Last week, I read a bizarrely mean-spirited and pointless editorial in the Detroit Free Press, bemoaning the fact that Lansing is the capital of Michigan and generally expressing how terrible our city is. Obviously, I disagree vehemently. I don’t feel like the editorial in question should be dignified with much more of a response than what has already been written by my friend and Lansing State Journal columnist Graham Couch, but it did make me ruminate on something that has been on my mind: the state of downtown Lansing.
Downtown has gone through so many changes in a short period of time. When I was a Cooley Law School student around 2010, downtown was in a heyday. Thousands of young adults packed downtown restaurants and bars most nights. Now Cooley enrollment has plummeted, the pandemic sent many state of Michigan workers into permanent home or hybrid workspaces, and downtown needs time to pivot and recover.
Of course, we all want to see that recovery and help facilitate it. To that end, I have redoubled my focus on supporting downtown businesses. My 6-year-old son loves to visit downtown to look at the giant Christmas tree, eat fries at Weston’s Kewpee Sandwich Shop and select a few treats from the Peanut Shop. I recently relocated my law practice to the firm of Foster Swift, a cornerstone of downtown Lansing, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s incumbent upon all of us to put our money where our mouth is and spend at least a fraction of our time and money in downtown Lansing. I can give you a list of favorites, but the cream of my crop are Sultan’s Express, the New Daily Bagel and my new obsession, Veg Head.
For those of us who care, Veg Head’s online ordering system is intuitive, user-friendly and sends you a text when your food is ready.
I know cauliflower has become a substitute for borderline insane things, like waffles and mashed potatoes, but to be fair, the little guys have a ton of texture if you treat them right and can be extremely satisfying. This is why I’m hard-pressed to order anything other than the Cauliflower Street Tacos ($10) when I go to Veg Head. They’re incredibly nuanced — not only spicy but rich and so satisfying. The creamy avocado pairs perfectly with the spicy, fresh salsa verde, and you could put pickled onions on an old shoe and I’d eat it. If you’re vegan-curious but don’t know where to start, don’t hesitate to dive into these tacos.
If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, try the Nashville Tofu Sandwich ($12). I love tofu because, again, the texture is incredible if you know how to prepare it. The extra water should be pressed out, and only then can you expect perfectly crisp tofu. The Nashville sandwich gives me that big-lunch vibe that I want from a sandwich, but it’s a fraction as heavy in my stomach as a burger would be. The fries are, without fail, crispy, salty and well-seasoned.
December is prime time for holiday lunches, and treats lurk around every corner in my office. Sometimes I just need a filling lunch that isn’t going to make me want to crawl under my desk and rest my eyes. In that scenario, the Roasted Chickpea or Cauliflower bowls ($12) are perfect. Both bowls are packed with fresh ingredients, brimming with quinoa and a dressing of your choice. I’ve had them both on repeat, and it doesn’t show signs of stopping.
A few years ago, Mr. She Ate and I took a trip to Tucson, Arizona, and visited an amazing vegan Mexican restaurant. We were blown away by the jackfruit tacos, and he was eager to try Veg Head’s barbecue jackfruit sandwich ($10). He devoured it, proclaimed himself satisfied and requested a return visit.
The Free Press writer might have an axe to grind with our fair city, but we know better. She thinks Lansing residents don’t clap back when people criticize our town and claims that we instead tacitly agree. Maybe the real reason is that we don’t need to clap back. We know about our taco trucks, our Lugnuts, our River Trail. We know about snow tubing at Hawk Island Park and eating Mr. Leslie’s Cheesecakes. We don’t argue, because you don’t engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed opponent.
Downtown Lansing has seen its share of ups and downs over the years. The late ‘90s and early 2000s saw a renewed energy for property revitalization, starting in Old Town and spreading along the Michigan Avenue corridor to include Washington Square. At the same time, Cooley Law School’s enrollment was at a peak, and, coupled with the usual politico and government foot traffic, the area’s heartbeat started to pulse. Lunch time was bustling; happy hour offered several options, including a few with patio or sidewalk seating; and the occasional festival, like Blues on the Square, gave young professionals and the older guard a feeling that Lansing was becoming a happening place.
All this excitement came to a screeching halt when back-to-back summers were the victim of sewer separation projects, and commercial momentum was largely lost when several businesses closed their doors. Fast forward to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left downtown struggling again for many years.
This is the context in which chef Kari Magee and business partner Shawn Elliott opened Veg Head on South Washington Square. The former Michigan State University executive chef brings a fresh perspective on vegan fare to support locavores who have been patiently waiting for quality healthy-eating options. During my visits, the buzzing lunch crowds energetically filled up tables and lined up to order takeout. Sadly, the dinner crowd was sparse, mirroring several other downtown establishments that offer good food but no alcohol. Veg Head’s team members, however, are as pleasant as they are knowledgeable about their craft, delightful in both regards. The chill vibe inside the restaurant provides a cool space to meet a friend for a bite, and my good friend Fred obliged to join me on a new vegan journey.
The Loaded Fries ($12) came with a house-made non-dairy cheese sauce that, by itself, was remarkable. By taste alone, I had no idea it wasn’t cheese. However, the fries were rather limp, perhaps from the sauce, but more likely just a floppy cut. The Roasted Brussels Sprouts ($12) were decent enough, but as someone who orders them often, I was hoping to be wowed by the Veg Head version. The spice from the harissa was welcome, and the crumbled “cheese” was also pleasant, but the sprouts seemed to be missing something, and I’m not talking about the pumpkin seeds that adorned the dish.
What’s really good
The Cauliflower Wings ($12) come dressed in either barbecue, ranch or Nashville hot sauce. I chose Nashville hot with a side of ranch. The batter was crispy and lighter than tempura, and, thankfully, the spice was not overwhelming to the palette. The Battered Portobello Mushrooms ($12) had a different batter than the wings, but both were very tasty. The mushroom batter was crunchier, accommodating the super soft texture of the fungus inside. The wings’ accompanying ranch dressing was very herbaceous, perhaps overly so, but the pub sauce served with the mushrooms was spot-on — a creamy, remoulade-esque non-dairy pairing.
The Buffalo Chikn Salad ($12) was very good. Mounds of lettuce, celery, cucumbers and pickled onions anchored generous slices of plant-based chicken. The crispy chicken batter necessitated another delicious round of Nashville hot sauce, and the ranch dressing here furnished complex notes of yumminess, playing well with the hint of bitterness from the onions.
The Signature Sweet Potato Burger ($12) was an herb-infused, grilled patty with rich and creamy textures from the sweet potato. The consistency was surprisingly sound, with a crunch from the grilled surface. The burger was served with Greek tzatziki sauce, pickled onions and lettuce. Though a tad sweet, it was a seriously good sandwich.
My buddy Fred loved the Classic Cheeseburger ($12). After the first bite, he set it back down on his plate and said, “C’mon, man! That’s not a real burger?” Each subsequent bite produced a similar disbelieving reaction. He’d tried several black-bean burgers before, but none got the feel and flavor correct like Veg Head’s.
Elliott came over to check on us and reminded us that the cheese wasn’t cheese. Fred’s mind was blown. I’d tried the burger before when Veg Head catered the grand opening of Moneyball Sportswear’s headquarters in Lansing and was equally impressed, even in a catered setting. Fred and I walked out of the restaurant, and he said, “I’m thinking about that burger like I think about a lost love.”
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