What does Soul n’ Vinegar have in common with hotel lobby coffee shops hawking cellophane-wrapped turkey sandwiches that woefully stare at you from their icy coffins? Or those airport kiosks with day-old chef’s salads reluctantly purchased by red-eyed passengers between flights? The answer is: next to nothing.
Sure, technically speaking, Michelle Parrish’s new shop in the East End is also a “grab-and-go”: walk in, grab your selection from the cold case, pay at the counter, and go. But that term connotes something more transactional and impersonal. And Soul n’ Vinegar is neither of those things. In a sense, it’s more of a grab-and-go with the heart of a sit-down restaurant.
This 572-square-foot eatery, housed in a converted beauty salon, exudes the warmth of an old country store. Shelves are stocked with bales of dried rice noodles, gallon jugs of shoyu, jars of Lao Gan Ma spicy chili crisp, and other sundry goods — all of which are available for purchase, a delightful touch borne from a lack of kitchen storage.
Well-priced bottles of wine, around $10 apiece, are found in the refrigerated section, along with an array of prepackaged meals. The meals are thoughtfully curated, boxed, and labeled and neatly stacked and organized, one carton atop the other. Parrish cheerily explains the menu and assists patrons with their selections.
But Parrish’s food shop is more than a charming and inviting space; it’s also a place that’s passionate about the community it serves. Parrish, a Church Hill resident and recipient of a grant from the Supporting East End Entrepreneur Development program, is committed to bringing fresh, healthy, and affordable meal options that, until now, were missing from the surrounding East End neighborhood.
In fulfilling this promise to the community, Parrish delivers vibrant and thrilling flavors that reflect an abundance of care and pride for what she does. Her Vietnamese-style fresh spring rolls ($5), for one, have inspired the healthiest food craving I’ve had in years. I still can’t get enough of these rice paper-bound parcels, their thin, opaque wrappings as cold as skin kissed by fall morning air. Each bundle is bursting with a divinely-vinegary slaw of shredded carrot, purple and green cabbage, scallions, and cilantro, whose bright, vegetal flavors you can distinctly smell. When the rolls are dipped in a Lao Gan Ma-fortified chili oil, the coolness of the other ingredients magnifies, as if called to action by the fragrant, savory spice of the chili oil.
Like perfect picnic food made to enjoy cold or at room temperature, the tofu noodle bowl ($11) was alive with an array of textures, colors, and flavors, without the need for heat to coax it to life. Firm, leathery flaps of tofu, gilded with turmeric, lay atop a thicket of chilled rice noodles. Commingled with a lightly sweet peanut vinaigrette and starbursts of salted carrot slaw, pickled takuan radish, and bitter bok choy leaves, this dish had the light and delicately composed persona of an Asian noodle salad.
Other dishes, after a brief warming in the oven, were just as pleasing. The “General Tso’s” tofu bowl ($8) bore little resemblance to its namesake at Chinese-American takeout joints across the country. Parrish’s version was both savory and flavorful but not heavy. Dense blocks of fried tofu — coated in a slurry, the color of shiro miso paste — and charred, wrinkly-soft broccoli florets made for a wholesome and crave-worthy combination over rice. The tamari-based sauce, thickened with molasses, was redolent of ginger and sesame oil.
The blackened shrimp bowl ($11), meanwhile, brimmed with Southwestern-inspired flair. Nested over jasmine rice and set alongside quadrants of roasted sweet potato and purple-cabbage slaw were shrimp, thick with the foggy heat of cayenne. This assemblage of ingredients, tempered with creamy chipotle mayo, had the fresh vibe of a taco bowl.
And, like a paean to autumn’s bounty, the falafel bowl ($8) was adorned with a trail mix-like blend of butternut squash, pepitas, and dried cranberries sown into a grainy plot of quinoa and a hearty cluster of roasted brussels sprouts. Though fashioned into tiny cakes that were a bit too mealy in texture, the falafel radiated with herbs like parsley, mint, and cilantro that tasted as dazzlingly green as they looked. A smoky romesco sauce, rich with roasted red peppers, nicely tied everything together.
For dessert, I dare you to resist the strawberry shortbread ($4), with a thin, jammy filling of strawberry pressed between two buttery layers of shortbread. It was somewhere between a slice of strawberry pie and a buttered biscuit with strawberry preserves. The jam, poking out between each gap in the lattice-topped crust like the last rays of summer sun through the clouds, contributed just the right amount of homespun sweetness.
Unlike other grab-and-go joints in our new, so-called “convenience economy,” Soul n’ Vinegar isn’t founded upon a brand of speed and efficiency that reduces meaningful food experiences into faceless economic transactions. While offering the modern convenience of a grab-and-go, Parrish’s food shop doesn’t compromise on those things that make the food experience meaningfully human and personal — a welcoming atmosphere, thoughtful food, and a real sense of community.
Justin Lo writes freelance reviews for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram @justinsjlo.