To see how Radical Eats makes those delicious fried avocado tacos, take a look through our slideshow.
Sunday brunches at Radical Eats are a sensationally mad affair. It's $12 for an all-you-can-eat buffet of vegan and gluten-free food — which is normally quite pricy in restaurants and stores — and the crush of people happy to have their gluten-free cake and eat it too is a sight to behold.
The small space off Fulton housing Radical Eats used to be a popular taqueria. And on mornings like this, it's easy to see that the spirit of the taqueria still thrives: Migas are scooped in bright yellow spoonfuls from one chafing dish, while plump tamales are doled out from another. Neither contains actual eggs or lard, but they're wolfed down by diners as if they were the real thing. In fact, one of Radical Eats's unofficial slogans is: "Don't tell anyone it's vegan."
And you'd be hard-pressed here to tell, as most of the dishes celebrate their vegetable-based origins instead of trying to mimic meat. As a result, the food is deliciously vibrant — it's easy to taste the spinach, the mushrooms, the Hatch chiles, the avocados, the okra and the other farmers' market-fresh ingredients that Radical Eats uses in its cooking, because they aren't masked by an excess of textured-vegetable protein or other meat substitutes.
My dining companion that morning was a recovering vegetarian, one who's firmly back aboard the Omnivore Express, and he wasn't too thrilled that I'd taken him to a vegan/gluten-free restaurant for brunch.
"I bet they won't even have pancakes," he muttered in the car as we pulled up. As fate would have it, Radical Eats didn't only have pancakes, it had chocolate chip pancakes. And, as a special surprise (and the only gluten-based item on the menu that day), it had excellent French toast as well, made with Slow Dough bread and served with bright agave syup. My dining partner was gobsmacked.
I get the sense that most people who see the vast brunch buffet and taste Radical Eats's food are similarly surprised by the breadth and depth of its offerings. People piled crazily on top of one another at the buffet table that morning, filling their plates over and over again until the food was gone.
The restaurant often runs out of food by 1 p.m., and suggests you get there early. I would heed this advice, as it gets busy fast. We piled atop one another in the restaurant, too: The small space still has the same layout as it did when it was a taqueria, but it lends the dining room a homespun vibe and the sense that you're eating with your extended family, or chowing down in the mess hall at camp.
In fact, being at Radical Eats feels a little like you've escaped Houston for the day — even though it's two exits north of downtown off I-45 — with its plain-Jane vegetable garden out back and dusty, bumpy roads that lead you to its welcoming front door.
"I can't believe this. I just can't believe this," my friend Jody kept repeating as we walked into Radical Eats one sunny Wednesday afternoon. The cafe was unusually quiet, and owner Staci Davis — whose bright presence usually greets guests — was nowhere to be seen. It was the first day of the new season of Urban Harvest's City Hall Farmers Market, and Davis was revisiting her roots back at the market. For a very long time, you could only get Radical Eats's famous vegan tamales at Urban Harvest markets, which is where Davis first got her start.
That's also how most people, including my friend, know Davis. To be able to finally eat Davis's food in an actual sit-down restaurant is a thing of awe for many, Jody among them. She was surprised to learn that Radical Eats had a storefront, and that the menu has been vastly expanded to include a whole host of other vegan and gluten-free offerings. We launched straight into the menu, as Jody — who specializes in vegan and gluten-free baked goods — cheerfully examined all of the offerings.
Minutes later, we were sitting at a shockingly pink table slurping freshly-made aguas frescas from wide-mouthed Bell jars. Jody had poured herself a watermelon from the selection of bottomless drinks that sit, iced down, on the counter near the cash register. I was contentedly slurping up a lemonade that wasn't quite as sweet as previous incarnations here, but was refreshing nevertheless. The drinks are always bottomless here, and if you bring champagne during brunch, Radical Eats will even do a set-up for you. The place is in the process of obtaining a liquor license, though, and hopes to add a full biergarten out back alongside its garden in the fall months.
