It’s the last Eat North of the year on Saturday 15 September, the weekly street food session taking place at North Brewing Co. Last weekend, Thomas Chalk visited Vegan North, their second all plant-based line-up.
Eating outdoors is a little bit of a gamble in the UK, even in the height of summer, and I arrived at Vegan North just as drizzle turned to rain. All the better to want something hot and tasty for a Saturday lunch. North Brewing Co. hosts this small but perfectly formed festival in and outside of their tap room, providing vegan beer to accompany the food stalls. Ever the dedicated and democratic critic, I thought it only right that I sample something from each of the stalls that were braving the weather…
Shoot the Bull – goes vegan!
Shoot the Bull are Hull-based restaurant-style street food vendors, and turned their hand to a range of vegan dishes. I debate ordering the bean burger or perhaps the roasted cauliflower with Israeli couscous, ras el hanout, pomegranate and preserved lemon, but eventually settle on sweet potato and coconut milk wonton ravioli with toasted coconut and a citrus gel. These crispy little parcels made for a good light starter – though I’d have been just as happy with them as a dessert, in fact, poised as they were on the cusp of sweet and savoury. The sweet potato filling was subtly set off by a hint of lemon zest, with a small mound of citrus gel at the bottom of the pot providing a dipping sauce that I happily chase the last of with my final shard of wonton wrapper. The coconut was not as evident as I would have liked – indeed, I had a hard time detecting it at all in the filling, and there was nothing I could see nor taste that suggested additional roasted coconut – but the pastry cases crunched moreishly and didn’t have even a hint of unwanted greasiness. The restrained citrus gel complemented their filling rather than overpowering it. Street food can often mean a heavy hand with spices and seasonings, which would have reduced the sweet potato to a mere carrier, but these wontons were balanced and refined.
On the subject of a heavier hand with the spices, my next stop was the stall of vegan Mexican kitchen (and hot sauce shop) Los Antojitos. Their menu listed vegan wings alongside chilli and tacos. These turned out to be cauliflower in a spicy coating somewhere between batter and breadcrumbs. There are those who complain about ‘meat substitutes’, and I suppose they might also complain about using the word ‘wings’ whilst making no attempt to disguise the plant-based nature of the dish; but I was too busy tucking into the toothsome, perfectly al dente florets to care about such things. The thin coating packed a punch even before I doused the wings with scotch bonnet hot sauce. It was fabulous, spicy and slightly herbaceous, with a deep, savoury note that I couldn’t quite place (vegan chefs just get better and better at finding ways to pack umami into their food, and I for one am eternally grateful for this).
Wanderer Junk Food
Wanderer Junk Food – “vegan food for non-vegans” – as chef Ben put it while we chatted about his polite but firm refusal to tell me how they make their vegan crackling – are firmly in the ‘meat substitutes’ camp, though they are very much of the mind that a poor substitute is not worth doing. Following a stint in one of the pop-up stalls at Trinity kitchen and in advance of opening in a permanent home very soon, they brought their seitan-based hot dogs, meatballs and kebabs to Vegan North. I opted for a ‘meatball’ sandwich, which oozed a rich, faintly smoky tomato sauce, encased in which were the meatballs. Wanderer makes heavy use of wheat protein– gluten – which is made into seitan. Seitan is a vegan food that has bite, that needs chewing: it’s thirty years since I went vegetarian so perhaps I can’t usefully compare, but seitan is at least the equal of any half-remembered meat from my childhood. A common criticism of meat substitutes is that they are dry and sawdusty, or that they lack bite. My sandwich filling was moist and tender without being in any way mushy, and again had that all-important savouriness.
As it turned out, I’m glad I had Shoot the Bull’s wontons as a starter and not a dessert, as otherwise I might have missed Temple Donuts. Their display of big hunks of cake with exciting toppings had me dithering for several minutes before I settled on the espresso caramel offering. As with all good doughnuts (or indeed donuts), this sat somewhere between bread and cake, somehow both dense and airy. For me, there is a danger with icing glazes that the sugar is just too cloying, but the bitter notes of espresso and caramel held this in check nicely. After the wontons, the cauliflower wings and the seitan, I probably didn’t need this final course; but as I say, I am nothing if not dedicated.