Longform

Green’s Damon Brasch wants to bring vegan comfort food to the masses

If Morgan Spurlock, the guy who made Super Size Me, ever decides to do a sequel, I've got the restaurant for him.

A month of splurging on s'mores sundaes, spicy buffalo wings, burgers, and fries would surely expand his waistline as quickly as a diet of Big Macs and Egg McMuffins.

Spurlock would have a lot more options here than at McDonald's. The menu at this place reads like a round-the-world trip in guilty pleasures, from flatbread pizzas to kung pao chicken to a Texas po-boy oozing with luscious espresso barbecue sauce.

While eating this food constantly would likely pack on some pounds and, perhaps, push up your cholesterol levels, you'd still be on one of the strictest food regimens around. At Green, a funky two-year-old bistro tucked in the corner of a north Tempe strip mall, the sundae is soy, and the buffalo wings are mushrooms. The burger is ground oats and barley. The fries are still fries, though, because no animals are harmed in the deep-frying of a potato.

Everything Green serves is vegan — meaning it's not only meatless, but also free of milk, eggs, cheese, gelatin, or any other edible animal product.

Comfort food may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you say the word "vegan," but this eatery aims to change that.

I'd eat there all the time if I lived a little closer — and didn't care about squeezing into my jeans. But, hey, if I'm gonna blow my diet, this place gives me plenty of reasons to splurge.


Green is the brainchild of 34-year-old chef Damon Brasch.

He also owns That's A Wrap, a sandwich and salad shop in Central Phoenix, and he created the menu for the recently launched The Center Bistro, an organic eatery housed inside a yoga center off Mill Avenue in Tempe.

Those two other restaurants are popular in their own right, with smart, appealing offerings — healthful salads and wraps in the case of That's A Wrap, and organic cuisine for The Center Bistro. But Green is a tour de force, one of those so-simple-yet-so-clever-I-wish-I'd-thought-of-it-myself concepts that comes along once in a lifetime, and makes a guy a millionaire. Brasch has made vegan food downright tasty.

Though the nonprofit Vegetarian Resource Group estimates that vegetarians make up only 2.3 percent of the total U.S. population — with vegans accounting for up to half of that — an estimated 30 to 40 percent of the population "seeks vegetarian options at least some of the time." According to a Mintel market research report, the U.S. vegetarian food market is expected to grow to more than $1.7 billion by 2010. And thanks to the influence of the Slow Food Movement, there's a growing demand for organic local produce.

But let's face it. There's a reason our nation is still the world's fattest. McDonald's sales were up almost 10 percent in February, and although the company recently launched a lower-calorie Smart Choice Program, Mickey D's isn't raking in billions by pushing apple slices and grilled chicken salads. It's the Big Mac that keeps them coming back. And someone's still ordering fries with that.

Brasch knows it. So he took his desire to cook good food, promote his own philosophies, and run a successful business — and he came up with Green.

Instead of going the light, health-conscious route with piles of rabbit food (although you can get a salad to go along with your deep-fried tofu and sweet peanut sauce), Green's menu capitalizes on our insatiable lust for fast food.

Apparently, omnivores aren't the only ones who get hungry for pepperoni pizzas, burgers, and deep-fried snacks, and the vegan versions don't seem to be much more healthful.

"A vegan who eats lots of fried foods, even if fried in what people refer to as 'healthy oil,' is still getting a lot of calories and fat," says Sharon Salomon, a registered dietician from Phoenix asked to study Green's menu. "Balance and moderation are key to any kind of diet."

There's actually an upside to frying foods in canola oil, as they do at Green; it's considered the most healthful edible oil, with high levels of unsaturated fats, very little saturated fat, and no cholesterol. (Cholesterol is found only in animal products, says Salomon. However, blood cholesterol levels can also be raised by certain kinds of saturated fat.)

But that doesn't mean you can gorge yourself with no consequence.

Maybe the pleasure centers in our brains are hard-wired for crispy and crunchy and gooey indulgences, no matter what the treats are made of. Last year, the results of a study at Tufts University suggested that it's common for people to crave foods that are high in calories.

Brasch is no dummy. If fried pita chips and chocolate chip cookies get people eating vegan, even on occasion, then so be it. He's more interested in saving animals than calories.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig