I like vegan food.
I feel like that's an important place to start this conversation. I spent a good chunk of my teens and early 20s as an on-again off-again vegetarian. Today, I'm closer to a pescatarian than a true omnivore, but most of my meals are plant based. I'll routinely opt for vegan cheese and butter if it's not inconvenient.
And convenience is key. The reason I don't adopt a more committed vegetarian lifestyle is because it's hard to manage in Charlotte, especially if you're a food critic.
That's why NoDa's new vegan South African restaurant Oh My Soul was among my most anticipated 2020 openings. Charlotte is in need of more flavorful, focused takes on vegan cuisine. Bean on Independence is excellent, but too out of the way. Living Kitchen has been going downhill for years.
I empathize with Charlotte vegans. They're more excited about Oreos than anything Charlotte is serving up.
A dedicated vegan restaurant with international flair in the heart of NoDa was an exciting prospect. Emphasis on "was."
Oh My Soul is a Flop-Tart. Typical early opening jitters such as long wait times and poor service are magnified by just about everything else going wrong. The atmosphere is garish. The decor is pretentious. The furniture looks like it was found in a dumpster. The dining room is poorly organized.
The core of the problem is the food. Seasoning ranges from non-existent to bizarrely mismanaged with nothing in between.
Everything that could be wrong is currently wrong. The sins pile up minute by minute. This domino effect sends Oh My Soul tumbling into my Worst Restaurants in Charlotte list.
From the outside looking in, Oh My Soul is adorable.
Its homey vibes feature a wrap around porch, picket fence, and a back patio where fresh herbs are grown.
Along with Goodyear House [5.2] down the street, I could see this stretch of converted houses in NoDa becoming a cozy restaurant row. Imagine 10-12 restaurants all in converted homes. I'd like to get an early submission on what we could call it: The Neighborhood. Such a thing would be a legitimate tourist attraction and a major signature to Charlotte's chances as a nationally relevant dining scene.
It would feel so warm, so welcoming.
However, once you step inside, Oh My Soul doesn't seem interested in feeling welcoming.
Listen, my reasons for avoiding meat are purely ethical. I don't believe humans should kill and eat animals in the way we do.
But the manner in which Oh My Soul educates on its vegan ethos is aggressive, condescending, and with all the smug shock value of a 14 year old putting a Bible in the fiction section at his local Barnes and Noble.
A pillar in the center of the dining room drops a list of celebrity vegans with the celestial authority of Moses climbing down Mount Sinai with the 10 Commandments.
Elsewhere, large swaths of the wall are taken up by chalkboards listing every single reason why you're a horrible human being if you eat, wear, or use animal products. You'll be blamed for everything from cancer to climate change to deforestation.
The standout is a wall of animal ear tags with photos of pigs, a cow, and sheep with the heading "Every number had a beautiful face." Talk about depressing.
The decor misses the mark that Atlanta's SluttyVegan strikes so well. SluttyVegan is fun and cool in its education, like your hip older brother who just got home from his first semester at college. He introduces you to alternative rock, leftist politics, and by the way, he doesn't eat meat anymore because it harms the environment.
Oh My Soul is more like if that brother now thinks he's better than you, spends more time talking down to you than teaching you, and is just generally a gigantic tool.
Hanging plants and flowers attempt to rescue the decor, but the harsh florescent lights make everything look like a gas station. The chairs and tables are cheap, but look downright decrepit under these lights. The owners need to replace the light setup immediately.
Me and my dining partner were sat at a table that's inexplicably placed in the checkout area.
This tiny table forces you to dine with to-go shoppers trying to order two feet away from you, and is sandwiched snugly between the drink cooler and the bar. This table needs to be thrown out. This corner of the restaurant is too small to justify it. Anyone who eats at that table will feel claustrophobic.
In the 30 minutes we waited for water, we decided to ask to be moved. At this point, our server asked us to repeat our order. We had "vish" and chips and a Waka Waka "vurger."
From the time we walked in to the time our food arrived, the wait was 1 hour and 3 minutes.
I mention this with the caveat that I understand it takes a little while for new restaurants to get their timing right.
Since we were starving, we asked for an order of coleslaw to tide us over. It never came. Our server later told us that since the vish and chips already came with coleslaw, she assumed we'd share it and wouldn't need the extra one, so she didn't ring it in.
Here's my advice to all servers: if a customer asks for something, either bring it, or explain why you can't bring it. Don't decide for yourself to not bring it based on some barely cogent thought process. If we wanted to share one coleslaw, we wouldn't have asked for an extra serving.
Again, if it was just this one thing, it would be fine. However, my order was also missing the sweet potato fries I'd asked for and came without tartar sauce.
There are some misses that make sense. Forgetting tartar sauce for fish and chips is not one of them.
I wondered if maybe Oh My Soul was more interested in hiring "beautiful souls," as its job postings describe, rather than competent waitstaff.
Our server was friendly enough, and everyone we interacted with seems nice. Perhaps they just had an off night. Either way, for the record, I've never had so many mistakes in one meal at a restaurant.
Geez, I haven't even gotten to the food yet. It's horrendous.
I purposely avoid posing food when I take photos of it.
I'll rotate the plate to a pleasing angle to avoid shadows, and I'll try to highlight texture, but I don't believe it's the job of a food critic to take PR snaps of a restaurant's food.
In this case, I felt so bad for how the food looked, I broke my own rule and rearranged the food on the plate as best I could. I thought there was no way it could taste as bad as it looked, and I wanted to give it a fair shake. At this point, despite the wait, the poor service, and the atmosphere, I still had high hopes for a flavorful, plant-based dinner.
These meals may be cruelty-free, but there was one animal who was tortured for it, and it was me trying to choke it down.
The "vish" is made from banana blossom. I asked what the breading was made of, but the kitchen refused to tell me. Seriously. Whatever it is, it's about as salty as sardines. I love salt, and will often say most dishes don't have enough, but this made me cringe as I tried to eat it.
The "vurger" was bland and soggy. You can find better vegan burger in the frozen foods section of Trader Joe's.
The fries, both crinkle and sweet potato, were oily and tasteless.
The tartar sauce I waited so long for had way too much vinegar. That's right: too much vinegar for fish and chips.
It was without a doubt one of the worst meals I've ever had in Charlotte.
I found it hard to believe that the food could be that bad. Just to give them another shot, I returned a week later and grabbed a "vicken" and waffle sandwich.
If I have to hear one more meal described with a V, I'm going to voot myself in the vead.
The vicken and waffle sandwich features soggy lettuce and tomato that tastes none too fresh. A plant-based restaurant without fresh veggies is unforgivable. The waffle is soggy and not sweet, like eating a flip flop.
The vicken itself is the only redeemable thing about Oh My Soul so far. It was seasoned decently and played well with the tangy mustard. There was another crunchy thing on the dish that tasted kind of like Thanksgiving stuffing, but it isn't listed on the menu so I'm not sure what it is.
I think the staff at Oh My Soul are well-intentioned people who are excited to be a part of a great neighborhood. It's not easy to say critical things about people like that.
But the experience I had at Oh My Soul goes deeper than new restaurant jitters. Everything is off. I don't know if it's that the kitchen staff aren't vegan and thus aren't used to cooking without animal fat, or if it's that the business practices the owners employed in South Africa are significantly different from what they have to practice in America.
Either way, something is fundamentally wrong here. No restaurant can accidentally be this bad.
Oh well. Maybe SluttyVegan will open a Charlotte spot soon. Please.