Restaurant review: Willowbeez SoulVeg in the North Market pours heart and soul into vegan fare
Upon encountering the first vegan soul food eatery in town, there’s only one question to ask: What took so long?
After all, we live in a vegan-friendly city that has recently given rise to vegan delis, vegan butchers, vegan burger emporiums, vegan Mexican-American joints, trendy and fancy plant-based restaurants plus a two-link chain of places serving vegan Ethiopian food.
The new eatery in question has a name that might be hard to read, but the place is easy to like: Willowbeez SoulVeg. Willowbeez SoulVeg (maybe repetition makes it easier to read) is new to the Downtown North Market, but it isn’t actually new, it just has a new steady gig.
The family-owned-and-run business, which lists Carnell Willoughby and Malik Willoughby as founder and co-founder respectively, has been around for nearly a decade as a pop-up and catering operation. This experience is evident in the take-notice flavors and appealing textures of some very distinct dishes.
Food is ordered from a predominantly green-and-yellow stall amusingly decorated with honeycomb imagery and other apian references. I was informed by a server that these bee allusions are just the family having fun with their last name. Still, I couldn’t help but notice that, while buzzing around to quickly fill orders, the Willoughbys seemed to be as busy as, well, you know.
What they serve is often so uncommon yet compelling that it can be as hard to pigeonhole as it is to stop eating. In general, though, Willowbeez cooks boldly flavored, rib-sticking vegan fare — that isn’t an oxymoronic description, by the way — that frequently looks to New Orleans for inspiration.
Cornmeal is customary in Crescent City fried fish preparations, and it lends a crackly golden-brown crust to the No Fish Fry ($12). The eponymous “No Fish” component was three hefty pieces of banana blossom — Willowbeez is the only Columbus eatery that I know of to regularly use this intriguing ingredient, which evokes a cross between artichoke hearts and mushrooms.
The fine fake fish came with tangy house remoulade sauce, house slaw (zesty, “creamy” and addictive) plus excellent shoestring fries dusted in a paprika-spiked (smoked paprika is big here), barbecue-rub-like spice blend.
More inhalable fries accompanied the Rich Boi ($12), a menu highlight and nifty spin on the po’ boy sandwich, a Big Easy classic. The delightful ensemble was a nice pretzel roll loaded with crunchy, battered-and-fried oyster mushroom bits dressed with arugula, roma tomatoes and remoulade.
BBJerk Bella ($14) was as unusual as its name, but in a good way: A huge and hearty stew made with quinoa, black beans, onions, peppers, tomatoes and mushrooms cooked down in a base that tasted like it starred a smoky-and-spicy barbecue sauce. It’s partnered with a good cornbread muffin plus a side, such as vibrant curry cabbage or the eccentrically titled “Mac&Plz,” a comforting-yet-zesty take on macaroni and cheese.
Show up for a light meal, and the soup of the day will fill that bill. If it’s the spicy, interestingly fruity, bean-and-veggie-packed Left Eye Soul Chili ($6, with a cornbread muffin), it’ll fill your tummy, too.
Show up on weekends before 2 p.m., and you’ll be ordering from the small brunch menu. Its offerings include a must-have side of smoky and “cheesy” grits ($4); the pleasant BK Sammich ($7) — a pretty believable vegan egg-sausage-and-cheese sandwich on whole wheat; a serving of delicious French toast big enough to feed the entire country of France ($9) that’s garnished with scene-stealing caramelized bananas and purported candied walnuts (mine were MIA); and the All In Wrap ($9) — a panini-pressed, mammoth burrito filled with quinoa, spinach, herb-enhanced “sweet & purple potato hash” plus egg-replacing turmeric-yellow tofu. Like many dishes here, that satisfying burrito was as idiosyncratic as it was healthful and good-tasting.
At a glance
Where: Willowbeez SoulVeg
Location: 59 Spruce St., North Market
Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays
Contact: 614-516-8500, www.willowbeezsoulveg.com