Vegan café makes magic from mushrooms in upper Rondout

Outside dining at the Secret Vegan Cage in Kingston. (Photos by Dion Ogust)

Where does Midtown Kingston end and Downtown begin? Arguably, it’s at the point just past the Chestnut Street Historic District where Broadway takes a sharp left turn and heads downhill towards the Rondout waterfront. There’s a traffic light there, and a Catholic school.

But picture going straight at that intersection instead. What used to be Broadway becomes the beginning of McEntee Street. On your right is a rocky bluff, known as the home to a historic wine cave and former brewery a few blocks along. On your left at #38, just a block past the school, is a little windowed storefront, on a stretch of road not known as any sort of commercial hub. Out front is the Spotted Little Free Library (a Pokéstop for Pokémon Go players and an inn for Wizards Unite players).

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Half a mile away from the touristy watering holes of the Rondout, this isn’t a place where passersby would expect a restaurant to appear — but now one has, and it’s Kingston’s newest hot spot. Kim Hoedeman Semones and her husband, Jeff Semones, moved into the building a couple of years ago, and for months now there have been intriguing signs posted in the windows saying, “Café Coming Soon.” At the end of September, the eatery finally opened, and it’s something special enough to draw diners from far and near: the Secret Vegan Café.

Kim, a native of the Netherlands, and Jeff, born in Chicago, discovered Kingston on a side jaunt between New York City and New Orleans about five years ago. They stayed at the Church des Artistes B&B in the Rondout and, in Kim’s words, “asked ourselves, ‘What is this magic place?’” The neighborhood reminded them in some ways of New Orleans, where Jeff had worked for some years in the hospitality trade, running an iconic tavern called the R Bar. Heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina, it had been abandoned by its owner until, according to Kim, “Five guys scraped their savings together to save it. That showed us the power of neighborhood.”

The couple moved to Kingston in 2017, but couldn’t find construction workers with the time to fix up their fixer-upper, so they sold it, bought the building at 38 McEntee Street and began to contemplate opening a café on the site. “We noticed nothing was vegan” in the neighborhood, Kim relates. The pair adopted a vegan lifestyle about four years ago, for reasons of ethics and sustainability: “I was a big carnivore before that.”

In fact, in the 1990s, Kim honed her commercial cooking skills in the first McDonald’s in the Netherlands. Its opening caused a great sensation, she recalls, with locals excited because “It’s from America. There were queues outside.” Even today, she has a soft spot for the comfort factor of fast food, naming her new business Vegan Junk Food with a directness that she describes as typical of the Dutch. The company manufactures tasty vegan versions of the meatballs known as bitterballen that are immensely popular in the Netherlands, using mushrooms instead of meat.

Inside at the Secret Vegan Cafe in Kingston.

Originally a candy store, the front room of the Secret Vegan Café was the master bedroom when they moved in. Now they’ve converted it back to a charming little shop with a stunning Tree of Life mural by Jon Sherman of Brooklyn’s Flavor Paper dominating one wall. A sign on the back wall depicting Toad, the mushroom character from Super Mario Brothers, is “an ode to my past” — a reminder of Kim’s previous career as a videogame tester. Her company logo is an outline of a mushroom with one “byte” taken out of it. “I love all things mushroom,” she says. “I would love for the mushroom to be the hero.”

Inside the Secret Vegan Café, there’s seating for four at the counter, plus two tables for two; there are two exterior tables for two out front, plus a picnic table on the side of the building. A large patio out back is being readied for expansion next spring. For now, their business is mostly takeout. And when Hudson Valley One paid a visit — on only Day 12 of operation, with minimal hype other than word-of-mouth — business was already booming.

Kim takes delight in watching “people who’ve never tried Beyond Burger” discover that vegan food made from all-organic ingredients can be palate-friendly and accessible. “I’d say that one of every three people fit that category of ‘trying,’” she says, estimating that about 50 percent of their traffic so far has consisted of “truly local people, from the neighborhood.”

The dishes we sampled made obvious the reasons for this popular appeal. The breakfast sandwich was indistinguishable in taste and texture from a classic breakfast sandwich, despite the fact that its eggs, cheese and sausage all come from plant-based sources. The cheeseburger passed the same authenticity test. The faux chicken nuggets made from whole grains had a meaty texture and the bonus of being less greasy than the kind you’d find at McDonald’s.

But there’s one more item on the Secret Vegan Café menu that makes the place worth a detour from anywhere: Kim’s beignets. One might assume that they were inspired by the couple’s association with New Orleans, but in fact, they’re a centuries-old tradition in her home country — originally called an oliekoek (“oil cookie”) and more recently an oliebol (“oil ball”). Kim notes that Washington Irving cited the oliekoek imported by settlers in New Netherland as the origin of the doughnut in America. (And, as a Yuletide treat, they may share a common middle-European origin with sufganiyah, the jelly doughnuts associated with Hanukkah celebrations.)

The Secret Vegan Café’s beignets aren’t square-shaped like the New Orleans breakfast pastry, but more rounded, reminiscent of the fried dough balls sold at street fairs under a hundred different ethnic names. Unlike the Dutch originals that were deep-fried in lard, Kim’s beignets are fried in avocado oil. They’re feather-light and delicious. “Such a yummy, fluffy experience,” she says dreamily.

Located at 38 McEntee Street in Kingston, the Secret Vegan Café is currently open from 7 a.m. until at least 6 p.m., sometimes later, Wednesday through Sunday. Call (845) 573-1029 to place a takeout order.