Santa Cruz’s Veg on the Edge is Probably the Only Vegan, Kosher and Gluten-Free African Restaurant in the World

Akindele Bankole, owner of Veg on the Edge with his kosher certificate.

Akindele Bankole, owner of Veg on the Edge with his kosher certificate. (Alix Wall)

Santa Cruz is known for being quirky and off-beat. So perhaps it’s only fitting that it is home to what is most likely the only vegan, gluten-free and kosher West African restaurant in the world.

Called Veg On the Edge, it’s located in a new food court called Abbott Square, that’s in the heart of downtown in this beach city of 65,000, adjacent to the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History.

The courtyard of Abbott Square.
The courtyard of Abbott Square. (Alix Wall)

Its owner, Akindele Bankole, is of Nigerian descent, of the Yoruba people specifically, and grew up in both Nigeria and Germany, the son of two doctors. Living in Germany, he became interested in Judaism, and much later, converted, which is why he took on the extra work and expense of kosher certification. It’s the only kosher restaurant in a city that hasn’t had one in around 20 years, and even when it did, it was just a Noah’s Bagel’s franchise.

“I want this to be a place where people with special dietary needs can come,” he said. “Whether you are kosher or gluten-free or vegan, this is a place where you can easily choose from anything on the menu.”

He continued, “There’s a lot of consciousness to what we’re doing. We don’t merely serve, we have to consciously serve.”

A Yoruba greeting is posted on the wall, “E kú,” which means “I greet and recognize you” but it’s also a philosophical concept that “helps ensure harmony in the community,” says Bankole. He has it posted to show his customers that his intention is for them to feel they are not only fed well, but are valued, recognized and honored.

The motto of the restaurant.
The motto of the restaurant. (Alix Wall)

Bankole came to the U.S. in the early eighties to study at Sacramento State University. For a time, he was an opera singer and still composes music in his spare time (though opening a restaurant has left little of that in his life as of late.)

While in college and for many years beyond, he worked in a managerial position at McDonald’s and then as a business consultant. A few years ago, motivated by changes in own diet, he began to kick around the idea of opening up a juice bar. That morphed into a vegetarian restaurant or café, but of course, Santa Cruz had the vegetarian market already well-covered. African food seemed to spark people’s interest in a way that other ideas he had thought of did not.

Though Bankole said he liked to bake cakes for people as a youngster he is not a chef himself. So he hired a local chef, Jonathan Miller, to develop recipes for the dishes he grew up with – minus the meat, though there are some other non-African items as well. Suya, grilled meat on a stick in Africa, is made here with shiitake mushrooms instead. They are dusted in a spice mix that is heavy on black pepper, spices and ground peanuts. The suya is a key ingredient to several dishes on the menu, including the burger, in which the shiitake mushroom suya is the stand-in for the burger itself with a thin layer of house-made cashew cheese, tomato slice and lettuce leaf on an artisanal gluten-free bun.

The burger.
The burger. (Alix Wall)

Moin moin is an interesting stand-in for tofu, though it’s made from mashed black-eyed peas.

Moin moin with suya, yaji sauce and rice.
Moin moin with suya, yaji sauce and rice. (Alix Wall)

Noting that it’s kind of like tamales in consistency, Bankole said the puree of black-eyed peas is infused with a caramelized onion and tomato sauce that’s been reduced to lose the acidity of the tomato.

“Even someone who has acid reflux can have it,” said Bankole, adding that in Nigeria, the puree is shaped and then put into a banana leaf and then steamed. Here, he uses a mold to hold it together.

Plantain fries.
Plantain fries. (Alix Wall)

There are also sides like potato balls, in which mashed potatoes are held together with chick pea flour, and plantain fries. There is also a raw plantain salad with zucchini “noodles,” and other vegetables.

A raw plantain salad with edamame.
A raw plantain salad with zucchini noodles and edamame. (Alix Wall)

“Normally West African cuisine is very meat heavy,” Bankole said. “But after thinking about it, I realized that this food is unique and interesting to people here, and could work with a vegetarian twist.”

One of the most popular non-African items on the menu is a rice bowl with black rice, mushrooms, bok choy and scallions, a decidedly Asian treatment but flavorful nonetheless.

Forbidden rice with bok choy and mushrooms.
Forbidden rice with bok choy and mushrooms and a side of potato balls made with chick pea flour. (Alix Wall)

There is also tofu and tempeh as add-ons, but no fake meat. Much of the produce is organic and comes from local farms.

There are also fresh juices and a separate breakfast menu on weekends, with the plantain waffle proving to be exceptionally popular.

The restaurant has been embraced by vegan and gluten-free meet-up groups in the area, kosher visitors who happen to be driving through who find Veg on the Edge via Google, and others looking for something unusual to try.

Going out of his way to serve all of these disparate diets might make some restauranteurs crazy, but despite the hard work, Bankole thinks it’s paying off.

“People on special diets are used to being limited to the one or two things they can eat on the menu,” he said. “Here they can choose from the entire menu. While it did seem really hard at first, now after seeing how happy that makes people, it makes sense and it’s worth it.”

Veg On the Edge
725 Front St., Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Hours: Open daily from Mon-Thu, 11am-9pm; Fri, 11am-10pm; Sat, 9am-10pm and Sun, 9am-9pm.
Facebook: thevedgeontheedge
Twitter: @Veg_ontheEdge
Instagram: @veg_ontheedge
Price Range $ entrees averaging around $9.

Santa Cruz’s Veg on the Edge is Probably the Only Vegan, Kosher and Gluten-Free African Restaurant in the World 11 October,2017Alix Wall

  • Elli TheKingOfB’way

    Kosher? Who says? Howard Schneider? It’s open on Shabbos and they are cooking which disqualifies it off the bat.

    • Elise Moss

      Kosher certification is based on how the food is prepared and stored, not on what days they restaurant is open. Given that this is a Vegan restaurant it isn’t difficult to achieve certification as long as the food is organic. This is healthful cuisine prepared with mindfulness.

      • Elli TheKingOfB’way

        How wrong you are. Food prepared on the Sabbath is forbidden to be eaten. There are MANY laws associated with food prepared by non-Jews as well. Kosher certification is a very complicated endeavor and has absolutely NOTHING to do with the health or mindfulness of the preparer. Please consult an Orthodox Rabbi before commenting on Jewish Law. Thank you.

        • Elise Moss

          According to Jewish Law, you aren’t allowed to handle money on Shabbat, which means you aren’t eating at restaurants on Shabbos any way.

          • Elli TheKingOfB’way

            100% correct, so how can it be Kosher? If you can’t trust it to be closed on Shabbat how can you trust it any other time? My point was that a major factor in determining Kashrut is Shabbat observance.

  • slicksta

    Good restaurant. Ate there once already !

Author

Alix Wall

Alix Wall appeared in her hometown paper in Riverside, California as “Chef of the Week” when she was 15 years old, and in high school, she founded “The Bon Appetit Club.” After working as a journalist for many years, Alix became a certified natural foods chef from Bauman College in Berkeley. While she cooks part-time healthy, organic meals for busy families, she is also a contributing editor of j. weekly, the Bay Area’s Jewish newspaper, in which she has a monthly food column. Her food writing can also be found on Berkeleyside’s NOSH and in Edible East Bay. In addition to food, she loves writing about how couples met and fell in love, which she does for The San Francisco Chronicle’s Style section and j. weekly. In 2016, she founded The Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals. She is also writer/producer for a documentary-in-progress called The Lonely Child. Follow Alix on Twitter @WallAlix.

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