Vegan Soul Food’s Never Been Better, Thanks to the South Side’s 40-Year-Old Soul Veg City
It may be fashionable now, but veganism has been this family's delicious business since 1982
When Prince Asiel Bin Israel first opened Soul Vegetarian East on Chicago’s South Side in 1982, it was the only spot around peddling vegan soul food — an anomaly for a cuisine that often relies heavily on chicken and pork. These days, however, the category has blossomed: In 2021 alone, New York welcomed plant-based Cadence, and pop-up VTree gained a permanent location in L.A. with help from Nick Cannon. Even Chicago is now home to other vegan soul spots like Majani Soulful Vegan Cuisine, which opened in 2017. But Arel Brown and Lori Seay, the second-generation owners of the restaurant now dubbed Soul Veg City, are Chicago’s real vegan royalty — in more ways than one.
Arel was “born a vegan,” says his sister, Lori. “So the only soul food he knows is vegan. I’ve been a vegan since I was seven, and I’m 53 now, so for us, this soul food is what we eat.”
Vegan has always been their normal, but their long-standing expertise in this category hasn’t made them blind to the evolution of plant-based food in America.
The number of vegans in this country might seem, at the outset, to remain relatively low — somewhere between .5 and 2 percent of the population, depending on who’s asking. The sector experiencing a marked rise, however, is the sometimes-vegan (aka flexitarian), with 39 percent of Americans claiming they are at least striving to consume a vegan diet, according to one market research survey, and another poll showing that nearly half of Americans purportedly ascribe to a flexitarian mindset. In other words, people are taking Michael Pollan at his word in consuming “mostly plants.”
Unsurprisingly, this shift has led to striking growth in the availability of plant-based alternatives for milk, cheese, yogurt, steak and even plant-based burgers that bleed. Stars from Colin Kaepernick to Alicia Silverstone to Venus Williams have jumped on the plant-based bandwagon. All in all, it’s pretty fair to say that vegan food has entered the mainstream.
These changes in the perception of vegan food in the U.S. contributed to the pair’s 2021 decision to rebrand as Soul Veg City: According to Lori, despite the restaurant always being plant-based, their father originally opted to use the word “vegetarian” due to a lack of familiarity with the word vegan. The new name, Arel explains, is meant to evoke their new expectations for the space that raised them.
“I said to myself, What do I want us to be? And what came to mind was the one-stop shop as well as the premier vegan restaurant in the world,” he says. “So by wanting that as a reality, it sent me to Soul Veg City.”
The restaurant today boasts something for everyone: Pea protein forms a tasty base for Cajun “shrimp” and rice; a spicy “chicken” sandwich is made from the pair’s own recipe for seitan. International flavors like vegan gyros or stir-fried noodles join the offerings, not to mention sandwiches, pizza, a salad bar, fresh juices and an ever-changing flavor of soft serve.
“Everything is made here in-house, and that’s one of the things that we take pride in,” says Arel.
“We wash and pick and chop greens every day,” adds Lori. “Every day.”
“God gave us seeds, and he gave us dirt, and he gave us water, and as well, he gave us time,” says Arel. “And we utilize all four of those items.”
Here, they dish about their favorite foods and the state of veganism in America today.
InsideHook: Veganism is so on-trend right now. What’s your favorite thing about the rise in plant-based offerings?
Arel Brown: I just like it all, if I can be completely honest. I just like the whole trend of veganism. It’s not one thing, like a spicy chicken or chicken burger. Or that ten years ago, people were like, ‘Oh, let’s try almond milk,’ and then two years ago, everybody was like, ‘Oh, let’s try oat milk.’ Just at large, for me, I’m loving the whole transition that the world is taking now of veganism, and wanting to eat healthy for whatever reason they want to, whether it’s the planet, whether it’s their health, whether it’s something they think they should just be doing right now for part of their life.
Lori Seay: I would say the younger generations, being more excited about being healthy and eating and trying different vegan foods. Caring more about the planet and themselves. That’s what’s exciting about it for me. Because we’ve reached another generation who wants to live differently and eat differently, which I would say would help to preserve the sustainability of veganism.
IH: With the rise in plant-based eating, there’s also a been a rise in plant-based convenience foods. Do you have any favorites in this category?
Brown: I have four children at home. My youngest is five; my oldest is 15. So if you’ve got children, you know you’ve gotta have food available. So a couple of items that I depend on is Daiya cheese, and we make them cheese sandwiches at home. Field Roast has some corn dogs, and they love those.
Seay: I like the So Delicious ice cream bars that are made from coconut milk — that’s kind of like my go-to. I typically just cook vegetables and things like that at home, but my snacks are either kale chips or the So Delicious ice cream bars or ice cream sandwiches.
IH: And on the flip side, what’s the vegan trend you’re not into?
Brown: That they’re putting millions of dollars — I’m talking about millions of dollars — behind this lab-grown meat. Meats as well as meat substitutes. And that, I’m not excited about that at all.
Seay: In regards to those meats that bleed like a burger — I know that they’re trying to get the meat-eaters to eat that, but for me, that taste is a bit too strong, you know? So I prefer the more natural taste of food, which is why you can enjoy our food so much. Because it’s just food! We’re not trying to make it be something else.
IH: Speaking of which, what’s your most popular offering?
Brown: We’re known all over the state and all over the country for our greens and our macaroni and cheese. We make an in-house soy-based cheese, and we use whole wheat macaroni noodles. And it’s a family-built recipe for the soy cheese that kind of impresses everybody. And then because most people — if I was to use an ethnicity, I would say most African-Americans — they eat greens, but they normally would have collard greens. We sell kale greens, and it shocks them that we don’t have any meat in those, and yet they’re still super flavorful.
IH: If a visitor to Chicago only had one day to eat vegan in in the city, where should they go?
Brown: Dimo’s pizza — they have a nice vegan pizza. You can have different toppings, whether it’s Buffalo chicken or barbecue chicken or a macaroni pizza. That was my first time being introduced to a macaroni pizza, and that’s one of my children’s favorites. At nighttime, I like Chicago Diner, Chicago Diner is pretty cool. They’ve been around — they came out probably two to three years after us, so they’ve been doing it for a while.
Seay: Soul Veg City, right here! You wouldn’t want to go anywhere but here. We have breakfast, lunch, dinner, desserts, everything.
Brown: We can take you straight from breakfast, with scrambled tofu and grits, hash browns, breakfast patties are made in-house from couscous and TVP — textured vegetable protein. And then we walk you straight into lunch, where you can have something light, because you just had a nice breakfast, so we’ve got a whole salad bar, and we have something that’s called carrot tuna. Instead of throwing the pulp of carrot juice away — because we do make fresh juices – we figured out how to use that pulp and make a salad that’s been labeled carrot tuna. Then once it’s time for dinner, we could have something like macaroni and cheese and Buffalo tofu and kale greens, and soup or salad. Now, you’re almost stuffed, but you got just a little bit more space, whether it’s the cinnamon roll cake or a toasted almond cake or marble cake or a strawberry cake, with the soft-serve ice cream, and whatever the flavor of the day is, like today it’s berry, you could have berry cake with some berry ice cream, and then we could just roll you out and put you on an airplane!
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