Vegan Flava Café
4125 Durham Chapel Hill Blvd.

The chef knows this look well.

For three minutes of a post-lunch lull late on a Thursday afternoon, Yah-I Ausar Tafari Amen has patiently stood behind the bar of Vegan Flava Cafe, his palms spread flat against the marbled emerald laminate countertops. He stares at me, his eyes wide as he waits for me to scoop one of the curled green lettuce leaves from the paper plate he’s delivered.

When I do, he smiles preemptively, expecting what’s next. I take a bite, look down, take another and finally look up at Ausar while smiling incredulously. His grin is so wide now it seems to dip into the hairnet that’s nestled beneath his beard.

“That’s the reason we’re in business,” Ausar explains, laughing. “That’s what started it all.”

Ausar begins to tell me about a conference in Raleigh years ago. His second wife, Ma’at em Maakheru Amen, was selling Whatz In Your Womb, her book “about the energy we carry around and how we pass it back and forth,” he says. The book helped him understand how humans relate to one another and how we affect each other’s mood; the theories apply to war and peace, sex and peace, he says at the start of a very long tangent.

An on-again, off-again vegan who had worked at a series of health food stores in Atlanta, Philadelphia, his Brooklyn hometown and in Chapel Hill, Ausar brought some of the tuna salad he had been making for himself at home to the conference. Except there was no tuna, nothing even resembling fishonly carrots, ground into a pulp and reconstituted into a paste with spices, seaweed, egg-free mayonnaise and residual carrot juice.

At the conference, Ausar had stepped outside only to return and find a line had formed, the folks waiting not for the book but for a serving. That’s the first time he knew he should start a restaurant.

Today, mesmerized by the flavor to the point of confusion, frozen in a stupid smile, I reaffirm the decision. I ask him how he does it, and as soon as he starts talking, I begin eating again. By the time I’m finished, maybe 45 seconds later, he’s still discussing the reason he didn’t add carrot juice this time.

I never loved tuna, and I’ve been known to loathe a carrot. But I would eat this meal until the sun sets over Vegan Flava Cafe, one of the Triangle’s best new restaurants.

“I’m glad you like it,” he finally says, smile still intact. “Bless you.”

Ausar and a small team opened Vegan Flava Cafe in a strip mall on the southwestern fringes of Durham late this summer, after spending several years running a popular food trailer at the Durham Farmers Market. Just off a frontage road that juts from congested U.S. 15-501, the restaurant sits alongside a panaderia and barbershop and around the corner from an instrument store, a tailor and a tattoo parlor.

Vegan Flava Cafe seems to crouch beneath the weight of a massive billboard just overhead. Its bright pink color and adult-sized letters advertise affordable “family dental care,” dwarfing the restaurant’s own hand-painted sign to the point I only notice its diminutive palm trees when leaving for the second time.

Vegan Flava occupies the former space of Blue Note Grill, the bar, rock club and restaurant that has since relocated to downtown Durham. Inside, it still recalls the former tenants. The concrete floors are painted and scuffed, and the barwith its stainless steel taps sitting fallow in the temporarily alcohol-free restaurantseems to exist now only because it used to. An Anubis tapestry covers most of one wall, and four pieces of currency (from Brazil, the United States, Uganda and Kenya) hang behind the bar.

A small glass case, catawampus and neglected at one end of the bar, holds a kit for making at home the same Kangen Alkaline Waterthat is, water whose pH has been boosted for purported, if debated, health benefitsthat Vegan Flava uses in every dish it serves.

Just beyond a small dining room, there’s a small lounge with a long brown couch, and then another rectangular “art gallery,” where hangings of Bob Marley and bright scenes reside in small frames. On a Friday night, pairs square off over games of chess in the colorful room after lessons earlier in the evening; in the dining room, young poets arrive for a reading.

If the restaurant feels casually furnished, even accidentally so, the menu does not. It is intentional and limited, eschewing the flowery or technical explanations one might expect from a healthy emporium with new-age aims like this one. The half-dozen entrees include several wraps, either with the carrot “tuna,” an almond-based “seafood salad” or a simple panoply of crisp vegetables, wrapped in collards, seaweed or lettuce. There are tacoswhere the typical seasoning has been ground deep into pureed walnutsa daily special, a side or two and a few desserts. There is a Sunday brunch, too.


I must admit that, in two trips, I ate everything on the menu and off it. (Speaking of the latter, ask for the “collard supreme,” stuffed with kale that’s been wondrously wrenched in nutritional yeast, oil and sundried tomatoes.) It was all designed and executed to the point of perfection. Sure, maybe it’s a bit awkward when a smiling chef stares at you, awaiting your first bite. But then, at least, you have the chance to stare back at him. Somehow, I stopped myself just short of saying, “Bless you, too.”

At a glance, Vegan Flava’s menu suggests that Ausar does what many other meatless restaurants do: Approximate the taste and texture of meat-based antecedents, like tuna salad or ground chuck in tacos, and use the health benefits as a sort of write-off for the missing bite, zest or essence you’d expect from its counterpart.

But, really, it’s only the tacos that do this, with their spiced walnuts matching the savory taste and coarse chew of ground beef that’s been cooked quickly in a skillet.

The rest of the dishes stand on their own. The “tuna salad” worries less about aping its namesake than acing a fleshy bite and a slightly briny sweetness. The same applies for the toothsome seafood salad. Rolled in collard leaves that sparkle and shine to the point they seem to have been dipped in hot wax, it is salty and spicy. Garlic and onion deliver an initial punch, only to be countered by a phantom velveteen creaminess and a dense crunch. The avocado is fresh, generous and sliced thin, as with most every dish at Vegan Flava.

And the “live cashew cheesecake” doesn’t mimic a cheesecake at all. Above a sweet, nut-based crust, the filling is the color of wet sand, and it has the taste of a delicious pound cake that’s been pulled from the oven before the bake has finished. Topped by a strawberry compote, each colossal $7 piece suggests it took an eternity to design and almost as long to cook; devouring it takes little more than an instant.

Really, that’s my chief standing criticism with Vegan Flava Cafe: The restaurant brims with wonderful conversationalists, like the server Raj, who likes to talk about how the alkali water “disrupts the micro-clusters in your blood … because it’s like a snowflake,” or a customer ordering takeout and explaining how no one in her family would believe the pecan pie was vegan. And then there’s Ausar, who discloses his life story as soon as you meet him. But the food simply leaves the plate too quickly for many of these conversations.

At least that’s why, I like to tell myself, I ate everything on the menu in only two visitsso I could stay a little longer.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Savor flavor”