I have to admit that, for most of my life, I've been skeptical of vegan food. Maybe it was the rubbery, cardboard-like vegan mozzarella my mom tried to sneak into our lasagna (I noticed), or the frozen vegan "burgers" she'd stock the freezer with growing up. Or maybe it was the fact that I loved meat, fish, and cheese in all its wondrous forms. Whatever it was, at a young age I had it set in my mind that vegan meant a delicious food (one that I’d normally love) trying to be something it could never, ever be.
This misbegotten attitude persisted well into my almost-adulthood. There were glimmers of hope: a fluffy cinnamon roll that almost fooled me into thinking it was chock-full of animal fats; stuffed mushrooms that were tender and flavorful yet utterly meatless; and the vegan Van Leeuwen salted caramel ice cream that almost made me a believer.
Then, I walked into Cocoron.
Set on a street in New York City that straddles the Lower East Side and NoLita (a neighborhood where you're most likely to encounter a crowd of bottomless brunchers, of which I am sometimes one), this Japanese soba noodle spot was my boyfriend's pick. It was the dead of winter (which is a miserable point in every New Yorker's annual existence), and we had eaten enough pizza, pasta, and bagels already. He was craving something different—spicy, soupy, slurpable—and I, despite what you may think about me, am always game to try a new restaurant, or anything really.
So we took the train down to Canal Street and quickly made the bone-chilling walk (those 10 minutes felt like an eternity) from the station to the restaurant. And not to be all cosmic or anything, but when we stepped inside, I had a good feeling. Cocoron is tiny, with just a small chef's counter (prime seating) and a small few tables—but inviting. It was also far warmer than outside. We sat down at the last two seats at the counter and examined the menu.
My boyfriend, having read through dozens of reviews, knew exactly what he was going to order: the warm—and hello, vegan!—Mera Mera soba noodles. I, being skeptical, ordered something else.
It was a big mistake. Huge.
As he fawned over the thick and spicy sesame-based broth, homemade soba noodles, hearty tofu (two words I'd have never put together a year ago) stir-fried in ginger and garlic, bright scallions, and tender bok choy, I merely consumed mine. Don't get me wrong, my non-vegan bowl of noodles was still delicious, but there was no contest.
The few bites I stole from him were life-changing. The sesame broth was luscious and umami-loaded, while the chunks of tofu had a meatiness that could satisfy even my carnivorous proclivities. As for the firm, almost-nutty soba noodles? Well, they can rival an egg pasta any day, if you ask me.
Here, for the first time in my life, was a bowl of food that wasn't trying to be something else, but rather its own amazing thing—and it just so happened to be vegan.
The next time my boyfriend visited (we're long-distance), we went straight back. I obviously did not make the same mistake twice. We both ordered our own bowl of the vegan Mera Mera soba noodles and slurped and sipped until we were pouring the remaining broth from the bowl directly into our mouths. It was heaven.
Now I go as often as I can: when it's freezing outside (like it's getting to be now); when I'm able to lure a friend who's never been before; when I need to eat something that makes me feel better about the world; and when I'm hungover (few things will force a stubborn headache or upset stomach into submission like that spicy sesame broth). I take a seat at the counter and know that my day is about to get just a little bit better...and that my nose will inevitably run (thanks again, spicy sesame broth).
This should come as no surprise, though, considering the restaurant's name. Recently my Japanese-speaking friend told me that Cocoron roughly means "warm heart." And it's true, a bowl of soba noodles at Cocoron—especially on a glacial winter day—will warm your heart in every sense of the word.
It might just also change your mind about how good vegan food actually is and can be.
Cocoron has two locations on the Lower East Side; they both sell these life-changing soba noodles, but my favorite is the one at 37 Kenmare Street.
The Food52 Vegan Cookbook is here! With this book from Gena Hamshaw, anyone can learn how to eat more plants (and along the way, how to cook with and love cashew cheese, tofu, and nutritional yeast).Order now