By Andrea Pineda-Salgado
Indoor dining, and pretty much everything else in New York, it seems, is back. Looking for someplace new?
VSpot, with locations in Park Slope and VSpot Express in the East Village, is a flavorful spot featuring Latin vegan food. It was founded by Alex Carabaño, restaurateur by day and comedian by night, along with his brother, Dan Carabaño. Together, they opened the Park Slope location in 2006, after seeing the lack of vegan food, particularly Latin. In 2015 they opened their East Village location, which comes with a surprise in the back: the infamous St. Marks Comedy Club. VSpot is the only comedy venue in America with a full vegan menu focusing on Latin comfort food.
Alex and his brother are of Colombian descent, but VSpot features dishes from across the globe.
“Our restaurant has a little Mexican flair to it, a little Puerto Rican and even a little Jamaican, a little bit of Brooklyn and Italian,” Alex Carabaño says. “Both of our restaurants focus on Latin comfort food, munchies, just stuff you can really enjoy and not think you’re eating vegan food. You’re just eating tasty food.”
One of Vspot’s main goals is to have vegan alternatives to popular Latin dishes. In Colombia for example, a bandeja paisa is an extremely popular dish that is known for the large amount of food that is served. The bandeja paisa is served in a large oval platter and usually includes rice, beans cooked with pork, carne molida (ground meat), chicharron (pork rind) fried egg and plantain. This dish includes many non-vegan components but the Carabaño brothers found a way to veganize it by simply swapping out the meats for seitan and cooking the beans without pork.
The restaurant’s philosophy: You can veganize anything as long as you have the right ingredients.
“We kind of just replaced everything. Even the rice and beans you go to a Latin household, it always has [animal products in it] but you actually don’t even need that if you put all the right flavors. We just make sure to stick to the right flavors. We soak our beans from scratch … and it wasn’t that hard,” Carabaño says.
VSpot attracts a variety of customers, both carnivores and vegans alike. Albert Jurkowski is a loyal VSpot customer — and meat eater.
“I really love the food, that’s the reason I come here. It’s not too expensive. But what I like to say about this place is that it’s not vegan food. It’s good food that happens to be vegan,” he says.
In fact many customers who visit are simply foodies exploring different kinds of cuisine.
“We actually have a lot of meat eaters, just regular people who [might say] ‘I’m going to skip meat for lunch, let me go where I think I’m going to feel good and be filled up’,” Carabaño says.
Oscar Gonzalez, a VSpot first-timer, was visiting from Miami. He had Korean cauliflower, Belgian fries with vegan chorizo and VSpot’s famous potato empanadas.
“I’m surprised it tastes this good and I’m far from being vegan,” he says. “[I would tell others to] be open minded and try it out because you never know, you might like it.”
When the Carabaño brothers first opened VSpot, there weren’t any other Latin-vegan places in Park Slope. They knew they wanted to create a space where Latinos can enjoy the foods they grew up with, while eating healthy at the same time. Both sets of Carabaños’ grandparents suffered heart attacks and were told to reduce their meat intake.
“I think it’s really important to have a vegan place in general, just so people eat a little healthier and they’re a little more conscious of different cuisines … and then with the Latino culture, the number one killer is heart disease, so I think it’s important that we show the world that you can have the same rice and beans, a little vegan chicharron, avocado, plantain and no animals were harmed and there’s no cholesterol. There’s nothing to clog you up,” Carabaño says.
Many Latin dishes are meat-heavy, and vegan Latinos often find it difficult to eat the food they grew up with. With VSpot they can enjoy those foods once again.
“For the vegan Latinos we were like gods to them. It’s so cool, I love how they appreciate it. We have a sweet plantain (maduro relleño) filled with “ground beef” and tomato sauce. And they’re like, ‘Wow, I never thought I would have this again because I became vegan.’ So they come here because they can have a bandeja paisa — something they never imagined they would ever have again in their life. They thought they gave that up,” he says.
Cindy Bobe, who was born in Puerto Rico and has been vegan for two years, says VSpot is her favorite restaurant.
“The food is definitely bangin’ here. You can’t even tell that it’s vegan. It’s delicious. This is definitely a great spot to be in,” she says. “You feel comfortable. It feels like home. You can come here, you hang, eat, have some laughs and have a drink.”.
However, like many New York City restaurants, VSpot has struggled throughout the pandemic.
“During the pandemic, this restaurant closed down completely. We tried to stay open. We tried to do everything. I was here every day. It was so sad every day,” Carabaño says. “Each day, the orders were less and less, and then out of nowhere we had days where there were no orders … we had to shut down. It was really sad.”
VSpot was able to partner with the organization Support and Feed, a nonprofit that provides plant-based meals to people experiencing food insecurity. The founder, Maggie Baird, picked five New York City vegan restaurants to cater to FDNY, NYPD and hospitals.
“I’m not going to pretend that we’re not struggling,” says Carabaño. “[Vspot] changed a lot, we’re not as busy. We focus more on the comedy because that helps. It definitely sucks. But we’re still here trying.”
You can support VSpot by visiting its Park Slope location at 156 5th Ave. or VSpot Express which houses St. Mark’s Comedy Club at 12 St. Marks Pl. Both locations are open Monday through Sunday from 12-10 p.m. Follow St. Marks Comedy Club on Instagram to stay up-to-date on who is performing.
Visit either VSpot location and mention Epicenter-NYC and Alex Carabaño to receive 10% off your bill.