The absurdity isn't lost on our dining group. To enter Foodhisattva, a new vegan eatery in Cleveland Heights, you must first walk through a small vestibule that is shared with a neighboring butcher shop. Given that you can smell Mister Brisket from down the block, it's not surprising that the heady, sweet and, well, meaty aroma of corned beef permeates every nook and cranny of the adjacent vegan cafe. Whether that odor proves offensive or seductive depends in large part on your dietary philosophy.
The Economist magazine recently declared 2019 "The year of the vegan," predicting that this "will be the year veganism goes mainstream." But here in Cleveland it's still remarkably challenging to chase down a delicious, creative and wholly dairy- and meat-free meal. Sure, many progressive restaurants around town offer vegan dishes, specials and mods that attempt to fill the void, but many vegans (and even vegetarians and pescatarians) prefer not to dine next to somebody gnawing away on a rib bone. Others simply are unwilling to financially support meat-serving eateries.
There are no bones about Foodhisattva, a 25-seat sliver of a space that formerly was home to Greedy Girl. As practicing vegans, owners Josh Sias and Frances Cheng are painfully aware of the paucity of suitable meatless dining options around town, a shortcoming that is amplified anywhere east of Lakewood. They've taken it upon themselves to move the needle, convinced that if they build it, people will come. And not just vegans and vegetarians, because to succeed as a restaurant — even one as modestly proportioned as this — means attracting diners of all philosophical persuasions.
For the most part, this little eatery does succeed in pleasing all who enter. It does so by offering familiar, approachable and easy-to-love dishes like nachos, tacos and fried "chicken" sandwiches. In many ways, the menu reads like a typical bar menu if the bar happened to be run by a vegan, which makes sense considering that the concept began life as a pop-up at breweries and other locales.
Is the viscous, gloppy cashew cheese sauce atop the Supreme Master Nachos ($11) as creamy, delicious and satisfying as the real deal? Not by a long shot, but when eaten in concert with the chips, zesty taco crumbles, olives, peppers, tomatoes and avocado, it acts as the glue that binds the whole. On the other hand, the fried cauliflower bites ($7) can stand shoulder to shoulder with any bar snack proffered in a wax paper-lined plastic basket. Crispy, curry-scented and perfectly textured, the veggie poppers would be a welcome addition to Super Bowl Sunday. There are myriad ways to mar the now-ubiquitous blistered shishito pepper dish ($4), but Foodhisattva artfully sidesteps them all. The squiggly, bright green chiles are charred not burnt, firm not floppy and possessing of some actual heat. They get a flavor boost from a Japanese spice blend.
A meat-eater will never confuse the wheat-based chick'n sandwich ($11) for a steamy Chick-fil-A, but I can't imagine one putting it down unfinished either. Served on an airy sesame seed bun, the panko-crusted patty is slathered with mustard mayo and sweet-sour tonkatsu sauce and topped with lettuce and pickles. Curiously, it's not the lack of chorizo, carnitas or al pastor that knocks the Bangkok tacos ($11) down a few notches. It's the excess of papaya, carrot and cabbage slaw that not only overshadows the tempura-fried cauliflower, but also chills it all down.
In the K-Town Platter ($13), a Korean barbecue is reproduced in vegan form thanks to thin-sliced, bulgogi-seasoned seitan and barbecue sauce-slicked firm tofu. The plate is flushed out with plucky banchan-like garnishes such as kimchi, spicy pickles and bean sprout salad, as well as lettuce leaves to bundle it all up. As in the case of the nachos, the whole is greater than the sum of its meatless parts.
Despite genuinely enjoying the food, I found myself pining for more grains, legumes and vegetables, ironic as that might sound given the surroundings. Apart from a handful of very fine salads topped with bottle-worthy carrot-ginger dressing, the menu is shockingly lacking in fresh, creative, wholesome plant-forward dishes. That just might not be Foodhisattva's style, I get it, but there has to be room on the menu for some vegetables apart from shishito peppers, deep-fried cauliflower and romaine lettuce.
Most diners appear to stay for dessert, a rotating offering that usually pairs various varieties of housemade cake and ice cream. It's a sweet finish and a chance to chat with the gregarious owners and staff, whose passion for cooking, hosting and philosophizing is as authentic as their beliefs.