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Powered By Plants – the city’s top vegan eats

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After building a cult following of loyal foodies through social media, Eric Ma of Tofu Louie is returning the favor by attending a soft opening of Pierogi Mountain in German Village. “The vegan scene in Columbus is awesome. It seemed like it was gonna last for two, three years but it just blew up,” he says, just one week after his Ramen Pop-Up at & Juice Co in Clintonville. “Now people have a hard time deciding where they’re gonna go some weekends, but there’s enough of a demand where we’re not competing with each other.” 

Mentioning the NoTuna wrap at Portia’s Cafe and wild breakfast sandwich at & Juice Co. as local favorites, Ma reflects on a time before the vegan industry blossomed in Columbus, when the idea of Tofu Louie originated—just after his wedding. 

“At the time, I got married down at the courthouse,” he says. “After the courthouse, we went to the Food Truck Festival and we couldn’t find anything to eat, at all, really. We did, but it was like, ‘Yeah, you can have this taco with nothing on it’.”

The disappointment of the lack of plant-based options prompted the concept of a vegan food truck, but was reconceptualized with a little help along the way. “It wasn’t like I was cooking for the idea of a business, but cooking for my wife and myself. I stumbled onto a lot of recipes, so we were spitballing a lot of ideas. We couldn’t afford a food truck, so we decided to go into the festival circuit,” he says. “Portia [Yiamouyiannis] from Portia’s Cafe, she kind of mentored me a little bit in the beginning. She kicked my butt in gear to do it, because there were a lot of fears. Like, ‘Oh, what if I fail? What if this, what if that?’ and she’s going ‘Yeah, you’re gonna fail, that’s how you learn. Nothing’s gonna fall into place perfectly for you to just walk down that road.” 

Eric Ma of Tofu Louie (photo by Brian Kaiser)

Following Tofu Louie’s first paid gig at the Columbus Asian Festival, the food stand continued to show at bustling events such as the Doo-Dah Parade and Stonewall Pride, creating an influx of social media followers before taking off in late 2018.

“When I did [my first] pop-up at Two Dollar Radio, a bunch of people showed up. When I did Sushi Night at Two Dollar Radio, a bunch of people showed up. So that was confirmation, like, things are happening now,” Ma says.

Most recently, Tofu Louie held a “Vegan Hot Chicken Makeover,” complete with “Nochicken” and waffles, Angry Baker pop-tarts, and the Portia Louie BLT, a sweet and savory creation that sent customers hankering for more.  

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While Ma is well-versed in partnering with vegan businesses in Columbus, he’s recently become invested in expanding his food palette through traveling. After his grandmother’s passing last year, he decided to visit countries in Asia. With an open mind and empty stomach, he was ready to savor anything that he could recreate once returning home. 

“Here in Columbus, some of the ethnic Asian foods are pretty watered down, they’re for the American palette. Going to [Singapore], it’s nice when I don’t have to go, ‘Hey, make it extra spicy,’ because it’s already spicy, it’s already there,” he says. “These people, they’ve perfected these recipes through generations of family-owned food stands […] and sometimes they only have three things on the menu, but it’s well-perfected and that’s what people go for.”

During his visit, Ma was lead to a wholesale grocery market where he decided to make his own version of Laska, a shrimp-based noodle bowl. Instead Ma used bean sprouts, tofu puffs, cucumber, fried shallots and chili paste. “At one point, I was smashing lemongrass with a rock, trying to grind it down. It didn’t work at all, so I just hand mixed it, which was a pain in the ass to do,” he says.

Back home, the imaginativeness of Tofu Louie is still flowing, as Ma has yet to run out of ideas for future pop-ups. While he’s enjoying the fruits of his labor, he doesn’t yet want to establish his own brick and mortar, as he’s still perfecting his craft. “It’s not like I don’t want to work hard in a restaurant. But right now, if I have the opportunity to bounce all over the place and really get these experiences, I can really contribute more to the vegan scene,” he says. “I want to contribute what I grew up with. I still have my western food, my mac and cheese, my reuben sandwiches, but I want [customers] to eat it and fill up their soul, essentially.”

Next, Ma wants to introduce vegan mavens to the mouth-numbing intensity of Szechuan peppercorn. “I try to make everything almost from scratch, because I feel like I’m a gatekeeper for what goes into your body and I feel like I’m in control over that,” he says. “I kind of want to cultivate this thing where, essentially I don’t want to be tied down. I have this creative energy going right now and I want to keep running with it.”

To keep up with Tofu Louie, follow it at @tofulouie.

