Imagine Vegan Cafe
2156 Young Avenue
A couple of weeks ago, Warren and I took the monkeys (Satchel, 9, and Jiro, 7) to Tsunami for a special dinner. When we were done, Warren surprised me by saying that he wanted to walk around the corner to check out Imagine Vegan Cafe. One of his co-workers had been raving about it. He was shocked when I told him that I wasn't really interested in going because I heard it was Vegan "junk food" made from pre-packaged frozen fake meat. After dragging him to "hippie" restaurants across the country on our road trip, he just could understand why I wouldn't be excited about a hippie restaurant in Memphis. He argued that even vegans like "comfort food" and that by serving things like burgers and chicken nuggets made from non-animal products, Imagine might get people to imagine themselves as vegans. I argued that I'd be more likely to go vegan if there was a restaurant that served yummy vegetable dishes.
On Friday we decided to go and see who was right.
Since the menu lists everything as though it were made of meat, I wanted to skip the part where we told the kids it was fake meat to see if they'd notice. However, as we stood outside reading the menu, Warren immediately blurted out that nothing really had meat in it. We were standing outside reading the menu because there was a hand written sign that said, "Order at the counter." A week earlier we went to Chipotle for the first time and without having studied the menu prior to approaching the counter, found ourselves in a bit of a mad rush to decide what to eat.
The menu at Imagine is extensive, and it's hot here in Memphis, so after a few minutes we went inside despite not knowing what to order. It was early--about 5:30--so the restaurant wasn't busy. The guy at the bar gave us menus and said we could take as long as we wanted to decide. So we sat down and studied a bit longer.
I pretty quickly determined that I would have the taco, and decided to take in the ambiance. The inside of the restaurant is welcoming in a college dorm kind of way. It's clear that the owners didn't come in with a lot of cash, so they spruced it up as best they could. In the back, there were a few sofas where some kids were lounging and later where a woman was cuddling a baby. I know that the restaurant was opened by a couple with several children, including a newborn, so I could only guess this was them. The area reminded me a bit of the back room of Mothersville where us new mamas would seek refuge during the day. I totally admire and understand why a family would want to open a business that allowed them to be with their children.
By the time my reverie was done, everyone had made up their minds. I was sent to order at the "counter."
The counter is actually a bar, and where you order is on the far back side by the register. It seemed a bit odd to me, and I could imagine that it would pose quite a clusterfuck should the restaurant ever get super busy. Regardless, I put our order in, paid $32.95, and rejoined the boys at the table. The bartender/cashier brought us over some water and silverware. The kids seemed pretty tired from a day of swimming, so most of our pre-meal conversation went like this, "Don't put your head on the table," "Sit up," etc.
I had ordered a appetizer of dogs-n-blankets, but what came out first was Jiro's kid's meal of chicken nuggets and French fries. I thought it was cute that they served it on a Blue's Clues plate. Jiro, however, was very concerned that there was no ketchup.
I let Jiro get fries as his side, since we were in unfamiliar territory, but I was happy that there were other options, including veggies like broccoli, spinach, green beans, and a side salad.
A waitress soon brought out Satchel's gumbo, and we asked for some ketchup.
Satchel's commentary while eating his gumbo was hilarious. "Look, it's an actual piece of meat," he said while holding up a piece of fake sausage. "Rice? Is this rice? I thought it was random white stuff," he said as he tentatively put some on his tongue. "It feels like pus--in a solid," he remarked. When I asked if he actually liked the gumbo he said, "It's totally spicy but good." Despite this conversation, Warren and I both tasted the gumbo. It had a nice flavor and was definitely too spicy for Satch. And I had to agree that the rice wasn't the best.
Next, the dogs-n-blankets came out. The monkeys, who clearly didn't love their dinners, and Warren, who hadn't gotten his yet, pounced on them.
Everyone seemed to enjoy these, although they were exactly what we'd make at home, albeit with real hot dogs. They were simply wrapped in a crescent roll and baked.
Next, Warren got his Vegan Memphis sandwich--their take on BBQ. He had asked for spinach instead of baked beans--a good call as the spinach actually looked fresh and tasty.
Warren was impressed by the texture of the fake meat and forced me to taste it. Not bad.
By the time everyone was about half way through with their meals, my taco came out. Ordinarily I would be highly annoyed that our food was so staggered, but since I wasn't super hungry or super excited about eating I didn't complain (too much). However, I had pretty much decided by this point that the family who opened the restaurant had very little restaurant experience going in. I also imagined some conversations they must have had around their dinner table at home that led to them thinking that opening an all vegan restaurant would be a good idea.
Finally, my taco arrived.
As you can see, it was technically a burrito. The menu listing never actually said if it came with meat or beans inside--"Extra-large taco topped with cheese, lettuce, tomato, sour cream and served with rice and black beans"--so I had to peek.
Still unsure, I cut it in half, passed half to Warren, and took a bite. There were definitely beans and some sort of ground "meat." It tasted fine. It was nothing special. It reminded me of "Taco Night" at my mom's house. I was however very impressed with the sour cream. It could fool anyone, I think. As for my side of rice and beans, well, Satchel said the beans looked like black jelly beans and then went on to compare them to the droppings a character in one of his video game leaves. I didn't think that they were canned at the time, but later that evening when I wanted to die, I could only assume that they were both canned and not rinsed. Thankfully I had only eaten a few bites and I immediately threw away the leftovers.
Had it not been for Warren, we would have had a near full bowl of gumbo, the majority of Jiro's nuggets, and several dogs-n-blankets to take home as well. (We received a compostible to go box and Warren asked if they were a Project Green Fork restaurant, but I didn't think they were. A quick hop over to the PGF website and I confirmed they are not.)
I wanted to be pleasantly surprised by Imagine, but I wasn't. I know several vegans who absolutely love it, so hopefully that will be enough to keep them going. Warren was still defending them when we left, but I can't imagine he'll want to go back anytime soon. He liked his sandwich, but there's nothing stopping him from eating real BBQ.
Overall it seems like a very child-friendly place run by a very friendly and hard-working family. I'm sure they've quickly learned that running a restaurant is a lot harder than it seems. I wish them luck.
And I would point out that we actually have two Vegan restaurants--the other is the Cosmic Coconut, which I absolutely LOVE. They have expanded their food offerings now, too.