We'd ordered chips and queso that day, an appetizer that's simultaneously easy and difficult for a vegan, gluten-free restaurant to concoct: corn chips fried in vegetable oil is the easy part. The bowl of melted "cheese" is the hard part. In fact, the tapioca flour-based queso is the only thing I've had so far here that tastes vegan, desperately in need of salt and some brightening acid. Jody agreed, demurring on how difficult it can be to find replacement ingredients in vegan/gluten-free baking as well. Much experimentation is required to achieve the correct texture and consistency, let alone taste, when creating substitutes.
Luckily, our entrées were much better. Radical Eats offers an inexpensive lunch menu, with items ranging from $5 to $7. The $6 and $7 items come with a side of rice and beans, both of which need a pinch of salt but come to life under the restaurant's housemade salsa fresca with big, nose-clearing handfuls of white onion and cilantro among the minced tomatoes. Jody had ordered a mushroom enchilada and I'd gotten a spinach quesadilla — both standard offerings at many Mexican restaurants.
And this is really why Radical Eats succeeds: Davis was smart to choose a cuisine that's inherently amenable to both vegan and gluten-free diets. Mexican food is traditionally based on rice, corn, beans and vegetables, so you don't have to alter much about a typical meal. Guacamole? Automatically vegan, automatically gluten-free. And the list goes on. The rice here is brown rice, though, fat little pearls that have the look and nutty pop of barley; the beans are refried, but of course not in lard.
Davis reworked her tortilla recipe many times after receiving a good-natured scolding from the Houston Press about their texture and propensity to fall apart. The revised tortillas are much better — and much thicker, giving a pleasantly chewy texture to my spinach quesadilla, which was filled with whole, dark green leaves of spinach. No minced, frozen stuff here.
Jody's enchilada was a bit of a letdown, however: while the mushrooms inside were thick and toothsome, the enchilada itself lacked enough of the creamy white sauce on top to keep it from drying out. And like the queso, there was a brightness missing: maybe a squeeze of citrus into the mushrooms as they cooked, or a tart vinegar note from some hot sauce would have helped. Radical Eats has a housemade salsa verde that's very good, but it will also scorch the tastebuds right off your tongue if consumed in volumes larger than a half-teaspoon. But you can't say it lacks flavor.
That was my mother's refrain as we finished a leisurely Saturday-afternoon lunch at Radical Eats last week. "Everything is so flavorful!" she kept repeating. But I'd brought out the big guns for her, knowing that she was sure to love Radical Eats's signature items: an order of fried avocado tacos, tamales and jalapeño poppers. Yes, this hippie paradise has jalapeño poppers.
The cafe was filled that afternoon, with farmers' market workers perched at some tables, families at others. Individuals worked on laptops, taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi, while others read in contemplative silence as they absentmindedly munched on veggie-filled tortas. It's a common occurrence to see one of Davis's farmers' market associates bring in extra produce, or for urban farmers to bring their bumper crops up to the restaurant for her to use. We sipped on freshly pureed cantaloupe juice as we waited for our poppers.
Those poppers come filled with vegan cream cheese, which has that same tart-sour bite but a much creamier consistency than the real thing, coated in cornmeal and fried until screamingly hot. The cornmeal batter — used here in the fried avocado and fried okra tacos, too — gives the little bites a powerful, satisfying crunch without crushing the cream cheese inside.
The tamales are still as burstingly huge as they've always been, and on a plate at lunch, you get your choice of flavors. I went with spinach and corn, both served under a generous, peppy portion of sautéed onions and tomatoes: This is the topping I would have loved to see on those enchiladas. And I don't know a Mexican in the world who would be able to tell the difference between Radical Eats's vegan masa and real, lard-based masa; Davis has her tamale recipe down to a fine science.
My avocado tacos were the star of the show as usual, however. Fat, furiously green slices of avocado are battered in that cornmeal and end up gently oozing out of their crispy skin like melting butter. They're tucked into those fluffy tortillas and topped with crunchy red cabbage slaw and a chipotle-spiked Veganaise that I wish Davis would incorporate into every dish. There's a reason these tacos hit my list of 100 Favorite Dishes this year: I would make the drive to Radical Eats for these even if Davis had decided to set up shop in Shenandoah.
Luckily, she's just down the street. And although it's a transitioning neighborhood and not in the easiest spot to find, the light rail will soon be at her front door. Just mind the construction until then, and head down Patton to Fulton for Mexican food so good, you won't want to tell your friends it's vegan.
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