In the cramped kitchen of the Rabbit Hole in Pompano Beach, chef Samuel Woods is busy re-creating a Sunday dinner from his Detroit childhood – tender spare ribs, gooey macaroni and cheese, butter-soaked corn-on-the-cob – without a single trace of dairy or meat.
“Basically, my wife said, ‘If you bring vegan soul food to Florida, it will go boom,’ ” says Woods, 32. “If we could faithfully mirror the spices and seasonings and marinades, and replicate the crunch, the taste, the texture of chicken or beef, that’s the best way to bring carnivores down the rabbit hole.”
Woods isn’t alone. Across South Florida, Black-owned restaurants like the Rabbit Hole Elevated Vegan Comfort Cuisine are driving a renaissance of vegan soul food, with chefs turning common comfort fare – hamburgers, jerk chicken, wings and cheesesteaks – into healthier plant-based gold.
Their singular goal: Make vegan soul food taste better than regular comfort food.
Why South Florida, and why now? The answer is both political and cultural, driven in part by last summer’s George Floyd protests that cast more awareness on Black-owned businesses. Black veganism also has historical roots in Broward and Miami-Dade, especially for Jamaican followers of religions such as Rastafarianism, which since the 1930s has espoused consuming foods that are organic, locally grown and plant-based. The local trend mirrors a national one: A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that the fastest-growing vegan demographic is African-Americans with 8 percent of adults, while a Gallup poll published in January 2020 showed that communities of color ate 31 percent less meat over the previous 12 months while whites ate 19 percent less.
Until his wife Dee turned him vegan seven years ago, Woods, now of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, lived for soul food – especially his mother’s shrimp and grits. At his 800-square-foot strip-mall eatery, he cooks plant-based versions of comfort food with recipes he invented. He also sources vegan protein from 16 suppliers from San Francisco to Germany to prepare all-plant versions of Coney Island chili dogs, shepherd’s pie and shrimp po’boys.
“There’s a perception that if you eat plant-based you have to stop eating animals, but it’s not true,” Woods says. “You can still eat meat, but it doesn’t have to be from animals.”
Shawn Flowers operates the Broward vegan soul food truck Reggae Beets with his wife, Danielle Perry. Their business uses jackfruit and hearts of palm as meat substitutes for jerk-seasoned tacos and lobster mac ‘n’ cheese. “We have to take better care of ourselves,” he says. “Diabetes and hypertension are the leading causes of death among African-Americans. Both my grandparents who raised me passed away at early ages because of poor nutrition.”
The rise of vegan soul food points to a wider rejection of animal-based diets as vegan food hits the American mainstream, filling groceries, fast-food giants (McDonald’s, Burger King) and fast-casual chains (BurgerFi, Shake Shack) with Impossible and Beyond meat brands. The interweaving of Black celebrities and veganism is also tight, with Beyonce’s 22-Day Vegan Diet and vegan clothing lines from Rihanna and Cardi B bringing a certain pop-culture cachet, says Sean Russell, a blogger and plant-eater better known as SoFlo Vegan.
“Since the protests more national publications have incentive to spotlight Black businesses,” Russell says. “I’ve got non vegans telling me they watched a vegan commercial during the Super Bowl. Vegan soul food is finally being sought out. It’s no longer salads. It’s, ‘Let’s see what’s going on with Caribbean food.’ It was already a scene here, but now there’s more visibility on it.”
Russell, who formed SoFlo Vegans in 2017, has hosted more than 200 vegan events across South Florida from block parties to date nights, touting the tri-county as the next hotspot for vegan food. But he’s careful not to confuse veganism with vegan soul food, which allows meat-eaters to try comfort food without the radical lifestyle change.
“I would argue folks are going more plant-based instead of vegan, which is more about consciously not participating in animal cruelty and exploitation,” Russell says. “But without question Caribbean vegan food has been [in South Florida] for a while, and I’m glad people are waking up to it. People are realizing you can get hot, excellent comfort-food meals that aren’t bowls of quinoa or kale.”
David I. Muir says he watched an uptick in vegan soul food vendors register for last year’s Taste the Islands Experience, a Caribbean food bash he organizes with founder Calibe Thompson, before COVID-19 forced its cancellation. Muir also runs Broward’s first museum devoted to local Caribbean history, the Island SPACE Museum at Westfield Broward Mall in Plantation, and says the county’s Jamaicans have embraced veganism through Rastafarianism.
“Rastafarians have a lifestyle called ‘Ital,’ which means avoiding salt, not eating pigs, not cutting one’s hair, which for me was a precursor to vegetarianism or veganism,” Muir says. “Caribbeans have been finding ways to make food tastier and healthier without meat for a long time.”
Miami to West Palm Beach; 954-895-2360; ReggaeBeets.com
The half-carnivore, half-vegan menu at the Reggae Beets food truck tackles a dilemma husband-and-wife chefs Shawn Flowers and Danielle Perry confronted early in their business: How do you entice non vegans to order vegan food?
Answer: “We don’t pick a side because we love everybody,” says Perry, a onetime Jamaican National Beach Volleyball Team star whose food truck, started in 2017, visits bars and neighborhoods from Miami to West Palm Beach (schedule on their website).
Which means, yes, there are jerk chicken tacos, quesadillas and pasta Alfredo for the “hardcore jerk chicken fans,” she says, but also “Mac Daddy Lobsta,” made with vegan mac ‘n’ cheese and hearts of palm. All recipes are Perry’s own but her culinary skill is indebted to her mom, Deanna Allen, who operates a vegan Caribbean restaurant called Island Fusion Grill in Davie.
But there are standards: jerk chicken is always smoked inside a trailer outside the truck, then cooked on a separate stove from other vegan dishes, Flowers adds.
