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Good Seed

Dirty Burque: Fast food without the guilt.
Troy Fields

Take a sneak peek inside the food truck along with owners Matti Merrell and Rodney Perry.

On a sunny Friday afternoon, a woman stood on her tiptoes as she peered eagerly into Green Seed Vegan's tidy, cabbage-colored truck after placing her order. Green Seed's owner, Matti Merrell, chatted easily with the customer, eventually asking her: "So, are you from around here?"

"No," the woman replied. "We drove here from Galveston. I'm so excited to be here!"

Merrell erupted into peals of gleeful laughter from inside her truck. It's not unusual for people to make treks to the Third Ward for her vegan fare, but this was a longer journey than usual. Soon, the woman had armfuls of food and was heading back to her car, where her husband and toddler sat waiting. I was listening to them chatting from my car, engine off and windows down, enjoying the warm breeze on the stretch of Wheeler near Dowling where an alternative pharmacy and juice bar sits catty-corner from tumbledown fourplexes and an abandoned dry cleaner.

Since it's Houston, there is nowhere to sit and enjoy your food once you've received it from Green Seed's window — mobile food vendors are prohibited from operating within 100 feet of outdoor seating — so your options are to eat sitting in patchy grass next to the truck, have lunch in your own car or to take your food to go. The latter is what most people end up doing.

Green Seed Vegan's truck is parked here every single day. It's almost a de facto to-go window or drive-up restaurant in that way, a modern-day drive-in sans the carhops. Merrell will often bring the food out to you if you're waiting in your car, and you can text or call ahead for curbside pickup. I hadn't done either that day, but was content to wait for my Dirty Burque and enjoy the sunshine.

I unwrapped my hot little burger almost as quickly as Merrell handed it to me; you could smell the spices of the warm patty even through the foil, and I was suddenly starving.

Unlike bean- or tofu-based patties, Green Seed's veggie burger is mostly buckwheat, a pseudo-cereal that's high in protein and better known as kasha (as in kasha varnishkas), the base of Japanese soba noodles. The patty is made from scratch — like everything else here — and naturally gluten-free. The buckwheat patty is studded with colorful chunks of vegetables, from orange bell peppers to green flares of bright cilantro. On top of the patty were a few buttery slices of avocado, peppery arugula, raw white onion, a tangy spread of egg-free mayonnaise and a New Mexican-style green chile sauce whose tartness was cut with a sly heat.

With a carbonated bottle of Kickin Kombucha — locally made, like nearly everything sold at Green Seed Vegan — replacing a sugary soda, and this veggie sandwich replacing a greasy burger, it was a fast-food meal I felt good about eating. And, more importantly, it tasted wonderful — well-seasoned, with a texture that was close enough to a real burger to almost trick the tongue. Because who cares how good the food is for you if it tastes like sawdust?
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I find that it's this very quandary that keeps people away from vegan food, and what draws me to it at the same time. It's relatively easy to make a great steak: Meat, with all its fat and sodium and glorious richness, tastes inherently good. It's much more difficult to make a good vegan meal, now more than ever.

Our tastebuds have been so saturated over the years with high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils and other processed food ingredients that it's difficult for a typical meat-and-potatoes eater to appreciate the simplicity of steamed kale or an unadorned sweet potato. It's not their fault, and it's not the fault of the vegetables, which taste exactly as nature intended them to.

It's the fault of our agriculture-industrial complex, which — for all its many conveniences — has dumbed down much of the processed foods we eat every day and narrowed our typically available produce range such that many people wouldn't know a persimmon or a rutabaga if they saw it. That's one of the struggles that vegan restaurants face, the other being burned-out tastebuds that can no longer enjoy a salad unless it's doused with ranch dressing.

And that's where Matti Merrell and her husband — and Green Seed's co-owner — Rodney Perry come in. They actively seek to educate their patrons in a fun, easygoing way at the same time as they push the envelope in terms of what "vegan food" is. Vegan food here is never boring, and it's never bland. Instead, these two native Houstonians draw on their Southern heritage to create the kind of food that they themselves would have willingly eaten, pre-vegetarian days. (Both have been vegetarians since 2001.)

This is best showcased in Green Seed Vegan's weekly Saturday brunch at Eat Gallery, an art space just down the street on Almeda that does double duty as a cafe. Starting at 11 a.m. each Saturday, friends and followers flood the bright, cheerful space and cozy themselves into wooden benches as Merrell unveils that day's all-you-can-eat brunch. Last weekend, she'd made a feast: butternut squash casserole with pumpkin, cranberries and crunchy pumpkin seeds on top, flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves; chicken-fried-esque cauliflower in a savory, crispy batter; quinoa scramble with warm cumin and bell peppers; braised Swiss chard in a raspberry-balsamic vinaigrette; and pumpkin French toast with agave nectar.

The $20 eat-till-you're-stuffed brunch also comes with a kombucha mimosa, which combines the carbonated, fermented tea with fresh-squeezed orange juice. I ordered a latte as well, which comes with your choice of almond, rice or coconut milk. The smiling young man behind the register pleaded with me to try the coconut milk — it's his favorite, he said — and I acquiesced, much to my eventual satisfaction. As those who cook with it know, coconut milk provides that rich, creamy feel and flavor of heavy cream without the lactose.

This Saturday vegan brunch — much like the Sunday brunch at Radical Eats — feels more like a brunch among family and friends than strangers, and it's difficult to walk out of Eat Gallery without wanting to return the week after. Or without wanting to line up again at Green Seed Vegan when it reopens the following Tuesday.
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Sure enough, the next Tuesday, there I was again. I'd brought along a coworker this time, and we gave the menu a long perusal before finally ordering; when the food's as good as it is at Green Seed Vegan, it's difficult to choose just one thing.

I settled on a Tosh, a panini with maple-jerk-flavored tempeh (a non-soy tempeh, it should be noted, made by Merrell herself), caramelized plantains, spinach and jerk-seasoned aioli. The panini bread here is thin and grilled inside and out, giving a nice little crunch to the sandwich, and the sweetness of the plantains was matched pound-for-pound by the garlic, allspice and all-around heat of the jerk seasoning. (If you're determined to make your meal gluten-free as well, you can also get any of the paninis or burgers in a collard wrap.)

My coworker went for the Illy Cheesesteak in a long, fluffy white baguette, spilling over with fat slices of grilled portobello mushrooms, caramelized onions and vegan cheese. It tasted as though the portobello and onions had been grilled together, the soft smoke of the grill infusing the onions and the sweetness of the caramelized onions taking its turn with the mushrooms. I've become a fan of Daiya, the vegan cheese, ever since tasting it on a slice at Zpizza — it's so rich and so eager to melt atop hot foods, it's tough to tell it's vegan.

We each got a kale salad, and I grabbed a side of fries. While I wasn't impressed with the fries — the underwhelming dill seasoning wasn't up to Green Seed's typical flavor standards — I ate the kale salad with the kind of wild abandon I had for my very first, authentically prepared Caesar salad. Crispy roughage was verdant and perky under a tangy, creamy, salty dressing that removed any vestiges of the kale's bitterness.

We drove away that day with fresh juices for dessert, bolstering us against the gloomy mid-afternoon rain and brightening our spirits. Green Seed Vegan has a way of doing that, whether it's with a satisfying burger or a genuine smile from Merrell herself. It's tough to feel bad after eating here, and that's not something you can say about many places. I can only imagine what good Merrell and Perry will do once they launch their long-term dream of a full-scale vegan restaurant. For now, though, I'm happy just to have the couple and their tiny truck on Wheeler.

katharine.shilcutt@houstonpress.com


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