When Houston married couple Courtney and Chasitie Lindsay decided to become vegan, there was just one problem: They had recently invested in opening a barbecue food trailer.
“I told him, just make vegan food on the trailer,” Chasitie, 36, recalls, but her husband had doubts.
Courtney, 38, doubted people would order his “barbecue vegetables,” but the Lindsays soon found that an unlikely combination — vegans and barbecue — can be a hit.
With some newfound confidence in their concept, the couple began offering a vegan menu with a meat option soon after they opened in 2017. They combined their love of food and music to create Tunes & Taste Buds, a food event series in the Heights that drew in crowds with music-themed meal mashups like Tupac and Tacos, Gucci (Mane) and Gumbo, and Beyonce and Boudin.
Since then, the entrepreneurs’ idea has exploded into multiple ventures to meet the increasing demand. They opened their Houston Sauce Co. shoppette in 2019, followed by their Big Hots vegan chicken sandwich food truck and their vegan barbecue food truck, Houston Sauce Pit, in 2020. Mo’ Better Brews, their vegan breakfast spot that also sells coffee and vinyl, opened last Juneteenth in Third Ward.
It turns out, the Lindsays’ success is indicative of a larger movement.
Across the country, more people of color are turning to plant-based diets. A Gallup poll in 2019 showed that 31 percent of nonwhite Americans reported eating less meat in the last year, compared to 19 percent of white Americans.
While touring the country for the past several years in hopes of generating support for Black-owned businesses, Warren Luckett, a co-founder of Black Restaurant Week, said he’s witnessed the surge. “It’s something where our psychology in the community is changing, and we’re being intentional about the food we consume,” Luckett said.
Houston, home to more than 20 vegan restaurants, has experienced a gradual shift too, and as more people change what they eat, more Black-owned vegan restaurants and food trucks are cropping up and flipping the perception of vegan food on its head by embracing Black culture and creativity.
“Anytime Black people get ahold of something, we produce it and represent it in a way that’s unique to us — that’s eye-catching. And we inspire other people,” said Alexis Allen, the chef and owner behind Herban Frequency.
Soul Food Vegan, Lindiana’s Southern Vegan Kitchen, Dollies Vegan Bistro, and Herban Frequency are just some of Houston’s emerging restaurants adding their own flair and cultural awareness to the vegan culinary experience.
In the predominantly Black Third Ward neighborhood, where at least seven vegan establishments reside, soul food favorites can be synonymous with plant-based meals.
Green Seed Vegan has served as a blueprint for Houston’s vegan businesses since 2011.
“We were really just trying to fill a void,” said Matti Merrell, 38. The chef, who has been a vegan since college, launched Green Seed with her husband Rodney Perry, 42, after learning in the early 2000s that not only was Third Ward lacking vegan options, but it was also a food desert with limited access to healthy produce. “We wanted to provide something to give back to the community, showing that you can have really healthy food and it can taste really good.”
Merrell began experimenting in the kitchen with her husband, taking her grandmother’s heartwarming gumbo and making it meatless by trading out shrimp for vegetables like kale, collard greens, and okra.
Merrell and Perry eventually took their experiments public, launching Green Seed as a vegan food truck in 2011. The first of its kind in the city, Green Seed served up enduring staples like the beloved “Illy cheesesteak,” which loads a French baguette with grilled portobello mushrooms, coconut cheese, and caramelized red onions instead of the traditional steak. “Some of the community’s first vegan experiences were at our food truck,” Merrell said.
The restaurant, which quickly became a Third Ward mainstay after opening its brick-and-mortar spot in 2012, still serves up some of its same classic vegan dishes, including cold-pressed juices, a variety of paninis, quinoa burgers, and vegan nori rolls. Its popularity has also given rise to Merrell and Perry’s latest establishment, Mantra, a Midtown restaurant where all dishes are not only vegan but also soy- and gluten-free.
Green Seed Vegan paved the way for newer vegan chefs like the Lindsays and Allen, who bring their own cultural flair to draw in members of the community.
