If you’re looking for vegan versions of old-school NYC bodega fare, Vodega in DUMBO is the spot.
DUMBO, for those who have been sleeping under a rock for the last twenty years, is short of Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, and is a trendy upscale area sandwiched between Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn Heights, and the East River. Subway trains, exposed to daylight momentarily as each crosses the waterway, rumbled overhead like clockwork every minute, drowning out the sound of everything, vibrating you to your very core. The BK experience, raw and real.
Owner-operator Jeremy Dean chose this spot because he lives in the neighborhood, and he felt it would be a good match for the surroundings, for the local vibe. He’ll be remembered in culinary history as the man who opened the first Brooklyn vegan bodega. Fact.
Prior to Vodega, he ran a catering business called BK Chef, billed as “creative conscious catering,” offering a menu replete with meat and seafood. Jeremy also offered cooking classes through his thebkchef.com website, but this has all but ceased due to the pandemic shutdown. Jeremy is an alumnus of Western Culinary Institute of portland, Oregon and has worked as executive chef at a DUMBO restaurant, and later worked at the Brooklyn Clover Club.
Vodega sounds a lot like Bodega, and it’s a clever sound substitution of a labiodental frictive (V) for the standard bilabial plosive sound (B). The very name of the place evokes images of a bodega, and even sounds the same, but the V substituted as the leading character lends a new definition, as Vodega is a strictly vegan establishment.
Vodega is fairly straightforward, offering five sandwiches (chopped cheese, Philly cheesesteak, the MacStack, the Cuban, and Sausage, Egg, & Cheese) and seven sides (potato smashies, smoked mac & cheese, mixed greens salad, jeweled grains, curry hummus & veggies, veggie chili, jackfruit “ceviche,” and spicy-cool heirloom tomato salad), besides freshly baked confections such as cake and cookies, with varieties changing weekly.
Chef Dean created Vodega (“The Veggie Bodega”) during the pandemic, in part using funds he received under the Paycheck Protection Program. While this may have been the most difficult time to endeavor to begin a new eatery, Vodega is doing quite well, and has an extensive following among Brooklynite natives and newcomers, alike.
Vodega began as a pop-up restaurant at various vegan festivals. Incredibly, Dean received flack from some festival-goers over its name, as he was met with stern condemnations of cultural appropriation. As a Latino chef of both Mexican and San Salvadoran roots, such claims are ridiculous on their face, and just show how some people look for instances of insensitivity where they don’t exist.
Ever good-natured, Dean did not wish to fight, and only shrugged his shoulders, saying he did not want to get into an argument, when asked how he responded.
After all, who’s to say that bodega-fare can’t be converted successfully to a plant-based ingredient list? Many people seek meat-and-dairy-free alternatives these days, whether because they are concerned about their own health, are avid animal rights activists, have concern for the environment, or want to help do their part to stop global warming.
And, before you go spouting incorrect “factoids” about how veganism is worse for the environment, perhaps you should give the College of Staten Island’s own professor Richard H. Schwart’z “Mathematics and Global Survival” a thorough read. Or, check out Earthling Ed’s debate with Infowars reporter Milly Weaver, as he destroys her arguments against veganism, one by one.
In any event, in October, two reporters from Staten Islander News Service went to check out Vodega’s offerings and interview Jeremy Dean. Of course, both are vegans of many years, as sending a tried-and-true carnivore to review a vegan restaurant is a ludicrous notion.
In fact, that’s precisely how Staten Islander became aware of Vodega: The New York post ran an article entitled, “Vegan bodega butchers NYC’s meaty classics,” in a mean-spirited attempt to diss Dean, Vodega, and veganism, in general.
That NY Post article was about the height of ridiculousness, as the reviewer, Steve Cuozzo, seemed to have never eaten either jackfruit or seitan before. It was more a condemnation of the idea of turning meat and dairy dishes into plant based offerings than anything else, offering little to the reader, save for a condemnation of all things innovative and different.
