Breakfast Heroes is a new series that highlights the people around the world who make breakfast an experience, instead of just a meal. If you know a chef, a barista, or even a chatty regular at your favorite diner you'd like to profile, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
At 3 p.m. on a recent Tuesday afternoon, the vegan restaurant City O'City in Denver, CO was pretty full of customers. Plates of green chili-topped huevos rancheros and breakfast sandwiches with fries made their way to various tables, and nearly every stool at the bar was occupied by millennials chatting away, doing shots, and enjoying some freedom in the middle of the week. The Cure's 1992 album Wish played loud and clear but not at such a booming volume that I couldn't hear chefs Dave Grant and Nick Anderson wax poetically about whipping up the restaurant's addictive vegetarian and vegan breakfast menu. That's right, the food here proves totally habit-forming, a real feat considering so many vegan-focused restaurants get a bad rap as being too granola, too bland, and overall boring.
"My specialty is vegan nostalgia items like chicken and waffles," says Grant, who is a vegan and has been cooking this type of food for about 13 years. He says the trick to making vegan comfort food is to recreate the original dish as much as possible without using animal byproducts. That means when you take something like their popular "chicken" and waffles, the chive crème fraîche that comes on the side is made from a coconut-based, dairy-free yogurt; and the piece of crunchy bacon sticking out of it is actually a dehydrated stripe of dark-orange carrot. Even the fried cauliflower used as the "chicken" was chosen for its hearty texture, bone-like ribs and the way it stands up to frying.
While Grant and Anderson have perfected this classic dish, they also have created a whole menu of crave-worthy vegan and vegetarian options such as chilaquiles, biscuits and gravy, "eggs" sardou, tempeh bacon hash, and four kinds of waffles. They also do seasonal French toast, a personal favorite of Grant's and one that has included fresh loaves of stollen and pumpkin bread. Save for the biscuits and French toast, many of the dishes prove gluten-free as well.
Though meat eaters might be shaking their heads as they cling to that slab of bacon, the food at City O'City proves darn tasty and good enough for everyone to enjoy. After all, the chefs wanted to create a menu of comforting eats that concentrated more on pleasing the brain and taste buds than the super healthy hippie food that most people associate with a vegan diet.
"I wanted to make sure the menu wasn't alienating like some vegan and vegetarian menus can be," says the 33-year-old Grant. "After all, we still have eggs so it's not too strange."
Both chefs took over the 10-year-old kitchen at about the same time in 2015. Grant came on as chef de cuisine after a long stint at WaterCourse Foods, City O' City's sister restaurant. Anderson joined the team after a stint cooking in Australia and became head chef shortly after Grant. Though the two chefs have their proper titles, they work more as a team. This method pans out well for the chefs since Grant often tours out-of-state with his hardcore band, Of Feather and Bone.
Grant, who has been vegan for over a decade, started cooking in order to recreate the dishes he would cook with his grandmother, only without meat. He started playing with lentils in lieu of ground beef; used mushroom powder to give vegetables an umami flavor; and started employing seitan religiously. Another motivation for his move to the kitchen, a lack of vegan options in Denver and the desire to eat things other than stir-fry.
For the 29-year-old Anderson, it was love that drove his plant-based diet. "I am the meat-and-potatoes child of two North Dakota transplants, and I literally didn't eat vegetables, besides corn, potatoes and condiments, until high school," he says. "I was still wrapping everything in bacon and cooking in butter until I was 26 and met my partner who hasn't had meat since she was 11-years-old." Anderson's views changed after learning about the commercial farming industry and he was set on boycotting it. Of course, not eating meat is a big part of that. "However, I still don't consider myself a vegetarian as I believe food is a huge part of culture," he adds. "So, when I'm traveling I do my best to see and try everything I can."
Both of the chefs' love for vegan food show through the cooking. The gluten-free, vegan waffles are studded with carrot and zucchini and taste so fresh, you would never miss the buttermilk. Add a beaker of bourbon-laced syrup and the dish becomes even better. Another innovative item that will fill you up as much as a lumberjack breakfast can be found in the form of Venezuelan-style arepas: corn cakes studded with poblano peppers get topped with refried black beans, vegan chipotle aioli, red chile sauce and avocado.
To say these guys are working some breakfast magic is an understatement, a fact you can see just by walking in the door of City O'City morning, noon, and night.