Allen, an audio engineer by trade, fell into the vegan lifestyle in her early 20s after experiencing health issues, including an enlarged heart and high blood pressure. Though it was hard work, “taking control of my health like that, my body responded very well,” said Allen, now 37. The Houston native experienced a boost in her metabolism and her health improved, she said. People noticed a change in her, and in her food.
While working at a part-time job at Amazon in Houston, Allen said her manager smelled the fragrant barbecue jackfruit she made for lunch and asked her to bring some each shift. Soon after, Allen began cooking for coworkers, and business took off, prompting her to quit her job and begin hosting pop-ups across the city.
Today, Allen’s pop-up food business Herban Frequency sets up shop throughout the city at establishments like Axelrad Beer Garden, Grand Prize Bar, and places in the Heights. Each dish’s musical sound bite is available on Soundcloud.
Herban’s “Plant-Bass’d” Chuck Taylor burger, for example — an homage to the classic Converse shoe — is topped with caramelized onions, vegan cheese, and a savory “Trill OG sauce” on a pretzel bun, complemented by its own thumping hip-hop anthem. The Western barbecue Bunn-B burger, named after the acclaimed Houston rapper Bun B, is topped with fried onions, pickles, and Allen’s sweet-and-spicy barbecue “bawse” sauce.
“It’s an ode to Houston,” Allen said. “It’s an ode to the culture of being a Black woman in urban culture and changing the narrative and depiction of what a vegan should look like and act like.”
But transitions from eating meat to being vegan are not always simple.
The Lindsays, for example, had already started making their way into the culinary world, selling their homemade hot sauce at pop-ups around town when their curiosity about veganism began. Going fully vegan seemed unlikely until they watched What the Health, a “sensational documentary” produced by prominent individuals and organizations advocating for vegan diets. The documentary, which premiered on Netflix, claims that eating meat could lead to poor health, according to the Lindsays.
“I don’t know anybody [who] has seen it and has not been changed,” said Chasitie Lindsay.
But Chasitie said she remembers trying her first vegan meal. The dish was dry and bland. Put bluntly, it tasted like cardboard, Lindsay said, leaving a bad taste in their mouths.
Going vegan, they thought, might not be for them.
“We really hadn’t given it a chance because of somebody else’s presentation of what vegan food could be,” Chasitie said. But in 2017, when the couple began to explore what it meant to not eat animal products, they began to think: “We know what we don’t want it to be. So, what do we want it to be?”
Cravings for meat-filled dishes didn’t go away that easily, though. It took the couple a year to transition from flexitarian to fully vegan. Lindsay still craved her favorite loaded barbecue potato on the Fourth of July, but channeled those feelings into vegan creations.
The popularity of their Tunes & Taste Buds events, which discontinued during the pandemic, exploded into the multiple businesses they have now, including the Green Zone on Almeda — a space for vegan food trucks and vegan vendors, which opened last March, and a brick-and-mortar restaurant, Mo’ Better Brews, which sells coffee, vinyl records, and vegan breakfast and brunch items.
Indulgent vegan dishes like pecan pie waffles, peach cobbler pancakes, a Coltrane croissant sandwich with vegan breakfast sausage, mung bean-based eggs and sauteed spinach, and hot honey mushroom and grits stand out on the menu. Made with fried mushrooms that are smothered in spiced agave syrup, the dish has earned rave reviews from customers, including author and social media personality Tabitha Brown, who posted an eight-minute video about the dish on Instagram in fall 2021.
And this year, the Lindsays took their food truck Big Hots, known for its vegan hot chicken sandwich, to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, an event that attracted more than 2.4 million people this year.
For vegan chefs like Allen and the Lindsays, the growing demand for vegan options shows a promising change in the tides. The hope is that a more diverse and inclusive range of vegan cuisine from all cultures will one day be accessible around the city, Chasitie Lindsay said.
“That’s what we would like to see and continue being a part of,” she said. “There’s room for everybody literally to eat.”