by Cheryl Baehr
Since 2012 Lauren "Lulu" Loomis and her husband, Robert Tucker, have built a loyal following of herbivores and omnivores alike with their vegan food truck, Lulu's Local Eatery. This May they built on that success by opening a brick-and-mortar, fast-casual restaurant of the same name. The new Lulu's Local Eatery (3201 South Grand Boulevard; 314-357-7717) features many of the truck's offerings, as well as an expanded menu made possible by a full-size, permanent kitchen.
Lulu's carries its eco-friendly philosophy throughout the restaurant; Loomis and Tucker incorporated environmentally friendly materials into the build out of the restaurant, resulting in a rustic, organic feel to the space. The focal point of the room is a large mural made out of moss (handcrafted by Loomis) that makes the wall look like a living, vertical garden.
Tucker used repurposed wood pallets to panel the area around the counter where diners order. The room is simply appointed with a few small tables and local artwork. The place to be, though, is the patio — a shabby-chic hodgepodge of wrought-iron and wooden tables, file cabinets and pallets turned into planters. Vine-filled trellises sprout a bounty of fresh vegetables, and Loomis is more than happy to show her guests around the garden. It's a leafy oasis set apart from the hustle and bustle of South Grand — and if you catch her when she is out tending her plants, Loomis will even give you a guided tour.
We started with the buffalo cauliflower bites — ordered at the counter and delivered by a server — an appetizer of whole-wheat-battered florets fried in peanut oil. The crispy nuggets were tossed in a piquant buffalo sauce to create a satisfying alternative to boneless chicken wings. The side of housemade ranch dressing was a cool counterpoint to the spice, though it tasted more like tzatziki than ranch.
Lulu's "all natural" version of the tater tot is basic, dressed up with a dusting of Southwestern-spiced seasoning. Vegan mayonnaise substitutes can often be gritty and thin, but this side of smoky chipotle dressing was surprisingly creamy. The avocado-boat appetizer, stuffed with Mexican quinoa salad, was an excellent interplay of texture. From the ripe, creamy avocado to the crunchy quinoa pearls dressed with onions, tomatoes and a bright vinaigrette, this dish could have been a meal unto itself.
A simple kale salad was the perfect counterpoint to the bevy of rich appetizers (an odd need considering that nothing we'd eaten so far contained cheese, dairy or animal fat). Lulu's uses fresh-from-the-garden baby greens that are extra tender. The salad was tossed with tart cranberries, shredded carrots, sunflower seeds and vinaigrette for a refreshing intermezzo.
Lulu's "Buffalo Blue Burger" (a name I found quirky, given there is no blue cheese to speak of) is a thick patty of lightly fried sweet potatoes and black beans, doused in buffalo sauce and served on a pretzel bun. The sandwich is dressed with red onions, greens and ranch that did little to squelch the heat of this deliciously blazing sandwich.
I preferred the sweet potato in the burger to the sweet-potato falafel. The fritters were more like croquettes than traditional chickpea falafel and would have benefited from more crunch. However, the potatoes had excellent, lightly spiced flavor and were served over pita with a basic salad of onions, greens, tomatoes and tzatziki.
My favorite dish at Lulu's is the Buddha bowl, a stir-fry of red peppers, carrots, green onions and marinated tofu served over silky, thick udon noodles. A housemade sweet-and-spicy peanut sauce clung to the pasta, and crushed peanuts gave the dish a dash of salt and texture.
Loomis and Tucker planted the seeds of Lulu's Local Eatery with the food truck. Now that it has been allowed to take permanent root, we are seeing it truly flourish.