super tasty.
IH: If a visitor to Chicago only had one day to eat vegan in town, where should they go?
Brown: Dimo’s pizza — they have good vegan pizza. You can have different toppings, whether it’s Buffalo Chicken or BBQ Chicken or Macaroni Pizza. This was my first experience with a macaroni pizza, and it’s one of my kids’ favorites. At night, I like Chicago Diner, Chicago Diner is pretty cool. They exist — they came out probably two or three years after us, so they’ve been around for a while.
Seay: Soul Veg City, here! You wouldn’t want to go anywhere but here. We have breakfast, lunch, dinner, desserts, everything.
Brown: We can take you straight from breakfast, with scrambled tofu and oatmeal, hash browns, breakfast patties are homemade from couscous and TVP – textured vegetable protein. And then we take you straight to lunch, where you can have something light, because you just had a good breakfast, so we have a whole salad bar, and we have something called tuna with carrots. Instead of throwing away the pulp from the carrot juice – because we make fresh juice – we figured out how to use that pulp and make a salad labeled Carrot Tuna. Then, once it’s time for dinner, we could have something like macaroni and cheese and buffalo tofu and kale leaves, and soup or salad. Now you’re almost stuffed, but you just have a little more space, whether it’s the cinnamon roll cake or a toasted almond cake or a marble cake or a strawberry cake, with the soft serve ice cream, and whatever flavor the day is, like today is berries, you could have berry cake with berry ice cream, and then we could just roll you up and put you on a plane!
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