Vegan Hills popped onto the gourmet food scene in early 2017 and quickly gained a loyal following. Then the place closed for remodeling a year later, leaving fans with nowhere to satisfy their Coco Cove coconut noodle soup addiction. Soon after reopening, it closed once again, almost for good. Herbivores and carnivores alike had gone wild for the plant-based menu, but inconsistency in service, hours and food offerings were disruptive.
Now, with a new general manager in Kellee Comeau, those rocky days may be behind us. On a recent visit, I received solid service while the menu offered palate-tingling delights.
Comeau was forthright in a recent e-newsletter about some dramatic changes. The previous manager left for other pursuits, and the current owner, head chef and kitchen staff are all new. They were handpicked by Comeau and the former head chef, and come from backgrounds in high-end establishments.
“I’ve loved this place since I first saw the sign go up, before it even opened,” said Comeau, a self-proclaimed foodie who originally signed on as a server. She said the menu is now focused on seasonal and local foods, while still highlighting the faves from its previous incarnation.
“We told the new crew they’d have to be creative and understand our philosophy of health, while proving that ‘vegan’ doesn’t mean going without. Why fund things that hurt the planet, animals and our bodies? My goal is to show everyone how awesome plant-based dining can be, and it’s working,” Comeau said.
“Most of our regulars aren’t vegetarian. They come in because their doctors are telling them to eat a healthier diet. What they find here is the closest thing to eating at a normal restaurant … and they keep coming back.”
One thing that has come with the recent changes is a new happy hour menu.
The white-walled ambience is minimalistic, which strikes me as stark, but it does let the beautifully prepared dishes take front and center. The servers have a pleasant, understated attentiveness, harkening back to the days when the place first opened a couple years ago, and not the over- or under-attentiveness that has marked it in the recent past.
The happy hour menu features smaller versions of items on the regular menu, as well as small plates not on the menu. Items will change often throughout the month.
On our visit, four dishes were offered: Mini Nachos ($8); Jack Slider ($4); Two Korean Street Tacos ($8) and Two Jackfruit Street Tacos ($8). The first two are smaller versions of the popular Why Not Chos? ($15) and the sliders (1 for $5, 3 for $14) on the regular menu. The latter two were fashioned just for happy hour.
There’s nothing mini about the happy hour nachos. Vegan Hills’ version is hearty and tasty — with cashew cream sauce and tofu sour cream on a bed of hearty corn chips topped with black bean chili, avocado, tomatoes, jalapenos and cilantro. As strange as tofu sour cream sounds, it does not taste like tofu, and adds moisture without being heavy. This medley is both dense with flavor and surprisingly light on the stomach, not at all what comes to mind when you think “vegan.”
Maybe it’s the pools of cashew cheese or the texture of the chili, but the nachos are more memorable than most regular servings of nachos I’ve had, and I’m a nacho fanatic.
The two kinds of tacos are similar, with soy kalbi in the Korean one and jackfruit in the other. Both are topped with purple cabbage and carrot slaw and an almond milk dressing. The Korean tacos are distinguished by the attractive red threads of chili, aka dragons’ whiskers, on top. The Korean version oozes with creamy tastiness and texture, but it’s the jackfruit I like best, with barbecue sauce set off by a topping of pineapple pico de gallo that refreshes the tongue with hints of sweetness.
Tortillas are gluten free and made in-house, as are 90% of the restaurant’s sauces.
The slider is similar to the jackfruit taco, with jackfruit in barbecue sauce along with slaw on a toasted mini ciabatta bun. It’s delicious, and the bun soaks up the sauce. I’d get a larger meal serving of the sliders, but for happy hour, I preferred the tacos.
With new owners, Vegan Hills is in the process of acquiring a new liquor license. That means that throughout June and July, mocktails are the drink du jour.
Vegan Hills offers a small handful of mocktails, all for $10 or less; during happy hour they are $2 off.
Sorry, cocktail-lovers. No BYOB in the meantime. Liquor will return to the menu in a few weeks.
Before the temporary prohibition, happy hour included $1 off shots and rocks pours, $2 off mimosas and wines by the glass and $3 off select cocktails.
I tried the Strawberry Margarita (regularly $12), made with organic tequila, and the Hills Mule (regularly $12) and the Mochatini (regularly $14), both made with organic vodka.
I also tried mocktail versions of the Strawberry Margarita and Hills Mule. The two without spirits carried the same flavor profiles as those with, minus the kick.
With the virgin margarita, I was able to slurp down the fruity cocktail. It was made with fresh lemon, lime and lilikoi juices, mixed with just-pureed strawberries and finished with a rim of zingy Tajin seasoning and slice of lime.
The virgin mule, with kombucha, ginger, calamansi and a sprig of rosemary, was even more quenching with its soft spice tones and fizziness.
The drink menu will change as new organic and sustainably farmed products become available.
At this delicious establishment, the happy hour menu offers a reasonably priced taste of Vegan Hills’ savory repertoire.
Decor is sparse, but the creative recipes for food and beverage make each visit an adventure.
3585 Waialae Ave.
Happy hour: 3-5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays