Santa Cruz is known for many things, but kosher restaurants are not among them. In fact, the last time the beach city of 65,000 had any kind of kosher eatery was a Noah’s Bagels, and no one remembers when it stopped being kosher; it could already be 20 years.
But now a new restaurant has taken up that mantle, becoming Santa Cruz’s only kosher restaurant. And it also happens to be vegan and gluten-free.
Veg on the Edge serves vegan versions of West African-inspired cuisine. Its owner is Akindele Bankole, who is of Nigerian descent — the Yoruba people, specifically — and is an active member of Chadeish Yameinu, Santa Cruz’s Jewish Renewal community. His business partners in the venture are Chadeish Yameinu’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Eli Cohen, and congregant Lynn LeRose and her husband, Edward Garner. Bankole’s son Deji is also involved.
The restaurant is certified kosher by Rabbi Chaim Leib Schneider, a Santa Cruz-based rabbi with Orthodox ordination and kashrut certification from Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of the Jewish Renewal movement.
For Bankole, who converted to Judaism in 2007, making the restaurant kosher was a natural extension of his values.
“I want this to be a place where people with special dietary needs can come,” he said. “Whether you are kosher or gluten-free or vegan, this is a place where you can easily choose from anything on the menu.”
Because Veg on the Edge is in a new downtown food court — called Abbott Square, adjacent to the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History — it shares dishwashing facilities with the other tenants. This means taking extra measures to ensure kashrut is maintained.
“This is a labor of love,” explained Bankole. “When I converted, I was suddenly aware that I can’t have that, or I can’t have that with that. I had to think about food in ways I never did before. So opening a vegan and gluten-free and kosher restaurant is just this added beauty being Jewish has given me. We don’t merely serve, we consciously serve.”
Bankole is the son of two doctors and grew up in Nigeria and Germany. He first became interested in Judaism while in Germany, learning about the Holocaust and the history of Jewish persecution, and then reading everything he could find about Israel. He first came to the U.S. to study at Sacramento State University and ended up staying.
As a child in Nigeria, he would bake cakes for family and friends, distributing them around the new year.
He worked at a McDonald’s while in college and ended up in a part-time managerial role for the company for 25 years, while at the same time doing marketing and consulting for an engineering company. He also became an opera singer, but that’s for another time.
A few years ago, he settled in Santa Cruz and began thinking about starting a juice bar, and that idea morphed into a vegetarian restaurant.
“We always thought Santa Cruz could use another vegetarian restaurant, especially one that’s kosher,” said Cohen, who supported the concept from the outset. “When we told people it would be vegan, they thought that was OK, but when we started telling people it would be West African, or vegan food with an African twist, then people’s ears really perked up. So ultimately that’s what it became.”
Bankole spent over two years in recipe development with a local chef, Jonathan Miller, coming up with vegan versions of the dishes he remembered from his childhood.
So what’s on the menu at Veg on the Edge?
Suya is the national dish of Nigeria, where it’s grilled meat on a stick, with a spicy seasoning. Veg on the Edge’s version features a ground peanut and black pepper spice combination, with shiitake mushrooms standing in for the meat. (The house burger, on a gluten-free bun, features the mushroom suya with a schmear of house-made cashew cheese, lettuce and tomato).
Moin moin is another popular dish in Nigeria. Made from mashed black-eyed peas, it is usually steamed in a banana leaf. Here it is made in a mold.
There are also sides like fried plantains and potato balls made with chickpea flour. Since peanuts figure prominently in African cuisine, the soup is a thick one made mostly from sweet potato and peanuts.
There are also some decidedly non-African items, like a black rice bowl with bok choy and mushrooms.
Bankole had several months of a soft opening and tweaked the menu considerably, and word has begun to spread. Gluten-free and vegan meet-up groups have gathered at the restaurant, and Jews from the Conservative community in the area have, too. While the kosher certification is not as strict as some (the restaurant is able to be open on Shabbat, since not all of the owners are Jewish), some guests have even come in with tzitzit.
“We’ve captured multiple niches and demographics of people in one location with what we’ve done,” said Bankole. “It’s been really hard work, but when we see what we’re providing, we know it’s worth it.”