‘Since the beginning we were thinking about vegetarian,” chef Reggie Hallett tells me about providing vegan dishes for his restaurant with the very non-vegan name, the 1911 Smokehouse, on Front Street in downtown Trenton.
“We” include Hallett’s brother, Maurice, who founded the downtown barbecue restaurant in 2015.
They are also part of a larger trend of restaurants hungry to cater to a non-carnivorous clientele — that generally includes me.
Reggie Hallett says reaching the market that ranges from little to no meat was on his mind from opening day when he started offering meat-free collard greens and baked beans.
He says having vegan and vegetarian items on the menu makes sense because it makes cents.
To make his point, Hallett sits back in his chair at a table outside the former Tony Kall’s café — a place where politicians would chew the beef and exchanged the bull — and draws an imaginary pie with an ever-growing slice of vegan and vegetarian diners.
“From my experience in the restaurant industry, salads are usually the vegetarian or vegan dish,” he says, adding that it took him a while to come up with some more creative offerings.
He then lists offerings to make it clear the Smokehouse is more than its “you can’t beat our meat” slogan.
There are black bean empanadas for vegetarians, the vegan empanadas — made with a plant-based “vegan beef” — fried avocados, vegan sausage, and vegan wings — the latter being battered mushroom tossed in one of the restaurant’s spicy sauces.
“I want to play around with tofu, but I haven’t had a chance yet,” he says.
That’s because he has assumed both chef and management duties after his brother moved out of the region and checks in remotely and during monthly visits.
“I am basically running the business,” says Hallett, mentioning attempts to expand the restaurant on the family-owned property.
He says his recipe for approaching vegan cooking is based on his general approach to cooking — learning, experimenting, fine-tuning, and then taste testing.
He says he always liked cooking but got serious after working as a social worker in New York City — with attention to situations at the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
A 1981 graduate of Ewing High School with several years of study at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, Hallett says one day he decided he wanted to cook and “like a construction worker I bought some tools,” chef knives in his case, and pounded New York City pavements looking to start.
E.U. Restaurant executive chef Sara Ochs evidently liked his moxie and gave him his start shucking oysters and managing the salad stations.
Over the next several years he worked in a variety of New York City restaurants and earned his salt as a cook.
Things changed when a couple of out-of-town fans lured him to Steubenville, Ohio, to be the chef at their Froehlich Classic Corner. He was there for eight years.
“I came back to my father’s funeral, and my brother asked to if I’d be a cook if he bought a restaurant,” he says about getting into Trenton’s restaurant game.
Although their main focus was on ribs, wings, and brisket, Hallett says he knew the value of providing options for vegetarians. “It was unfair that all (vegetarians and vegans) could order was a salad. I wanted to do something and played around in the kitchen.”
He also talked to people who practiced the no-animal-product lifestyle.
“The vegan wings?” he says. “They’re called Ariana vegan wings. She was a state worker who was a vegan. She gave me the idea. So we named them after her.”
Trade shows also help. “That’s where I discovered the vegan beef. That’s where ideas come as well.”
“There’s no magic,” Hallett says. “I taste it and say, ‘Okay, it needs to be on the menu.”
The result is he says he is seeing more vegans and vegetarians showing up. “They are surprised that a barbecue place has vegan food, and they say now they have a place they can go, too. Some say, ‘My husband comes here; now I can come too.’”
To test Hallett’s claim, I decide to do a taste test of my own and order the black bean empanada, vegan empanada, and the vegan wings to go.
Soon Hallett and two cooks scramble about the boxy kitchen to tackle my request and a lot of other orders — most, interestingly, non-barbecue.
Soon I have mine, and in short order I am at home with the empanadas and the vegan wings lined up cafeteria-style on my kitchen counter and invite my wife and son to pig out.
And voila! In moments, the spicy tastes, pleasing textures, and enticing aroma take us to hog heaven — but without the hog.
1911 Smokehouse, 11 W. Front St., Trenton. Phone: (609) 695-1911.