Soul food often conjures images of collard greens, fried chicken, black-eyed peas, and lots (and lots!) of bacon grease. But a new East Austin food truck is flipping the script on traditional recipes, offering vegetarian versions of soul food classics. Local entrepreneur Andrea Dawson's new truck, Sassy’s Vegetarian Soul Food, which opened at 1819 E. 12th St. in November 2018, features all those mouthwatering Southern flavors without the meat.
Dawson wasn’t always a vegetarian. The songstress turned food truck owner adopted a vegetarian lifestyle for health reasons. “It was just going to be one week,” she laughs, "but it was so simple and there was so much more variety in my diet that it just kind of stuck. I learned that being a vegetarian doesn’t mean giving up the foods you love.”
There was, however, one thing missing with this new way of eating: the flavors of her childhood. “There was only one vegetarian soul food truck and I just couldn’t seem to catch them during open hours.”
Instead, Dawson became a regular at Wasoto African Cuisine on East 11th Street. When the owner retired and the trailer closed, Dawson put it out into the universe. “I posted about the truck on social media and a friend of mine called me up and offered to invest in it — and me.”
Previously, Dawson split time between her musical career with the Andrea Dawson Band and working at the University of Texas at Austin. Dawson had never owned a restaurant, making the opening of Sassy's a daunting prospect, but she had always been a cook.
“With 10 siblings, you’re always in the kitchen,” she laughs. “I learned how to cook from my mom. Her voice is constantly in my head while I’m in the truck, giving me directions as I dice and chop. She’s still in Pittsburgh, and sometimes I call her up to talk about food and get tips on making it taste right.”
Sassy's Fried Chicon and Waffles is one of the dishes that hearkens back to Dawson's early days in the kitchen. Though the "Chicon" is now seitan instead of chicken, she uses her family’s secret combination of spices to make it taste just like her mom made it. “The thing is, people love this cooking whether they’re vegetarian or not. Coming up with new dishes and incorporating different ingredients to make them soul food brings me so much joy. Take the soul falafel for example. Traditionally it’s chickpeas but I’ve made it with black-eyed peas instead.”
As for what it’s like being a food truck owner, Dawson explains that “it’s a little like Facebook in real life. People I’ve been connected to online for years through my music will stop by the truck to chat and get fed. It’s been so amazing to see them in person and introduce folks to each other from my wide spectrum of friends.” More than a food truck slingin’ soul food, Dawson's vision for Sassy’s is to “create a space where people can meet and eat and get to know each other.”
Dawson's journey has had another unintended effect: inspiring others to realize their dreams. “I’ve been open and public about this process from the beginning. Buying the truck, scraping and painting and making it my own — I’ve put it all out there.”
And perhaps not surprisingly, others are taking a page from her book. “A friend of mine went to Europe for the first time. She told me that it was watching me make this happen that inspired her.” For anyone out there holding back on something, Dawson quotes Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy living or get busy dying. Time moves too fast.”