By Betsy DiJulio
A few years back, I visited Vegan Planet Café with the intention of reviewing it, but the casual, eclectic storefront didn’t seem quite ready for its close-up, so I ordered some food, which was just fine, and went elsewhere for my review.
But that was then, and this is now…and it is ready!
On a recent Friday in March during my Spring Break, I visited at around 2 p.m. and was surprised—and delighted—that several people were leaving with tasty looking shakes as I was arriving and more joined me while I waited for my made-to-order meal. We gathered in the intimate dining space with a pair of two-tops, a few charmingly mis-matched stools at the counter, and a few more with an industrial modern vibe at an inviting wooden edge in the bright window. I took my food to-go, but only because I had been gone from home most of the day.
In the tiny open kitchen, the chef was hustling, at times quiet and focused and, at other times, focused, but peppering his culinary choreography with friendly banter directed both at patrons and himself. Topics ranged from the progress of our orders to what his plants must be thinking about the cold front to a garden one of the customers wanted to hire him to install at her townhome, all delightfully shared with a rhythmic cadence reminiscent of spoken word poetry straight from Jamaica.
Vegan Planet Café is more than a café and more like an Afro-centric micro-marketplace with books, herbs, jewelry, scarves, and lots of plants. Buddha statues seem right at home as they preside over shea butter, various oils, art, and musical instruments. But, for me, it was all about the stellar food and the chill, casual, and welcoming vibe.
Orders are made from a handwritten chalkboard menu that hangs over the kitchen bar directly to the chef. Most dishes come on their own or as a combo with a drink and a side: fries, sweet potato fries, pasta salad, Rasta Shmack, and mac and cheese ($3.99-$5.99). Main dishes include the Planet Burger or the Blackened Spicy Planet Burger, Vegan Sausage in a bun, Philly Chz (sub), Fried “Chicken” Sandwich, Vegan Cauliflower Wings, Vegan Oxtail (made with black eyed peas), Falafel Pita, and Cajun Mushroom Pita ($7.99-$10.99 + $4 to make it a combo). But I gather the menu changes a bit from time to time—with various wraps, melts, and nachos making cameo appearances–and that the curry coleslaw is not to be missed.
I don’t often splurge on fried food, much less two different fried items, but I couldn’t decide between the “chicken” sammie and the wings, so I ordered both. Much to my delight, the “chicken” was not seitan, which I like, but it can be heavy. Rather it was a mushroom—a maitake I believe—that was deep fried in the most flavorful, but understated, flour-based coating. Crispy and not greasy, it was devoured before I pulled away from the curb. I asked for no barbecue sauce because it can overwhelm other ingredients and I wanted to taste every bit of the fresh bright green baby spinach leaves ever-so-slightly steamed under the “chicken,” caramelized onions, ruby red tomato slice, tangy-sweet bread-and-butter pickle slices, and creamy Vegenaise. The bread was golden in color and lightly toasted but, alas, I abstained.
Why? Because nestled next to my sandwich was 15—yes, 15—of the plumpest, juiciest, and crispiest deep fried cauliflower florets perfectly bathed in a light gloss of chili sauce described as having just a little kick, which it did. Quite simply, they were out of this world. Other sauces included barbecue and sweet teriyaki. My mouth watered as the wings sizzled in their oil bath, but nothing prepared me for how simple, but elevated, this rendition was. Too often at restaurants, the cauli wings are vegetarian, but not vegan. Even if you decline the ubiquitous ranch dressing, they are often dipped in a buttermilk bath. Not here. You can eat the entire order—or a third of it in my case—knowing every bite is vegan.
The crispiness of the “chicken” and the wings was preserved despite the Styrofoam carry-out container. So I hope an overnight stay in the fridge and an oven heat-up will render the leftover wings the creamy inside, crispy outside tender morsels of glistening perfection I experienced curbside. But even if they are half as good, they will be delicious.
Vegan Planet Café, 2718 Granby St, Norfolk, https://vegan-planet-cafe.business.site/
757.844.8329, open 12-7:30 M-F, 9 -5 Sat-Sun