Good to Go

Good to Go: Soul Vegetarian Cafe & Exodus Carryout in Northwest

Soul Vegetarian Cafe Manager Ben Ore Israel shows off the Garvey Burger, kale, and mac and cheese, at left, and the BBQ Tofu Sub, at right.
Soul Vegetarian Cafe Manager Ben Ore Israel shows off the Garvey Burger, kale, and mac and cheese, at left, and the BBQ Tofu Sub, at right. (By Susan Biddle For The Washington Post)
Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The best-selling item at this modest takeout joint is the mac and cheese, which at a vegan restaurant sounds like an oxymoron until you taste it. Sure, there's an unmistakable hint of soy, but it's also incredibly creamy and deeply flavored. Who cares what it's called when it's this good?

At Soul Vegetarian, vegan food represents more than just lunch or dinner. To the members of the African Hebrew Israelite community that owns the place (and a dozen sister restaurants worldwide), it is part of their way of life. The 80 or so members in the Washington area also operate a juice bar and deli inside a health-food store in Largo, says cafe manager Ben Ore Israel.

"We're a small community, but we're focused on what we do," Israel said. "We don't cut any corners. We have a genuine love for our people."

The basis of many of the sandwiches and other dishes is vegetable protein, which for the popular Garvey Burger ($5) is combined with whole-wheat flour and seasonings that give it a slightly smoky, almost musty taste. "I like to say 11 herbs and spices, although it's not quite 11," Israel said, laughing. "We hand-press it every morning and grill it to order. Most people can't even tell it's not meat."

We could tell, but it didn't matter. The patty has a crunchy exterior and moist interior, and inside a soft bun it's slathered with an addictively pungent "special sauce" that doesn't resemble anything you'd find on a Big Mac: a mix of yeast, soy milk, onion and garlic.

Soul Vegetarian makes its own soy cheese every day, too, combining yeast with soy milk, soybean oil and spices to form the alfredo-like base for that great mac and cheese ($2.50 small, $5.50 large).

There isn't a vegan (or even a vegetarian) on our regular tasting panel, but that didn't stop us from finding favorites. At the top of our list, right after the burger and the mac and cheese: the BBQ Tofu Sub ($6), firm slices of battered and crisp bean curd with a tangy sauce in a soft whole-wheat pita; and tacos ($4), twin blue-corn shells stuffed with crumbled vegetable protein mixed with herbs, salsa and soy cheese. As one of our tasters said, "I never expected this to have so much flavor."

We found two of the other sandwiches -- a gyro and a "steak" and cheese -- too salty, but happily dug into more of the sides ($2.50 small, $5.50 large): simple collard greens, steamed instead of boiled to keep their texture and nutrients; and candied yams, tender and shiny, but not too sweet. Slices of double chocolate fudge cake and pumpkin spice cake ($5) by Sweet-N-Natural, a Maryland company, were surprisingly pleasant in a homey way; skip the coconut cake unless you have a hankering for an overpowering dose of coconut extract.

There's another advantage to those side dishes and desserts: They're ready for immediate takeout, unlike the menu items, which in this laid-back 30-seat cafe may require a long wait. Our five-sandwich order took almost 45 minutes to prepare, and that was before other customers had started lining up for lunch. Maybe it was because the kitchen was just getting going for the day. Next time, we'll call ahead.

-- Joe Yonan

Soul Vegetarian Cafe & Exodus Carryout 2606 Georgia Ave. NW, 202-328-7685, Hours: Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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