Souley Vegan, located at Broadway and 3rd Street in downtown Oakland, conjures up a sense of Southern comfort with murals of jazz artists like Louis Armstrong and Big Mama Thornton covering the walls. The air is scented by the steaming gravy wafting off the top of one patron’s mashed potatoes. Blues tunes carry over the entire seating area and bar, as does the sizzling of something frying in a batter: tofu.
All the items prepared at Souley Vegan are just that: solely vegan. That means they contain no animal products such as milk or eggs.
Owner Tamearra Dyson, an Oakland native and vegan since the age of 16, grew up on her mother’s soul food but wanted to adapt it to vegan recipes that she felt were healthier. Dyson remembers the exact moment she became a vegan: “I was eating a piece of chicken and all of the sudden I just had this epiphany – I’m eating meat off of a bone. It really thoroughly disgusted me all of a sudden, and I did not eat meat after that.”
Dyson’s restaurant offers a full menu from which customers can pick and choose items for their combination plates—from BBQ tofu to potato salad, collard greens, tofu-based tartar sauce, or cheese-less cheesecake. Patrons can try Southern classics that Dyson has reinvented, like a mac and cheese made from nutritional yeast-based cheese, yams baked with agave and organic raw sugar, or squares of cornbread, which crumble under their own weight as eager eaters use them to mop up the last of their BBQ sauce.
The bar serves specialty cocktails, some southern-inspired like the Cayenne Lemonade, as well as originals like the Pretty Lady cocktail which bartender Jenn Antry, 24, shakes up regularly.
One of the most popular dishes is the Southern fried tofu, which is battered, seasoned and fried. “Some people say it reminds them of catfish, some people say chicken,” said Dyson, 36. Her warm smile looks just like the one in the old family photos of her as a child adorning the walls. She sweeps two tightly-coiled black curls out of her face, collecting herself during another busy weekday in the kitchen. A self-described “old soul” who appreciates history, Dyson looks excitedly around as she points out facets of her own family history that line the walls. Her grandfather moved to Oakland from Louisiana when he was 18 to work as a landscaper and acquired property throughout Oakland. “He was a workaholic,” Dyson said proudly. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat. It was very cut and dry with him.”
Tattooed hipsters and elderly churchgoers alike pour in for Dyson’s soul food every day. “I wanted to give people food that they can understand. Here’s some black-eyed peas, here’s some greens. They may not understand how you make it vegan or season it, but it’s still something that they can identify with,” said Dyson.
On a Friday afternoon following the lunch rush, a few diners were finishing up their meals. This was the first time the Reverend Ulysses Barton, 62, of Oakland’s Beth Eden Baptist Church, had eaten at Souley Vegan. “It’s definitely healthier than my usual choice of chicken wings and I found it very appetizing,” Barton said, picking at his generous serving of fried okra. “I loved it and I’ll be back.”
“It’s great to be a vegan and be able to go some place and get your indulgent food fix,” said Mykee Ramen, sipping from his drink at the bar. Ramen, 42, the owner of Burnt Ramen Studios in Richmond, is a regular at Souley Vegan.
Dyson’s first job at age 15, working at a convalescent home, combined two of her loves—cooking for people and taking care of them. When she became a single mother at age 19, Dyson started spending a lot of time in the kitchen, crafting her own recipes to ensure a healthy diet for her son. After becoming a vegan, she began to read about the benefits of going dairy-free. She later worked in the endoscopy surgery center at Marin General Hospital, which further solidified her commitment to eating healthy. “We did endoscopies and colonoscopies, which was interesting because I got a chance to see what food does to the system – literally,” Dyson said. “I see it! Now I really see it! I’m a believer!”
In November, 2006, Dyson started catering events and handing out samples of her food at the Grand Lake Farmer’s Market in Oakland. As Dyson remembers working at the farmer’s market with her son Aquil, who is now 17, her eyes moisten with emotion. “It was literally just my son and me in the kitchen cooking when we started at the farmer’s market, when he was 11 going on 12,” Dyson said. “One day before a festival, I remember we walked into the kitchen at 3:30 in the afternoon and we didn’t leave until 7:30 in the morning. And when I say we left at 7:30, I walked out of the kitchen at 7 and my son finished up for me and cleaned because I was just exhausted. If not for my son, I don’t know if Souley Vegan would have developed the way it did.”
People kept asking if she was going to open a restaurant, and although she cared deeply for her hospital co-workers and patients, Dyson said she had a dream that had been “marinating” in her mind—to get her food out to the public. So just one prerequisite away from qualifying for nursing school and armed with only the “faith in my product,” Dyson transitioned out of her job as a technician and started promoting Souley Vegan full-time in 2007.
“Everybody said, ‘You’re crazy! Why don’t you just work part-time?’ Some may say it was really stupid—when I left I didn’t have any savings,” Dyson said. “But at that point I knew I had something to offer the world.”
In 2008 she opened up shop on 13th Street before finding her current location at 301 Broadway Avenue in July, 2009. “You know, at first I was scared to sell a plate, because I was like, ‘Why are you selling food?’” Dyson said. “I was so used to cooking for people and that Southern hospitality mentality of ‘I’m not going to sell my food. I’m going to cook for people—that’s what I do.’”
Today, Souley Vegan is growing. Dyson’s products like the BBQ tofu and the vegan mac and cheese are sold at the Berkeley Bowl and the Berkeley Student Food Collective. In the next three weeks Dyson hopes to expand her menu to include her spaghetti—which “people are going to love,” she promises—and desserts such as pecan pie, butter walnut cake, and chocolate cake. “I’m making sure I’m walking the lake first,” Dyson said chuckling.
Dyson is also working on opening a cabaret next to the bar, which will feature a DJ or live band on Friday and Saturday nights. “My customers—even though we don’t have a lot of room—will get up and dance. Oh my God, it’s just great, I love it,” Dyson said. “I’m personally looking forward to it because I don’t have a life and now I’ll have a party too like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to Souley Vegan this week!’”