You might not expect that a restaurant owned by the founders of Van Leeuwen ice cream would have healthy options on its menu. But Selamat Pagi is perfect for vegetarians and carnivores alike.
On a recent evening, I went to this Balinese restaurant in Greenpoint intending to demolish a bowl of beef rendang. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by their fresh noodles and tempeh. Both my vegan date and I were exclaiming over the freshness of the peas, the brightness of the mint and Thai basil, the satiating peanut sauce and tempeh. It was a reminder that flavor also comes from herbs and spices, not just liberal applications of butter and animal fat.
Vegetable-forward dishes have always been on the menu at Selamat Pagi, but they’ve become more popular as owners Ben Van Leeuwen, Laura O’Neill and Pete Van Leeuwen tap into their diners’ increasing desire to “eat clean.”
“January/February are known as months when people strive for health-related resolutions,” they explained by email, but they’ve noticed a definite shift from the New Year’s resolutions crowd to people who are mindful of what they eat year-round. To cater to them, they note that “most dishes contain clean ingredients, with countless vegan and vegetarian-friendly options.”
For years farm-to-table eating was an adequate description for our desire to eat as well and as sustainably as possible. Now a growing number of restaurants are promoting their use of “clean” and “plant-based” ingredients with the same kind of zeal. While “eating clean” has taken on some elitist and diet shaming connotations, at its most basic level it means a diet filled with plant- and animal-based whole foods that are minimally refined and processed, as good for the body as the planet. A plant-based diet just takes animal products out of the equation; it’s also become increasingly interchangeable with vegan eating, even though it differs slightly.
Oaxaca Taqueria, which has 15 locations around New York, announced the launch of its “Vegan, sustainable and plant-based menu” featuring Beyond Meat products this winter. “The edible revolution is about informed choices, and the restaurant believes there is a better way to feed the planet,” touted its press release.
Asked about why they decided to introduce this menu, Culinary Director David Schaap said they wanted their non-meat eating customers to “be able to enjoy a delicious vegan/vegetarian taco without having to jump through hoops to get it.” But there is also a clear environmental benefit; plant-based proteins consume far fewer natural resources to produce than raising meat. Knowing it’s a healthier choice both on a personal and a global level may be why the vegan offerings have been a hit with meat-eating customers, too.
“Our vegan tacos are quickly becoming best-sellers at some of our locations,” said Schaap. As fake meat goes, both the “carne” asada and the “pollo” tirado do come the closest to the textural satisfaction of eating meat, and the sauces, particularly the mole tirado, would be equally delicious on beef, chicken, or pork as they are on the Beyond Meat offerings.
While Oaxaca and Selamat Pagi are rare examples of restaurants that offer extensive meat and plant-based options, there are so many good, strictly vegan/vegetarian places to eat out now, it doesn’t feel like a choice or a sacrifice for a carnivore.
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Visitors to Smorgasburg and the monthly VGNMK at Market Hotel can experience this in action at Ube Kitchen. Founded by newlyweds Nick Shippers and Vanz Brazil, the vendors first scored a big hit with their vegan versions of classic Filipino desserts like Halo Halo, and have eventually expanded to creating savory dishes like vegan “mac n cheez.”
The two wanted to change customers’ perceptions of what vegan food can be.
“We want people to try plant-based foods because we gave them that ‘Wow, what the heck is that!?’” factor, explained Shippers. After the initial shock, they “end up having fun and being surprised.”
“We find that our best customer is someone that has a curious personality or is seeking the healthiest option at what is normally a greasy-spoon outdoor market,” like Smorgasburg. Eventually, he continued, “We’d love to franchise towards an all plant-based lounge/cafe filled with plant-vibes so that we can serve grab-n-go style foods, cater lunch-time businesses, and host evening events.”
They’re currently hoping for a location in Brooklyn. Judging by the enthusiasm for their food, that shouldn’t take too long.
Schaap also thinks that plant-based options are the wave of the future, not only in New York, but all over the country: “I guarantee that over the next nine months, you will see vegan and plant-based foods infiltrating not only your local restaurant menus, but huge national fast food chains alike.”
Fajitas: marinated seitan grilled with peppers, onions, and oyster mushrooms, served with rice, beans, pico, guac, and corn tortillas. . . . . . #vegansofig #veganlife #vegancommunity #plantbased #veganfoodporn #nycvegan #plantbasedfood #vegansofnyc #plantbasedfood #whatveganseat #veganfoodshare #vegancommunity
Black Flamingo in Williamsburg, a Mexican restaurant that was always meatless, went fully plant-based this year, with offerings like a pork-less al pastor taco with jackfruit and a chorizo taco made with spicy vegan sausage. “As a restaurant, it’s hard to ignore the [environmental] footprint you’re leaving, so being conscious of that is important to us,” co-owner Bryce David said.
Customers are excited to try something new, but the transition comes with multiple challenges, particularly long-term, he explained. “The restaurant industry, especially in New York City, is extremely competitive, so opening a space that maybe half (probably more?!) of your potential clientele might write you off right away,” is difficult to sustain once the initial excitement over a new concept fades.
Still, David says that people have responded really well to the new menu since the transition. “It’s rewarding serving plant-based food to people who appreciate it, and even that much more fulfilling when you’re flipping the idea of what vegan food is for a meat-eater.”
Where to “eat clean” in Brooklyn
168 Borinquen Place, Brooklyn, NY 11211
172 5th Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11217
152 Driggs Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11222
93 Ralph Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11221
For more plant-based options, check out this guide to vegan restaurants.