If you take a step into Andrea Dawson’s food truck, Sassy’s Vegetarian Soul Food, it’s like stepping into Grandma’s kitchen while she’s preparing a Sunday feast.
That familiar smell of red pepper and paprika immediately fills your nostrils, and the popping, hot oil signals it’s time to fry the chicken. In a city full of tacos and barbecue joints, the soul food circle is small, but Sassy’s food truck is joining that list with a vegetarian twist.
ANDREA DAWSON WITH SASSY’S COLLARD GREENS, BLACK-EYED PEAS, AND SWEET POTATOES (PHOTO BY JOHN ANDERSON)
The words “vegetarian” and “soul food” in the same sentence would cause a head scratch from Black elders used to collard greens seasoned with turkey neck or chitterlings doused in hot sauce, but Dawson’s vegetarian soul food has even the biggest skeptics not only coming back for more, but claiming they don’t miss the meat with her cooking. “It’s just down-home cooking, without the meat,” Dawson said. “A lot of people are really amazed that it’s just hearty food.”
Sassy’s menu offers the usual soul food joint staples: fried cabbage, black-eyed peas, hot water cornbread, and a medley of collard, kale, and mustard greens.
But where you’d typically find bacon in fried cabbage, Dawson uses a vegan bacon substitute – which maintains the smoky flavor of regular bacon – and black-eyed peas’ meaty flavoring is substituted with a ginger and green onion mixture that brings out the smoky flavors.
“CHICON N WAFFLES” AT SASSY’S (PHOTO BY JOHN ANDERSON)
But it’s not a true soul food feast without the well-seasoned, crunchy-skinned goodness of fried chicken, arguably the ultimate staple of good soul food. Dawson has created her own vegan version of fried chicken and waffles called “Chicon N Waffles,” an homage to the street where her food truck has been in operation since November 2018.
Instead of a soy-based meat substitute, Dawson uses wheat gluten – a natural protein found in wheat that creates vegetarian substitutes like seitan – to create the meatlike texture of her “chicon.” She then deep fries the wheat gluten and tosses it in hot lemon pepper, barbecue sauce, Carribean jerk, or Asian orange seasonings, and after one bite, any reservations about eating plant-based meat dishes have flown out the window.
“Sure enough, it looks like fried chicken,” Dawson joked, as pieces of “chicon” float to the top of the hot oil basket.
Before Dawson opened up her bright blue truck in East Austin, she wasn’t working her way up as a server in restaurants or bussing tables or working back of house on the line. If she was in a restaurant, she was likely its entertainment for the night, serving up her renowned blues vocals. Dawson’s voice took her around the world from Brazil to China, but she ended up settling in Austin to be a singer in a blues band after living in Dallas for 30 years. As if a food truck owner’s origin story wasn’t already unusual, Dawson never really liked to cook.
As the oldest daughter of a large family, she often helped her mother prepare meals, and consequently any affinity she had for the kitchen just fizzled out as she got older. It wasn’t until Dawson developed digestive problems and needed to switch up her go-to recipes to improve her health that she crept back into cooking.
She decided to cut out meat for one week. Then two weeks, then three. After converting to a completely vegetarian diet, Dawson still craved her soul food favorites like fried cabbage, so she turned to YouTube for help, a move she unapologetically admits. She watched countless how-to videos and learned to re-create the soul food dishes she missed, now with a plant-based focus. Turns out all the time she spent developing new, meat-free dishes sparked an idea: She began recipe testing for the Sassy’s menu as well.
“I started developing some of the [soul food] recipes and nothing was lacking,” Dawson said. “So it just got stuck.”
Her decision to open Sassy’s fell in her lap when along came a truck for sale. Dawson took the leap, purchased the truck – which was in “horrible shape” – and went to work fixing it with her own two hands. The journey was fueled by a supportive network of friends, family, and even fans from all around the world, who convinced Dawson to buy the truck, helped name it Sassy’s, and invested in the business, including by buying restaurant tools she’d added to an Amazon wish list.
“I knew I was not going to be able to do all those fancy foods that I see vegan chefs do – I’m just going to do the stuff I grew up with, and that’s the best I can do,” Dawson said. “And so far, it’s been pretty good.”
The creation of Sassy’s was a collaborative project, one aimed at building a support system for a Black woman-owned business, a minority in Austin’s bustling entrepreneurial culture. On a small scale, Dawson sees Sassy’s as a form of reparations – with one of Dawson’s biggest investors being a white, female friend who had the financial means to invest in a Black-owned business.
“Because of her, I was able to realize a dream and open a business that could potentially hire more people, and to create jobs, and to create a legacy,” Dawson said. “Before she offered that help, there was no way I could have ever done this on my own.”
Sassy’s now joins a community of Black-owned businesses in East Austin that are up against the rapid effects of gentrification and its threat to displace communities of color and low-income residents.
Last year, the University of Texas at Austin released “Uprooted,” a report focusing on Austin’s most vulnerable residents, who either are at high risk of being displaced or have already been displaced as a result of gentrification. One of the report’s several conclusions called for the city of Austin to adopt strategies to help slow the displacement of East Austin residents through a policy framework that could address and prioritize “the needs of various groups and neighborhoods.”
Although Dawson is new to Austin’s Black-owned business community, she understands the importance of the city of Austin investing in minority-owned businesses just like hers so they too can have a chance to thrive. “[East Austin] is still a viable community and Black people can get a hold [in] … the community and build,” Dawson said. “Even though things are more expensive and different, there are avenues for us.”
If one bite of Sassy’s takes you back to Grandma’s kitchen, then the love and passion Grandma had when sharing her secret spice mix or how to perfectly season collard greens is emulated through Dawson’s welcoming personality and warm smile. But this little food truck isn’t just about making a perfect piece of hot water cornbread or the best batch of fried cabbage.
Sassy’s is also a space of fellowship and community for Black residents in East Austin, who can connect over the food that has meant so much to our culture through times of grief and times of celebration.
“That makes me feel really good – that they can have a piece of home,” Dawson said.