Meat-free Milk District eatery ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie.
It’s never been hard to be vegan. It’s been hard to enjoy being vegan. Until now. Add the Milk District’s Dixie Dharma to the growing list of standout eateries in Orlando making meat-free eating something to get excited about.
I enjoy all food. Blessing and a curse.
Blessing? I can always find something to eat and don’t feel let down if fleshy doesn’t find its way to my fork. Ask me to choose between a plate of ōtoro or porcinis & polenta and I’d choose the fucking ōtoro, of course. I’m not a madman. However, if the ōtoro were to vanish, I’d be all over those mushrooms. Like Trump on a tangent.
Curse? While foodie free-love has opened the door to several easy flings with vegetarianism, they were short lived affairs. I bore easily and – Indian aside – veggie vittles, particularly in the Southeast, have been historically dull, insipid and a slippery-slope invitation to wallow in bad habits. I’ve known plenty of vegetarian friends that would starve to death in a room full of broccoli – they survived on processed cheese, tortilla chips and bad weed.
So, 3 months here, 6 months there – my experiments doomed to failure. There were only so many hummus and roasted veggie wraps I could stomach before I wanted to stick a salami Glock in my mouth. Dining out offered zero respite. I recall an eatery (which will not be shamed here) that offered a full menu of tofu, wheat gluten and nut-cheese counterfeit cuisine, all of it tasting like bad marzipan and hitting the gullet like quick-dry cement.
These days are definitely not those days. Today, Orlando restaurants like Proper & Wild, the Sanctum Cafe, and Dixie Dharma are making vegan and vegetarian viably tasty ways to go about everyday eating.
Shaun Noonan is the man behind the Dixie Dharma goodliness machine. This review is focused on his first brick-and-mortar location, which is housed inside Market on South alongside vegan bakery, Valhalla. Noonan’s a recent runner up in Orlando Weekly’s annual awardapalooza for Best Chef and has the type of unsurprisingly surprising background one might expect from a vegan iconoclast. Hindu temples and Bulgaria. Tattoos and semi-trucks. Just ask him when you see him. His food speaks to his talent, but he speaks freely and easily to his customers. In interviews, he comes across as genuinely considerate and kind.
We love kind people. They are, by far, the easiest to take advantage of. And every time we visit Dixie Dharma, we feel like we’re pulling a fast one. Chili dogs, mac n’ cheese, home fries. Portions plentiful enough to trigger double takes. Lots of Southern-inspired fun stuff stripped of meaty downside. Sure, we know it’s not wakame-spelt bowls and collagen water, but it’s a far cry healthier than a fatty-mouthed hour spent at Bubbalou’s Bodacious BBQ (with all due respect to Bubba. Or is it Lou?)
Speaking of BBQ. On our first dance with Dharma, we focused on the basic steps – their big ole faux ‘cues to lifeless vegan eats – the classic Orange Bird ($11.50) and Carolina BBQ Pulled Jackfruit ($12.50) sammies. The Orange Bird comes packed with Florida orange “BBQ,” caramelized onions and house slaw on a garlic bun. A sloppy bit of satisfaction that’s brought together wonderfully with a garlicky saucy schmear. The Carolina BBQ, cooked in a cola reduction, bears zero resemblance to pulled pork and that’s perfectly OK. It’s a damn fine sandwich. A damn fine sandwich. Heady with crispy fried onions and popping with preserved lemon and house made garlic pickles.
We’re big fans of a proper fried green tomato – when frying is treated as an act of respect and not annihilation. The Florida Fried Green Tomato Sandwich ($11.50) at Dixie Dharma is among the best versions we’ve had in town. Actually, among the best versions we’ve had period. A gentle exterior crisp giving way to tart and fresh. Depth comes courtesy of a smoky eggplant remoulade and it’s brightened with garlicky kale and chow chow. Wow wow.
