DC Restaurant Exploration: Busboys and Poets

Checking another restaurant off of my list of vegan-friendly DC eateries, I had the pleasure of dining last week at the indie-acclaimed Busboys and Poets. Immediately upon learning the story behind the social justice-imbued restaurant, I eagerly awaited the chance to patronize it. The brainchild of prominent Iraqi-American peace activist, artist, and restaurateur Anas “Andy” Shallal, Busboys and Poets functions as a community gathering space that works to foster racial and cultural connections, a popular spoken-word poetry venue, a progressively minded bookstore, a gallery for thought-provoking art, and a scrumptiously veg-friendly restaurant. Indeed, I wouldn’t expect any less of a socially conscious establishment from the co-founder of the pre-2003 invasion group Iraqi-Americans for Peaceful Alternatives, Peace Fellow with Seeds of Peace, member of the board of trustees for the liberal think tank The Institute for Policy Studies, and recipient of the United Nations Human Rights Community Award.

With the Peace Café program—the largest Arab-Jewish dialogue group in the DC area—Shallal continues his advocacy for conflict resolution in the Middle East through Busboys and Poets. However, Shallal does not limit the activist reach of Busboys and Poets to focus solely on Middle Eastern conflict; the restaurant also offers events centered on workers’ rights, racial equality, and issues related to the LGBTQ community. Almost expectedly, Busboys and Poets donates over 15% of its annual earnings to various non-profit organizations—for example, all proceeds from book sales go directly to Teaching for Change, which seeks to create social justice curriculum in schools—and harbors an eye toward environmental sustainability with their initiatives on recycling, fair- and direct-trade, and organic food, as well as their boycotting of Canada’s seal hunt. So, um, yeah, Busboys and Poets is a pretty cool place.

Moby speaking at Busboys and Poets on his book “Gristle.”

To those of us who recognize the intersectionality between animal rights and numerous other social justice movements—such as how oppressing one group of beings desensitizes us toward oppressing other groups—it would make sense for Busboys and Poets to offer completely vegan fare. However, the restaurant sadly abides by the “humane meat” myth, advertising their “sustainable seafood” (which doesn’t actually exist), and their “grass-fed, free-range beef” (which is still slaughtered at an early age and is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems at every scale from global to local“). Fortunately, Busboys and Poets offers a slew of tantalizing animal-free menu items, attracting plenty of vegans to the restaurant, both as customers and workers (my waitress happily revealed her veganism after I inquired as to the tastiest veg options).

Busboys and Poets dining room.

Busboys and Poets dining room.

Accompanied by a longtime DC resident, spoken-word poet, and fellow vegan, I began my first Busboys and Poets experience with an extreme sense of welcoming thanks to the restaurant’s casual décor, complete with murals and plushy couches that double as dining room chairs. Overwhelmed by the bounty of mouthwatering dishes on the menu, my dinner mate Emily and I agreed to split an appetizer, as well as to order sandwiches which we would halve and share. Though the Vegan Nachos proved quite tempting, after Emily informed me of their generous portion size, I decided to wait until my return visit to B&P to sample them as my entrée. On this particular occasion, Emily and I instead opted for the Coconut Tofu Bites as our appetizer—silky smooth tofu nuggets enveloped by an impeccably crispy and subtly sweet coating of shredded toasted coconut. Served atop a sticky and slightly sour yet succulent yellow plum sauce, the tofu bites definitely constituted the highlight of our meal. Normally, I would say something to the effect of, “I fully intend to recreate these in my own kitchen,” but in the case of these tofu bites, I can guarantee that I would experience hopeless disappointment in attempting to do so—the folks at B&P have truly perfected this dish.

busboys and poets (a)

While the rest of our dinner sadly did not compare to the paragon of lusciousness otherwise known as the Coconut Tofu Bites, Emily and I enjoyed our festival of sandwich-sharing, nonetheless. Emily ordered the Vegan Tuna Salad Sandwich—a mash of chickpeas, sweet pickle relish, nori seaweed bits, diced celery, red onion, yellow mustard, and vegan mayonnaise served on toasted French bread with lettuce and tomato. I frequently whip up fishless tuna salads with mashed chickpeas, avocado, and dulse seaweed flakes, and I unfortunately must say that I much prefer my own version of the dish. Harboring an overly liquefied textured with a complete absence of chunky goodness, as well as an overpowering flavor of mustard, the salad itself proved unimpressive, while the bread that sandwiched it lacked substance on the inside and supplied too much crustiness on the outside. Certainly, the sandwich did not taste bad, but I tend to become rather critical of and annoyed with restaurant dishes that I could have easily created at home with more success.

busboys and poets (e)

Happily, the sandwich I ordered offered Emily and I more gastronomic pleasure that did the Vegan Tuna Salad. B&P’s Tempeh Panini boasts thin slices of juicy tempeh complimented by succulent caramelized onions, roasted red peppers, nicely wilted arugula, and vegan mayonnaise, all sandwiched between two slices of hearty, seeded, whole-grain bread. The only criticism I harbor with this dish stems from my experience as a seasoned veteran of cooking up delectable tempeh bacon (if you’d like the tastiest tempeh recipe on the planet, please follow this link). Though the tempeh held a quite pleasing, chewy, and (dare I say) meaty texture, I found it’s flavor a bit lacking in depth, with a distinct note of soy sauce predominating. On a rather nitpicky side note (haha, puns!), I also would have preferred that my side salad come a bit more well-dressed.

busboys and poets (g)

busboys and poets (f)

Emily and I opted to forgo dessert on this particular night, but B&P does offer a tantalizing selection of vegan treats, including an out-of-this-world cheesecake, as highly recommended by our waitress.

Vegan cheesecake. Photo borrowed from the B&P website.

All in all, I found quite delightful my first encounter with the truly progressive, trailblazing, and unique establishment of Busboys and Poets. I wholeheartedly intend to pay the B&P team another couple of visits, both to enjoy their community poetry nights and to sample more of their yummy vegan fare—pan-seared basil tofu with quinoa, roasted vegetables, and tomato cream sauce, anyone?

The next restaurant on my list of veg-friendly DC eateries: Le Pain Quotidien.

Until next time, Ali.

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