The chef knows this look well.
For three minutes of a post-lunch lull late on a Thursday afternoon, Yah-I Ausar Tafari Amen has patiently stood behind the bar of Vegan Flava Cafe, his palms spread flat against the marbled emerald laminate countertops. He stares at me, his eyes wide as he waits for me to scoop one of the curled green lettuce leaves from the paper plate he's delivered.
When I do, he smiles preemptively, expecting what's next. I take a bite, look down, take another and finally look up at Ausar while smiling incredulously. His grin is so wide now it seems to dip into the hairnet that's nestled beneath his beard.
"That's the reason we're in business," Ausar explains, laughing. "That's what started it all."
Ausar begins to tell me about a conference in Raleigh years ago. His second wife, Ma'at em Maakheru Amen, was selling Whatz In Your Womb, her book "about the energy we carry around and how we pass it back and forth," he says. The book helped him understand how humans relate to one another and how we affect each other's mood; the theories apply to war and peace, sex and peace, he says at the start of a very long tangent.
An on-again, off-again vegan who had worked at a series of health food stores in Atlanta, Philadelphia, his Brooklyn hometown and in Chapel Hill, Ausar brought some of the tuna salad he had been making for himself at home to the conference. Except there was no tuna, nothing even resembling fish—only carrots, ground into a pulp and reconstituted into a paste with spices, seaweed, egg-free mayonnaise and residual carrot juice.
At the conference, Ausar had stepped outside only to return and find a line had formed, the folks waiting not for the book but for a serving. That's the first time he knew he should start a restaurant.
Today, mesmerized by the flavor to the point of confusion, frozen in a stupid smile, I reaffirm the decision. I ask him how he does it, and as soon as he starts talking, I begin eating again. By the time I'm finished, maybe 45 seconds later, he's still discussing the reason he didn't add carrot juice this time.
I never loved tuna, and I've been known to loathe a carrot. But I would eat this meal until the sun sets over Vegan Flava Cafe, one of the Triangle's best new restaurants.
"I'm glad you like it," he finally says, smile still intact. "Bless you."
Ausar and a small team opened Vegan Flava Cafe in a strip mall on the southwestern fringes of Durham late this summer, after spending several years running a popular food trailer at the Durham Farmers Market. Just off a frontage road that juts from congested U.S. 15-501, the restaurant sits alongside a panaderia and barbershop and around the corner from an instrument store, a tailor and a tattoo parlor.
Vegan Flava Cafe seems to crouch beneath the weight of a massive billboard just overhead. Its bright pink color and adult-sized letters advertise affordable "family dental care," dwarfing the restaurant's own hand-painted sign to the point I only notice its diminutive palm trees when leaving for the second time.
Vegan Flava occupies the former space of Blue Note Grill, the bar, rock club and restaurant that has since relocated to downtown Durham. Inside, it still recalls the former tenants. The concrete floors are painted and scuffed, and the bar—with its stainless steel taps sitting fallow in the temporarily alcohol-free restaurant—seems to exist now only because it used to. An Anubis tapestry covers most of one wall, and four pieces of currency (from Brazil, the United States, Uganda and Kenya) hang behind the bar.
A small glass case, catawampus and neglected at one end of the bar, holds a kit for making at home the same Kangen Alkaline Water—that is, water whose pH has been boosted for purported, if debated, health benefits—that Vegan Flava uses in every dish it serves.
Just beyond a small dining room, there's a small lounge with a long brown couch, and then another rectangular "art gallery," where hangings of Bob Marley and bright scenes reside in small frames. On a Friday night, pairs square off over games of chess in the colorful room after lessons earlier in the evening; in the dining room, young poets arrive for a reading.
If the restaurant feels casually furnished, even accidentally so, the menu does not. It is intentional and limited, eschewing the flowery or technical explanations one might expect from a healthy emporium with new-age aims like this one. The half-dozen entrees include several wraps, either with the carrot "tuna," an almond-based "seafood salad" or a simple panoply of crisp vegetables, wrapped in collards, seaweed or lettuce. There are tacos—where the typical seasoning has been ground deep into pureed walnuts—a daily special, a side or two and a few desserts. There is a Sunday brunch, too.