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Bean Vegan Cuisine: Not your mother's meatloaf 

Kitchen lacks elaborate artistry; food revels in simplicity

As an omnivore, I can choose to eat at any restaurant and select any dish off the menu. Plus, not having food allergies or intolerances, my choices are limitless. This, however, is not the situation for many people. If you have food allergies or health concerns, selecting from a menu can be dicey. And for vegans particularly, selecting dishes in a restaurant may involve interviewing the server, or even the manager.

The vegan diet is perhaps the most limited and liberated of all. Vegans strictly eat plants. Moreover, animal products like milk and honey are off the roster as well. While vegans account for only 1 percent of the U.S. population (which translates into roughly 1,750 people in the Charlotte area), more Americans are becoming "leaners" — those who are making food choices to limit the amount of animal products consumed.

Some vegans, like Bill Clinton, turned to this plant-based diet for health reasons. Others choose this diet for spiritual reasons. Seventh Day Adventists, for example, mostly practice a vegetarian diet; many are vegan. Those who practice the Indian religion Jainism (a temple is located at 7631 Mallard Creek Road) are either lacto-vegetarians or vegans. In some Christian congregations, fasting may require a plant-based diet as well. Members of the Coptic Orthodox Church (St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church of Charlotte, 101 Shasta Lane) fast for 210 days a year, and most of these fasts require an adherence to a vegan diet.

Vegans also do not consume products that used animals in the processing. This means that wines and beers that are filtered, or fined, with isinglass — which is made from dried sturgeon bladders — cannot be consumed by a vegan. Animal products used to make a food are not required to be listed on the label — at least, not in the U.S. (Last summer, Canada implemented a law requiring wine and beer labels to identify whether any animal products were used.)

None of this is news to restaurateurs Charlie Foesch and Roy Parkhurst, who opened Bean Vegan Cuisine last June. Both Foesch and Parkhurst are vegan. Foesch, who became vegan four years ago, developed many of Bean's recipes from his favorite comfort foods,

Bean's 106-seat clean-edged dining area still houses remnants of former lives: arches from a Mexican restaurant; the long bar from a West African one. The menu, as executed by the crew but often by Foesch, is pretty much worry-proof: fried pickles, quesadillas, grilled sandwiches, seitan meatloaf and burgers. (FYI: Seitan is made from wheat gluten.)

No reason to hesitate delving into the burger, which combines so many elemental pleasures in a single bite. Bean uses a Harmony Valley soy mix for their patties and currently lists five burger choices, including a seitan bacon cheeseburger. But the old-fashioned Carolina burger, flashed with chili and slaw, is like an acquaintance one is always happy to run into.

The cheese, however, is another matter. Bean uses Daiya vegan cheese, which tastes remarkably like processed cheese — even to the taste of palm oil. Thus the mac and cheese here has that distinctive one-note flavor of processed cheese, which in turn overwhelms the pasta. So does the cheese on the burger. For me, the essence of cheese is not the melting quality: cheese needs umami, taste number five after sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Umami is that savory earthy flavor shared by such diverse foods as aged parmesan, sauerkraut, porcini mushrooms and toasted seaweed. Natural cheese has umami: this "cheese" does not even try.

But Bean redeems itself with the jackfruit carnitas tacos, a brilliant well-balanced dish with the hardiness of jackfruit, with its — dare I write — chicken-like texture, which is mingled with strips of pepper and onions, grilled then dressed with salsa and a velvety white sauce. I also like the simplicity of the thick cut coleslaw and the grilled zucchini. The underseasoned rice and beans, though, is not a crowd pleaser. Desserts follow the menu and are similarly comfort driven.

Foesch continues to grow the menu: Soups have recently been added, including an Italian wedding soup with soy-based meatballs.

Bean's kitchen may lack elaborate artistry, with plates needing more color and dishes needing more snap, but the food revels in its simplicity and makes such an uplifting choice for a meal. At Bean, vegans can have a seat at the bar and order anything on the menu — including wine. That must be a relief. But anyone — vegan, leaner or omnivore — will find much to like about Bean.

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