An Heirloom TLT ($10.50) was less successful – the tempeh too thick-cut and devoid of crisp – almost acting as an additional, unnecessary layer of bread. Ingredients are solid – arugula, lemon mayo, Texas toast, but tempeh sort of anchors the acronym, so a sandwich that needs tweaking.
I have a soft spot for chili dogs – Munch refers to it as my stomach. I grew up worshiping at the altar of the Carolina standard; chili, slaw, onion, and mustard. Nothing more, nothing less. Although, the Hillbilly Chili Dawgs ($12.50) at Dixie Dharma are far from the weens of my teens, they’ve quickly become a personal go-to – more than feeding my fix – especially when ‘upgraded’ with Beyond sausage. The Dharma dogs are turned on their ear a bit with charred onions, za’atar spice, and a pretzel bun. A party on a plate and one of my favorite vegan bites in town.
So, I stashed away a little space down here for side dishes as they’re reason enough alone to visit Dixie Dharma. There’s sides ($3) like Cajun Boiled Peanuts, Tater Salad and Braised Collards, then there’s fancy sides ($4). Fancy sides are where it’s at.
First and foremost – mac n’ cheese. Vegan mac n’ cheese. Many a thing’s thinginess depends entirely on its component things. But, here’s the thing. By twisting the lens, a clever eatery can change a thing by changing its things without changing its thinginess. Case in point: the Cashew Mac n Cheese at Dixie Dharma is a crazy creamy tasty kinda thing with all of the thinginess of the original thing but none of the thing that’s always made it such a thing. Got it? Get it. It comes in three styles – classic, garlic, and buffalo. Each is fantastic, but the buffalo with celery, chili and a ranchy type of drizzle stands out as our top pick. This is the first vegan mac we’ve eaten that we actually like. Like like-like. Zero need for cheese-cheese.
Crispy Brussels have been cooked perfectly every time we’ve eaten them but lean ever so slightly sweet for our taste. We still order and devour them religiously.
Finally, Cheesy Homies – home fries drizzled in ‘cheese’ – have been up and down, but when they’re up (hot and crispy), they’re way up.
So, bric-a-brac. There’s lighter fare, AKA salads, and the salads ($8-$9) are substantial and tasty – particularly a Hail Kale ($8) with blackened corn and pickled watermelon rind. There’s also tacos – we enjoyed a pulled jackfruit Tiki Taco ($4 a pop) with purple kraut, pineapple salsa, and coconut cream. All of the above? Good. But, none of the above are the best reasons to visit Dixie Dharma. If you’re gonna go, go whole fake-hog.
There’s always a tasty craft brew or three on tap (a few Persimmon Hollow drafts last visit), a selection of juices, southern style sweet tea and lemonade, and in keeping in the good graces of the probiotic secret police, kombucha. Caffeinated bits come courtesy of local coffee rock stars Wavelength Coffee. What else? What else? There’s fried pickle po’ boys on Wednesdays. Fun, right? The Dixie dudes and dudettes are consistently friendly and eager guides for the vegan-challenged. Ambience? Is what it is. Counter-order, stripped down hipster deli meets convenience/general store. The vibe gets a serious boost when cooler months make it possible to take advantage of the picnic tables on the front patio.
In sum, I used to judge vegan eats by their ability to satisfy like a meaty meal. But meat always seemed front of mind. I now have a slightly different measure. Vegan eateries where the meat-loving part of my brain simply deactivates. Dixie Dharma more than meets this measure and its concept seems to be resonating far beyond the non-walls of Orlando Eats. An outpost recently opened in the foodie fortress that is Armature Works in Tampa and another is slated to open soon inside Henry’s Depot, the food hall that’s been slowly taking shape in Sanford.
Let’s wrap with a quick, confident and drop-dead easy proclamation. Dixie Dharma is one of the best vegan eateries in Orlando. If you haven’t been, you don’t what you’re missing and when you go, you won’t know (or care) what you’re missing.