Willowbeez SoulVeg dishes up buzz-worthy vegan eats

The long-running pop-up has a new permanent location at the North Market Downtown

G.A. Benton
BBJerk Bella with Mac&Plz (left) and More Spice Chick Pea soup along with a Rich Boi with fries at Willowbeez SoulVeg in the North Market

Upon encountering the first vegan soul food eatery in town, there’s only one question to ask: What took so long?

After all, we live in a vegan-friendly city that has recently given rise to vegan delis, vegan butchers, vegan burger emporiums, vegan Mexican-American joints, trendy and fancy plant-based restaurants, plus a two-link chain of places serving vegan Ethiopian food.   

The new eatery in question has a name that might challenge spellcheck, but the place is easy to like: Willowbeez SoulVeg. Willowbeez SoulVeg (maybe repetition helps familiarize the word processor) is new to the Downtown North Market, but it isn’t actually new. It just has a new steady gig. 

The family-owned-and-run business, which lists Carnell and Malik Willoughby as founder and co-founder, respectively, has been around for nearly a decade as a pop-up and catering operation. This experience is evident in the take-notice flavors and appealing textures of some very distinct dishes. 

Food is ordered from a predominantly green-and-yellow stall amusingly decorated with honeycomb imagery and other apian references. I was informed by a server that these bee allusions are just the family having fun with their last name. Still, I couldn’t help but notice that, while buzzing around to quickly fill orders, the Willoughbys seemed to be as busy as, well, you know.

What they serve is often so uncommon yet compelling that it can be as hard to pigeonhole as it is to stop eating. In general, though, Willowbeez cooks boldly flavored, rib-sticking vegan fare — that isn’t an oxymoronic description, by the way — that frequently looks to New Orleans for inspiration. 

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Cornmeal is customary in Crescent City fried fish preparations, and it lends a crackly golden-brown crust to the No Fish Fry ($12). The eponymous “No Fish” component was three hefty pieces of banana blossom — Willowbeez is the only Columbus eatery that I know of to regularly use this intriguing ingredient, which evokes a cross between artichoke hearts and mushrooms. 

The fine fake fish came with tangy house remoulade sauce, house slaw (zesty, “creamy” and addictive), plus excellent shoestring fries dusted in a paprika-spiked (smoked paprika is big here), barbecue-rub-like spice blend.

The Rich Boi with fries at Willowbeez SoulVeg in the North Market

More inhalable fries accompanied the Rich Boi ($12), a menu highlight and nifty spin on the po’ boy sandwich, a Big Easy classic. The delightful ensemble featured a nice pretzel roll loaded with crunchy battered-and-fried oyster mushroom bits dressed with arugula, roma tomatoes and remoulade.

BBJerk Bella ($14) was as unusual as its name, but in a good way: A huge and hearty stew made with quinoa, black beans, onions, peppers, tomatoes and mushrooms cooked down in a base that tasted like it starred a smoky and spicy barbecue sauce. It’s partnered with a good cornbread muffin plus a side, such as vibrant curry cabbage or the eccentrically titled “Mac&Plz,” a comforting-yet-zesty take on macaroni and cheese.   

BBJerk Bella with Mac&Plz and a cornbread muffin at Willowbeez SoulVeg in the North Market

Show up for a light meal, and the soup of the day will fill that bill. If it’s the spicy, interestingly fruity, bean-and-veggie-packed Left Eye Soul Chili ($6, with a cornbread muffin), it’ll fill your tummy, too. 

Show up on weekends before 2 p.m., and you’ll be ordering from the small brunch menu. Its offerings include a must-have side of smoky and “cheesy” grits ($4); the pleasant BK Sammich ($7) — a pretty believable vegan egg-sausage-and-cheese sandwich on whole wheat; a serving of delicious French toast big enough to feed the entire country of France ($9) that arrives garnished with scene-stealing caramelized bananas and purported candied walnuts (mine were MIA); and the All In Wrap ($9) — a panini-pressed, mammoth burrito filled with quinoa, spinach, herb-enhanced “sweet & purple potato hash,” plus egg-replacing turmeric-yellow tofu. Like many dishes here, that satisfying burrito was as idiosyncratic as it was healthful and good-tasting.   

Willowbeez SoulVeg

59 Spruce St., North Market

614-678-6067

willowbeezsoulveg.com

Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday