If there's someone in your life who refuses to touch "vegetarian" foods, Green Bar & Kitchen has a secret weapon.
It's called the Buffalo Tempeh Sandwich ($8). It starts with tempeh, a soy-based protein that's similar to tofu but with a richer texture. It's marinated in olive oil and grilled to give the familiar char of a steak or burger. Lathered on top is a punchy, spicy Buffalo sauce -- made with tomatoes, white vinegar, and cayenne pepper -- that has all the richness of dive-bar wings without any of the butter that's typically melted into the sauce. And the bread? Hard to believe, but it's gluten-free. It's a secret how Green Bar staff gets that normally dry, rubbery stuff toasted crispy outside yet warm and fluffy inside -- but it does.
As your carnivorous friend feels a slight tingle turn to a pleasant burn, she will soon realize this isn't the hippie food she expected, even if the Buffalo sandwich does come with a salad instead of crispy fries. Anyone could eat this a few times a week, happily.
And Green Bar & Kitchen's menu is full of such surprises: foods that are 100 percent vegan yet savory and filling enough to make a meat freak rethink his stubborn ways.
The GBK Burger ($10) is made in-house with brown rice, chickpeas, quinoa, carrot, onion, and parsley and uses sunflower seeds as a binder. Its creamy, spicy chipotle sauce is spread onto a fluffy, gluten-free bun. In a signature raw dish, Living Lasagna ($12), zucchini is sliced into thin, lengthwise sheets that mimic pasta. These are layered with a sun-dried tomato sauce whose flavors are as well-developed as any sauce that's bubbled on a stove for hours.
Even the plant-based sweets, made without the eggs and dairy most bakers hold dear, hit the spot. A raw turtle pie uses almonds instead of butter to create a rich, creamy dessert -- the subtle flavor of bittersweet chocolate paired with caramel. Snickerdoodle cookies are soft, chewy, and sweet. If you sneaked them into a box with Christmas butter cookies, no taste-tester would be able to choose which was vegan.
"I try to steer the menu toward a guy's perspective," says chef-owner Charles Grippo. "We get these huge guys coming in with little yoga chicks. I tell them, 'If you like Buffalo wings, we have the sandwich. I've got a grain bowl for you or a veggie burger.'"
The small restaurant resides in a bright, teal two-story building. Inside is an airy, crisp white space holding a long, beech-colored communal table surrounded by a handful of two- and four-seaters. Small succulents -- cactus-like plants without the thorns -- are the lone decoration for each. A gnarled, petrified wood branch with light bulbs hangs from the ceiling as an organic chandelier. Two white frames filled with nine squares of fake grass are the only wall decorations.
Past the simple, airy seating area, co-owner Elena Pezzo (Grippo's life partner) usually stands in front of a propped-up iPad taking orders. Behind her are Green Bar's offerings, written in multicolored chalk. She recognizes first-timers by their thousand-yard stare at the meatless menu.
"We're all natural, all plant-based, and we make almost everything here," she repeats throughout the day in a strong New York Italian accent. Pezzo is short, just over five feet, with smooth jet-black hair and piercing dark eyes. She wears a broad smile that pushes up rosy cheeks while she talks, sometimes with her hands.
She won't preach or give the stink-eye to meat-eaters, but she will encourage everyone to try maca, a ground-up root vegetable from Peru that's said to be an aphrodisiac, increase blood oxygen content, and support thyroid function. Incan warriors reportedly used it for stamina in war and baby-making. It can be added to a smoothie like a protein powder.
Pezzo trained as a nutritionist and a yoga therapist. She was a longtime salesperson for Equinox gyms and the Standard Hotel's spa before opening the Zenergy Truck, a pumpkin-orange-colored food truck (well, van) that served superfood smoothies, green juice, and vegan snacks.
"We started getting fans and more orders every week than we could handle in our little commissary," Pezzo said. "Once we saw the numbers on the truck, we saw the shift happen. Not only were women coming but men were coming -- and families too."
Pezzo and Grippo became friendly with Tap 42 co-owners Blaise McMackin and Damon Deweert while running the Zenergy truck (motto: "The Health Junkie on Wheels"). The latter pair came on as investors, and the team planned to open a grab-and-go brick-and-mortar shop near the hipster watering hole Laser Wolf, off Sunrise Boulevard.
Yet the night before they were going to sign a lease, "we got a phone call from friends saying this café had closed and they were looking for someone to take over the lease" from the now-closed Newsworthy Cafe on 17th Street by Waxy O'Connor's. Green Bar opened in early February.
With a bigger space than they initially envisioned, there was room for shelves to sell goods like kale chips, superfood cookbooks, and bottled juices and to have a full-blown juice and smoothie bar. Small jars of various superfoods -- natural supplements said to have powerful health benefits -- line the counter, and the friendly staff offers free tastes of kombucha. Here, the trendy drink is on tap and pulled from a spigot, like beer. The fermented green tea is slightly fizzy, with a fleeting tang thanks to a hint of alcohol. It tastes like not-so-sweet apple juice spiked with white wine and is filled with B vitamins as well as microbes that aid with digestion.
A Happy Hippie Shake ($9) blends coconut milk, kale, pineapple, spirulina, bee pollen, and coconut oil into a sweet, satisfying emulsion. Though it contains kale and spirulina -- a blue-green algae with lots of protein, chlorophyll, and vitamins A, B, and K -- the sweet shake isn't even green.
At the same time, not all of Green Bar's dishes are appropriate to spring on someone taking his first bites of a plant-based diet. A macadamia nut "ricotta" cheese was too minerally tasting for the untrained palate, overshadowing an herbaceous, garlicky pesto.
If there's any doubt about the power of food, visit greenbarkitchen.com and watch Pezzo's video of her brother, Anthony, trying to recover from a stroke that left him unable to move or speak. Her family refused doctors' recommendations to "pull the plug" on her brother, a father of three, and instead Pezzo began feeding him superfoods intravenously: omega 3 fish oil, green juices, supplements.
After months of therapy, Anthony came back to life. He learned to walk again. He blows kisses to his sister.
Pezzo and Grippo are definitely on to something. They just hide it beneath great flavors and hulking sandwiches. And if you're wondering whether a place like this can stay in business, on two visits, the place was slammed with fit, beautiful people -- who all had perfect skin.
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