I wonder if Damon Brasch could do for veganism what American Apparel founder Dov Charney has done for generic clothing: make it sexy as all get-out. Brasch is the owner of Green, New American Vegetarian, a purveyor of vegan comfort food on Scottsdale Road in Tempe, not far from the South Indian place Udupi Cafe that I reviewed last week. Like American Apparel's Mill Avenue location, Green draws a young, eye-pleasing crowd. And the college-aged lasses who work Green's counter are most certainly a match for the slim urban sirens who populate AA's online outlet.
My point is that veg-head grub is not exactly synonymous with hip, svelte and sexy yet. But Brasch might change all that as his enterprise takes off. His clientele and counter-gals have that freshly scrubbed, healthful glow, encumbered neither with fat nor very much muscle, as far as I can tell. They're poster kids for the vegan lifestyle. Eat like them, and you'll look like them. Not really, of course, but it beats the mental image of some hairy, overweight women's studies major downing a bowl of granola in her faded overalls and crusty Birkenstocks.
Green is a pleasant enough place to nosh. Its green-and-orange color scheme is accented with some funky paintings on the walls from local daubers, and hanging from the exposed vents are paper lanterns like the kind you made in kindergarten. They do the fast-casual thing here, meaning you order at the counter, and later one of the aforementioned counter-gals (or guys) shuffles over to you with your eats. Tables and chairs are plain. Utensils are plastic. And prices reflect the low-maintenance environs, with nothing over $9 on the entire menu.
Vegans, vegetarians, and those so inclined will appreciate Green. Carnivores, on the other hand, probably won't be doing cartwheels over the place, but I did discover several items that I would eat again if, say, I was dating an herbivore chick and needed to cater to her diet. The extremes to which you have to go to please strict vegans are near-amazing. I mean, we're talking about no butter, no eggs, no milk, no cheese, and no honey, lest the bees be harmed by humanoids! Sometimes, I'm surprised they even go so far as to eat plants. After all, who says a carrot can't feel pain? Maybe that sound they make when you crunch into a raw one is their way of crying.
Brasch, who also owns That's a Wrap! sammy and salad shop in Phoenix, expends a lot of effort at Green attempting to re-create popular fast food items minus animal products, with mixed results. Vegan versions of egg rolls and Buffalo wings? I'm not sure if "skeptical" or "horrified" more accurately describes my initial reaction. But Brasch's clucker-less wings, made from freeze-dried mushroom stems and drenched in tangy Buffalo sauce, were hardly "foul" (get it?), and an interesting alternative to the original. His "egglessroll" was also above-average, the eggless skin of the thing filled with rice vermicelli, shredded carrot, and cabbage, with the distinct flavor of Chinese five spice as an aftertaste.
The flatbread pizza was one of the few offerings I'd go for seconds on, especially since pizza is something I can't help but devour in excess when placed before me. Here I could pig out sans guilt on "the classic," a crisp, whole-wheat flatbread, covered with tomato sauce, soy "mozzarella," and my choice of toppings. I went for sautéed mushrooms, green olives, and faux sausage as extras, and I was hardly disappointed. The fake mozzarella had a fluffy, egglike texture to it. Not unpleasant, though nothing like cheese. The soy-based sausage ironically reminded me of blood sausage, rather than spicy Italian sausage, but this didn't bother me, blood sausage being one of my lifelong passions.
The Texas "moo-shroom" po-boy and the Mongolian rice bowl were generally successful. The po-boy consisted of shredded portobello mushrooms, caramelized onions, and peppers, all prepared in a rich, black, espresso-barbecue sauce, and set on an eggless roll. Quite yummy, with the portobellos serving as an excellent substitution for meat, since these fungi are meatlike in texture. I sampled the Mongolian bowl, choosing brown rice over pan-fried noodles, and decided on crispy tofu instead of mock meat or faux poultry. Mixed together with green onions and soy sauce sweetened by cane sugar, it filled the hole in my stomach, even if I would have preferred it with real chicken or beef.
Now we come to the blah and the gross, the stuff I'd never eat again unless forced to choose between its mastication and watching a nonstop loop of Connie Chung crooning "Thanks for the Memories" to hubby Maury Povich. The worst was the meatball po-boy, mainly because of how disgusting the meatballs tasted. They were soft and mushy, with none of the flavor or firmness of a real meatball, and my first instinct was to spit it out once I had bitten into it. The Green burger was nearly as bad. Red, instead of brown-black, the patty had been molded out of ground oats and barley, and had the consistency of a potato pancake. If this is as close as the vegans can come to beef, my heart goes out to them. Made me want to hightail it to the nearest Sonic, tout de suite.
The shoestring fries pretty much tasted like what they were, so no harm there. But the crab puffs, samosas, and green hummus were all duds, albeit edible duds. Too many Indian places do samosas better than Green's oily, less flavorful take on this appetizer. And there are tons of Middle Eastern places in town that do killer hummus, with just the addition of garlic, lemon, and olive oil. So there's no reason Green can't do better than this icky muck, puréed with poblano peppers. The won tons from which the crab puffs were crafted had an odd, acrid taste to them, and though I enjoyed the filling of imitation crabmeat and vegan cream cheese, I couldn't get by how weird that won ton tasted.
Happy-ending-wise, the eggless, butterless chocolate chip cookies won't beat out Toll House, but they were satisfying and gushy in an uncooked-cookie-dough sort of way. And yes, I did gladly finish off all of my soft-serve vanilla-coconut soy ice cream, and my chewy peanut-butter chocolate bar. Don't know how I'm going to get all thin and booful eating such stuff, but I suppose as long as the thin and booful are serving me, I'll still die a fat and happy man.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.