Since 1991, the nearby town of Asheville has had The Laughing Seed, a wildly successful vegetarian restaurant that started life as a corner bar in a gym, then moved to a larger location. That restaurant has developed a regional, if not a statewide, following for its creative twists on global cuisines utilizing local ingredients. Charlotte has had food emporiums that offer vegetarian choices -- and for a while, a delightful push-the-envelope vegetarian restaurant, The Peaceful Dragon, with a professionally trained chef. The Peaceful Dragon stopped its restaurant operations a while back to focus exclusively on its classes in martial arts, yoga and meditation.
However, one of the people who worked in the original Peaceful Dragon in Pineville was Randy Powell. Powell left Charlotte, but returned to teach yoga in Evolution Gym in SouthEnd. When an adjacent restaurant space became available, Powell, his wife Juliana Luna, and partner Anthony Quartapella, who also works at Evolution and is a trained baker who once owned a bakery in Texas, decided to open a vegetarian café. "We opened mainly because we wanted a place to eat other than home," notes Powell.
In late July, Real Food Charlotte opened. The space had been a tea shop (TEA ReX remains online), and the interior is small with a bakery case featuring muffins and scones to the side of the entrance, and a large white Victorian bar with the order counter flanking the 24-seat dining area. Over the bar is a collection of whimsical quilts, while spiritual and health knickknacks fill the side cases.
Real Food appeals not only to the health-conscious or vegetarian among us, but also those wanting a more interesting presentation and combination of food elements from the vegetarian roster. Most of the foods are local and organic and do not rely on animal-protein imitation food. Prices are modest: Sandwiches are $7.50, soups are $4.50.
Gorgeousness and good food do not always meet, but it does so here. The green salad plate is deliciously fresh with what appears to be hand-selected micro greens spiked with nuts and lightly dressed with citrus vinaigrette. The quinoa veggie burger, a special, arrives as a loosely formed patty on a wonderful whole wheat bun with a sidecar salad. You also can't go wrong with the soups: One daily special was thick with chunks of white and sweet potato bobbing in a tasty broth. Thirst quenchers include house-made lemonade.
My only quibble at Real Food is the use of the word tabbouleh to describe the mix on the Gyro's Journey (although any Campbell fan would love the name). I'm not looking for textbook, but tabbouleh is primarily parsley (a good source of iron), not bulgur. This tasted more like a Turkish kisir salad (without the mint and tomatoes). However, aside from this misnomer, this sandwich is served with avocado slices on delicious house-made pita.
Although there are other breakfast items offered and some terrific muffins, the sensational morning jump starter, the Swiss bircher muesli, is the star here. Raw oatmeal is enveloped with several inches of sliced fruits and nuts, becoming the quintessential feel-good breakfast. Raw never tasted better.
In the University area is Zizi's Vegetarian to Go, which opened in October. Owner Mer came to Charlotte after owning a similar store in southern Jersey. The tiny Zizi's is located in an unlikely spot -- midsection of a small shopping center with more offices than retail spots. The interior is a pickup/order counter and one chair.
Mer is also the cook here and says he took culinary classes in Manhattan and in the military. His menu uses animal names to "reflect familiar styles of traditional recipes." In the sandwich section are Philly cheese steak, chicken parmless, meatball, and crispy fish. The protein is plant-based and none of the dishes contain eggs or dairy. Mer says that his focus is to be a transitional vegan spot, offering comfort food in a moderate price range for those new to this lifestyle, whether for medical, spiritual or ethical reasons.
Most of the appetizers are fried: chicken nuggets, wings, Cajun tofu strips. The sandwiches come as wraps or subs. The buffalo chicken steak has some bite-you-back heat. Yet the chicken salad -- offered on a sub and as a salad -- is too finely chopped to allow for the crunch and soft play that protein salads traditionally have. Another item with muffled flavor is the sesame citrus rib tip entrée, which, while served in a generous portion, lacked the spry oomph of citrus.
Sandwiches range in price from $6.50 to $7; salads are $8; entrées are $8 to $10; and the 16-ounce smoothies are $3.75. For vegans, Zizi's offers an entire menu of possibilities.
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