What is soul food? Bob Jeffries, who penned the 1969 Soul Food Cookbook wrote, “While all soul food is Southern food, not all Southern food is soul.” Culinary scholars, cookbook authors, and chefs have been debating the genre ever since. Today, most acknowledge that soul food originated from and continues to be driven by African American cooks of the South. With more interest in plant-based eating than ever before, vegan soul food eateries and pop-ups are thriving everywhere—especially in the cuisine’s Southern birthplace. Whether traditional, regionally inspired, or more nouveau in spirit, here are seven vegan soul food dishes of the South that you simply must try.

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1. Okra Gumbo with Vegan Sausage at Sweet Soul Food, New Orleans, LA
Brave the lunchtime carryout line for a bowlful of okra gumbo at Sweet Soul Food in New Orleans; its subtle smokiness and spiced vegan sausage sparks a common craving among locals. In addition to gumbo, other tempting options include jambalaya, bread pudding, barbecued cauliflower, and specials that rotate daily. You’ll select your meal from the counter-service array of hot dishes, so feel free to order a bit of each. Local tip: the yakamein (a noodle soup sometimes called “Old Sober” for its purported hangover-curing properties), veggie boil, and red beans and rice are a must when they’re on the specials board.

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2. Build Your Own Veggie Plate at Vegan International, Tampa, FL
A vegan market-café hybrid that has reframed its operations to cashless and contact-free delivery and takeout since the pandemic, Vegan International is Tampa’s one-stop-shop for vegan soul food and pantry staples. The kitchen cranks out healthful spins on classic soul food dishes with a dash of Caribbean flair. Order the local favorite—the Mix-n-Match Pick 4 Veggie Plate. You’ll get to taste a hearty array of the ever-evolving plant-based menu including sweet plantains, steamed cabbage, collard greens, and candied yams.

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3. Fried Chik’n Sandwich at Kindred in New Orleans, LA
“Vegan soul food is so approachable. It appeals to vegans, omnivores, and everyone in between,” says Aimee Herrmann, general manager of Kindred. Herrmann has built a loyal following in New Orleans for her exceptional Southern food and affordable pricing (no menu item tops $12). The restaurant’s most famous dish is a fried chik’n sandwich made from house-made seitan that is breaded using a top-secret technique for an extra wow factor. If more people knew about this sandwich, Popeyes would have some serious competition. A spicy chik’n version is also available, alongside desserts and a full bar with cocktails, mocktails, and frozen daiquiris—it’s New Orleans, after all—but note alcoholic drinks are for dine-in customers only under current restrictions.

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4. Krab Cakes at Vel Tree, Charlotte, NC
The much-buzzed-about Vel Tree in Charlotte has an array of delicious vegan dishes and a warm, family-friendly atmosphere where customers are affectionately referred to as “cuzins.” The popular fried crab cakes are a must either on their own or in sandwich form. These plant-based seafood patties are made with a chickpea and vegetable combo, providing a creamy texture on the inside with a satisfying outer crunch. Beyond the finger-licking-good food, there’s another reason to support this vegan business: co-owners Velvet and Treona Kelty-Jacobs are working toward a global program they call Vegan in the Hood. This program aims to educate underserved communities about the importance of community gardens, self-sustainability, and the life benefits of a plant-based diet.

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5. Barbecue Kalebone Twists at Soul Vegetarian 2, Atlanta, GA
Soul Vegetarian 2 has been serving traditional plant-based comfort food in Atlanta since 1979—far before the lifestyle started trending. Loyal customers rave about the Barbecue Kalebone Twists—spiced homemade seitan protein simmered in a delectable homemade barbecue sauce. Since no soul food feast is complete without sides, accompany the twists with a helping of collard greens and mac and cheese. And while dining in is currently off the table, curbside pickup and delivery (via Grubhub and other platforms) are available.

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6. Biscuits and Gravy at The Southern V, Nashville, TN
Southern V’s biscuits are good enough to fool any Southern grandma. These hot, buttery beauties are flaky, tender, and melt-in-your-mouth—they’re perfect for sopping up gravy or slathering with more vegan butter. While incredible on their own, Southern V gussies them up by adding the customer’s choice of “snasauge” or “chic’n” and smothering it all with an earthy mushroom gravy. Note: these sought-after biscuits are exclusively available through online ordering on Saturdays and are prone to selling out. The queue starts at 10am so don’t snooze on weekend mornings.

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7. Mac + Cheeze at Green Bar & Kitchen, Ft. Lauderdale, FL
If all soul food creators have one dish in common, it has to be mac and cheese. “Nothing brings me back to my childhood more than a big, warm, cheesy bowl of mac n cheese,” says Chef Jen Knox of Green Bar & Kitchen. A soul food staple, this vegan version incorporates elbow pasta and cheese sauce, herbed breadcrumbs, garlic aioli, and shiitake “bacon.” It’s the ultimate luxury of creamy-meets-crunchy, belly-warming, and filling. This mac and cheese need not be relegated as a side dish—it’s a main meal in itself.

Alexis Korman is a New Orleans-based writer, mom to a toddler and two rescue mutts, plus co-founder of the South’s leading kombucha brand, Big Easy Bucha.

Photo credit: Green Bar & Kitchen and Kindred

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