I recently caught wind of something a vegan can only dream of: A local restaurant — led by a Food Network cooking champ — debuted an entirely vegan menu alongside their standard fare. I flew the coop to get to Rooster’s House of Ramen ASAP.
Before I tasted the food, I sat down with Chef Mark Henry to understand the “why.” After a tough couple of years (accidents, injuries and illness), some animal-based foods became problematic for his health — and others he simply could no longer tolerate. “As a trained chef with many years of experience, I began finding workarounds for that,” he said. “As I began making dietary changes and replacing animal products, the transition to being vegan was intriguing.” He went on to explain he had actually avoided investing in vegan food and lifestyle — due in part to what he describes as ridiculous requests and distrustful customers. (Spoiler: He’s singing a different tune these days.) Necessity is the mother of invention. Mark, in partnership with his brother Chad (who’s head chef at Rooster’s) addressed his health, felt drawn to the culinary challenge and subsequently reinvented what plant-based cuisine can look like in a non-vegan restaurant: inspired.
Rooster’s House of Ramen’s vegan menu includes six appetizers and four mains. Because I care about you, I tried nearly every single one. (You’re welcome.) The steamed and pan-seared vegetable potstickers are surprisingly green — shisho is the star of the herbed-wrapper — and they are a must. As much as I enjoyed those verdant dumplings, I was blown away by the seitan burnt ends. Biting into the vegan wheat “meat” one could almost believe they were chewing a fine cut of the real deal. The seitan secret? They marinate it in kimchi brine. Served with cabbage and pickles, the starter could easily stand in as a main.
Next up: miso teriyaki popcorn chickpeas. Wholesome, all dressed up in creativity, the legumes are lightly covered in a Japanese take on mayonnaise: kewpie. Traditionally, it’s made with egg yolk, but the whole food egg replacement for this is aquafaba (the broth of cooked chickpeas, often used in vegan baking). A second protein-packed whole bean on the starter menu is edamame tossed in a tangy citrus soy sauce and lightly dusted with salt flakes. And don’t miss the soy and wheat-based Osaka Fried Chik’n: golden, breaded and teamed with fiery chile oil and aquafaba hot sauce, this one could fool a carnivore or two.
The Henry brothers’ attention to detail is apparent. “Veganism has often been an afterthought, but I believe its time is now, and I have a duty to push the envelope and help advance this cuisine,” says Mark. This was apparent as I perused the ramen and noodle bowl mains. The Thai peanut seitan is a protein powerhouse: vegan meat and peanut sauce (another legume) deliver nutrients and a ton of umami. On an oh-so-hot July afternoon, this bowl of soba noodles was everything I needed: chilled, thick with coconut leche, and spicy — nature’s coolant. The Korean BBQ Tofu offers a warm, earthy alternative to cold noodles. Spicy bean curd and fermented, blistered vegetables swim in a peppery broth. Rice noodles are another option in the LionsHead Bowl. The shoyu broth is back and holds up juicy plant-based meatballs and fresh, lightly cooked bok choy.
The ramen and noodle bowls are fantastic, but the roasted mushroom rice entrée proves hands-down the winner for me. Fragrant fungi, crispy rice, fried onion and crunchy chile deliver a texture beyond imagining. “We prepare vegan food with techniques that span multiple disciplines of cuisine and embrace the technological advances that have taken place in the gastronomical world,” Mark says. Well, that would explain the use of a torch to crisp up that golden sushi rice — what a party for the mouth!
Rooster’s House of Ramen also houses Allusion Speakeasy — tucked in the back of the restaurant — so they know a thing or two about cocktails (and you can get all of the restaurant’s vegan fare in the not-so-secret bar). A sucker for sake, I was drawn to the mango fermented rice drink — mixed with vodka and citrus juice — and it was a spot-on pairing for the spicy bowls.
On the whole, the plant-based menu at Rooster’s rates extraordinarily original, and Chefs Mark and Chad Henry are clearly enthused: “The vegan community has embraced our new menu. We’re sorry for not getting in the game sooner!”
Yeah, it’s about cluckin’ time, but if these Roosters are willing to eat crow, I’d say … You’re forgiven, chefs!