Editor's note: Every week, we'll spotlight a culinary treat found around Dallas-Fort Worth — whether it's a new opening, a dish at a restaurant, or a grocery find.
Dish: Vegan buffet
Location: Mean Greens cafeteria, Denton
Mean Greens is the world-famous all vegan cafeteria that debuted at the University of North Texas in Denton in 2011, long before vegan became the big trend it is today.
As the first all vegan university dining hall in the country, it earned the university national attention ("Texas cattle country seems an odd place to break new ground in veganism," yee-haw).
But it's really the best vegan dining experience in North Texas.
Located on campus at 1621 Maple St. inside Maple Hall, the cafeteria is open to students but also non-students, who can eat in the dining hall for $7.95, and for what you get, that is a major bargain.
It's a clean and minimal space with a dining room to the left, done in cheerful sunny colors and brightened by a bank of large windows. To the right is the kitchen, with multiple stations, including a hot-foods steam table; grilling station; pizza and pasta; panini station with sandwiches made-to-order; salad bar; and desserts.
The breadth and variety are surely a plus — but there's also a lot of creativity in the choices, and the ingredients are all wholesome and fresh.
The grilling station, for example, has an array of vegetables that includes fresh asparagus, a cut above the generic.
If you want hot food, there's a steam table with homey, prepared entree-type casseroles. Things change daily and certain days have a theme. The day we visited, the theme was Indian, so they had curry, a barley and rice dish, braised cabbage with red bell peppers, pearl couscous with tomato, and spicy (but not too spicy) chickpeas.
Looking at the little things, you could see how much care and thought was given. In the cabbage dish, for example, the cabbage and red peppers were cut into pieces large enough that they retained some body and personality. It let you know you were eating good fresh food.
The variety of items offered the opportunity for contrast. You could eat a crunchy thing like a grilled half-ear of corn, and then a soft stewed thing, like a creamy roasted eggplant.
Chains like Salata could take a page from Mean Greens' salad bar, with upscale, unique items like orange tomatoes instead of generic red cherry tomatoes; and a mixture of peas and hominy, rather than the same old canned corn.
The pizza went untried, but pastas included cavatappi topped with marinara sauce — cavatappi being the curly, hollow pasta with a ribbed surface, no ordinary penne tubes here.
The sliders are on house-made focaccia bread, and you specify what you want inside, from a selection that includes veggie patties, mushroom, and veggies. They heat it in a panini press and call you when it's ready.
They make their own seitan, the common meat substitute, which they use in tacos, pizza, sliders, and other "meat" items.
In place of sodas, they offer flavored waters and iced tea.
Desserts were a revelation, with well-made iced cakes, fudgy chocolate-graham bars, and a warm apple crisp with just-tender slices of apple in a cinnamon-y glaze with a great oatmeal crust. There's also a self-serve vegan ice cream machine with vanilla and chocolate or a twist; the vanilla tasted heavily of coconut.
The current chef and general manager is Matthew Ward. No wonder the food is good: Ward has extensive fine-dining experience at restaurants such as the famed Bouchon in Yountville, California, as well as The French Room and the Adolphus Hotel.
Ward is joined by operations chef Cristopher Williams, who also runs the hydroponic farm that Mean Greens cultivates in the back of the dining hall.
It's enough to make you want to go back to school again.