Mani and Val Latifi, creators of Plant-Based Passport blog and Best of Vegan contributors, are back with more delicious memories from their recent trip to Hawaii. This time, they’re talking about Vibe Café and Health Bar, which they consider a must-try vegan-friendly restaurant in Hilo, Hawaii. It’s a family-owned place where you can breathe easy and soak in the island life while enjoying delicious vegan food and drinks.
Vibe (noun) 1. A person’s emotional state or the atmosphere of a place as communicated to or felt by others.
What are we doing here? This wasn’t part of the plan. After all, it’s Kona that’s the big city on the Big Island. The tourist city. The place you’re supposed to visit. The place we were supposed to go. But thanks to the pandemic and the resulting rental car fiasco, the only reasonably-priced vehicle is in Hilo. So plans change and we end up with a four-night stay on the other side of the Big Island. Hilo it is.
It turns out the city of Hilo is a welcome escape from Honolulu’s commercial bustle and crush of tourists. It’s a place where time seems to stand still. It charms with its lush landscape and decidedly off-grid, slower pace of life. Hilo, in short, is a fitting home to a place like Vibe Café and Health Bar — a gem of a vegan and vegetarian restaurant, where you can breathe easy and soak in the island life.
We’re sitting on the patio during one of Vibe’s famed Friday night parties—dubbed “Vibe After Hours”—where the boho-chic veggie bistro is transformed into a live music venue. “In a place where the plate lunch, Loco Moco, and poke reign king, we wanted to start shifting the narrative in our community,” says co-owner Dylan Shropshire. His voice is raised so we can hear him over the muted trumpet playing along with the spinning and swaying DJ. It’s a grooving number with a Middle Eastern flavor, and a handful of the patrons are working the makeshift dance floor in front of the bar.
Step foot in the joint on one of these Friday nights, and it’s clear that Vibe isn’t just a fitting name for the restaurant, it’s a foundational philosophy. The same is true of the care that goes into putting plant-forward food first. At Vibe, plant-based cooking is neither boring bland nor boring. At Vibe, plant-based food advances the efforts of sustainability. At Vibe, plants are medicine.
Nowhere is that fact more apparent than in the case of Vibe’s Executive Chef Richard Gallegos. Overweight and living an unhealthy lifestyle, Chef Gallegos suffered a heart attack in his 30s. Shortly after this brush with death, he met his future wife Karina Caravajal, and she encouraged him to give the meat-free lifestyle a shot. “She saved my life,” he says, gesturing to his wife, who is busy mixing one of Vibe’s signature cocktails. Fourteen years and a great many pounds later, the two of them opened Vibe along with Karina’s daughter Avani Vogeler and her fiancé Dylan.
The establishment is truly a family affair. Avani serves as the Creative Marketing Director, Karina is Vibe’s General Manager, Richard is the Executive Chef, and Dylan handles the business side of the operation. They’ve all embraced the meatless lifestyle and their duties in making Vibe a success.
At Vibe, plant-based food advances the efforts of sustainability. At Vibe, plants are medicine.
In many ways, the family embodies all the reasons one might have in going vegan: Karina and Avani for animal cruelty reasons—Karina raised Avani vegetarian from birth; Dylan—a 5th generation farmer—for a commitment to sustainability; and Richard for health reasons.
A cursory glance at Vibe’s entirely vegetarian and vegan menu is enough for us to know we’d stumbled upon something special. The painstaking detail in everything from the sauces to the cocktails made clear that a lot of love goes into the food. It’s the kind of love that comes from a family kitchen.
It’s the next morning and we still have the thumping beat of the DJ’s records in our hungover heads. We’re back on the same patio as the night before, waiting for our brunch, which is served and presented by Chef Richard.
Every last bite—each sip—is a delight.
We booked a trip to the Kona side of the Big Island, but The Universe had other plans. Our vegan food-loving stomachs are overjoyed at the change of plans.
The Poke Bombs are an inventive twist on the Hawaiian poke bowl. These handheld works of art are almost too beautiful to eat. Almost. Mildly sweet inari pockets serve as delicious, beet poke-packed edible serving vessels. The beets cleverly mimic the meatiness and texture of ahi tuna, while the seaweed imparts that salty, ocean flavor. The poke bombs are topped with spicy wasabi mayonnaise and furikake. The side of pickled daikon adds tart, refreshing crunch.
Vibe’s Breakfast Sandwich and Vegan House-made Fried Rice combination is a fun, island-inspired brunch offering. The English muffin houses a delectable sausage, melty cheese, and fluffy egg patty. The avocado adds a welcome fresh component to the decadent sandwich. The fried rice accompaniment is seasoned with a savory combination of shoyu, liquid aminos, and sesame oil. Sliced red cabbage and furikake provide texture.
The Loco Moco is an apt addition to Vibe’s all-day breakfast menu. The Loco Moco is a Hilo invention, and is anything but vegan! Vibe’s vegan reimagining of the Hawaiian staple includes Beyond Beef and egg patties atop a mound of rice, swimming in an earthy mushroom gravy, and topped with sliced scallions. It is island vegan comfort food at its best.
VEGAN JACKFRUIT NACHOS
Being from Texas, we know nachos. We’ve sampled lots and lots of cheese-drenched, flavor-packed, crunchy nachos in our day. Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine we’d have to fly to a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to taste the best damn nachos we’ve ever had. The seasonings, the spice level, the freshness of ingredients, the level of crunchiness of the chips, the jackfruit ‘meat’ flavor and texture, the hint of smokiness from the homegrown chocolate habaneros in the sauce—everything was off-the-charts delicious. We thoroughly enjoyed the nachos down to the last tortilla chip.
During our time in Hawaii, we sampled a good amount of açai bowls, and the one at Vibe definitely stood out. The portions were beyond generous. The tartness of the fruit was perfectly balanced with the sweetness of the condensed coconut milk. And it was all topped with crunchy granola and a ton of fresh fruit. Note: Make sure to order it without honey.
Neither of us is a big cocktail drinker. We’re good with two or three ingredients tops. We’re perfectly content with a gin and tonic or rum and Coke. But when things start sliding into the realm of elaborate ingredients and ostentatious techniques served up by a mustachioed bartender who resembles a Victorian Era Irish boxer, it’s generally a hard pass for us. More often than not we find the flavors—as enticing as they may appear on paper—tend to muddle together in an overly sweet mess. So, truth be told, when we were served a couple of Vibe’s signature drinks, we were skeptical. We’re happy to report, we were wrong to be skeptical. The Mermaid Water was a Tito’s Vodka cocktail mixed with a housemade rosemary simple syrup and guava, topped with lemon kombucha, lime and served with a blue algae rim. The first sip hits you with the flavor of the vodka and rosemary and fizz from the kombucha. The drink is perfectly balanced in flavor, with none of the ingredients overpowering the others.
The Coconut Rose Latte is truly an antidote to a night of overindulging in one too many cocktails from Vibe’s “Fancy AF” cocktail menu. Like the cocktails, the latté had a lot going on, but in the best way possible; all of the flavors and ingredients worked in perfect harmony. How the drink wizards at Vibe are able to dream up flavor combinations and synergize ingredients is truly an act of witchcraft.