February 22, 2017

Hidden Gem: Belmont Vegetarian a true calling for owner — and its many fans

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Giselle Rivera-Flores / For Worcester Sun

Belmont Vegetarian is a hidden gem for vegans and soul food lovers alike.

This article was originally published in the Jan. 15, 2017 edition of the Sun.

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Whoever said bacon makes everything better has obviously never eaten at Belmont Vegetarian, a diminutive and distinct eatery nestled in the first floor of a three-decker on a bustling, sloping corner of Bell Hill.

Between the plentiful vegan and vegetarian dishes and the island-inspired flavors, coming in for lunch will not leave you wondering, “Where’s the beef?”

At Belmont Vegetarian, 157 Belmont St., the term vegetarian is about more than taking advantage of a trendy buzzword-turned-lifestyle that continues to grow in popularity. Instead, for owner Stephen Jones, it’s an homage to his mother, how he grew up and a way of life to which many in his current neighborhood can relate.

“I was raised in poor circumstances and meat was expensive,” he says. “My mom did the best she could with what she had and meat wasn’t always an option, so she raised me to be a vegetarian through no fault of her own.”

Raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Jones was a boy who came to understand that chicken was a luxury.

Giselle Rivera-Flores / For Worcester Sun

Stephen Jones, the intensely private, always-learning one-man-band behind Belmont Vegetarian.

“Every once in awhile we would eat chicken with our meal and it was delicious. It was a treat, but I learned to do a lot with the vegetarian dishes,” says Jones, whose menu at Belmont Vegetarian includes a conspicuous pair of entrees among its signature dishes: curry chicken and barbecue chicken.

Made with textured vegetable protein, also known as soy chunks, and served with rice these fan favorites are regularly joined on the rotating menu by pepper steak, and even a soy chicken burger.

“Owning a vegetarian restaurant is a lifestyle choice for me. I am not a meat-eater selling vegetarian dishes. I am a vegetarian offering vegetarian dishes I find interesting.

“It is something I’ve done throughout my life, and I travel to taste the best vegetarian meals I can find, so I can continue to learn and grow,” he says.

Indeed, traveling to New York and Boston on a whim to sample the dishes of a freshly opened vegetarian restaurant is how Jones spends his free time, and it seems to be working.

While online ratings and reviews can be fickle, Yelp! (4.7) and HappyCow (4.5) are among the websites that back up Facebook’s 4.9 out of 5 stars. The takeout counter with a pair of eat-in booths even received national recognition from PETA as one of 16 “vegan soul food restaurants that will blow your mind”.

Mostly, the restaurant seems to be thriving because of Jones’ thirst for knowledge and personal devotion to the lifestyle … but maybe not so much to the kitchen.

“To be honest, I hate cooking. I always have,” muses the intensely private Jones.

“My mom [who he requested the Sun not identify] always asks me where I learned to cook, but I don’t have an answer. My cooking and my flavors are just something that come to me. I have an idea for a side dish and I make it. I don’t measure anything and I do everything through instinct.

“That is why I love to go out and try different dishes from different restaurants and cities. It shows me more,” he says, again without wanting to let anyone in on his favorite haunts.

Giselle Rivera-Flores / For Worcester Sun

Mac n’ cheese (made with soy cheese) is among the staples of Jones’ rotating menu.

Vegetarian food isn’t supposed to taste good — at least that’s the ardent belief of the stereotypical carnivore — but at Belmont Vegetarian, food tastes better than good. Maybe it’s the welcoming reggae and ska sounds of Bob Marley, but it is surprising to ever see an empty seat or a short line at the order window.

“I am busy every day of the week,” says Jones — whose restaurant is closed Sunday and Monday — as he humors a visitor while taking a pickup order over the phone and waving for the next person in line to move up. “Busy is good, and it has me thinking about opening an additional location.”

Did we mention he’s the only employee?

For less than $15, a food lover can experience vegetarian and vegan fare tinged with Jamaican culture and American-comfort food style, through an assortment of combinations and sampler plates. From dishes like spaghetti and veggie balls to mac n’ cheese and the good old-fashioned veggie burger, each day the menu – written on a chalkboard – changes to accommodate the season, available ingredients and Jones’ latest inspiration.

The meal always shares space in one of two sizes of round foil containers, and the consistency of the food is noted by regular visitors.

After opening his doors almost six years ago, through the help of encouraging friends, Jones has created a home for vegans and soul food lovers all under one roof, where inexpensive ingredients can turn into a full, and fulfilling, family meal. Hold the bacon.

Belmont Vegetarian is open 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.

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