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Vegan Incognito

Hal & Al's Expands its meatless menu

By Sean Edgar

Published March 1, 2013
(Credit: Megan Leigh Barnard)

For the past three years, Parsons Avenue watering hole Hal & Al’s has done an exemplary job of stripping pretension from the vegan milieu. Instead of sticking to unpronounceable from-the-earth veggie esoterica that can make the palate inhospitable to newcomers, the restaurant has transformed its key ingredients into delectable bar food that goes shockingly well with a pint of craft beer.

But despite serving some of the heartiest vegan food in Columbus, Hal & Al’s owner Jay Cheplowitz tries to keep his herbivore kitchen a secret. A tasty, tasty secret. He doesn’t emphasize that the savory mozzarella lathered on the pretzel bread Spinach & Artichoke pizzas is made from ingredients like tapioca flour and safflower oil instead of curdled milk. He doesn’t advertise how the juicy beer brats and corndogs are tied from tofu instead of marbled beef and pork scraps. Even the patties are sourced from Luna Burger, a Columbus company that crafts zesty configurations of local vegetables and grains.

And why should Cheplowitz make a big deal about it?

“We’re putting out great bar food, and it just happens to be vegan,” he said. “The highest compliment – and this happens all the time – is when people come in, they order the food, and they don’t know the difference. I don’t want people to come here just because it’s vegan, but because the food’s great and the beer selection’s great.” Now Cheplowitz has recruited new kitchen manager Jared Reynolds and general manager Christopher Delisio to introduce some high-end twists to the cuisine. Though still in the experimental stages, the trio is rolling out fresh new features like fresh soup-of-the-days, Mediterranean fare like hummus and falafel, and new additions to its sushi and taco cache, while still keeping comfort foods like deep-fried avocados and oreos.

“We’ve always focused on the beer. In looking at our menu, it’s no secret that a lot of the food is fried. We’ve always had requests for some fresh and different things,” Cheplowitz said. And as Delisio discovered in his few short weeks as new general manager, customers have been especially vocal about what they want to try at their favorite Merion Village taproom.

“We’re getting lots of feedback from customers, and we don’t have shy customers,” he said. “They love everything on the menu; they just want a little more variety.” These same customers, who once persuaded Cheplowitz to keep pizza on the menu after he suggested rotating it out, will carry just as much clout in shaping the new direction. A panel of regulars will test new kitchen creations to finalize what’s permanent and what’s not.

Sporting long auburn hair and arms stained with blue tattoos, Reynolds first ventured into Hal & Al’s a week after moving to Columbus from Dayton, where he worked in similar indie bar food havens like Blind Bob’s and Oscar’s. It was in venues like these that he first tried out items like vegan dumpling soup, or one of his personal favorites: “a deconstructed pot pie” made with veggies, vegan margarine and soymilk. Reynolds has concocted other entries including a red curry tomato soup, bourbon teriyaki broccoli tofu, Pad Thai, and dessert sushi like the caramel apple role battered in Magners Irish Cider.

If any of these dishes sounds slightly more ambitious than the fry-battered standbys offered at your local sports bar, Reynolds brings a subversive creativity to the kitchen that stems from the same muse that fuels his bass slapping in local band Tight Bros. “It kind of goes along with the entire vegan punk thing,” Reynolds explains. “I play in bands, and playing in bands makes you have a creative mind, to be able to come up with songs and different melodies. That kind of mindset goes along with creating new and exciting items.”

Many of the customers at Hal & Al’s share Reynolds’ devotion to animal-free diets and lo-fi, distorted 4-chord rock, but Cheplowitz emphasizes that the venue is so special because of its devotion to community and diverse clientele.

“One of the proudest things for me that I really love about the bar, is the wide range of people who come in. It’s unbelievable to me. We’ve had the elderly, we’ve had families bring in their children, which creates a whole different set of circumstances because we’re primarily a bar. We have professionals from German Village and we also have a really interesting mix of gay and straight. I would say my proudest achievement here is the overall mix. And our customers are just nice.”

The customers have been more than nice to Cheplowitz, which inspired him to up his game with the new menu items. Much like their involvement in the new menu, they’ve been integral shapers and supporters of the development of Parsons Avenue as it slowly grows its gentrification sea-legs. In Fall 2012, Cheplowitz says the City of Columbus approached him with a plan to reduce parking on Parsons Avenue by 40 percent to help make the area more attractive.

“I was like, where are the cameras? Is this a joke?” he said. “If you kill people’s ability to park, it’s going to be the death of the business.”

Cheplowitz responded by reaching out to Hal & Al’s devotees through social media and bartender chat, mobilizing a grassroots chorus of regulars to push back on the proposed plan. City Hall and South Side Commission meetings now hosted a gaggle of conscientious objectors intent on keeping Parsons Avenue parking accessible.

“The net effect of it was that they put this whole plan on hold, and are revamping the whole thing,” said Cheplowitz. “It made me sit back and say, we can really do some great things here. We have such support of our neighbors, the clientele and the community.” And theses clients will even play a hands-on role with Hal & Al’s ingredients by the spring.

To say thank you, Cheplowitz recently bought the vacant lot to the south of his bar to use as a community garden. Management plans to grow grains and hops, as well as source fresh produce grown on plots by regulars. Alongside events like Food Truck Sundays and its no-cover band policy, Hal & Al’s wants to continually evolve into a community beacon to Merion Village.

“There’s so much pride in the bar and in the area from the local residents and the community,” Delisio says. “We want to represent those people and we want to be a rallying point for the area and for the community in general and show that we can do great things here.”

Just don’t tell anyone about the vegan food. It’s a secret.

Hal & Al’s

1297 Parsons Ave.

(614) 375-4812