Yes, it can be done.
East Carolina BBQ is discussed reverently by those who grew up on it and love it. The vinegar-based sauce and the shreds of pulled pork add up to something bigger than its component parts. And even if you become a vegetarian as an adult, you still can have food nostalgia for the food you ate as a child. Or at least, that's what happened to chef Caroline Morrison, who missed the BBQ she grew up with in North Carolina and set out trying to recreate it with soy and ingenuity. "I was missing those textures and flavors. I just missed the chew of BBQ, the smoky saltiness and the flexibility. Putting the BBQ in different dishes, just the flavor it lends to other things and the complement it can be," explains Morrison. "I went on this quest of smoking every kind of soy or wheat gluten product that I could get my hands on or that I thought we could keep in supply. I came across a local product that's distributed out of Morrisville [NC] by a company called Delight Soy, and I found this blend of wood chips and one day I was like, this is it." She put on her hot gloves, and started pulling pieces of the protein apart, just like you would with smoked pork—and one of her signature dishes was born.
Tasting the Eastern NC Style BBQ Pulled "Pork" at Morrison's restaurant, The Fiction Kitchen, it's hard to convince yourself that you aren't eating the traditional version. The acidity from the vinegar, the slightly stringy texture of the protein, the peppery aroma—they all add up to the dish you know, except it's totally vegan. Morrison smokes the soy "slow and low" adding in her own recipe for an apple cider vinegar-based BBQ sauce. The Fiction Kitchen sits in a colorful space in downtown Raleigh, within a few blocks of famed local BBQ institutions like Clyde Cooper's Barbeque and The Pit, but they find every one of their 47 seats filled continuously during dinner service with fans of the vegan BBQ and other Southern concoctions given their signature no-meat treatment.
Miss eating fried chicken and waffles? The vegan waffle has plenty of bounce, and the crispy "chicken skin" would be welcome at any summer picnic. The Cornmeal Fried Oyster Mushrooms, served with a creamy vegan dill aioli, have more in common with the fried oysters that pepper the South than you might think (and are all too easy to pop in your mouth and keep eating).
"The fun thing about our menu is that it's very heavy on the Southern foods I grew up on," says Morrison. "But there is some Asian and Indian and Mexican influence." International-tinged favorites include the NC Peanut Noodle Bowl, which co-owner Siobhan Southern points to as a regular best-seller at the restaurant, and the Tinga Tacos, which eerily mimic a spicy chicken adobo filling.
The affordable menu is mostly vegan with the ability to change up some components upon request. For example, the house made nut-based cheeses can be replaced with the real dairy option for those who are dairy-friendly. "The tasting plate is pretty popular," says Morrison, noting that the cashew mozzarella can be swapped out for a locally produced smoked goat cheese.
The local influence on the restaurant goes beyond the commitment to regional produce and sourcing to the support of the Raleigh chef community, which has gone a long way in helping the restaurant get off the ground and gain traction for their vegan take on iconic foods like pulled pork. While Morrison notes that "I really think being a woman chef is hard in itself, and being a vegetarian woman chef adds to its challenges," she has enjoyed a very different, positive personal experience, pointing to her "camaraderie" with successful female chefs like James Beard-winner Ashley Christensen of Poole's Diner and Death & Taxes. "There was never any of this weird competition or weird coattail things. The busier we all are, the more business that's going to happen. The more we bring each other up…that support has been instrumental in our success."
The dining community has embraced the restaurant as well, which opened in early 2013 after building up a local following through pop-up events in the Raleigh area. The Fiction Kitchen doesn't take reservations, but you can kill time at neighboring Crank Arm Brewing Company, Videri Chocolate Factory, or even the tattoo parlor down the street (according to Southern, more than one customer has gotten a tattoo during his or her wait time). But once you dig into the rotating specials written in chalk above the small kitchen (small enough there is not even a walk-in refrigerator!) and order a vibrant Dirty Beetz cocktail (beet juice with vodka, lime and simple syrup), you won't consider a moment of the wait to be wasted time. Just leave room for the vegan cheesecakes or the occasional off-the-menu ice cream like the local peach and coconut milk scoops they were cranking out last week.
The Fiction Kitchen, 428 S. Dawson Street, Raleigh, NC, 919-831-4177