University City

Vegan Philly cheese steaks?

Zizi's vegan restaurant is hidden in plain sight, just a stone's throw from University City's central crossroads at North Tryon Street and W.T. Harris Boulevard.

There's something metaphorical about Zizi's easy-to-miss location in a strip mall, between a topless bar, symbolizing the street's checkered past, and the new Super Wal-Mart, emblematic of the area's current frantic development pace.

Zizi's also symbolizes another transformation: changes in tastes and food choices that have already swept the nation. Traditional eating habits are eroding, even in the South.

"Vegan" means absolutely no animal products. Vegan diets exclude even dairy foods such as yogurt, cheese and eggs, which many traditional vegetarians accept.

Sounds pretty austere, doesn't it? But take a look at Zizi's vegan menu. You'll find Philly cheese steak, fish and chips, and chicken nuggets.

Huh?

Owner, manager and head cook Mer (he goes by a single name, like a Brazilian soccer star) explained that Zizi's takes a "transitional" approach to vegan food. The menu is welcoming to people who'd like to taste vegan food just to see what it's like. But it's also a cornucopia for patrons who have decided to forgo or cut back on meat, fish and dairy products for health, ethical or environmental reasons.

The familiar-sounding dishes are made with proteins from soy, wheat and other plant sources, rather than meat. Not only do they make it easier for a carnivore to try vegan eating, they also offer comfort food to vegetarians who grew up on Big Macs and barbecue.

Mer, a soft-spoken man with quizzical smile and a khaki cap on his head, has loved cooking all his life. After serving in the Marines and taking some cooking classes in New York and elsewhere, he opened his first Zizi's in New Jersey.

Largely self-taught as a cook, he created Zizi's menu through inspiration and experimentation. In 2009, he moved south to open the restaurant in Charlotte, leaving disappointed fans in his wake. A post on HappyCow.net, a vegetarian review site, praises Zizi's "awesome" food and begs him to return to New Jersey.

Besides the "simulated" dishes, Zizi's menu also has familiar vegetarian classics, such as vegetable stir-fry with brown rice, lentil loaf and avocado wraps.

Zizi's also offers fruit-based non-dairy smoothies and makes vegan desserts, from fudge-walnut brownies (highly acclaimed by online reviewers) to bean pie.

The most interesting offerings are fusions of traditional Southern dishes and vegan cooking, such as barbecue tofu and Southern-style tempeh (a Southeast Asian vegetarian staple) with mac and cheese and collard greens.

For now, you can't sit down and enjoy your meal at Zizi's. It's only takeout and delivery. Mer is still considering opening as a sit-down restaurant.

What it lacks in physical presence, Zizi's makes up for in virtual presence. You can find it on Facebook and Twitter; it has a website with menu posted; and it shows up regularly to serve food from a tent at environmental and local food events.

For University City vegetarians and vegans, Zizi's is a godsend. The varied menu offers lots of different things to try (some, admittedly, more successful than others).

And if you are a meat eater who wants to try vegan eating, or if you're in the mood for something different, Zizi's is for you.

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