Woodlands Vegan Bistro

$$$$ ($14 and under)

Editorial Review

Everlasting Life’s vegan soul
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, Oct. 21, 2011

Everlasting Life Cafe might have all the ambiance of the food co-op you frequented in college. You order your lunch cafeteria-style and take it to your table in plastic containers that are better suited for carrying out than eating in.

But overlook all of that, and there's something wickedly pleasurable about the Thanksgiving-size portions of garlicky, deep-fried soul food, particularly if a restrictive diet means it has been a while since such comfort foods have touched your lips.

A vegan friend and I had that epiphany at Everlasting Life as we stared down a platter loaded with creamy macaroni and "cheese," sweet kale salad and a chicken-fried tofu sandwich slathered in mustard and barbecue sauce, all of it prepared, like everything else here, sans meat and dairy.

Other restaurants serve similar vegan fried fare - Brookland Cafe and the long-standing Soul Vegetarian Cafe, just a few blocks away on Georgia Avenue, are a couple of examples - but where Everlasting Life excels is with a sizable selection of vinegary salads to complement the richer dishes. The restaurant prices the dishes to encourage customers to build platters of various sides or salads.

The Georgia Avenue eatery sees a mix of neighborhood residents, students from nearby Howard University and others who drive a little farther for a hearty dinner. Though the onetime carryout expanded to add seating in 2009, many customers still take their "meatloaf" with mushroom gravy or fried "fish" sandwiches to go.

On the menu: At first glance, the offerings can be overwhelming: There are two hot entrees each day, including such dishes as vegan pepper steak, curry chicken and eggplant Parmesan, as well as everyday staples including the mac and cheese, brown rice and various vegetables. But except for the pasta, the hot bar is home to some of the least appetizing dishes the restaurant serves; they sit over heat for so long that the vegetables become unrecogniz-able pulp.

It's a far better bet to stick to the salad menu, which has nearly 30 options, including a noodle salad, curried chickpeas, raw offerings such as mung beans in sesame oil, and a sweet carrot salad blended with vegan mayonnaise (a substance used liberally in the dishes at Everlasting Life). Standouts include the sweet vinaigrette kale, a blazing-hot cayenne-spiked spicy tofu and a faux-chicken salad.

The sandwiches, too, deserve a nod. No prefab patty goes into the Veggie Fried Chik'n Sandwich; instead, a slab of tofu is dredged in flour and fried to order. Crispy and light, it's pretty delicious junk food. The bread is as dense as the fried tofu, however, so this is a sandwich best sliced in half and shared.

At your service: Although the wood tables and seated diners in the front of the house might give you the impression that you've stepped into a table-service restaurant, Everlasting Life's meals are served cafeteria-style, which can be a little jarring. Walk past the tables and back into the kitchen to order from the hot bar, salad menu or sandwich list. On my first visit, an employee kindly showed me the ropes, informing me that the restaurant also lets customers sample most of the offerings before ordering.