Are you a vegan? Into the raw foods lifestyle? Then you know how severely limited your options are at area restaurants, and will welcome these two newcomers to the local dining scene. Even if your idea of a healthy meal is eating only half the fries that come with your burger, Raleigh Raw and Vegan Flava Cafe offer a refreshing change of pace.
7 W. Hargett St., Raleigh
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When Raleigh Raw opened in March, the restaurant earned the dual distinctions of becoming the first in the Triangle dedicated to serving exclusively raw foods, and the first to give more than a token nod to poke, the Hawaiian raw fish salad that is unquestionably one of the hottest national food trends of the year. The menu at this hip little counter service cafe and juice bar devotes an entire section to poke.
Technically, I suppose Raleigh Raw’s mix-and-match creations should be called deconstructed poke. You start by selecting a base, either sticky rice or greens. Then choose one of the pre-selected combinations of toppings from the “Set Up” category, and a dressing (dairy-free spicy cashew mayo or soy-free tamari).
Opt for a Set Up called The Hustle, and you’ll score a savory kaleidoscope centered around dragonfruit that has been artfully cut into cubes with the crimson outer layer on one side and the interior of the fruit – an equally eye-catching white freckled with black seeds – on the other five. Surrounding the exotic tropical fruit, whose tangy-sweet flesh and texture are reminiscent of kiwi, are nubbins of sesame asparagus, fresh jalapeño, translucent-thin rings of red onion, and a shimmery skein of seaweed salad.
You could stop at this point, in which case you’d have a stunning rice bowl or salad for just under ten bucks. You’ll need to add an optional protein for a small surcharge (well worth the $3 for tuna, salmon, yellowtail or spicy blue crab; $2 for vegan golden beet) to transform your creation into poke.
Well, almost. Unlike traditional poke, which is briefly marinated, here the raw fish arrives naked of any garnish except for a sprinkle of sesame seeds. Sherif Fouad, who owns Raleigh Raw with partner Leslie Woods, explains that they had initially marinated the fish, but its texture and flavor suffered when left to marinate for too long. The tweak is just one example of the philosophy at Raleigh Raw, where a reverence for the purity of ingredients includes an insistence on using fluoride-free water.
Apart from a couple of breakfast options (rolled oatmeal and house-made granola), poke is the only made-to-order entree offered at Raleigh Raw. But it’s hardly the only attraction. Grab-and-go meals such as Coconut Ceviche (made with raw young Thai coconut meat) and the Khaleesi Bowl (whose dozen listed ingredients include dragonfruit, banana, avocado and granola) are popular with the downtown Raleigh lunch crowd.
Not surprisingly, given that Raleigh Raw started out selling cold-pressed juices at various locations in 2013, liquid nourishment makes up the bulk of the offering at the restaurant. Nutrient-dense smoothies such as Blueberry Bee Pollen and Watermelon Blossom (a recent seasonal offering) are a healthy meal alternative. You’ll also find Crack Coffee (locally roasted, with coconut oil and grass-fed butter), yerba mate tea, iced matcha latte (with house-made almond milk) and draft kombucha among the singularly diverse list of libations. There’s even a modest selection of bottled wine and a rotating selection of beers on tap.
And if you over-indulged last night, Raleigh Raw has got you covered with a Recovery Bundle. The Sunglasses & Advil (Rock Steady juice blend for “liver and blood circulation support;” Salt N Pepa “detox shot & alkalizer;” single draft kombucha; coconut water; and alkaline water) is just what the doctor ordered.
Vegan Flava Cafe
4125 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., Durham
Entering Vegan Flava Cafe, you’re transported from a nondescript strip mall on a busy commercial thoroughfare to another world. Or rather, worlds – plural – might be more accurate for the exuberant jumble that includes a wall-spanning replica of an Egyptian papyrus covered in hieroglyphics, framed color photographs of the historic Thrilla in Manila boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, and an abundance of potted plants. On the wall behind the counter, next to a display of international paper currency notes, a chalkboard is covered with the menu and daily specials.
On Fridays, one of those specials is “fish” cakes. An impressively accurate vegan rendition with a pan-crisped cornmeal breading, they’re served with fragrant coconut rice (brown basmati), fried sweet plantains and a kale salad so tender (thanks to massaging in olive oil) that you’ll rethink your decision to swear off anything containing raw kale.
The fish “cakes” are toothsome evidence that, while some vegans may turn up their noses at dishes that try to emulate animal-based proteins, owner/chef Yah-I Ausar Tafari Amen is not one of them. Amen, who worked in health food stores from his native Brooklyn to Atlanta, then sold his creations from a food truck at the Durham Farmers’ Market before opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant a year ago, is all-embracing in his pursuit of dishes that are as tasty as they are nutritious.
The search may lead to India for the likes of curry lentils or chana masala, or to Mexico for tacos with a ground walnut filling that nails the flavor (and comes reasonably close to the texture) of the spicy ground beef it seeks to replace. Come on a Tuesday or Thursday, and you can get a special that pairs a taco with Amen’s take on Creole red beans and rice.
Closer to home, a vegan riff on tuna salad made with shredded carrots captures the essence of the deli classic, though the color and underlying earthy-sweet root vegetable flavor leave no doubt as to the main ingredient. Barbecue jackfruit uses the tropical fruit’s relatively neutral (albeit a bit tangy) flavor as a canvas for a Midwestern-style barbecue sauce.
The popular cashew cheesecake wasn’t available when I visited Vegan Flava Cafe recently, but a pecan pie with a filling as rich as pralines was a hit at our table. So was the Island Smoothie, thick as a milkshake and bursting with the flavors of mango, pineapple and banana puréed in a base of organic almond milk.
Portions are generous and prices are eminently reasonable, topping out at $12 for those plate-loaded daily specials – which, on Sundays, include the Full Brunch: organic black beans, non-GMO grits, kale salad and a side of gluten-free pancakes. The wait staff (it’s full table service here, notwithstanding the counter) are friendly and helpful.
In short, if you’re a vegan purist, you’ll have to pick and choose your way through the menu to avoid dishes whose proteins are in quotation marks. But if it’s flavor – er, flava – you’re after, then the worlds are your oyster.