At a small, colorful and relatively new cafe in the East Hillside neighborhood, the chorizo is really blended walnut, sun-dried tomatoes and seasonings. Tempeh, a soy product, is pan-fried and flavored like spicy barbecue. The milk comes from almonds, and the energy-boost snack is bound by mashed dates.
The Juice Pharm, at 12 S. 15th Ave. E., is believed to be Duluth's first vegan restaurant: No meat, no milk, no animal products. (They do use honey). Giselle Hernandez and Desiree Jenkins opened in late March with little fanfare - no advertising, no grand opening. They've relied on foot traffic and social media to build a following, and so far that's been enough.
"We sold out of food yesterday," Jenkins said during a recent visit. All of the tacos, kaput, by the end of the day.
Hernandez moved to Duluth three years ago and said she found it to be a healthy city with a lot of outdoor sports enthusiasts, but she was surprised that there wasn't a juice bar or vegan restaurant. She had made the switch to a vegan diet years ago when her mother told her the ingredients of her beloved hot dogs. The self-described animal-lover didn't just cut out hot dogs - she went on to study at the Natural Healing Institute of Naturopathy, Inc., in Encinitas, Calif., where she became a certified nutritionist.
She started out juicing for herself. Then her friends and friends of friends caught on. As she gained traction, she used Endion Station - where she was a bartender - as a pickup point for people ordering her juices and cleanses.
"I wanted to introduce Duluth to healthier options," Hernandez said.
From there she moved to the Red Herring Lounge, where she first added smoothies and acai bowls to her offerings, and sold them during off-bar hours.
Shortly before moving into her own space below Anytime Fitness, she began experimenting with plant-based small plates: avocado toast, tacos, samosas.
Much of what they make is inspired by Hernandez's mother Maria Olivares, whom they refer to as Mamacita. Since Hernandez went vegan, she's always offered an animal-free version of mole enchiladas or posole soup, which traditionally combines meat and hominy. These days, Mamacita has been helping out at the shop. During a recent visit, she peeled bananas and juiced carrots. Her original energy bars - a variety of nuts bound by dates - are sold at the front of the cafe and tagged as "casa made."
Among Juice Pharm's popular menu items are the street-style Mexicali tacos, made with ground walnuts in the style of slightly spicy chorizo, with lettuce, red onions and cilantro pesto. Juice-wise, it's gold tonic, which blends carrots, oranges, pineapples, green apples, lemon and turmeric. Somewhere in between is the acai bowl with berries and coconut milk, topped with bananas, more berries, granola and honey.
The traditional topping rail, used to keep handy frequently used foods, holds candied almonds, bacon-flavored coconut flakes, diced cilantro, sunflower seeds, peanuts, onions and pepitas. Another has maca, acai, chia, flax, cinnamon and vanilla protein powder.
Hernandez and Jenkins are still experimenting and said they think they will always have an ever-changing menu. They've recently learned to make their own seitan, a wheat-made meat substitute most similar to chicken. It's the signature protein in the Maui tacos.
They also sell a variety of nut butters.
The night before they opened, they said, they were in the cafe at 2 a.m. developing the "warrior," a smoothie made of cold-press coffee and peanut butter.
Jenkins isn't vegan. She's too into cheese, she said. But once, while experimenting with a version of French onion soup that included an almond-based cheese, she considered that it might be a possibility. Now her eyes get wide as the idea of a dairy-free cheese case takes root.
Juice Pharm has a sunny, comfortable vibe. There are a lot of plants and fruit and vegetable-themed wall-hangings. One cheeky piece of art is a painted portrait of a cow, pig and horse - each with its head slightly cocked. There is a tiki fence between the dining room and the small, open kitchen - where there are no canned or cartoned goods in sight.
The water is spiked with cucumber.
Passionate about travel, they want the cafe to feel like stepping into a vacation, Jenkins said, and the food to represent the places they've been.
What if they had a patio, with strings of mason jar-filled lights, she wondered recently.
"You can see the lake from here," Jenkins said.
The Juice Pharm
• What: All-natural juices and cleans and vegan cafe
• Where: 12 S. 15th Ave. E.
• Online: juice-pharm.com/mn
• Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays
Note: The Juice Pharm will be closed April 20-22