For the grand opening of his new “veggie-centric” food trailer, Soular Food Garden, Hoover Alexander invited attendees to take a celebratory stroll with him around his childhood stomping grounds. The small group began their walk at the trailer’s East 12th street plot, continued to his church’s community garden, and finished at the high school where his parents first met. Along the way, Alexander detailed his memories of living and cooking just east of IH-35.
“Soular Food Garden came out of a desire to literally and metaphorically get back to my roots,” Alexander said. “All of these things stirred around in my head in what I call ‘the divine stirring of the pudding.’ Thirteen years ago I opened Hoover’s Cooking, and I’d describe it as almost a spiritual experience. We looked at a lot of different places to open up, but it was meant to be here in the East Side. The same goes for Soular Food Garden. I’ve closed my eyes and taken a leap of faith.”
The two establishments couldn’t sit further away from one another on the lifestyle spectrum. Frequenters at Hoover’s know the menu isn’t “veggie-centric,” unless crunchy fried okra, creamy macaroni and cheese, and sweet candied yams count. The healthier, greener menu choices of Soular Food Garden are Alexander’s personal choice, a result of his efforts to take better care of his own health. By incorporating more vegetables into his eating habits, the chef has already lost 30 pounds.
“I’ve got some work to do in terms of health and wellness, and the idea of taking baby steps resonated with me. I’m not an either/or kind of guy. I like my meat and ain’t no denying that,” he said. “This just gives me an opportunity to take a new direction. I can learn to plant some things, learn to grow some things, and just embrace what veggies have to offer.”
It’s not that Alexander hasn’t always appreciated his Southern sides, but the affection for mashed potatoes and cowboy beans has been replaced with cleaner vegetables such as collard greens and beets. “I’m a product of the Texas culture,” he said. “But I’m going through a period of personal and business deconstruction.”
Not only is he pioneering an unseen trend of “restaurant to trailer,” but Alexander is also trying to keep the dishes he creates as close to home as possible. The vegetables and greens used in a majority of the cuisine comes from his church’s garden and a small, 4 ft. x 4 ft. garden behind the pale yellow structure of Soular Food. Ingredients Alexander plans to utilize include spinach, collard greens, mustard greens, chard, squash, carrots, radishes, among numerous other vegetables and plants.
Many of his current and anticipated dishes originated from fellow chefs, his restaurant, and family recipes. Jennifer Graham, a friend and raw food cook, enticed Alexander to create a version of her collard green, black-eyed pea wrap; the smoked portabella mushroom quesadilla was inspired from a Hoover’s sandwich; and the heritage vegetables are a medley that Alexander remembers eating in his childhood.
Like Alexander, I also cannot deny my deep affection for side dishes cooked in heavy butter and savory meat drippings. However, what I discovered after trying the rawBella Veg-a-Platter and Garden Angel Soup is that vegetables don’t always to be in a supporting role; in fact, they do just fine at the forefront.
The rawBella platter (named for Graham) is composed of black-eyed pea wraps, marinated beets, a spinach pecan pesto, a smoked red bell pepper pesto, and a raw vegetable medley. The platter appears disjointed at first, but the creamy pesto sauces are what marry every segment of the dish together. What looks like an odd, American rendition of a spring roll is packed with a strong blend of Southern flavors. Although the black-eyed peas are served cold, they are brought to life by the variety of seasonings, minced vegetables, and a crunchy collard green leaf wrapping. The large helping of beets achieves perfect texture and a unique Asian tang.
The soup is something Alexander strongly suggested I try, and I’m grateful he did. The blend of diced, chopped, and shredded cabbage, squash, carrots, tomatoes, onions, and collard greens adhere well to the variation of Southern spices and smoked garlic.
The chef also hints that diners shouldn’t be surprised to find some of the trailer’s dishes migrating over to the menu of Hoover’s Cooking. “I like to think of this as the laboratory for the blackboard,” he said. The experimentation has even already begun. Hoover’s Cooking recently tested a unique margarita made with beet juice instead of lime called the “Beetarita.”
Aside from selling soulful and flavorful veggies and greens, Alexander also plans on using the trailer as a platform to something much more progressive. He also wants to feature community gardening classes, simple cooking classes, and group exercise classes that members of the community can take part in.
“I want this place to be a gateway to East Austin,” he said. “With all the traffic gridlock, the importance of Central Austin, and all the debates about the old vs. the new neighborhood. I thought this would be the perfect way to shine a light on this area and give it some due credit.”
Soular Food Garden, Open Tuesday-Thur 7 a.m. - Sunset, Friday 7 a.m. - 8 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m. - 8 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m. - 2 p.m., Closed Monday, 1110 E. 12th St., Facebook. rawBella Veg-a-Platter: $7, Garden Angel Soup: $4
- LAYNE LYNCH