Green Scene

A Southwestern baked sweet potato is filled with black beans, corn and avocado at the Vegan Community Kitchen in Apex.

Gone are the days when vegetables were relegated to side-dish status.

More people are embracing vegetarian and vegan diets for a variety of reasons — improved health, a smaller carbon footprint or a love of animals. What was once a fringe trend is now a mainstream mainstay.

At three local eateries, vegetable-forward menus are championed and well-executed. Their satisfying main dishes and indulgent desserts might convince you to eat more plant-based meals for the best reason of all — because they taste good.

Awaze Ethiopian Restaurant

Injera, a sourdough flatbread traditionally made with teff, functions as an edible utensil to scoop up hearty stews and vegetables at Awaze.

CONCEPT: Full-service East African eatery showcasing copious vegetarian and vegan options, along with some non-vegetarian entrees.

BACKGROUND: Fellow Ethiopian refugees Azeb Mekonnen and Matheos Geblemedhin met in Toronto. They married in 2006, and shortly afterward, the couple moved to Cary. A seasoned cook, Mekonnen would prepare food for friends and neighbors, ultimately starting a catering business. But her longtime vision was to open a restaurant, which she did in 2015. “This was my dream for many, many years, and I am so happy that it became a reality,” Mekonnen said.

Dairy-free ice cream is full of vanilla, caramel and cinnamon.

DISTINCTIVENESS: Staying true to Ethiopian tradition, meals are served on a communal platter so diners can share food with each other. Injera, a sourdough-risen flatbread with a unique spongy texture, functions as a utensil for scooping and soaking up the diverse cuisine. Guests can also enjoy jebena buna, an intricate coffee-making ceremony involving roasting, grinding and brewing dark, robust java.

MUST-TRY ITEMS: The azifa appetizer, which comprises garlic-inflected lentils seasoned in vinaigrette mustard sauce and green chilies; a vegetarian platter with misir (lentil), gomen (collard greens), tikil gomen (cabbage, carrots and potato), kik alcha (split peas) and fosolia (string beans with carrots); vegan dishes nech shiro (chickpea stew); timatim fitfit (ingera with tomatoes, onions, jalapeno and spices) and key sir (beets); vegan ice cream with vanilla, caramel and cinnamon. “We continue to get requests for more vegan choices,” Mekonnen said.

GOOD TO KNOW: Closed Sundays. Guests have the option to order meals prepared mild, medium or spicy. Plan to linger and enjoy the relaxed Ethiopian dining experience.

904 Northeast Maynard Road
Reedy Creek Plaza, Cary
(919) 377-2599

Mithai Indian Café

Savory options include shingara, pastry filled with cauliflower, potato and peas; kachori, filled with green peas; and a vegetable fritter with beets, carrots, potato and green beans. The vegetarian snacks are served with a variety of chutneys.

CONCEPT: Takeout-friendly haven offering entirely vegetarian Bengali-style sweet and savory selections free of preservatives and artificial flavors.

BACKGROUND: Sudhamoy Dutta, known as “Mr. Mithai” or “Mr. Sweet” in English, came to America in 1979 as an engineer. His family owned multiple sweet shops in Bangladesh, and he grew up eating more than four pounds of confections each day. During his working years, Dutta would make Indian sweets for friends and cater events. After retiring, he started the shop as a labor of love in 2004. A mutual friend introduced him to married couple Craig Wishart and Davina Ray, who bought the café in 2016.

DISTINCTIVENESS: “The sweets we produce are done like they used to be back in time, before ‘food science’ and ‘chemical engineering’ became the norm in the food industry,” Ray said. “We use real pistachio, cashew and almonds and not their flours or essence, and we do not use emulsifiers, volume enhancers or additives.” Mithai also sources hormone-free milk from Homeland Creamery in Julian, N.C. Organic coffee drinks and more than a dozen gluten-free sweets are available.

Mithai is best-known for traditional Indian sweets, and if choosing is a problem, try a boxed assortment.

MUST-TRY ITEMS: Any of the assorted artisanal dessert boxes are winning propositions, but individual items include pista burfi (pistachio fudge), kaju katri (cashew marzipan) boondi laddu (a gluten-free chickpea flour ball), raabri (condensed milk pudding) and malai chum chum (a spongy milk sweet topped with condensed milk paste). Mixing and matching is encouraged. As for savory selections, go for a shingara samosa pastry with cauliflower, potato and peas or a bhel puri, a puffed rice dish with Indian spices and chutney.

BUSINESS ETHOS: “Mithai is a place for people who care how their food is made and where it comes from,” Ray said.

GOOD TO KNOW: Open daily. Free Wi-Fi is available as is personalized service and enlightening conversation with the always convivial Wishart.

744-F East Chatham St.
Chatham Square, Cary
(919) 469-9651

Vegan Community Kitchen

A vegan yeero wrap comes with lettuce, tomatoes, house-made seitan, and dairy-free cucumber tzatziki sauce.

CONCEPT: Fast-casual Mediterranean café serving 100% vegan cuisine made from locally sourced organic grains, fruit, vegetables and nuts.

BACKGROUND: Owner Sadiye Sezenol, a native of Turkey, opened the café in January 2019 with her daughter, Cansu Sarcan. “My husband died of cancer, and I learned from his doctors that processed foods can cause inflammation that leads to disease,” said Sezenol, who spends most of her time at the restaurant preparing and cooking a wide assortment of dishes. “We want to provide people with a truly healthy alternative to improve their lives.”

Cold salads and side options include hummus, Turkish tabbouleh, stuffed grape leaves and more.

DISCTINCTIVENESS: A refrigerated display case showcases myriad salad and side options, spanning from baba ghanoush and Turkish tabbouleh salad to red lentil balls and kale and quinoa salad. An inimitable trio of hummus plate features traditional, avocado-spinach and beet hummus served with pita or gluten-free bread. Hot items are made to order using fresh ingredients. “Cooking is my passion, and I also really love to bake,” Sezenol said.

MUST-TRY ITEMS: Spanakopita (phyllo pastry stuffed with spinach and non-dairy mozzarella); a falafel combo with stuffed grape leaves, hummus and pita or gluten-free bread; and the ample Kitchen Burger, which encompasses sliced seitan doner kebab, “cheddar cheese,” tomatoes, red onions, pickles, lettuce and barbecue sauce. Less adventurous eaters may prefer to try broccoli mac and “cheese” or a loaded sweet potato. Pair your meal with a refreshing cup of house-made hibiscus tea infused with cinnamon, cloves and ginger. Be sure to save room for baklava or apple strudel.

Sadiye Sezenol, right, and her daughter, Cansu Sarcan, left, opened the Vegan Community Kitchen last year in Apex.

GOOD TO KNOW: Closed Tuesdays. The restaurant opens at 10 a.m. with continual service through dinner.

803 East Williams St.
Plaza 55, Apex
(919) 372-5027

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