Try ordering vegetarian food at a local soul food joint, and you'll likely be greeted with a laugh. The collards? Seasoned with ham bone. The black-eyed peas? Loaded with bacon chunks. You'll likely even discover pork pieces in your platter of green beans. And when it comes to entrées, well, you're out of luck there too.
Unless you're dining at Java, Juice, & Jazz in South Memphis. The restaurant, which opened on Elvis Presley Boulevard in 1999, has always served vegetarian-friendly sides, but Java's new chef, Bastet Ankh Re, has removed eggs and dairy from the menu to make sides and entrée items vegan.
But, meat-eaters, don't despair. There's something for you too. Chef Gary Williams was recently hired to cook New Orleans-style soul food, which means shrimp Creole, seafood gumbo, fried chicken, fried catfish ... the works.
It's a combination that Re and Williams believe will draw in both strict vegetarians and omnivores hoping to cut a little cholesterol and fat from their diets. After all, they may order fried chicken, but since all side dishes are vegan, omnis will be taking in far less saturated fat with the rest of their meal.
"Everybody's not cut out to be vegan, but if you do some things in moderation, you can expand your life," says Williams, who received his chef training at Delgado College in New Orleans. "What we're doing here is a great combination. Everybody can find their little niche."
Re, who used to cook vegan items at Precious Cargo Coffeehouse downtown, prepares one or two meat-free protein entrées each day. Dishes vary, but common offerings include curried tofu, vegan "egg" rolls, Jamaican jerk tofu, portobella mushroom steak, and faux chicken quesadillas with vegan cheese.
"The vegetarian food will be a mixture of soul food and international food — it'll be a melting pot," says Re, a vegan of 12 years.
Guests peruse a cafeteria-style food bar to select one vegan entrée item or one meat item and two sides for $7.99 ($8.59 on weekends). Typical vegetable dishes include grilled cabbage, garlic mashed potatoes, yams, fried eggplant, spinach and bok choy, grilled vegetables, and okra and tomatoes.
But leave room for Re's egg- and dairy-free chocolate chip cookies or her vegan banana pudding. For non-vegans, Williams claims to make a mean bread pudding with whiskey sauce. On alternating days, he also offers non-vegan praline cheesecake and peach cobbler.
Though Williams and Re have been cooking individually for years, the two believe their partnership at Java, Juice, & Jazz to be a spiritual thing. After suffering a heart attack several months ago, the owner of the building (who asked to be called simply Miss Toni), put out a call in her South Memphis neighborhood asking for help in the kitchen.
"I said if there were some sisters out there cooking, they'd be welcome to come in and rent a day and bring their clientele," Miss Toni says. "I didn't get any takers."
She'd considered asking Re, but Re was already preparing to open her own vegan restaurant on Florida Street. She thought about Williams too, but he was busy with his catering business.
"Then Gary came in one evening, and I said I really need to put one of his dishes on the menu," Miss Toni says. "He just gave me this look — and bam! — that was the beginning."
"The spirit told me to try here," Re adds. "And then Miss Toni and Gary talked about it, and Gary said, 'Let me ask my goddaughter Bastet.' And voila."
That was about a month ago. Re and Williams held a grand opening for the "All-New Java, Juice, & Jazz" on March 8th. Since then, the pair has been serving food Monday through Friday (except on Tuesdays) from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on weekends until 7 p.m.
Re and Williams' joint effort not only benefits Miss Toni's business and the local vegetarian community, it's also been advantageous for Williams' diet.
"Cooking with Bastet has been every-day training for me. In New Orleans, all we know is meat. Now I'm learning to do the tofu," Williams says. "She's helping me lose weight."
Besides offering new, healthier dining options, Miss Toni says Java will continue its tradition of live jazz by Kurl McKinney and Alfred Rudd on the first Saturday of each month. The restaurant hosts weekly poetry readings on Friday nights.
"We're just trying to bring a little more variety to South Memphis," Williams says. "We want people to come out and give us a chance. We're the all-new Java, Juice, & Jazz."
Java, Juice, & Jazz, 1423 Elvis Presley (774-3004)