The Lunch Room: The Surprising
So, I am not vegan. In fact, I love bacon as much as a hungry lumberjack and a good steak as much as Wall Street stockbroker. But as far from vegan as I am, good food is just good food. I mean, I’m not Mexican but I still love tacos. I start off with this clarification because Ann Arbor has added a new restaurant. The Lunch Room in Kerrytown is a completely vegan eatery and contrary to the name, also serves breakfast, dinner, and a significant amount of baked goods.
Lunch Room chefs and owners, Phillis Englebert and Joel Panozzo , began from the bottom up - first serving their food at dinner parties for friends and family, then opening a food cart in Marc’s carts and occasional pop-up restaurants, and finally blocking out their own restaurant space in Kerrytown. Designed by Synecdoche Designs, a startup company by two University of Michigan graduates, the relatively small establishment was pretty much built from the ground up by the designers and the staff. The front room is outfitted with a dark wood, wrap-around counter and bar, tall, expansive windows, an open kitchen, and unique art deco accents such as the brightly-colored cubism chairs and spiky ceiling art. On a side note, if you have a chance, I highly recommend sitting at the bar in front of the open kitchen at least once. Everyone on staff is very friendly and while they cook they generally conduct pleasant conversations with the people at the bar. No reason to eat alone if you don’t have to.
Everything at The Lunch Room is homegrown in Michigan and made from scratch, down to the housemade seitan and the fresh bread for the sandwiches. The menu covers a wide-range of dishes, from salads and sandwiches to seemingly very un-vegan dishes like macaroni and cheese and ice cream sandwiches. There is a separate menu for breakfast, served only Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings with items including a breakfast burrito, housemade granola, and potato pancakes. On explaining the menu creation process, Phillis said “We’re creating things that we like and also figuring out how to “veganize” other dishes. She goes on to explain that the menu is based on a combination of personal food interests, such as her love for southwestern food and Joel's fascination with Asian cuisine. They work to make the food accessible, not only to vegans who can now enjoy a good cheeseburger, but also to non-vegans who are a little fuzzy on the difference between tofu, tempeh, and seitan, but realize that they like whatever is in their reuben sandwich.
My first trip to The Lunch Room I arrived in time for the Saturday breakfast. A savory breakfast fan, I ordered the cumin-spiced rice and beans with housemade seitan chorizo. As a side, I also had the fruit salad - a fresh and graciously melon-free bowl of sliced peaches, apples, berries, and a topping of warm toasted coconut and lime juice. Breakfast was adequate. I adored the fruit salad with the crunch and tropical flavor of the coconut. But although I finished comfortably satisfied, I could not help but wish the seitan chorizo in my rice bowl was the real thing. Old habits die hard I suppose.
Then I came back for lunch. For me, this is where the magic happens. While I was there, I was lucky enough to try that night’s dinner special, Vietnamese summer rolls with peanut sauce. So here we go again. I not vegan, but I am Vietnamese and with summer rolls typically prepared with boiled pork and shrimp, I was doubtful.
Clearly I need to stop thinking that way because The Lunch Room surprised me again. The summer rolls were beautiful and absolutely delicious. They were stuffed full of fresh cucumbers, carrots, cabbage, red pepper, cilantro and avocado. The peanut sauce consisted of at least half a dozen ingredients, flavored with ginger, garlic, and soy sauce as well as ground peanuts. I could have eaten the entire plate. It’s true that they weren’t anything like authentic Vietnamese summer rolls, but as I reluctantly admitted to my mother, I actually preferred these summer rolls with all the colorful, flavorful veggies to the blandness of the boiled meat, lettuce, and rice noodles of the Vietnamese roll.
As if this weren’t enough, I also tried the Lunch Room’s bành mí, a Vietnamese French bread sandwich typically made with sliced pork and pork liver pate. The Lunch Room’s version is made with marinated tofu but still has the pickled carrots, cilantro, and garlic mayonnaise. In addition, they also add sliced jalapeños and mint. Again, this “version” of a bành mí is nothing like the original sandwich, how could it be? But again still, it was awesome. The spiciness was perfect against the smooth mayonnaise and the rest of the sandwich was so flavorful that tofu or pork, it wouldn’t have made a difference. Even better, the menu prices are overall some of the most reasonable I have seen, with no main course creeping above $10.
So now I’m impressed. And then Phillis handed me a chocolate donut, just made fresh that day. For anyone who doesn’t know, I am also not a donut fan. But apparently I am now. This chocolate donut was so rich and soft and fudgy that I have described it to people as if you were to take a chocolate lava cake and make it into a donut. They are also baked instead of fried, so kudos to Phillis and Joel. After I guiltily scooped the last few crumbs out of the bag, it didn’t matter to me that it was vegan, I just knew I wanted another one.
Unfortunately, or perhaps very fortunately, The Lunch Room’s bakery is constantly changing. Although their selection of cookies stays pretty much the same, each day brings a new flavor of scone and coffee cake as well as a cornucopia of other random and delicious baked treats. One of which was a peanut butter chocolate truffle cupcake that was topped with a ball of dense, rich chocolate rolled in coconut. I also found out that the flavor of donut changes every day, and no one knows what the next day’s flavor will be until the morning of. On my most recent visit it was strawberry lemonade and while I appreciated the lightly sweet lemon cake and fresh strawberry-flavored glaze, I still love the chocolate.
I will qualify however, that while the menu prices are reasonable, it seems that the bakery goods prices are a bit steep. I assume this is because vegan baking is a much more expensive process. So though these treats are all very tasty, it is a little hard to justify paying $2.75 for a donut or $4 for a cupcake…well, almost.
I’ll admit, when I first heard about The Lunch Room I was skeptical. As a non-vegan, it always seemed like eating vegan food was eating at some sort of disadvantage. Like, why should I eat a tofu burger when I could just have the real thing? And although it is a generalization, I would guess that most people think the same way.
But like I said, good food is good food. I'm never one to sacrifice "tasty" for "healthy" and at The Lunch Room the whole vegan-healthy-wheatgrass-granola stereotype goes out the window. (Although their housemade breakfast granola is really good.) I told Phillis after sharing the plate of summer rolls that to me while most vegan restaurants are set up to provide vegan food that tastes good, The Lunch Room serves amazing food that just happens to be vegan.
So I went to The Lunch Room, looked around, ate, talked, and then I went back. Three times and counting.