Just north of Jack London Square, inside Oakland’s oldest building, you’ll find one of the East Bay’s most celebrated soul food eateries. Even more surprising? It’s 100 percent vegan.
Tamearra Dyson has reconciled the starchy, cholesterol-ridden delicacies of traditional Southern cuisine to create an award-winning menu sporting crowd-favorites such as Southern-fried tofu, fried kale and vegan mac-and-cheese.
“Everything is not only for vegans, but for people to come here and experience and say, ‘God, all that stuff is vegan? No milk? No eggs? No butter? And it tastes that good?’” says Dyson, explaining the popularity of her restaurant, which brings a little southern comfort to the city.
Deep-fried vs. fat-free
Even though Dyson was born and raised in the Bay Area, her roots go back to Louisiana where her grandpa was born. As a kid, she watched her mom make traditional Southern meals for him daily. They were full of rich, fatty ingredients.
“The eggs, the grits, the sausage, the bacon, the corn. Full-blown country breakfast,” Dyson recalls.
Dyson’s mother hardly ever cooked meat for her kids, so it wasn’t a big change when Dyson decided to go vegan as a teenager. Her mom even decided to join her. But it wasn’t until later on, after playing around with vegan recipes, that Dyson started incorporating elements of the South into her creations. That’s when she realized that the two completely different genres of cooking could work together.
“I felt like I really had something to offer people in the way of perception of vegan food,” Dyson says. “I’ve eaten at places where I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is why people don’t like vegan food!’”
Dyson worked at Marin General Hospital for ten years. Seven of those were in the endoscopy department, where she saw the effects bad diet can have on the digestive system firsthand. Now that she’s a restaurant owner, Dyson makes sure her menu is GMO and MSG-free. She uses locally sourced, organic products whenever possible.
“I just don’t believe food has to be bland in order to be good for you, you know?” she says. “I pay attention to what I’m putting in everything so that everything that you’re eating does something for your body.”
Souley Vegan started at local farmer’s markets in 2006. Between that exposure and catering events around the Bay Area, Souley Vegan began to develop a name for itself. After years of hard work and sacrifices, and a short-lived run at another location downtown, Souley Vegan opened near Jack London Square in 2009 with only $30 in the cash register. Since then, the restaurant has earned recognition from regional and national media, and a devoted local following.
Dyson’s son, Aquil Rahman, says, “We get people coming in like every day. Like, ‘Wow, really?’ But I think it’s just because it’s literally home cooking. It doesn’t have the mass production feel.”
Now 19, Rahman has been a part of Souley Vegan since it began at the Grand Lake Farmer’s Market, where he was “on the money” at the stand where his single mom sold the food. He says he didn’t stop to think back on how far they’d come until recently.
“It’s pretty mind-boggling actually, that we’re actually in this facility,” Rahman says. “We used to talk about when we would get our own restaurant. When that all became real, it was really cool.”
All are welcome, regardless of diet
One of the things that strikes you when you walk into Souley Vegan is the diversity of its customers. Regulars and first-timers of all ages and backgrounds stop by to see what the menu has to offer. They come with their families, friends, or coworkers and there always seems to be something for everyone – vegan or not.
“I heard there was awesome vegan soul food here, and I was craving soul food today and a food adventure, so I came out here,” says Erin Walter, who ventured down from the North Bay to try the Southern-fried tofu.
Zoe Brezsny, on the other hand, is mainly vegetarian. She’s been coming here for four years, since its close to both work and school.
“It’s like comfort food meets vegan,” she explains. “I like coming here after work for a beer and potato salad, black-eyed peas. Pretty much everything is good on the menu, and I don’t get tired of it.”
Home is where the comfort food is
For some, Souley Vegan is about more than food. Melissa Davenport grew up in Michigan and missed Detroit’s authentic soul food when she moved to the Bay Area. Then, she and her husband found Souley Vegan.
“When you walk into the restaurant, for us, it was kinda like Detroit,” Davenport says. “Going into that Mom & Pop restaurant. That nice, soulful feeling of just love and culture.”
Davenport is not a vegan, or a vegetarian. Still, she says, Souley Vegan has given her a sense of “home away from home.”
“Just feeling that love in a delicious, and also healthy way, because it’s not just fried meat, I don’t need to go back to Detroit anymore. This is my new Detroit spot. This is my new soul food,” she says.
Souley Vegan’s laid back vibe is something Tamearra Dyson prides herself on, just as much as her food. The walls are covered with pictures of her family, and classic R&B music serenades customers as they dig into fried okra and fresh peach cobbler.
“People set up dominos here, and there are cards and games, and they’re chillin,” Dyson says. “They love the atmosphere, they’re relaxed. And that’s what I want. That’s exactly what I want.”
Making healthy choices accessible
Now, Dyson is taking her business beyond the walls of the restaurant. In a way, she’s actually returning to the roots of her business, marketing a “grab-and-go” line of vegan food, more like what she used to sell at farmers’ markets. So far, her products are in four local supermarkets, and she’s talking with national chains about going there, too.
“I think it’s important to have good food accessible,” she explains. “If we can be in that line-up, and be a part of somebody making a healthier decision, I think it’s powerful.”
Visit Souley Vegan's website here.