How Black-owned vegan restaurants in West End prefigured Atlanta’s passion for plants

For these chefs, plant-based eating isn’t just a fad—it’s a means of community empowerment

Tassili's Raw Reality
Tassili’s Raw Reality in 2019

Photograph by Cori Carter

State Representative El-Mahdi Holly is a longtime customer of Soul Vegetarian #1, where he’s particularly a fan of the roasted kalebone entree, a high-gluten dish that mimics meatloaf, and which he orders with two sides: vegan mac and cheese and sweet potatoes. A vegetarian all his life, Holly began patronizing the West End mainstay in 1995, during his sophomore year at Morehouse College—long before plant-based food became a citywide trend, and before recent development brought new interest to the neighborhood.

“You had a relatively untouched community of self-aware African Americans, religious institutions, and business owners. That created, or at least helped to support, a community,” Holly recalled. “I was made to feel like I was part of something much bigger than simply being a student on campus.” A sense of connectivity to community-wide health and wellness has long been a common bond in West End. Though he now lives in McDonough, Holly regularly visits the old neighborhood, whose food brings him back to a familiar feeling. When we spoke recently, Holly had just finished up the 2022 legislative session, where lawmakers passed legislation prohibiting the teaching of “divisive” concepts related to race and racism. He sounded relieved to be done with it—especially as someone who, going to college where he did, had already experienced some of the history his colleagues were trying to silence. “It’s one thing to learn about our heritage through reading textbooks or listening to oratorical speakers,” Holly said. “But when you’re walking about a mile away from the campus, and here’s this oasis of Black intelligence and culture that is completely homegrown, you feel at home.”

West End led the way in serving practitioners of plant-based eating in Atlanta, connected to—but also distinct from—the contemporary popularity of vegetarian and vegan restaurants here today. In one way, the devotion of customers to these businesses helped the neighborhood circulate community dollars, which paved the way for such hot spots as Slutty Vegan. But there was also a sense of togetherness that connected the idea of survival from physical to political. You weren’t taking a selfie after being “sluttified”—you were taking part in collective empowerment.

Soul Vegetarian is most often credited with originating the wave of Black vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Atlanta. But the business wasn’t born in West End. Members of the African Hebrew Israelite Nation of Jerusalem launched the first Soul Veg in 1979 on Peachtree Street. The restaurant expanded in 1980 to Chicago, which is where it first came to the attention of Xakkai Ben Adahm. Ben Adahm was a Chicago high school student when his older brother, a member of the Nation, changed his eating habits to align with the group’s beliefs. After becoming conscious of what he calls his “political and spiritual origins,” Ben Adahm followed suit, moving on his brother’s invitation to Atlanta in 1999. He soon began working for Soul Vegetarian, which by then had moved into its current digs on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard.

Today, Ben Adahm has been Soul Veg’s general manager for more than a decade and has seen its impact on the surrounding community: “We have about eight vegan establishments in one square-mile radius in the West End,” Ben Adahm says, including Tassili’s Raw Reality, Bakaris Plant Based Pizza, Vegan Dream Doughnuts, and Slutty Vegan in neighboring Westview. “If you talk to the owners, they’ll say they’re long-standing customers of Soul Vegetarian,” Ben Adahm continues. “That’s how they got the inspiration to do what they do.”

“Soul Vegetarian is the anchor,” says Traci Thomas, founder of the Black Vegetarian Society of Georgia, who also credits the Shrine of the Black Madonna—part of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church—with spreading the word of plant-based dietary benefits. That movement was part of a historical trend that goes back centuries, says Zachary “Big Zak” Wallace: “American soul food was based on scraps. You give us the guts of the pig, so we take it and make chitlins, and then, we season it and get happy. I think a lot of those beliefs were attached to religion. Your everyday Black Christian, Catholic, or Presbyterian—we’re still all connected around unhealthy food.”

Wallace owns Local Green Atlanta, a restaurant on the edge of West End in Vine City, where he sells vegan, vegetarian, and pescatarian food. When Wallace launched the business—as a food truck in 2018, then as a brick-and-mortar the following year—it was with an acute awareness of disproportionate rates of death due to hypertension, cancer, and diabetes in the Black community. He decided not to put a deep fryer in the restaurant. “We want you to eat things that give us vitality, life, energy, and everything else,” he said.

And it’s all love in West End, Tassili’s Raw Reality owner Tassili Ma’at says of her soil-food neighbors—new and old. “They’re not my competition,” Ma’at says. “If we were open 24/7, we still couldn’t feed everyone that needs healthy food. So, let’s share the wealth. Let’s share the healing for the people.” It’s a message Ma’at amplifies regularly, from her social media accounts to events in her restaurant’s backyard to her new book, Journey to Self-Fullness, which advocates for the continuation of a healthy revolution in Atlanta.

“What does a modern-day revolutionary look like?” Ma’at said. “Most of our activists didn’t die from being incarcerated.” By not taking care to include more raw fruits and vegetables in their diets, she believes, some of the best and brightest Black activists have fallen victim to diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure—and lost their potential to create change in their communities. But ever the healer, Ma’at has a food prescription for a healthier world: “Being able to fight for food justice and to choose life is probably the most revolutionary thing you can do right now.”

More Black-owned veggie restaurants around Atlanta

Grass VBQ Joint
The bad news is that owner Terry Sargent recently closed his Stone Mountain brick-and-mortar; the good news is that he’s now doing business ITP, currently parking his food truck at Triton Yards as he works toward a new location. Grass VBQ’s claim to fame is its all-vegan Southern-style barbecue, with veteran chef Sargent smoking mock meats—jackfruit, mushrooms, wheat gluten, etc.—over a blend of hickory, maple, and cherry wood.

GAS Food Truck
The acronym stands for Good Azz Sandwiches, and the theme is “420”—food you’ll want to eat when you’re high. So: cheeseburgers and New York–style chopped cheeses, Philly cheesesteak egg rolls, loaded fries, all made with plant-based sausages and patties. You can generally find these folks Wednesday through Sunday at Triton Yards food truck park (Capitol View).

Plant Based Pizzeria
Owners Paul Jordan and Marisa Acoff use Beyond meat on their pizzas, but they also go beyond pizza, with other all-vegan Italian-ish entrees like baked spaghetti, fettuccine alfredo, and calzones. If you’re here for the pie, though, check out the Georgia Peach, topped with vegan sausage and mozz, peaches, jalapeños, and red onion. Gluten-free crusts are available. Virginia-Highland; Sandy Springs

B.A.D. Gyal Vegan
This brand-new addition to Marietta Square Market from Chyna Love, who launched the business in New York, serves Caribbean fusion specialties like “voxtails” (i.e., vegan oxtails), ackee spring rolls, cauliflower wings—and much more. Love also provides nationwide shipping of some of her food and related merch. Marietta

Slutty Vegan
Maybe you’ve heard of it? Pinky Cole’s wildly successful business—born as a food truck, now with permanent locations in Westview, O4W, Jonesboro, Duluth, and Athens—serves huge, messy, all-vegan burgers with names like One Night Stand (with faux bacon and cheese and caramelized onions) and the po’boy-ish Heaux Boy. Great fries, too. Multiple locations —Sam Worley

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This article appears in our June 2022 issue.