Veggin’ Out at Mooney’s Mediterranean Café in Winston-Salem, NC!
Step into Mooney’s off of fourth street in Winston-Salem and the first thing you’ll notice is the chic interior for such a quaint little café. Actually, if you’re there during the middle of lunch, like my dining partner and I, the first thing you’ll notice is that it’s jam-packed and you’ll worry about your chances of getting a table. Luckily we snagged one of two vacant ones in the house; business is bustling and turnover is fast during lunch, where mostly business people from downtown are on their lunch breaks.
During lunch, customers order at the counter from the menu above it written in chalk on a blackboard. With tons of options–vegan, vegetarian, and meaty, too–in small handwriting and the long line that was moving fast, I didn’t have long to deliberate and quickly picked something that sounded vegan and delicious: the Tempeh Pita.
During my lengthy conversation with owner Ameen David, I learned that my wrap was developed by a strict vegan employee, Stephen (minus his consumption of two eggs a week per doctor’s orders, Ameen recalls). The Tempeh Pita isn’t the only menu item developed by his employees. Leah, one of Mooney’s servers, and her boyfriend, a chef at a neighboring downtown restaurant, suggested that Ameen start using olive oil rather than butter in the couscous when they became vegan. He listened. And every time his wife saw him, Ameen says, he was eating this sandwich that wasn’t on the menu. “What is that?” she asked. Thus the Falafel Burger, the brainchild of an employee named Scott, was born.
He gets local, organic vegetables when he can; he seasonally buys from the Cobblestone Market, especially his turnips and green onions. Ameen tells me that Mooney’s is the largest consumer of turnips and eggplants in the city! Because they go through so much, he tells me, organic lettuce is prohibitively expensive for their purposes. Looking at the number of customers in and out, wraps in hand, I’d imagine he’s not far from the largest lettuce consumer.
“I’ve tried specifically to cater to vegans and vegetarians from the beginning,” says Ameen, “even though I’m not a vegan or a vegetarian. I’ve got to respect the commitment they’ve made. It’s a free will thing.” Thus, all his grilled vegetables are cooked on a clean grill in the morning before grilling the meat, and then reheated in their own saucepan on the side for each individual dish. The fryer, which uses rice bran oil, is totally vegetarian.
And there’s a story behind that: Ameen purchased Mooney’s when it was a Middle Eastern restaurant that did a lot of fried American food but made very little of their Middle Eastern food from scratch. Slowly he introduced more authentic, house-made dishes and cut out the American junk food. When he began, he originally kept the small wok vegetarian and used the fryer for meats. After he introduced Falafel Tuesdays, his falafel became so popular that he needed to use the fryer for his vegetarian dishes, so he had to try and cook chicken tenders in the wok. And that’s how chicken tenders were eliminated from the menu and authentic vegan and vegetarian food began to usurp the junk food.
“So who’s the chef?” I ask. He tells me there is no chef. My mind is blown. He explains that he and his mother-in-law are Lebanese, and that most of the recipes are hers, and he decides how to make them marketable. “We work together.” He describes her as the generator of ideas, and himself as “the chopping block”. But I’m not letting him fool me; his smart, slow transition from hotdog-and-hamburger-joint-with-baba-ganoush-from-a-can-on-the-side to authentic, affordable Mediterranean and Middle Eastern café that has table service at night suggests a certain creativity to his business acumen.
Ameen’s presence at the counter, his waves and “hellos” and “goodbyes” to his regulars, suggest a hard-working, down-to-earth attitude. His marketing savvy combined with his mother-in-law’s fabulous food put together by “these bright young guys” leads to a collaborative environment that is pervasive. He’s quick to give credit to “Uncle Freddie”, one of his prep cooks, and Dillon, who orders a lot of the food.
The collaboration has led to one heck of a menu. The current menu has too many vegan and vegetarian items to list, ranging from $6 (the falafel wraps) to $13 (the tempeh platter).
The coleslaw does have mayo, and so, of course, does the garlic mayonnaise; both of these condiments appear on a wrap or two but they are easily left off or replaced by “tatoura”, the delicious sesame sauce of my Tempeh Pita.
Not only are there multiple vegan sandwich and wrap options, Ameen tells me that every item on the Mezza list, nine in total, is vegan (sans the feta cheese on the couscous salad, which is easily left off). You pick four of these dishes—including classsics and twists on classics like lentil soup, tabouli, baba ganoush, mousaka, and fittoush—for a sampler platter of $9.
Eyeing others’ mezza plates, I decided this was a very reasonable price for the amount and variety of (vegan!) food. The reason he doesn’t label these “vegan” or have a vegan or vegetarian section on his menu, Ameen says, is for two reasons : 1. Anything labeled “vegan” seems to scare meat-eaters off, and 2. “A lettuce, tomato, cheese, and mayo sandwich” derived from leaving off the hamburger isn’t an exciting vegetarian dish. He wants to have dishes where no one thinks: what’s missing? He wants dishes that stand on their own, are vegetarian or vegan, and “were never meant to be anything but.” Amen, Ameen!
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