The Vegan Hood Chefs Serve Up Sucka-Free Cuisine in San Francisco

Rheema Calloway and Ronnishia Johnson celebrate their lifelong community, culture, friendship, and what it means to be a Black vegan.

Rheema Calloway and Ronnishia Johnson of the Vegan Hood Chefs food truck
Rheema Calloway (L) and Ronnishia Johnson (R) of the Vegan Hood Chefs. Photo: Sabrina Sellers

"'Cause we kick much ass at the Sucka Free Club."

I was born in San Francisco in the summer of 1994, the same year that San Francisco musician Rappin' 4-Tay released his song "Playaz Club." This particular lyric became an underground anthem and rallying cry for longterm San Francisco residents who watched their streets and communities gnawed away by gentrification. Flash forward 28 years later and The Vegan Hood Chefs' Sucka-Free Salad — a beautiful medley of perfectly crispy fried oyster mushrooms, ripe avocado, zesty pickled onion, and creamy aioli with garlic and chives — stands center stage on their menu. It's a daily reminder for the truck's chef-owners, Rheema Calloway and Ronnishia Johnson, of what their city and true cooking are all about.

The Vegan Hood Chefs parked outside out 7 Stars Holistic Healing Center for a pop-up
The Vegan Hood Chefs parked outside out 7 Stars Holistic Healing Center for a pop-up in Richmond, California. Sabrina Sellers

"This lyric "means to keep it real, stay 10 toes down," says Johnson, who hails from Bayview and Calloway from Lakeview in San Francisco. "It sounds like gibberish to someone who doesn't understand where we're coming from, but that's our lingo, that's our culture. It means to move with intentionality. Our business isn't just a vegan business; we're intentional about who we're serving, why we're serving them, what we make, and why we make it."

For Calloway and Johnson, who've been best friends since the ninth grade, the journey to opening The Vegan Hood Chefs in 2017 started with a health scare in college that geared Johnson to veganism. But when talk first started circulating about the duo opening up a completely vegan food business after both growing up in households with soul food — where quintessential dishes relied on the umami from animal products — they were met with trepidation. The exact response from a particular loved one: "Oh, y'all crazy as hell."

The Vegan Hood Chefs’ “Poke Fries”: Fresh papaya “poke” marinated in coconut Mario’s and spices on top of crispy potato fries topped with fresh seaweed, hearts of palm “crab”, wasabi mayo, spicy mayo, and microgreens.
The Vegan Hood Chefs’ “Poke Fries”: Fresh papaya “poke” marinated in coconut Mario’s and spices on top of crispy potato fries topped with fresh seaweed, hearts of palm “crab”, wasabi mayo, spicy mayo, and microgreens. Sabrina Sellers

Oh, y'all crazy as hell.

There was an underlying reason why this business seemed so out of the blue despite Black cooking highlighting the diverse use of plants for generations. Many people imagine the word "vegan" and picture access to fresh produce, specialty ingredients, an entire Whole Foods section of the latest packaged-goods brands. What doesn't come to mind is a neighborhood with over 19,000 people and only two large-scale grocers in the entire zip code, a community that struggles to have access to healthy food options. A place of food apartheid — which is hard to fathom in San Francisco, one of cities with the highest cost of living in the United States. Yet, the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood exists and it's where Calloway and Johnson are from.

"We're The Vegan Hood Chefs. Not only are we interrupting the normal, but also the community that is looked to," says Calloway "People look at veganism as a white thing. But we're reclaiming that it's not. In our culture and our community a lot of us eat plant-based. We have for generations back home. We are able to interrupt how the system is intentionally trying to not allow us to have access to healthy food options."

Jerk Lions Mane Mushroom Artisan Pizza with grilled pineapple, red onions, avocado, and sautéed kale and Swiss chard
Jerk Lions Mane Mushroom Artisan Pizza with grilled pineapple, red onions, avocado, and sautéed kale and Swiss chard. Sabrina Sellers

When you stop by The Vegan Hood Chefs' truck and you're handed the creamiest Cajun Mac and Cheese, tangy Mango Habanero Jackfruit Wingz, smokey Bourbon BBQ Pulled No Pork or their award-winning shatteringly crispy Vegan Chickn you taste the recipes from the kitchen's of Calloway's and Johnson's grandmothers' and their culinary journeys from Louisiana to San Francisco — just with different ingredients.

"Because we're still here fighting, we're able to amplify and show folks really what the culture of the Bay area is as well as the culture of this business," says Calloway. "You get that in our food. The resilience of the culture. What it means to be a Black vegan from the Bay Area."

Rheema Calloway chopping tomatoes in the Vegan Hood Chefs food truck.
Rheema Calloway chopping tomatoes in the Vegan Hood Chefs food truck. Sabrina Sellers

Aside from incredible food, you also get to see two best friends messing around and having fun, rebuilding a neglected community, and re-writing the narrative of what it means to be vegan. With the rise of vegan restaurants and pop-ups in every major metropolitan city, it could be argued that this concept could have been born in any city. But San Francisco is what makes The Vegan Hood Chefs special and The Vegan Hood Chefs are part of what makes San Francisco special. You walk away from that truck feeling like you've been taken care of. The moment you step up to that window, you become a part of their family. Whether it's for a quick bite on the way back to work or a slow moment to yourself where you just want to indulge, Calloway and Johnson are there for you.

While San Francisco has changed a lot in my 27 years, some for the better, some for the not so better. One thing hasn't: within this seven-mile by seven-mile hilly city, often cuddled by Karl the Fog, the stories within the food community continue to illuminate. Whether you view The Vegan Hood Chefs' truck as a regular, a skeptic, or as a curious newcomer who wants to know why these plates of food look so damn good, you're getting a glimpse into how I've experienced this city my entire life: a vibrating metropolis of shakers, caretakers, cooks, and eaters on the streets making it happen. We all out at the Playaz Club.

Rheema Calloway and Ronnishia Johnson of the Vegan Hood Chefs
Ronnishia Johnson and Rheema Calloway of the Vegan Hood Chefs food truck in Richmond, California. Sabrina Sellers
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