Make no mistake, though. One of the reviewers worked in one of Staten Island’s classic delis, a full-service butcher shop where he served up scrumptious meaty and cheesey sandwiches to patrons while in high school. It’s not as though the reviewers Staten Islander sent were raised as vegans from birth. In all likelihood, Mr. Cuozzo doesn’t have nearly as much experience in this area, likely having only been a patron in his own lifetime.
Of course, the “meat” is not flesh of animals, but tissues of plants. Chef dean employs seitan, a meat substitute comprised of wheat gluten or hard wheat flour, jackfruit, a southern India exotic fruit related to the fig, and Impossible Sausage, a trademarked high-protein meat substitute brought to the world by the same people who suuply Burger King, White Castle, and others with the now ubiquitous Impossible Burger. There’s also Daiya cheese, a cheese substitute that melts and has the taste of real cheese.
Of these vegan food ingredient substitutes, only jackfruit and Daiya cheese are unlike their animla product counterparts, in terms of protein. The others are chock full of aminos, courtesy of the plant-based ingredients they’re fashioned from.
What is meat, anyway? Most of us know it as the flesh of an animnal, but the archaic definiton is foodof any kind, and there’s still a modern usage meaning the edible part of something, its core. In that sense, all these substitutes are meat, albeit non-flesh. In other words, meat is not necessarily flesh.
Both Staten Islander reviewers graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology, and one of the two ate daily at the (now defunct) Cuban deli at the corner of 7th Avenue and 27th Street, across from FIT’s E Building, a respite from the lousy cheap eateries all around Chelsea at the time, a place where the polite and professional sandwich masters moved frantically at triple-speed to keep up with demand, talking to one another in rhythmic Cubañol Spanish.
It’s been a while since partaking of bodega goodness, and the reviewers Staten Islander sent know their bodega food well, though both had changed their diets due to health concerns, moral concerns, and more, and so neither had eaten a Cuban sandwich in ages .
Vodega offers no seating, and orders are ready in five to seven minutes. Walking in, immediately you’re enveloped by relative silence, a sharp contrast from the street scene outside, with trains clanging by nearly nonstop. According to Jeremy, the interior design was a community creativity project, as friends and neighbors helped him set up the place.
Neat and clean, with lighting decidedly less dim than the usual bodega, the artwork along the top of the walls was also hand-painted. Everything for sale at Vodega, either packaged food and drink, or freshly prepared dining choices, are healthy. And of course, meat and dairy free.
Cookies and cake, freshly made by one of Jeremy’s students and part-time deli workers, sit atop the refrigerated display case, waiting for hungry passersby to purchase. There’s also daiya dairy-free cheese, Beyond Breakfast Sausage, Vita Coconut water, and cans of soda. Beanfield’s plant-based chips are also available for purchase.
True, there’s a big difference from a traditional bodega: You won’t find lottery tickets, a refrigerator with Colt-45 and beer, or cigarettes. You also won’t find shelves of overprices goods from Rice Krispies and Frosted Flakes to pantyhose and cheap dollar kids toys. But Vodega is about creating a menu of plant-based bodega classics, not recreating a spot to pick up laundry detergent at 1 AM.
Jeremy Dean was both friendly and extremely knowledgeable about issues surrounding our food system. He advocates returning to a local model of eating and purchasing our foodstuffs, much as exists in Europe and Latin America, to this day. In keeping with this philosophy, all veggies are locally grown, and the bread enveloping the goodies in his sandwiches is sources from Caputo’s Bakery on Court Street in Carroll Gardens.
Caputo’s makes authentic Sicilian bread and other types of Italian loaves. In fact, one oft he reviewers has family that has lived around the corner from Caputo’s since the 1920s. Caputo’s Bakery predated their arrival, having opened its doors to the public in 1904.
Caputo’s Fine Foods, a mere five blocks away, is not connected to Caputo’s Bakery, and its owner hails from Bari, Italy. (In fact, one of Staten Islander’s writers has family from Bari, and even shares the same surname!)
While interviewing Jeremy, we had to pause a few times as orders came in over the phone, and then customers walked in to pick up and pay. Of course, if you’re into UberEats, GrubHub, or other app-based delivery services, you need not pick up.
