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February 14, 2013

Creature comforts, no meat at Bean

Bean wants you to be happy.

To that aim, most of the vegan restaurant’s menu seeks to evoke other things. Meaty things. Cheesy things. Things some vegans picture often in their minds: Sloppy Reubens. Buffalo wings. Bacon cheeseburgers. Carnitas tacos. Mac ’n cheese.

Charlie Foesch (say foe-sh) and Roy Parkhurst are operating partners, with Amanda Vestal and Kandice Hexter the other co-owners. None have restaurant experience, and Foesch says the whole adventure started with him and Vestal and a cleanse.

They deleted all animal products (including dairy products, eggs and honey: eliminating those is a basic definition of veganism), plus sugar, wheat, alcohol and caffeine, from their diets for three weeks. “Two days in, it was: ‘What the hell are we going to eat now ?’” he said.

They could order raw foods some places, vegetable combos lots of places and salads nearly anywhere. “But who wants to eat that all the time?”

What they wanted were comfort foods, the foods they grew up with, “vegan-ized.”

So Foesch, who liked cooking anyway, started trying to reproduce those dishes, and those efforts became Bean’s menu.

Hence the tofu fingers, battered and deep-fried, then tossed with Buffalo sauce and served with vegan versions of ranch or blue cheese dressing. No, they’re not wings, but they’re bright and flavorful, and there’s a sort-of similarity.

Burgers also boast a kindred spirit to their originals: a meatiness in the pattied-daily soy-based burger mix (made by Harmony Valley, if you’re into vegan namedropping), and offered in several variations that have a nice burger quality. You can build your own, also, with such additions as a vegan mayo and pseudo bacon made with seitan (wheat gluten) that looks more like bacon than it tastes.

Homey sides like braised cabbage and seasoned home fries also fare well, while fried things – pickles as an appetizer, a special of sweet potato fries – are consistently well-executed. I’ll try the reuben next, done with a housemade lunch loaf and sauerkraut on rye.

I was less a fan of the tacos made with jackfruit. That’s a prickly tree fruit (it looks a bit like durian), used in its unripe form as a meat substitute. Here it’s seasoned to mimic carnitas and served with onions, peppers, salsa and a sour-cream-like sauce, on corn tortillas. Jackfruit also shows up in Crabbie Patties and in a faux barbecue sandwich, with lots of sauce. Texture and appearance were far more successfully imitated than flavor in the latter, but both do count.

Rice bowls are a relatively new addition to the 8-month-old restaurant: jasmine rice serves as the base for red beans and kale, and other things are added – roasted portobellos or tofu, for instance. Filling, and very plain. A little sriracha helped mine.

Cheesecakes are surprisingly realistic, and a carrot cupcake with cream-cheese-like topping is rich. There’s also a “kitty cat pie,” with a vegan version of Kit Kats topped with ganache and a chocolate peanut butter mousse. Wines and beers are vegan, too.

Foesch estimates Bean’s clientele at 40 percent vegan and 60 percent omnivores (those who eat anything, so to speak) curious about veganism. That’s logical: A July 2012 Gallup poll showed 2 percent of the U.S. population identifies itself as vegan, though the survey didn’t define the term, and Foesch says he’s discovered vegans argue the definition among themselves: Some insist on organic-only food, others on gluten-free as well, yet others on non-GMO (genetically modified organism) fare.

Asks Foesch: “Who would, a few years ago, have imagined even a single vegetarian restaurant could survive in Charlotte?” Now there’s Luna’s (raw and vegan), Fern and Woodlands (both vegetarian with vegan options) – and there’s even a vegan food delivery service in town, called Nourish.

Still, he’s been surprised to find that “what I thought the vegan community looked like is not the reality (It) looks like everybody: No age, no gender, no ethnicity (uniformity) to it.”

All kinds of people, in other words, are checking out Bean, despite the trick of navigating Independence Boulevard, and a sign on the place that is even simpler than the décor: A drawing of a brown bean, and the letters in a blocky font.

Plastic baskets and paper servingware arrive on wood-look tables; scalloped little chandeliers are arranged along the arched windows that look out onto Independence, with café curtains softening the light against yellow-painted stucco walls. You can see into the kitchen (equipped with all new, never-meat-contaminated equipment since its previous incarnations as an African, Mexican and family restaurant kitchen, says Foesch). He’s making his own mozzarella-like cheese there now (let’s hope it’s better than all the other kinds of vegan cheese I’ve tried so far), and continues to expand the menu.

Servers welcome you warmly and check back frequently, with earnest smiles. Those looking for vegan facsimiles of plain comfort foods and a hearty welcome will get both.

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