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What it’s like to work at Buckeye Donuts for 24 hours straight

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It was late. I didn’t plan it. It just happened. It always just happens, right? I don’t recall many of the details, but I know I left happy and satisfied, with a big smile on my face. From that moment on, I was in love—with Buckeye Donut that is.

For the uninitiated (assuming there are any of you out there) Buckeye Donuts is a 24 hour restaurant located in the campus area, on High Street. It’s a place to grab a quick meal on the cheap. But for a Columbus girl like me, Buckeye Donuts is so much more than just a place to eat. It’s a local institution. Nothing says “home” to me more than driving down High Street and spotting its big, red sign with the picture of a giant donut on it.

Buckeye Donuts is a gathering place to sit and talk about the weather, politics, or just about anything else on your mind over a plate of some very satisfying, down home comfort food. Eat there often enough, and the staff will start treating you like family.

So, one day, when my editor magazine came up with the idea to write about some of Columbus’ finest round the clock institutions, I shared my idea: I would try my hand at working there—for 24 hours straight! “Go for it,” he said. Somehow, the good folks at Buckeye Donut agreed, and before I knew it, I was there, ready to make it happen.

First Shift
“Go wash up or put some gloves on,” says Jimmy, the owner of my new place of employment for the next 24 hours. I chose the first option and headed off to the bathroom at the back of the kitchen, where I scrubbed like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator. Beats a pair of latex gloves, two sizes too big for my hands.

7:00am
1970’s disco pours out of the sound system. The percolator pops in time to the beat as coffee bubbles out onto the burner. Bacon and eggs hiss and sizzle on the grill. Cookware clatters. Above the chaos, Jimmy’s mom Tula shouts out orders in Greek. It’s busy and the breakfast crowd is full of regulars. Jimmy introduces me to one named Johnny Boy. Johnny Boy has eaten there every day—sometimes twice a day—since the place opened in the 1970’s. He drinks ten coffees a day and eats four donuts.

7:30am
I meet Yanni, the head baker. He has been working here since 1977. He holds out a floury hand for me to shake. He is a master donut maker and
the backbone of the operation. I also meet Victor and Miguel, the first shift cooks. They are master chefs in their own right and their grill game shows it. I can already tell they will be great teachers.

8:00am
Jimmy asks me if I am ready to try my hand at preparing a couple of orders. Um, no. He convinces me to frost some freshly baked Buckeye Donuts instead. The iconic item is a crowd favorite, along with newer offerings like the maple bacon cream filled variety. Beside me, dough is being rolled out in giant sheets and glazes of all sorts are being prepared in vats. Frosting donuts seems simple enough: fill a spoon and spread. It melts on contact and oozes down the sides and onto the countertop, leaving me with a chocolate mess. Yanni comes to my rescue.

8:30am
I switch to the grill and squirt a generous amount of liquid butter (literally the grease that keeps the wheels of Buckeye Donut spinning) onto the surface. My first hash browns look decent but I flub the omelet flip, so into the trash can it goes. Victor nudges me aside and prepares a textbook version.

10:30am
The restaurant slows down enough for Jimmy to give me a crash course on sandwich prep. I do my best to turn out gyros, Philly steak and Greek sausage. After rolling five or six, I feel like I’ve got the hang of it. At least, if I’m making one order at a time.

11:00am
Lunch break. I have the falafel wrap—a pita filled with grilled veggies, onion, lettuce, tomato and tahini sauce. It’s pretty good, but the falafel is overcooked and the wrap comes undone, causing some to land in my lap. I’ve got no one to blame but myself—I made it.

12:30pm
The lunch rush is in full swing. Johnny boy is back, along with another regular, known as Yanni the Maintenance Guy. He got this name because he fixes things at the restaurant as often as he eats there. Jimmy pauses from his orders long enough to tell me the story about the time Andy, a nightshift manager who happens to live upstairs, passed out drunk with his shower running. Water came pouring through the kitchen ceiling right in the middle of donut production. It was Yanni who came and saved the day.

Second Shift
16 hours to go! My feet hurt and my face is greasy but thanks to all the donuts I’ve sampled, my blood sugar is soaring and I’m feeling pretty damn good.

5:00pm
The dinner crowd has begun to arrive and Dave and Gary, the second shift cooks are getting ready for action. “Want to clean the grill” Dave asks? Ugh. I roll up my sleeves and do it. Shower please!

6:00pm
Some other important customers have arrived. My kids. One laughs. The other two look shocked. Do I look that bad? I serve them perfectly formed glazed donuts and milk – no doubt the best ones I have made all day.