After concluding our interview, Jeremy asked what we’d like. Our mouths were watering by now, as he had already cooked up meals for other patrons, and the air was heavy with the delightful aroma of onions and peppers.
We decided on the Philly cheese-steak, the Cuban sandwich, and two sides, smoked mac & cheese and potato smashies. Jeremy also threw in a package of cookies, freshly baked peanut-butter chocolate chip oat variety that were gluten-free.
As stated above, Vodega is geared toward fast service. Our order was ready in a flash, and only about ten minutes later, everything was in the bag and ready to go. The forks were wooden and eco-friendly, and the sandwiches were wrapped in paper, deli-style, with twists at the ends, cut in half.
We bid our goodbyes, and eagerly hurried across the street to Main Street Park, located adjacent to, as well as crossing under the Manhattan Bridge. There was ample seating, good lighting, and likely not a more scenic spot to enjoy our dinner. Other park-goes were curious, likely due to the aromas wafting though the air from our hot food.
First we shared the smoked mac and cheese. Delightfully creamy “cheese” sauce covered elbow macaroni, with a hint of smoke flavor for good measure. If this was offered to a hungry New Yorker, I doubt many would have known it was dairy-free. While savoring every bite, in no time it was done.
Next we took out the small tub of potato smashies. It was incredible, the potatoes vibrant with flavor, covered in fried shallot pieces, and smothered in vegan ranch sauce. While crispy and crunchy, the insides of the potatoes were yet soft and moist, just right. We were concerned that the potato flavor would not peek through the flavorings, but the potatoes were so fresh, the dish still overwhelmingly tasted of potato. Tajín seasoning added a Latin flair to the flavor; what’s more mexican than chile and lime?
The Cuban sandwich followed. This had been a favorite of one of the reviewers for years, but since embarking on a plant-based diet, it’s been little more than a memory. Mr. Dean’s take on the Cuban was incredible. A “real” Cuban sandwich is made from roasted pork, and sometimes additionally ham is thrown in. The jackfruit did not taste exactly like a pork product, but the rest of the culinary experience was right on, including overall taste and texture.
The experience was authentic, down to the fact that the sandwich was flattened using a plancha, a sort of ungrooved panini press. Overall, the Cuban sandwich was incredible, not too much pickle, not too much mustard, just enough cheese. And, the vegan butter covering the bread added even more textural authenticity, as the mouth-feel of it all was about as good as it gets.
Lastly, we opened up our Philly cheese-steak, as we each scooped up a half. Like the other sandwich, it was expertly wrapped, NYC style, and so it was easy to eat, without creating a huge mess. Of course, the challenge is not eating any paper wrapper with the sandwich, but as New Yorkers skilled in this art, neither reviewer ate even a shred of paper.
Here’s where we realized our error in our choice of which food items to eat first: The Philly cheese-steak is liberally covered in gravy, and by the time we partook of its oniony-peppery-mushroomy incredibleness, the bread was, sadly, soggy. We were both disappointed, and realized that the proper order for eating everything would have been Philly cheese-steak first, Cuban sandwich second, and then the sides. Our bad. For next time, we now know better.
Lastly, the cookies. Chewy and not-too-sweet, this was a delightful way to finish up. Usually, peanut butter added to chocolate chip cookies ruins the whole deal, as the peanut flavor drowns out everything else, but the baker was judicious in her use of peanut butter, rendering it an accent, rather than a main flavoring.
Overall, we were impressed. Vodega is a great place to dine if you’re on-the-run in Brooklyn and seeking traditional NYC bodega fare without the meat and dairy. Eating in the park was part of the excitement, but you might opt to savor the experience in your car in colder weather, especially if you’re not inclined to enjoying the brisk seaside air, or if you’re in a real hurry.
Vodega may be found online at www.v-odega.com, or you can call 347-916-0098 with any questions you may have. Catering is still available, and classes are set to resume after the COVID-19 shutown 2.0 is finished.
(Please note that there are some vegetarian options, such as real cheese, for both catering and in-store pickup; inquire for details.)