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RED BANK: GOOD OLD VEGAN ‘COMFORT FOOD’

Gail Doherty with a hot tray of “magic cookies,” made with pecans, chocolate chips, carrot and coconut. Below, she and employee Allison Kennedy work quickly to fill orders during the lunch rush. (Photos by Danielle Tepper. Click to enlarge)

By DANIELLE TEPPER

Nearly three years after opening, Red Bank’s Good Karma Café has put to rest many misconceptions about vegan dining, including that it’s unsatisfying “rabbit food.”

Smaller than many suburban living rooms at just 900 square feet, the cozy East Front Street restaurant caters to a mix of regulars, pilgrims and the just-curious, serving up hearty dishes along with answers to some burning questions:

Is it more expensive to eat vegan? How is protein supplemented? What does tofu taste like?

“We’re not bringing you in with any kind of dogma,” said co-owner Gail Doherty. “There’s no agenda other than serving you some yummy food while maybe squashing some stereotypes.”

Good Karma’s most popular dish, the Love Bowl. Below, Doherty prepares some blazing hot tempeh buffalo wings. (Photos by Danielle Tepper. Click to enlarge)

Though they attended at different times, both Doherty and partner Tiffany Betts graduated from the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City. They spent six years together at the popular and pioneering Down to Earth vegan eatery in a basement on Broad Street – Doherty was a co-owner with Lacey Sher, and Betts was an intern – and went their separate ways in 2006, Doherty to Asheville, North Carolina, and Betts to start a family and work at a vegan restaurant in Belmar.

But after a few years, Doherty found herself drawn back to the area, and decided to create a new beginning.

“People think you have to escape to be successful, but what are you trying to get away from?” she said. “I realized I wanted to come back, and it kind of just happened.”

“When she told me she was moving back to New Jersey and wanted to open another restaurant, I just knew we should do it together,” said Betts. “I was ready to get back into it.”

How’s it working out? “We’re loving it,” said Doherty. “The response has always been positive, but whereas people didn’t really know what vegan was back then, they get it now.”

Before going full vegan, Betts became a vegetarian at just 16 years old. “I became very passionate about animal rights,” said Betts, while Doherty says that she came to that position over time.

“I really just didn’t like meat,” said Doherty. “But at some point it did hit me: I don’t want to contribute to the suffering of anything if there’s no need. I don’t like the karma connected to something dying for me to eat.”

Doherty said that while animal rights play a part, that’s not the only reason veganism is spreading. “It’s much healthier for you, plus less taxing on the earth and the environment. We’re showing people every day that they can eat delicious food without that side effect. It’s awesome.”

Good Karm’s menu is varied and extensive, and comes with a full glossary for newbies. “We want people to be comfortable,” said Doherty. “We tell our staff not to act like everybody knows what everything is. We want first-timers to know that they can ask questions.”

In the process, the owners are knocking down some stigmas, including one that vegans are ascetics.

“Do I look like I’m wasting away?” joked Doherty. “My dad used to say elephants are vegetarians too. We believe in big portions here. We want you satisfied after a meal. We come from a comfort food standpoint by offering home-style and traditional things like burgers, cheesesteak, and pizza.”

An “earth burger” is described on the menu as “homemade tofu, sunflower seeds and brown rice patty baked until golden.” The “live” pizza – meaning it hasn’t been heated above 108 degrees – is made with homemade raw crackers topped with sundried tomato marinara, cashew nut cheese, marinated dark greens and shredded zucchini, all topped with walnut sprinkle cheese.

A glance at the menu reveals items such as pineapple mango tempeh, live lasagna, and a grilled Portobello sandwich. There are “munchies” like steamed edamame beans and desserts like hempseed chocolate chip cookies. The most popular dish, according to Doherty, is the Love Bowl: sautéed seasonal greens, brown rice, black beans, and choice of tofu or tempeh, topped with either Thai coconut, spicy peanut or sweet mustard sauce.

“We’re cooking food we’d want to eat ourselves,” said Doherty. “Everything is 90-percent organic and we always try to buy locally.”

The café opens at noon, but the all-vegetarian staff is hard at work as early as 8 a.m. to do the prep work. “Everything is made from scratch, so our prep time is very different from that of a meat-serving place,” she said. “Our ‘meat’ is a white blob that we’re trying to turn into a burger or a wing. But people like it!”

“It’s great to see how many people are open to eating vegan food and are enjoying it,” said Betts.

Doherty agreed, “There’s such hope for the future of vegetarianism. Everyone who eats it is like, ‘I didn’t know it could be so good.’ We always say you don’t have to be a vegetarian to like good food.”

Good Karma Café is open from 12 to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday – and FYI, is currently looking for a full-time server. Apply in person at 17 East Front Street.

Gail Doherty and Lacey Sher’s You Won’t Believe It’s Vegan! cookbook is available on Amazon.

FUN FACT

What is the difference between the two primary meat substitutes, tofu and tempeh?

Tofu: Soybeans are squeezed and drained. The liquid is blended with a coagulant to create a milky texture, then fermented and turned into a spongy cake.

Tempeh
: The whole soybean is fermented and pressed into a more compact cake. This resembles more of a whole food and is therefore the healthier of the two.

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