First taste: Early food offerings at Strongwater unite vegan, carnivore

Brad Keefe, Columbus Alive

Photos by Brad Keefe

A vegan and an carnivore walk into a bar …

On separate nights, Alive editor (and vegan) Justin McIntosh and I got an early taste of the food offerings at Strongwater Food & Spirits (401 W. Town St., Franklinton). Here are our thoughts. (Tonight is Strongwater's grand opening. Hours are Tuesday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-midnight and Friday-Saturday, 4 p.m.- 2 a.m.)

Justin: I was visiting a friend in Chicago this weekend and part-way through brunch one morning he remarked how fun it is to go out to eat with me because I get really excited about food in a way that he doesn't. As an omnivore, it's maybe easy to take for granted the options you have in a typical bar or restaurant. As a vegan, I get insanely excited about simple things like TACOS.

So when I saw vegan jackfruit tacos on the menu at Strongwater, well, I kind of freaked out.

Brad: The first thing that struck me about the menu is how evenly divided it is between vegan options and the meatiest of meats. Wings. Ribs. Chorizo.

And their vegan options are generally vegan from the ground up. Not just substituting tofu.

Justin: Right. And not just that, but they're creative options. Like jackfruit as a meat substitute. Like eggplant meatloaf.

Brad: I actually wanted to try most of the menu. Not just the half that you can't eat.

The M.A.T. (mushroom "bacon," arugula and tomatillo)

Justin: I tried as much as I could, and still fell short of all the vegan options available on the limited menu.

My wife and I went with the aforementioned jackfruit tacos as a small plate. Then I got the seitan reuben and she got the eggplant meatloaf sandwich. Which means we missed out on the quinoa sliders. Did you get to try those? If not, what was on your plate during this first go-round?

Brad: We started with the smoked wings. Because meat.

Also because I am saddened by the recent closure of Ray Ray's Wing Shack, so these may be my new go-to smoked wings. Great smokiness in the meat complimented with a habanero and red pepper glaze. Plus, they're whole wings for extra tendon-ripping carnivore points!

And the Strongwater Rye with the wings makes for some great habanero-on-habanero action.

Wings. Duh.

Justin: I had similar feelings toward the jackfruit tacos and the Strongwater Rye.

My wife's sort of a heat-pansy. She can't take much. I found the tacos fairly mild as far as spiciness goes, but combined with the rye, which I ordered neat because I'm a masochist, my mouth felt alive in a way it hadn't since I've been vegan probably.

As you can imagine, it's hard to find vegan barbecue.

I suggested to Strongwater owner Kris Howell the other night that he should consider using the jackfruit as a base in some vegan barbecue pulled "pork" sandwiches.

If he locks that down, I don't know that I'd ever leave Strongwater I liked it that much. My only complaint with our meal was the seitan reuben, which was a little tougher and chewier than I'd prefer. But, you know, they're still working that stuff out.

Were there any "growing pains" you experienced?

Chorizo and pear panini

Brad: Not really, although it was a light crowd, of course. And the bar has already been humming, so our bartender had it down.

I split the chorizo and pear panini - great flavor combination, great bread, predicting this will become a local favorite - and the M.A.T., which is basically a vegan B.L.T. with King Oyster Mushroom "bacon."

Any vegans who miss B.L.T. should be all over that ... it was pretty much a taste-alike. The only thing it didn't pull off was the crispiness of bacon.

Justin: Oh nice. I don't know that I saw the vegan B.L.T. on the menu Tuesday.

I'm not a mushroom person (though I'm trying!), but Angry Baker does (or used to) a B.L.T. with mushrooms that almost perfectly recreates that crispiness. I also recently had Whole World's vegan B.L.T., so I'm definitely on a kick.

Brad: Reminded me of something you'd get at The Chicago Diner.

Just a straightforward take on a meat-eater classic done vegan.

Justin: Oh definitely. I had similar thoughts Tuesday, though I actually ate at the Chicago Diner Saturday.

Brad: That said, I want to try the similar B.A.T., which features pork belly.

Justin: I was just complaining on Twitter the other day about the lack of creative vegan options in Columbus. I'm definitely pleased that Strongwater's filling that gap.

And even more pleased that omnivores like yourself loved their options.

Brad: What did you think of the space? I don't know why, but there's something about sipping bourbon in a bar while you watch a train whiz overhead. It's pretty cool.

Justin: Oh hell yeah! The trains!One of the first things I noticed.

The space, though, is magical. I like its history, the dim lights, the seating arrangements. I like the rooms off to the side, which I haven't fully explored.

I liked the colors. The old movies screening on a wall from a projector.

Brad: It's got a great speakeasy vibe that doesn't feel just tacked on. Just in terms of vibe, I think it's one of the coolest new spaces I've been in since Seventh Son, which also did a great job of repurposing a space.

Final verdict?

Justin: I'll be spending more time in Franklinton, that's certain. Strongwater will probably become my go-to place to take friends from out of town for a drink and food, especially knowing vegans and omnivores can happily coexist there.


Brad: It was already a great place for drinks and a chill evening. Definitely a great start on the food, and it's perfect bar grub. Should be a great draw to get people to check out Franklinton, too.