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Photo by Barry Courter / The Cubano featured ham, mustard, cheese and pickles on Cuban bread warmed in a panini press.

Back in the day, the Willow Street Inn was a favorite neighborhood haunt for people looking for a cold beer and a great burger. It sat empty for many years, and was recently home to Mrs. Ki's Soulfood & Jamaican Cuisine, which offered some truly tasty food, by the way, but it was unable to stay open.

The location has reopened and the food could hardly be more different than what was served during any of its previous incarnations. The space is currently home to the city's first vegan deli, the Willow St. Deli.

It is owned by Linley Hollywood, who calls herself "The Local Seitanist," which is a clever nod to the many items she makes with seitan, which is a popular meat substitute made from rinsing and cooking wheat dough to remove the starch.

Like tofu, which is a bean or soya curd, seitan can take on many flavors, including beef, turkey and ham. Hollywood uses it to make sandwiches, which she sells cold as part of her grab-and-go items or warm for dine-in patrons.

Hollywood began making and selling her own seitan at local markets a couple of years ago, and it proved very popular, which is easy to understand because it is delicious. You can get roast beef, turkey, "bakun" and pepperoni by the pound at the deli, in addition to on a sandwich.

If you go

› What: Willow St. Deli, 1306 S. Willow St.

› Hours: 9 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 9 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday

› Price range: $6.25 for slice of quiche, $7-$8 for sandwiches, $16 for a dozen deviled eggs

They also sell pies, sides, including deviled eggs, made with soy and pea protein and a house-made aioli.

I decided to go the day they opened with Brad Steiner and Hillary Libby, both vegetarians, though she was strictly vegan for many years as well. I also tried to eat a plant-based diet for many months awhile back, so I am somewhat familiar with the reasons behind choosing to eat healthy foods and the challenges that come with it.

Access to quick, take-and-go foods is one of them, so having a vegan deli should be good news for many. In fact, there was a pretty steady line of customers during our visit.

We all agreed before visiting the restaurant that we needed to take into consideration that it was opening day for the deli. There is always a learning curve and kinks to work out, and this proved to be the case.

The staff was still learning the menu and the order-taking process, and we were not asked if we wanted drinks, something we didn't realize until we sat down, for example. The very first thing we noticed was a lack of music playing when we walked in. It made everyone whisper as if we were in church and created an uncomfortable vibe.

These are all things that are easily fixed.

 

THE ORDER

I got the Cubano ($7), she got the Beef & Cheddar ($7) and he got got the Zesty Italian ($8) sandwiches and a side of pasta salad and green been casserole ($11.98 for the two). The Cubano, with "pork," mustard, vegan cheese and pickles was the most polished of the three and was good.

Brad and Hillary both agreed their sandwiches were good, but dry, needed some added sauce, and they would have been better served hotter.

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Contributed Photo by Brad Steiner / The Zesty Italian had lettuce, sauce, onions and three types of seitan to mimic the ham, pork and turkey found in the meat variety of the sandwich.

We shared the sides and agreed they were both really good, with the garlic pushing the green bean casserole to the forefront flavorwise. We ordered the sides almost as an afterthought after realizing the sandwiches didn't come with anything.

After finishing those off, we got a couple of chocolate chip cookies, which are worth going there for on their own.

We didn't try the croissants on this trip, but commented several times that we will in the future. They are the size of house cats and are made with slow-churned cultured vegan butter and are filled with dark chocolate and brushed with a "honee" glaze, according to the deli's Facebook page.

Because it was the day before Thanksgiving, Brad also got a prepared box ($14.99) to go with roasted carrots and Brussels sprouts, maple pecan crust sweet potato bake, stuffing, potato salad and sliced seitan (turkey).

 

THE SPACE

I visited the old Willow Street Inn 40 years ago and to see it today is pretty great. It still has the exposed brick walls and red-and-white checkerboard tile floor that I remember, but it is cleaner, brighter, friendlier and more inviting. There are four booths, a long family-style table and a couple of comfy chairs in a corner by the door. You order at the counter and your food is brought to your table.

 

THE VERDICT

Having a vegan-only deli appears to serve a need among the plant-only-eating folks who live here. Having a place where you can get a ready-made sandwich on the go is also a bonus.

It seems to me people look at vegan and vegetarian cuisine in a couple of ways: Is it a substitute for its meat-based counterpart? Does the veggie burger taste like a beef burger, for example. Are there plenty of choices? Not every vegan or vegatarian has the same palatte or dietary needs.

For me, it really comes down to one thing: Is it good? What I had at Willow St. Deli was good. Good enough to get me back there to try other items and to see how it grows and develops.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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