6:30pm
The dinner rush is still going strong. The next order is mine and I’m shaking. Seating is limited, so the goal is always to get people in and out quick. I give it my best shot.

7:30pm
My best friend shows up and I fix her a perfect veggie wrap and fries. She is impressed. Thank goodness somebody is!

Third Shift
It’s getting late and I’m getting nervous. Not too much longer before the crazies start coming. During a brief lull, the night crew takes a moment to tell me about the time a baller limo pulled up at 2am and Prince got out. “He spent half an hour in the bathroom and then ordered donuts for his entire entourage,” they explained.

11pm
The calm before the storm. As I brace myself for the bar rush, I remember that today just happens to be Friday the 13th. I start thinking about every horrible thing my friends and I did to restaurant employees back when we were teenagers. My karma is coming for me. I can feel it. I pray silently that Curtis, Bunny and the rest of the late crew will have my back.

Midnight
I dare not sit down for fear of falling asleep. I start to open my heart and mind to the coming chaos. I need it. It’s my only hope of staying awake.

2am
The witching hour is well in the rearview. And just like that, they start to come. The talk is louder and orders crazier than during the day. There are tables full of booze soaked college students. Laughter rings out and F-bombs fly. The place is packed and I help out in the kitchen. My wraps are Instagram-worthy! Bring it on!

3am
An OSU t-shirt wearing kid orders and a few minutes later, his food is in his lap He is hunched over. I have come to call this the Buckeye Donut lean. He’s pale and in bad shape. Gary, the late cook fixes him a new plate, on the house. Once he gets some of it in his stomach, his color improves and smiles woozily at his friends. Thankfully, it all stays in his belly and he and his wasted buddies hit the door. All hail Gary, the savior of the night shift.

4 am
The late rush is over and the staff receives deliveries. Yanni is back and donut production is in full swing again. Overall, it was a pretty tame night. No fights or thrown food. Everyone who works at Buckeye Donuts has stories. “Back in the old days, the cops would typically come rolling in around midnight, and the ambulance would get here by two,” Gary explains. But for now, all is well.

5-6am
This period is little more in my memory now than a distant and faded spell of delirium punctuated by black coffee. I recall my ramblings on a litany of subjects ranging from the bizarre to the intellectual only because I’ve recorded them in voice memo.

7am
I made it! 24 hours at Buckeye Donut! Jimmy is back and he slaps me a high five. I stumble to the bathroom sink where I had scrubbed in the morning before, splash water on my grease soaked face and somehow manage to drive home.

After 24 hours on the inside, I can still say that Buckeye Donut is one of my favorite places to eat. Why? Because its more than just a place to grab food. It’s an experience. It’s filled with people from all walks of life, all looking for a little bit of happiness and community—like a microcosm of the city itself. And although its not always perfect, it’s a beautiful thing. Just ask Jimmy.

Oh, and if you have never been there, get going! Trust me, you will never forget your first time.

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“Eco-chic” healthy eats restaurant opening in Easton

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Searching for the truth? Find it at Easton's newest restaurant.

True Food Kitchen is a relaxed, "eco-chic," health-conscious food chain opening at 4052 Worth Ave. this spring, according to the company website.

Without sacrificing flavor, creativity, or indulgence, True Food Kitchen offers vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-friendly options on its brunch, lunch, and dinner menus.

Guests can enjoy their gluten-friendly Lasagna Bolognese or vegetarian pizza from the bright dining area or outdoor covered patio.

Craving a cold libation with your meal? Hit up the scratch bar featuring fresh-pressed fruit and vegetable juices, seasonal cocktails, local beer, and wine.

To learn more about True Food Kitchen Columbus, click here.

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Tastebud Traveling: Free tasting event coming to North Market

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Take a family tastebud trip with the return of Kalamata’s Kitchen Tasting Tour at the North Market this weekend.

Kalamata’s Kitchen will kick off a 12-month, 12-city tasting tour in Columbus on Saturday, February 22. This premier event for kids and families will feature tasty bites from North Market vendors representing food from around the world.

According to a release, every child participant is treated like a VIP as they discover new foods and learn about unique perspectives from celebrated chefs. Kids receive a VIP badge and a Food Adventure Passport that is stamped each time they try a new food. They will also have the opportunity to meet Sarah Thomas, co-founder and author of the Kalamata’s Kitchen book series.

This event is free and open to the public.

For more information, visit kalamataskitchen.com and/or northmarket.com.

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