DON'T BE A CHICK'N: Fried cauliflower on Texas toast. Brian Chilson

I’ll admit it — sometimes, I seek out vegan food a bit like a pre-Reformation Catholic buying an indulgence. And it’s usually because I’ve been indulgent. My dad has taken up the hobby of charcuterie in his retirement, so if I visit my parents for the weekend, I’ll be feted with all manner of sausages for the stay. As much as my conscience increasingly rejects America’s meat-industrial complex, I can’t say no to him because, since the 2016 election, food remains one of the last few subjects on which we can safely converse. And so, when I’m back in Little Rock, I make amends by hauling my sinful husk over for lunch at the River Market’s Blue Sage Vegan Bistro, hoping that any money spent there somehow balances the scales a bit (or at least eases the weight on my bathroom scale somewhat).

The first time I went, I chose the “Don’t Be a Chick’n” sandwich. My colleague Stephanie Smittle has already raved about this, but it bears a repeat description. Take a large cross-section of cauliflower, bread it, deep-fry it and serve it on Texas toast with a tomato, a cabbage leaf and a nice drizzle of aioli. This sandwich will quickly disabuse you of the notion that vegan food primarily consists of the sort of thin and tasteless victuals served in the poorer districts of Rivendell by wan, albino elves. This sandwich is Blue Sage’s “War and Peace,” and about as thick as a copy of that Tolstoy book. A masterpiece, and all the more so because it is unabashedly meatless.

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Speaking of cauliflower, another of Blue Sage’s signature dishes is its “bytes and side.” These are deep-fried stalks of cauliflower breaded and flavored like hot wings and served with spiral-out fries or tater tots. The hot wings are delicious, while the spiral-out fries, though abundant, run a bit thin, so that the dominant taste is one of the crispy exterior, losing the flavor of the potato. If you ask nicely, you can get a squirt of aioli over your fries or tots rather than a side of ketchup. (Call me un-American, but I can’t stand ketchup.)

Their other dishes on offer include various meat substitutes, and though I normally eschew the crutch of meat-like substances (why don’t more vegans embrace curries?), many of these actually transcend that sense of artificiality surrounding meatless burgers and sausages and the like. In fact, Blue Sage offers a vegan sloppy joe that is practically indistinguishable from the real thing. Sloppy joes have never been the stuff of refined taste, so why not eat this one? There is also a breakfast sandwich with a meatless sausage served on a large bagel with tomato and spinach; it’s a hefty enough sandwich to make a decent lunch, too.

Brian Chilson
CHICKEN FRIED STEAK: A breaded vegan patty.

However, my favorite — aside from the “Don’t Be a Chick’n” sandwich — is the chicken-fried steak. This is a patty of vegan hamburger, deep-fried, served on a hamburger bun with tomato and red cabbage, topped with aioli. It’s a good, hefty sandwich, the sort of thing that satisfies both the stomach and the conscience. Blue Sage also serves up a Philly “cheezesteak” sandwich, which one can order with lots of jalapenos and a grilled “cheeze” sandwich, as well as the occasional special, such as a burrito stuffed with either vegan steak or hamburger. Blue Sage’s social media also showcases other specials, such as vegan waffles or cheesecake. Somehow, I missed those, but they look delicious. All the dishes at Blue Sage are served up in easily recyclable containers rather than the styrofoam typical of most RiverMarket eateries, salving the conscience even further.

Look, I know some of you reading this probably have an allergic reaction to the words “vegan” or “vegetarian.” I, too, was raised in a rather traditional Southern family that considers such vegetarian pretensions as not only strange but also somewhat rude, constituting a rejection of the one thing around which relatives of all different stripes can gather — namely, food. And yes, there can be an uncritical moralism adhering to a lot of vegan culture. Sure, you didn’t kill a cow for your lunch, but how many acres of wildlife were displaced to grow the soybeans making up that vegan burger? How much unclean energy was used to press all that plant matter into some kind of patty that mimics traditional meat just enough to make it palatable even to vegans?

Brian Chilson

I get all that. But here’s the thing about what Blue Sage serves up — it’s good eating. One of its sandwiches both delights the mouth and fills the belly. No, the meatless patties used in many of their dishes don’t stand out like a traditional burger might, but that lets the other ingredients come to the fore, so you start to appreciate the juiciness of that slice of tomato or the crunch of the cabbage. It fills the belly, and it tastes fresh. And if you’ve just spent the weekend scarfing down tubes of pig meat because you can’t talk politics with your dad anymore, well, it will leave you with a cleaner conscience and a healthier feeling coursing through your body. Consider that an added benefit to going vegan, even if you do it only for lunch.