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

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"Americans need to be stroked into it," he says of the vegan diet. "I want to eat healthy, too, but I'm not gonna go out of my way to eat sprouts if it doesn't taste good."

From the faux chicken in my noodle dish to the meaty, shredded mushrooms in my barbecue, there's no animal flesh in anything here. The cheese on the pizza, the soft-serve ice cream — all soy. No egg in the stir-fry. No animal products in anything.

Brasch wrote the business plan for Green 10 years ago but didn't open the restaurant 'til 2006. Nestled in a sleepy strip mall on Scottsdale Road, the place is so inconspicuous that it's easy to miss, even if you've been there before. But it's destination dining in its own quirky way, frequented by a mostly young, arty crowd.

Service is fast-casual — order and pay at the counter, snag one of the funky tables (painted with jagged tree and plant silhouettes), and somebody will bring out your food when it's ready. In the meantime, there's plenty of atmosphere to soak up. A colorful row of old car doors and framed pieces of art fill opposite sides of the room, while tiny white Christmas lights and glowing paper lanterns brighten the green and orange dining room.

The bohemian cafe vibe isn't particularly unusual, but the vegan comfort food is unlike anything else in town.

"Basically, I just wanted to take the taboo out of the word 'vegan,'" Brasch says, "so the average Joe would think of it as just another kind of cuisine."

For now, that's a work in progress. To many, veganism still connotes a strict diet that's more about philosophy than flavor, so even though Green is technically vegan, the restaurant bills itself as "New American Vegetarian."

At first, Brasch considered leaving the word "vegetarian" out of it, too. He's tried to keep the vegan message subtle, staying focused on cooking up craveable dishes, like jerk tofu salad, or drunken mushroom "chicken," with noodles bathed in a heady mix of mushrooms, green onions, rice wine, and dark mushroom soy sauce.

"About 30 percent of the people who come into Green have no interest in vegetarianism — they just want a reasonably priced meal," he says.

Ironically, if anyone's given him any flack, it's other vegetarians who want more healthful versions of Green's food.

"It's not necessarily the healthiest thing around," Brasch admits. "A lot of stuff is fried here. And that whole aspect of it has kind of blown up in our face. Most vegans are health-minded, though some live on fries and smoke cigars."

He's already working on a new menu that will include more light alternatives, as well as some gluten-free offerings.

But don't expect Brasch to stop serving vegan chili fries or chocolate-peanut butter Tsoynamis, his answer to the Dairy Queen Blizzard. Treats like those get meat-eaters in the door.

"When omnivores come in and say it tastes really awesome," he says, "that's the biggest compliment."

Vegan" might not be a household word just yet, but it's getting close.

The term was coined in 1944, when the newly founded Vegan Society created its name from the first three and last two letters of "vegetarian."

Now it's in vogue. Celebrities are clamoring for vegan luxury goods from fashion designer Stella McCartney. Pleather has a whole new cachet.

Cookbook author Isa Chandra Moskowitz is giving vegan food an enticing new image with books like Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin's bestselling vegan diet book, Skinny Bitch, has spawned a bestselling cookbook, too: Skinny Bitch in the Kitch.

And if there's any doubt that veganism is sexy these days, get this: Portland, Oregon, now boasts the world's first vegan strip club.

Chefs are in on the trend, as well. In the National Restaurant Association's 2007 "What's Hot & What's Not" survey of nearly 1,300 American Culinary Federation members, meatless/vegetarian dishes and vegan dishes are ranked "hot" by more than half of the respondents. Vegan and vegetarian options are de rigueur on menus, and exclusively vegetarian fine-dining establishments are cropping up around the country.

Certainly, veganism gets a boost in attention every time there's another mad cow scare or large-scale beef recall; February's USDA recall of 143 millions pounds of frozen beef from a California slaughterhouse was the biggest in U.S. history. If people think there's a chance that eating meat might kill them, they're quick to put down their knives and forks, even if it's temporary.

Consumers also worry about things that might kill them slowly, like obesity, heart disease, and cancer. There's a laundry list of health problems that have been linked not only to the cholesterol in animal flesh, but also to drugs and synthetic hormones found in industrial meat.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig