Photo of Pow Pow by Darrow Montgomery
Photo of Pow Pow by Darrow Montgomery

After the Pulse nightclub shooting in June 2016, Margaux Riccio yearned to help. It was right around the time when she learned that a Chick-fil-A broke ground for a new location near the H Street NE corridor, and as the plant-based chef at Pow Pow, she had an idea. 

“When Chick-fil-A announced they were opening, I sold vegan chicken sandwiches here on Sundays—the day Chick-fil-A’s are closed—and the proceeds went to Pulse victims,” she says. “Then we started to get more requests for the vegan sandwiches.” 

Riccio’s husband, Shaun Sharkey, together with Stephen Cheung and John Yamashita founded Pow Pow in May of the same year at 1253 H Street NE. Riccio says Cheung was reluctant to make vegan cuisine the star of the Asian-inspired fast-casual restaurant, but that changed after he unknowingly noshed on her vegan cooking at a meeting. “They said, ‘Go ahead—change everything,’” Riccio recounts. “We revamped everything in the last year.”

Yamashita is in charge of the meat-based dishes while Riccio handles the vegan preparations, including making the mock meat in-house. The Natalie Porkman dish, for example, contains fried sweet and sour seitan that gets close to the crispy texture of Japanese tonkatsu. Some non-vegans order it with real chicken on top. 

When Pow Pow refocused on vegan meals, the eatery joined an already robust, thriving street of vegan dining options including Khepra’s Raw Food Juice Bar, Fare Well, and Turning Natural. Philadelphia import Fancy Radish will join the plant party in March.

Even non-vegan neighborhood restaurants cater to vegetarians and vegans by offering more than a token meat-free dish. Sticky Rice has more than 30 options, including the addictive Garden Balls with shiitake mushrooms, red pepper, cilantro, and spicy rice in a tempura-fried inari pocket drizzled with sweet soy sauce. 

Most of the menu at Farmbird can be made vegetarian, and the dinner menu at Mediterranean restaurant Sospeso boasts about 15 vegan or vegetarian dishes, like vegan kofte made with lentil and bulgur instead of lamb. 

Anwar Saleem founded H Street Main Street in 2002, and he’s watched the neighborhood evolve when it comes to healthy options. The organization puts on the H Street Festival and provides commercial property improvement services and government relations assistance to area businesses. 

“The growth has been incremental,” Saleem says. “It used to be all carry-outs. Everything was processed foods. Then we got bars. Then restaurants. Then this.” 

Khepra’s Raw Food Juice Bar (402 H St. NE) was the first plant-based restaurant to take root. Raw food and juice cleanse enthusiast Khepra Anu opened it in 2011. He was initially surprised by the number of people signing up for his cleanses. “Every single day, especially Sundays and Mondays, 20 different customers are picking up 3-day and 5-day cleanses,” he says. “I could have never forecasted it.” Khepra’s customers can also order raw avocado nori rolls, buffalo cauliflower, lasagna, and pizza.

Anu didn’t seek out an H Street NE address when he was getting ready to open, but is satisfied with the end result. “To the south we have Capitol Hill and to the west you have downtown D.C.,” he says. “It was in the middle of a lot of activity already, but underdeveloped in terms of what’s happening now. I was just in the right place at the right time.” He continues bashfully, “You can consider me the seed just by the fact that I was there first.” 

Next, in 2016, came Fare Well from Doron Petersan (406 H St. NE). In determining where to sprout her vegan diner, she sought a neighborhood with plenty of apartment buildings and a mixed clientele of young professionals and families. 

“H Street has always felt independent of what’s happening in the rest of the city,” she says. “There haven’t been as many national brands here, and if you look at the history of H Street, it was one of the few blue collar areas of D.C., and that’s held strong,” she says. 

Petersan moved to neighboring Trinidad in 2005. She considered it already a vegan enclave, just with no restaurants to satisfy the neighborhood’s cravings. “Denny’s wasn’t here yet,” she says. “There was just The Argonaut. They didn’t have anything vegan on the menu until they realized neighbors wanted vegan stuff.” 

Her diner aims to be a “third place” where neighbors can hang out over coffee or cocktails while they try house-made cashew & almond burrata cheese, Southern-fried chickpea seitan, and polenta fries served with tomato jam. 

“We had our second busiest month in January,” Petersan says, shocked that Washingtonians left hibernation to patronize her business. She says that among her new customers, many are older and African-American. “This one guy came in dressed to the nines after church,” Petersan fondly remembers. “If he could have had spats on he would have. He was delicious and adorable and in his 70s. He said, ‘I’m going vegan, tell me what to eat!’”

Following Fare Well, Turning Natural opened at 1380 H Street NE in February 2017. “H Street was super important to me,” says owner Jerri Evans. Her mother, who grew up at 21st Street and Benning Road NE, conceptualized Turning Natural and ran the business out of her home while undergoing a battle with breast cancer that she lost in 2010.  Evans swells with pride knowing she’s bringing her mother’s community a healthy choice. “Imagine if she had access to that growing up—would cancer have been part of her story?” 

The Turning Natural menu showcases juices and smoothies with pop culture-inspired names like the Green Latifah with apple, ginger, and fennel. But you can also pick up warm vegan meals including Caribbean-inspired vegetable patties and a black bean burger.

Evans often recommends nearby vegan eateries that offer something different than Turning Natural. “Most of our customers are vegan beginners,” she says. “They’re new to it and they think we’re the only ones doing what we’re doing.” 

Soon she’ll be able to recommend Fancy Radish—the first restaurant from Richard Landau and Kate Jacoby outside of Philadelphia. In the city of brotherly love, the married duo have VEDGE—a vegan fine dining restaurant that’s a frequent flyer on James Beard Award nomination lists—and a more casual vegan street food restaurant called V Street

The Fancy Radish menu will split the difference, serving tried and true dishes from each restaurant when it opens in March. Highlights will include stuffed avocado with romesco, pickled cauliflower, “fried rice,” and black salt; rutabaga fondue with soft pretzel, pickles, and charred onions; and dan dan noodles with five-spice mushrooms, zucchini, and red chile-sesame sauce. 

“We didn’t wake up one day by saying, ‘Let’s open a restaurant in D.C.,’” Landau says. “It was not a knee-jerk decision. We’re not looking to conquer anything.” He and Jacoby both have ties to the city, and when Jacoby looked through their reservations system in Philly, she noticed many people reserving tables had a 202 area code. “So we said, ‘Let’s go to them.’” 

The pair considered Georgetown, U Street NW, Woodley Park, and other neighborhoods. “When we started looking two and a half years ago, our broker said he wasn’t supposed to show H Street during the day,” Landau says. But he was attracted to the opportunity to be a part of the area’s growth. “I don’t want to say it’s going to be the next 14th Street, but it’s not far behind.”

Fancy Radish will complement H Street NE’s casual vegan eateries with a more polished dining experience. Jacoby wants the space to feel like an intimate, overgrown English garden juxtaposed against the Apollo’s industrial tenor. The restaurant is bound for the trend-setting apartment building at 600 H Street NE. “I want it to be a little fancy,” she says. “A little luxurious.” 

Photo of Margaux Riccio by Darrow Montgomery

Petersan, Riccio, and others say they’re counting down to Fancy Radish’s opening. They don’t see the clustering together of vegan eateries as a threat to their bottom lines, and Jacoby agrees. “If you have a lot of vegan businesses, we’re not all doing the same thing,” Jacoby says. “People are starting to specialize and it shows that the vegan thing is here to stay.”

Anu points out that he and other vegan business owners are competing with everyone, not just each other. More diners are choosing plant-based foods without going vegan or vegetarian. Riccio, who calls the neighborhood a “vegan mecca,” agrees. “Back in the 1970s, 30 percent of a meal was meat,” she says. “That switched in the ’80s. Now people are going back. People who eat vegan here all week have a hamburger on the weekend.” 

The business owners believe that having a high concentration of vegan food in one place is advantageous. “What’s that law? When you see one gas station, you’ll usually see a couple more, and all of them will do equally well compared to putting one gas station here and another in a different neighborhood.” 

Specialization is not new to the street. “I remember around 2002 you had about 27 nail salons and hair salons all thrust together,” Saleem says. “People would come down from all over. When businesses cluster like that it’s beneficial. None of them sell the same thing; there’s something different at each location.” 

“It would be great to get all of these businesses together that are interconnected to come up with something that can push H Street forward,” he adds. 

A version of that idea is in the works. Riccio is leading the charge on organizing a week-long, plant-based food crawl called “The Green Mile” scheduled to coincide with the National Cherry Blossom Festival (April 8-15). There will be a map that attendees can print off that shows which restaurants are participating. She expects non-vegan restaurants like Maketto to enter a plant-based dish. Crawlers will pay as they go and vote on their favorite nibble. Proceeds from the winning restaurant’s dish will go to a charity of their choice.

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