How Vegan Food is Finding a Place on Long Island

Vegan chef Jay Astafa makes caprese with fresh cashew milk mozzarella with tomatoes, basil and aged balsamic.

Long Island has become a place where there’s Huy Fong Sriracha next to the Heinz ketchup on sports bar tables. There are craft breweries, organic coffee roasters, cocktail menus that don’t solely feature vodka (though there’s still a lot of vodka). We’ve kept pace with the rest of the world as “housemade” has become vernacular and “artisanal” grew so meaningless that Domino’s began putting the word on their boxes.

The options for vegans haven’t expanded quite as much since the diet began generating steam in the ’90s, though. On the island, we vegans have been left out of the culinary renaissance. You can walk into Tiger Lily Café in Port Jefferson Village and admire photos of Ani DiFranco while eating a sesame tofu cutlet wrap packed with sprouts and mesclun greens, and it’ll taste as good as it did when there was a Clinton in the White House. Or go to The Witches Brew in Hempstead and sip a sweet latte in the same velvety goth environs as you did when you were 16. Gastropubs like BBD’s in Rocky Point and Vaux Hall in Huntington have seitan wings on the menu, which proves the demand is growing—but if we want something more than just a wheat-meat wing, where do we go?

Karen Zuki, a Merrick native and the food blogger behind Vegan Victuals, went vegan 20 years ago while working at Burger King and doesn’t see much improvement. “Although Long Island is better now, I still think that there’s not there’s not too much going on,” she says. Back then, she’d have to drive to the only Trader Joe’s, in Oceanside, and eat at a long-defunct Zen Palate on Old Country Road if she wasn’t making meals at home or scrounging up fast food. Manhattan and Brooklyn were and are where to go for the best vegan options.

But at least two young chefs and Long Island natives have begun the work of changing Long Island’s meat-free cuisine.

Chef Astafa plates buffalo cauliflower.

Jay Astafa became vegan when he was just 15, after only five months of vegetarianism. “In the beginning, I didn’t really know how to cook,” Astafa tells me. “I didn’t have a cooking background, so that kind of forced me to learn how to cook. Going vegan inspired me to become a vegan chef.” After learning the basics from Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s seminal cookbooks, he studied at the Natural Gourmet Institute and began creating a special vegan menu at his family’s restaurant in Rockville Centre, Three Brothers Pizza. There, he used Daiya cheese to make pizzas and mozzarella sticks that eventually became more popular than the traditional menu. After the New York Times came to cover them in 2009, they expanded their vegan offerings further. Now, at Three Brothers Vegan Café in Copaigue—the island’s only fully vegan restaurant—he serves eggplant rollatini filled with tofu-cashew ricotta and pizzas topped with housemade cashew-based mozzarella.

One of Astafa’s peers is Elyse Clark, who got her start as a chef in the raw food scene at the late Live Island Café in Huntington before deciding to seriously pursue culinary studies at the Natural Gourmet Institute. “I was a thorough believer that I could just learn on my own,” she says, “then I realized that I wasn’t challenging myself.” We spoke at Batata Café in Northport, where she’s spearheaded their vegan offerings, right underneath the restaurant’s massive “VEGAN MENU” sign, which beckons drivers in from 25A. She told me a story similar to that of Astafa’s: Once she started cooking up veggie burgers and seitan warps, sales outpaced the meatier options.

Chef Elyse puts pistachios on top of pistachio rosewater cupcakes with vegan buttercream.

That sort of hybrid menu is where Clark sees the potential to change people’s minds about what vegan food is; you can appeal to both the yogi, who wants her microgreens and chia pudding, and the vegan-curious person who might opt to try a veggie burger rather than the standard when presented with the choice.

Batata Café’s bistro beet burger with pumpkin seed arugula pesto served with sweet potato fries.

Not every restaurant has had to go the hybrid route, though. Natalie Miceli and her sister, Alabama, opened the Witches Brew as a resolutely vegetarian restaurant way back in 1996, when they were in their early twenties and you definitely couldn’t grab a box of almond milk at Pathmark. “We were both artists,” Natalie tells me. “There was nothing business in our brains.” Yet ever since, they’ve had long lines of teens (and those looking to relive their teenage years) waiting for a seat at one of the plush couches despite never advertising or even creating a website. The sisters “wanted to create a counterculture environment,” a free space where people could just talk—certainly a novelty in those days—and it persists, likely because there is so little competition for those who want a vegan slice of cake. These days, she’s most motivated to continue to spread veganism because of meat processing’s well-documented impact on the environment.

While we could complain about the slow evolution of veganism on Long Island, the idea that we have two veg-friendly institutions on either end of the island that have survived for over 20 years should warm hearts. Here, despite what we lack in variety, we make up for in loyalty. And if the success of Astafa and Clark are anything to go by, there is hope. Pass the sriracha.