Da-Vi Em (26) launched her Murray Hillbilly concept at VegFest 2017 serving a limited menu of fried and bbq-inspired vegan dishes. “The response was overwhelming,” she recalls of that fateful day. “We were so swamped at our first event that we couldn’t keep up!” From there her craveable, comforting Southern fare with a vegan twist could be found via food truck at various events around town and always with a line.
Enter Ryan Strandjord (34) who fell head over heels for Da-Vi’s fried cauliflower sandwich while passing through Florida on a five month motorcycle tour documenting vegan restaurants. Ryan was so impressed, in fact, that he kept in touch with Da-Vi and ultimately relocated from Minneapolis. More than just a staunch supporter, Ryan’s past experience opening the first vegan butcher shop and the first vegan bodega in the US, helped Da-Vi transition the business from food truck to brick and mortar and launch the new digs with a bang. To raise money and awareness for the opening, the Murray Hillbilly crew stayed open around the clock, slanging vegan noms for 200 straight hours. The restaurant officially opened its doors at 1044 Edgewood South and the rest, as they say, is history.
With their restaurant, the duo want to reach a broader audience than your typical steadfast vegans. “We want the restaurant to be a place where people feel encouraged to step outside their comfort zone to try a plant-based meal,” Devi explains. The vibe is comparably open and inviting. “It’s funny how some people will outright admit they’re not a vegan when they’re ordering, like they need to be part of some club in order to be here,” says Ryan. “It makes us laugh because we don’t hold any judgements on where people are at, we just hope they come through with an open mind when they give us a try.” By presenting familiar and approachable food that doesn’t hold back on the flavor, their menu does just that.
Da-Vi brings an informal but well-practiced culinary background to develop new recipes that rely not on overwhelming pre-made meat substitutes with sauces or seasonings to mask them but rather building flavor layer by layer around fresh produce like cauliflower, mushrooms and beets. Her creations are both so surprising and delicious, it’s no wonder she’s managed to convince so many omnivores to explore plant-based foods.
Murray Hillbilly’s menu consists primarily of sandwiches. The formats are familiar but the execution is unique. The rendition I found the most surprisingly faithful had to be the Bubba, their version of a BBQ chicken sandwich. The soy “chickun” visually resembles actual chicken strips as you might find in a stir fry or fajita platter coated in a sweet and smoky BBQ sauce. Topped with slaw on their shockingly gluten-free ciabatta bun, it’s about as indiscernible from the real thing as one could hope for.
That kind of attention to detail in their interpretation of meat and dairy alternatives is a theme that runs through their entire menu. Is it always 100% indistinguishable? Of course not. Cheese, or cheeze, as it appears on their menu is always a tricky one but Da-Vi’s coconut milk-based “Muenster Mac n Cheeze” is a revelation for vegans and the lactose intolerant alike.
That being said, don’t expect your Melly Melt, their “chedda” grilled “cheeze” with BBQ pulled “porc” to be anything resembling the gooey, melty situations mom used to make but don’t let that stop you from ordering it either. Once you try the pimento cheese-like spread set off by their their pulled pork substitute, you’ll forget all about those childhood delights and find a new, more adult kind of satisfaction here.
If you’re looking for an even better presentation of their pulled “porc,” look no further than the Ov’r Yonder sandwich, a veganised take on the Southeast’s favorite BBQ handheld. The jackfruit as pulled pork cat has been out of the proverbial bag for years now but Da-Vi’s interpretation adds some heft and meatiness to the situation thanks to shredded king oyster mushrooms.
Mushrooms are also put to good use in the Dadgummit, easily the most unique item on the menu. Lion’s mane mushrooms join forces with hearts of palm to simulate the texture of shellfish in this faux crab cake sandwich. While not my personal favorite dish, the resemblance is remarkable.
There’s a lot of attention circling around the faux burger space these days with companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods creating plant-based burgers that have found favor even among non-vegan chefs. Murray Hillbilly’s BS Burger doesn’t bleed, nor does it possess the juiciness of a fresh beef burger but it beats the pants off just about any veggie burger you’ll find and is dressed in a way that still delivers on the “flavor experience” of a damn fine burger.
By now you’ve likely come to the conclusion that just because it’s vegan, doesn’t mean it’s health food. Believe it or not, vegans aren’t trying to eat healthy all the time, any more than your typical omnivore. But if you find yourself in need of something green and healthy-ish to balance all that fried goodness, get a side of the vinegary collard kale which subs black eyed peas and pot liquor for the traditional porky broth.
Even though you may very well walk out of MH full to bursting without saving many calories, at least you’ll leave without your karma taking any hits. And that’s what we call a win-win, especially for the animals.