Cauliflower Buffalo Wings at Veg Box (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Veg Box owner and chef Erik Korchmaros started cooking vegetarian food after working as a chef on a yacht while living in Florida. He had been eating food like Kobe beef cheesesteaks and, while they were delicious, they weren’t making him feel great.
“I started doing my own research on food and was blown away by what we’re eating as humans and especially as Americans,” said Korchmaros. He watched a few documentaries, bought a juicer, and started experimenting with vegetarian dishes, developing the falafel-esque veggie burger recipe that’s now on Veg Box’s menu.
“I put twenty bucks on the table, and tell people ‘If you’ve had better wings anywhere else, chicken or not, you can take the money.”
After moving to the Tucson area, Korchmaros opened Veg Box’s first incarnation, a food truck called Veg in a Box. The brick-and-mortar restaurant followed in June 2015, and with the larger space, the menu was able to expand. Now, Korchmaros and his crew offer everything from a beet-based Cheesy Ruben ($9.75) to raw Broccoli Couscous ($9.75) to a vegetarian version of the classic Tucson Sonoran Dog ($9.75), made of marinated carrot wrapped in cheese and zucchini bacon.
The entire menu is soy-free, gluten-free, and non-GMO. Sixty-five percent of the menu is organic. Korchmaros also buys from local producers such as Wholesum Harvest and Patagonia Orchards.
Veg Box’s most popular dish is the Buffalo Wings ($8), cauliflower battered with millet and flaxseed, fried, and drenched in Frank’s Red Hot, coconut cream, cilantro, garlic, and parsley.
“I put twenty bucks on the table, and tell people ‘If you’ve had better wings anywhere else, chicken or not, you can take the money. You have to give me my food back, but take the money’,” Korchmaros said. “No one’s ever gone for the twenty.”
The Buffalo Wings are crispy and spicy with a kick from raw garlic, Oaxacan cinnamon, and fenugreek. Korchmaros credits his penchant for Indian spices to local restaurant Sher-E-Punjab. He loved their chicken tikka masala so much when he was younger that it inspired him to embark on a cooking career. The wings are served with a variety of fruits and veggies such as grapes, cucumbers, and carrot sticks, along with a creamy and herbaceous house ranch.
Beet Burger at Veg Box Cafe (Credit: Veg Box Cafe)
The Beet Burger ($9.75), another popular dish, uses beets sourced from Patagonia Orchards. The beet patty is spiced with clove and fennel and loaded onto a gluten-free bun alongside pickled beet, caramelized onion, peppers, greens, tomatoes, and the house sauce. For the included side dish, diners can choose from healthy options such as hummus and a green salad, or fun options such as sweet chili fries. The crispy fries are spiced to taste like chorizo, offering a meat-free way to satisfy cravings for the Mexican pork sausage.
Beverage options include smoothies ($6 – $7), juices ($7.50), hot EXO coffee ($2.50), and on-tap kombucha from the Fermented Tea Company ($4.50). For dessert, diners can try an Amaranth Rice Crispy ($2), a Chocolate Chip Quinoa Blondie ($2), a Sprouted Black Bean Brownie ($2), a Pumpkin Spice Cookie ($1.50), or a ‘Compassionate’ Gorilla Cookie ($3.50).
The Gorilla, which Korchmaros refers to as a “kitchen sink” cookie, includes flax seeds, banana, and chocolate chips. The fudgy texture features a delicious banana-chocolate flavor. Plus, the cookie is part of a charitable mission: for every Gorilla Cookie Veg Box sells, $1.00 is donated to their Compassionate Burrito Initiative (during brunch, served on Sundays from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m., $1 from each sale of Gorilla Pancakes, $9.50, also goes to support the program).
The Compassionate Burrito Initiative, which will start soon, aims to serve a monthly meal to Tucson populations that are food insecure, including the homeless and veterans in need. The burritos will include rice, beans, and high-quality grilled veggies, part of Korchmaros’ desire to democratize vegetarian cuisine.
Korchmaros’ recently trademarked his signature phrase, “Let’s Start a Vegalution,” and popularizing plant-based eating is a big part of his mission with the restaurant. He’s currently setting up a non-profit, Organic Please, that will help low-income families afford garden infrastructure, kitchen appliances like a dehydrator and blender, and cooking classes.
“I started doing my own research on food and was blown away by what we’re eating as humans and especially as Americans.”
There’s also a bar in the works, which will serve gluten-free beers and herb-based cocktails. Additionally, Veg Box offers cooking classes, which you can learn more about on their Facebook page. Muralist Joe Pagac, who paints the signs for the Rialto Theater, will decorate Veg Box’s interior and exterior over the next few months with artwork that celebrates the restaurant’s plant-based menu and Arizona’s organic vegetable farms. Veg Box will remain open while he’s painting, giving patrons an opportunity to see Pagac at work.
“I’m going to call it ‘Watch Joe Do His Magic,’” Korchmaros says.
Veg Box is located at 75 E. Penning St. and can be reached at (520) 624-0179. Keep up with Veg Box on Facebook.