Charlotte’s very first all-vegan, sit-down restaurant. If you’re not familiar with Charlotte, NC and its steak houses and BBQs and local yokels endlessly carrying on about bacon, you don’t understand just how truly groundbreaking Bean is. Trust me, it is a very big deal – history in the making!
Bean had its “soft” opening less than a month ago – on June 16th, 2012 – and is still in process of working out the kinks and defining its personality. Bean is waiting on a liquor license and testing new items to add to the menu (or not). Of course Bean will be a favorite of vegetarians and vegans – but what else might it be? A hot lunch spot? A homestyle family restaurant? A thriving takeout joint? Part of the veggie bar scene? A gathering spot for veggie celebrations, cooking lessons, and community events? Right now, Bean has the potential to be all of that.
Someone asked if I was going to host a VegCharlotte Meetup there. Was that ever a question???! As soon as I heard Bean was close to opening, I
pestered stayed in constant contact with owners Charlie and Roy, asking when I could bring a large group of people from VegCharlotte to check it out. Eventually, they caved under the onslaught of my emails and phone calls succombed to my gentle powers of persuasion and gave me a date of July 10th.
So, on July 10th my partner and I found ourselves driving down the monstrosity that is Independence Boulevard. It was only 6:30 but threatening rain, and the storm clouds were casting an aggressive darkness over what should have been a sunny summer evening. We were both a little stressed about finding the restaurant as neither one of us wanted to be driving on Highway 74 in a thunderstorm.
But then, I saw it. Towering above Independence Boulevard.
A giant bean.
A giant, brightly illuminated, pinto bean.
“We’re here,” I said.
“Here” is 3001 E. Independence Boulevard, a 4,878 SF building that began its restaurant career in 1976 as El Cancun, a Mexican restaurant (that coincidentally served many vegetarian items). After that it went through several more restaurant incarnations – a deli, the Kilimanjaro Restaurant & Lounge – before becoming Bean. The building still retains a hint of its Mexican past, with rounded arches everywhere.
The kitchen is an “open” kitchen. Charlie explained he wants people to know what’s going on in the kitchen, and to see that they’re not “secretly back there slicing roast beef”. Or adding real butter to dishes. Or using real cheese. Smart move, given all the urban rumors and misinformation out there (“Olive Garden puts chicken broth in all their sauces!” “Nothing is vegan at P.F. Chang’s except for Buddha’s Feast!” “Indian food can NEVER be vegan – it’s all full of ghee!”) Plus, the open kitchen adds some entertainment value and a relaxed, cool vibe to the place.
There’s also a nice bar area. Charlie and Roy are still waiting on their liquor license, and plan to serve vegan wines, beers, and liquors. I’m really loving the idea of a vegan bar, especially when paired with familiar bar appetizers. So far Bean has queso dip, quesadillas, crabby dip, and buffalo fingers on their “starters” menu. If Bean adds the fried pickles they sometimes serve as a special, and maybe some nachos – they could seriously be onto something.
There’s a private dining room in the back that can accommodate up to 50 people and was very pleasant for our crowd of 23.
We started off with three orders of “Pimento cheesish” dip and tostitos – provided gratis by the house! I’m a Southern girl and I do miss my pimento cheese. Let it be known that I have never been a fan of “cheezes” , but this dip was tasty and indeed very Pimento Cheesish. It’s one of the recipes they are testing – and hopefully one that will make it to the final menu. I would suggest two versions, though – the regular version and a hot version with a little bit of jalapeno pepper.
Bean’s menu is familiar and totally unintimidating. Do you get a little nervous or nauseous around vegan dishes with names like “ancient grain” or “purple risotto” or “beet pasta tossed with figs”? I do, too – I like my quinoa to be fresh, not ancient; purple is just a dang scary color for rice; and beets and figs? – uh, love beets and love figs, but together in the same dish? Just not feelin’ it. (Or, rather, if I ate it, I’m afraid I might feel it.) But here at Bean, everything is just nice and normal Southern comfort food. Burgers, sandwiches, tacos, meat loaf, salads, crabbie patties (yes, Charlie and Roy are Spongebob Squarepants fans). Nothing scary or unfamiliar at all. Take an omnivore friend here to eat, and there is nothing on the menu that will send them sprinting out the door.
