How to Survive as a Vegan on Tour in Middle America
From punk cafés to strip malls, Justin Pearson of Head Wound City gives us the rundown on how he and his bandmates manage to eat well—and vegan—everywhere from Fargo to Winnipeg. (Yep, Canada too.)
Head Wound City can be whatever you want to call it; a hardcore super-group, five radical friends, a whopping 6.9 via Pitchfork… whatever. Who really fucking cares? This presidential race is a mess. So, let's take it down a notch and talk about food, shall we? Bassist Justin Pearson takes us on a tour of how he survives as a vegan on the road, everywhere from northern Chicago to a strip mall in Fargo, North Dakota to suburban Canada.
Since 1990, when I first started touring, eating vegan on the road has become easier and easier. I'm grateful that I decided to have a plant-based diet before my first tour, avoiding the plethora of Cracker Barrels, McDonald's, Arby's, and other chain restaurants that dominate America's garbage highways. When I was 15 or 16, I would certainly entertain the idea of getting a meal from Taco Bell, Subway, or some place that might have options free of animal products. But my standards have gradually gone up over the years, due to becoming more knowledgeable not only about nutrition but also about where I spend my money and the moral implications of what I eat. Now, some might call me a "food snob".
I don't really make a decent wage by playing music. However, I also don't do the cliché stuff that band people tend to do: My record-collecting is pretty tame these days, I don't do drugs, and I rarely drink. So I tend to funnel all my money into somewhat expensive, often organic places to eat on tour. Fortunately for me, I have a counterpart in Head Wound City—our guitarist Nick Zinner. We both have similar diets, but often have different tastes when eating out together on tour.
Head Wound City started our tour in Nashville, Tenn. But one of the more noteworthy spots towards the start of tour was a location in Detroit, called Seva.
Now, we can harp on the negative sociopolitical implications of vegan and organic restaurants, and how they often unfortunately tend to fit the stereotype of the white bourgeoisie. But Detroit is an interesting city. I can see the gentrification over the years, but many longstanding cultural aspects of the city still seem to be there, even with this restaurant, so perhaps the transitions are due to some sort of collective evolution of American culture.
We met up with Nick's friends at the restaurant, and we all shared some shishito peppers as an appetizer. For my entrée, I tried the Kale Caesar with Blackened Tofu, and Nick ordered the same. Our guitarist Cody [Votolato] was with us and ripped into some tacos, which I kept eyeing during our meal. The actual space seemed a bit off—way too large for what it was. There were some pretty crummy decorations (a lot of vegan spots tend to have that), but it still had some decent bathroom graffiti and what seemed to be a full-on bar with craft beverages, which is often a good segue to rope others into eating healthy.
The next noteworthy sit-down meal we had was in the fine city of Chicago. When I first started touring, it was all about the Original Soul Vegetarian, which had food that was unheard of a couple decades ago. Not to mention that it was pretty righteous, considering it was and is family-run and owned. However, this time, we ended up at one of my favorite spots: The Chicago Diner, where, despite being overwhelmed with options, I had the truffle mushroom lentil loaf. Being at a diner, I had to indulge in a shake; I opted for the strawberry one. (Oddly enough, the following morning I found a post on my Facebook wall from the person who made it asking how my shake was. That was a bit strange to say the least. But it indeed ruled, which I commented back.) The Chicago Diner was the right choice for us in a city with a lot of pretty awesome places to eat for vegans.
We eventually ended up in Minneapolis, which I consider a pretty rad city to play in—that is, if the weather isn't too brutal. There's this late-night joint that I usually hit up and is perfect for an after-show meal: Hard Times Café. It's a great shift from all the typical New Age-type, stuffy, expensive, white people spots that tend to dominate the vegan options in most cities. Walking into a restaurant blasting Nina Hagen is always a plus, especially since most healthy restaurants tend to play some sort of crappy alt rock satellite radio station.
I immediately spotted at least three people passed out in the café, one of whom was pretending to look at his phone (which was turned off), but was actually hunched over, snoring in his seat. At this spot, you can almost expect to have your food prepared by someone with dreadlocks—not a hippie, but a crust punk, butt flap and all. None of this really fazed me, though, as I was geared up to dive into some great late-night food. Our drummer Gabe [Serbian] and Cody both got the same thing as I did: the vegan rancheros (beans and scrambled tofu on top of two corn tortillas, topped with hot salsa, cilantro-jalapeño mayo, and black olives). The meal was extremely reasonably priced, probably due to the atmosphere of the place (which was totally fine by me). It seemed like some of the venues I play anyhow, so I felt right at home.
I woke up in Fargo, North Dakota at Peoples Organic Coffee and Wine Cafe. The spot stuck out like a sore thumb among the rednecks and sports fans in a strip mall; however, it fit right in with its drive-thru option for the lazy people who don't want to get out of their trucks. The place was not by any means fast food, so I could only imagine how long you would be sitting there waiting for your order. But with a vegan diet, it was a great find. I opted for the organic tofu scramble with curried vegetables and a side of fresh fruit.
On to the Canadian leg of our tour. The following morning after our first show in Winnipeg, we grabbed breakfast just after a hoser on the street asked if we were voting for Trump and said that he seems like a good choice. Still wondering how he knew we were from the States, we hit up the Green Carrot Juice Company, where I had a "Monkey Business" bowl, with banana, Medjool dates, açai, and coconut milk, and I added almond butter.
We opted to have lunch shortly after since we had one of the many long 15-or-so-hour drives ahead of us. We swung by the Boon Burger Café, which claims to be "Canada's first all-vegan burger cafe," where I ate the Spicy Boon Buffalo Burger, a grilled patty with Louisiana hot sauce, mayo, guacamole, tomatoes, celery, red onions, and lettuce. I was sold, but my bandmates didn't go for it. The place was packed, due to it being one of the many Canadian holidays that I was unaware of.
In Edmonton the following day, we played a couple blocks from this place called The Coup. The place was a bit pricey, a tad stuffy, but justifiably so in my opinion, based on what I ended up eating. I opted for the Beachfront Hot Pot, which was a coconut-tomato-lime broth loaded with seasonal vegetables, lotus root, edamame, lemongrass, and rice vermicelli noodles, with housemade ginger hot sauce. Not sure what made it "beachfront," but nonetheless, it was awesome.
We crossed back over the border, and hit up one of the many co-ops that we tend to go to on tour: Community Food Co-op in Bellingham, Washington. The co-ops are my jam, but tend to have some weirdness attached to them. There are often random riff-raff travelers panhandling outside, food preparation by white rastafarians, and strange surcharges if you aren't a member, but you can't be a member if you don't live in that state, according to co-op by laws. All of this stuff sort of discourages the rest of the band, but I worked at a co-op in San Diego for many years, so I get how things usually pan out. Anyhow, the stop was brief, practical, and on the way to Portland, which was the start of the home stretch of tour.
After getting our tires slashed in Portland, and the long drive straight to LA, I had to end the tour with one of my favorite spots in Los Angeles: Sage Organic Vegan Bistro. It's my go-to spot in Echo Park, a neighborhood which has some of the best food in the Los Angeles area. I got the chilaquiles, which was one of the daily specials. It really hit the spot for the last meal before the best show of the tour.