“Our Black folks in general don’t eat healthy,” he says. “What you eat powers your body or bogs you down. Vegan food can be a boring kale salad, and we wanted to show we could veganize anything and make it more appealing to the palate.”
The New Vegan
528 NE Second St., Delray Beach; 561-404-5301; TheNewVegan.com
Owners Rahein and Patricia Jones became one of South Florida vegan soul-food pioneers when they debuted The New Vegan in Delray Beach in 2013.
The menu is strictly non-GMO, gluten-free, dairy-free and soy-free – which may have you inching toward the exit – but this is no boring diet food. Instead, their menu carries “Vegan Fried Chicken,” a special that’s actually made with jackfruit, and a “toona” sandwich made with hearts of palm instead of fish, along with all-vegan versions of mac ‘n’ cheese, milkshakes and “chickn n waffles.” (And their mushroom burger? It won the Boca Burger Battle twice.)
“This is helping transition people who already want soul food,” says Rahein, 45, who also offers vegan cooking classes, meal plans, school lunches and a New Vegan food truck, parked outside the former Sons and Daughters Winery in Lake Worth.
When the Joneses opened their vegan eatery eight years ago they were literally new vegans, and Rahein remembers his uncle’s friend first telling him about a lifestyle that involved consuming no meat. “The light bulb went off in my head,” Rahein says. “I just wanted to show my friends and family that I could eat no meat and still not die.”
In January, he also launched a new meal-delivery service called Innaclick, which lets customers order and schedule deliveries from 30 vegan restaurants.
“If Blacks in the community don’t take a stake in sustaining our community, we’re all just working for Beyond meat,” he says. “Black people are at a point where we can say whatever we want, and it doesn’t cost much to get started with a vegan business anymore.”
2003 Harrison St., Hollywood; 954-404-8065 or C4Eats.com
Ask Daudi McLean about his life before he became the big-personality chef behind C-4 Eats, and the 56-year-old, whose professional handle is “Da Vegan Guru,” will regale you with charming tales of cooking vegan for Cedric the Entertainer, Tyler Perry, Ziggy Marley, Jamie Foxx – and even Tupac.
“I once fed vegan spaghetti to Tupac,” says McLean, who catered vegan dinners for celebrities as a California private chef for 28 years.
At C-4 Eats, which he opened with Hollywood-born restaurateur Randy Kelly in January, Da Vegan Guru crafts vegan soul food as endlessly joyful as his personality. He creates his TNT carne asada, fried shrimp and conch tacos with soy protein. Recipes for vegan butter and vegan cheese are used to prepare baked mac ‘n’ cheese but also Fluff Daddy Pancakes, which includes scrambled vegan eggs, apple sage sausage and “guru bacon,” also made with soy protein.
“Some people are like, ‘No, this is real bacon. What are you doing? You been feeding them pork for years!’ ” he says with a laugh. “But really, I make food for the meat-lover. We give our consumer a bridge so they can eat more raw foods and vegetables without it seeming like we’re putting rabbit food in their face. It’s more like, you can eat a bacon double cheeseburger AND it’s plant-based.”
Rabbit Hole Elevated Vegan Comfort Cuisine
2659 E. Atlantic Blvd., Pompano Beach; 954-419-4899; TheRabbitHole.life
One of chef Samuel Woods’ best memories about growing up poor in southwestern Detroit were Sunday dinners after church, family gatherings brimming with platters of fried chicken and baked spaghetti. His other favorite memory was the day he left, as a teenager, bound for Massachusetts so his mother, Delores, could study law in a state with fresh opportunities.
“Growing up in a depressing environment, my mom knew it was hindering me too,” the 32-year-old chef recalls. After he returned to Detroit for culinary work (his mom also passed the bar), he met his wife, Dee, who turned him vegan.
Now, the vegan wizard behind the Rabbit Hole morphs the soul food of his youth into meatless vegan comforts: Here are Coney Island-style chili dogs, hamburgers and even a barbecue plate called Smoke in the Woods, with citrus-lime spare ribs, mac ‘n’ cheese, baked beans and cornbread. Fried chicken sandwiches are triple-battered and seasoned with house spices. Jumbo butterfly shrimp are engineered from konjac, a fiber-rich Asian tree root that’s zero in calories.
But there are some trade-offs: Although vegan, not every dish is gluten-free or low sodium.
“Some folks ask me why I don’t have more soy or gluten-free options, and if I’m being honest, lots of green places already do that,” says Woods, who opened the Rabbit Hole in February 2020 with partner Brian Zazzara, and sources plant-based meats from 16 suppliers worldwide. “The bigger goal is to revolutionize the way people think about veganism in total, to get carnivores to say, ‘This is plant-based and tastes like the real thing.’”
Broward, but opening in March at 4607 S. University Drive, Davie; 954-372-7290; BurgerHive.com
Some of Fort Lauderdale’s arguably tastiest burgers are served from the parking lot of a florist shop in Flagler Village, where Mcashley Joseph’s vegan food truck holds court on weekends.
Joseph, a 35-year-old Broward College graduate, turned vegan not long after his family emigrated from Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti, when he was a teenager. With a belief that vegan food should be more approachable than, say, ancient grain bowls, Joseph makes plant-based burgers meant for meat-eaters.
“It’s all about taste,” says Joseph, of Plantation. “If you present a burger that tastes better than a dead cow, people will choose the vegan burger every time.”
All hamburgers use a restaurant-grade version of Beyond meat, then marinated overnight in Caribbean spices. It includes the Island Spice burger, topped with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and pikliz – spicy Haitian coleslaw – on a potato bun.
Burgerhive won’t be camped downtown for long: the food truck will open its first 800-square-foot restaurant in Davie in March.