There’s also a long list of veggie sides on the permanent menu – including mashed potatoes and gravy, macaroni and cheeze, macaroni salad, collards, braised kale, braised cabbage, and, yes, BEANS! PINTO beans (of course), and northern beans with rosemary and thyme, and “mega bean salad.”
I ordered the Classic Reuben, because it’s one of those things I loved as an omnivore and never found a decent substitute for. Until now. This was excellent. House made “corned beef” with sauerkraut, Daiya cheese and Thousand Island, served on grilled marbled rye. I ordered mashed potatoes with gravy as my side. They were the perfect fluffy consistency, not too lumpy yet not overly mashed into sticky gluelike goo. The gravy appeared to be mushroom based and was also very good – I would have just liked a little more of it.
My partner ordered the BBQ and coleslaw sandwich. He likes his food HOT, so he ordered both the BBQ sauce AND the Buffalo sauce, as well as a side of jalapeno peppers. The waitress brought him both sauces and jalapeno peppers on the side, with no charge for the extra sauce or the peppers! The sandwich was absolutely incredible. On further investigation, we discovered it was made from jackfruit – which gave it a seriously meat-like texture. His side was salt potatoes (white baby potatoes boiled in their skins in extra-salty water, which forms a salty crust on the skin and leaves the insides extra creamy). Also very good.
Others in the group got the Crabbie Patty sandwich, the Veggie Burger, Buffalo Braised Tofu Salad, and Crabbie Salad. Everyone seemed pleased with their dish. Quite a few chose to order several veggie sides as their meal. The sides turned out to be very generous servings.
I did ask Charlie what the most popular menu item was. Without hesitation, he said “Macaroni and cheeze.” The cheeze for this mac and cheese is NOT Daiya or another commercial cheese substitute. It’s made in-house, with nutritional yeast (Bean buys nutritional yeast in bulk, 50-lb bags) and a few other secret ingredients. My assistant organizer, Skye, ordered the mac and cheeze as one of her sides. Since she’s a vegetarian who eats dairy, she’s probably a tougher critic than a vegan who hasn’t had cheese for awhile and might not really “remember” the taste. Her verdict? “I added a little salt and pepper, but it was really good.” I’m definitely trying the mac and cheeze myself next time – me, the girl that doesn’t like “cheeze.”
Desserts? Forgot to take pictures but most people ordered peanut butter and chocolate cheezecake which left them with loopy drooling smiles on their faces. There were also carrot cake cupcakes said to be awesome by Alyssa and seriously delicious black forest cupcakes – dark chocolate cake with cherry preserves in the middle.
Service was excellent. Everyone’s food did not come out at precisely the same time, but we were probably Bean’s first big group, and Bean hasn’t even had its grand opening yet. So we were expecting that. However, everyone got exactly what they ordered, everyone’s tab was correct, and there was no poor soul “missing” a meal as there has been in previous Meetups! (Me at Ginbu 401 and Dennis at Woodlands.) Additionally, water glasses were kept filled and all the staff was very friendly – including the owners Charlie and Roy.
Verdict? It’s a friendly place with a friendly menu and very good, reasonably priced food. Let’s hope it becomes the cultural icon it has the potential to be!
Edited 8/18/2012 – Just wanted to add I’ve tried and tasted a few additional things on their menu:
Jalapeno Burger – TOTALLY ROCKS!
Fried Pickles – Yum, yum. All the usual fried pickle fun with no eggs in the breading and dairy-free ranch. The end result tastes very light and non-greasy.
Crabbie Patty Sandwich – A crabcake sandwich made from jackfruit. You gotta taste it to believe it.
Mac and Cheeze – Not for me. I hate fake “cheezes” and thought this a little bland anyways.
Squash Casserole – Again, I’m not a fan of anything “cheeze” but I didn’t mind the cheeze in this one. I’ll definitely get it again.
Mega Bean Salad – Mega good.
Collard Greens – Loved it, really balsamic. This could be a plus for some and a minus for others.
Northern Beans with Rosemary and Thyme – Yum.
Potato Salad – Very nice with fresh herbs.
Fruit Cup – A large serving of quality fruit (not just your usual sorry slice of melon and a couple of grapes). Last time I got this, it was blueberries and strawberries.