At Ras Plant Based in Crown Heights, the staff at the busy Ethiopian restaurant wear t-shirts that declare them “Purveyors of Vibes.”

The vibes that are being dealt in, specifically, are of the Ras variety: The hallmarks include delicious food and drinks, a warm experience, cleanliness and love, Ras Plant Based co-owner and chef Romeo Regalli told BK Reader.

“The Ras vibe is as simple as being happy when you’re here, real happiness,” said Regalli, who wears blue suede Jordans, gold-rimmed spectacles and holds the restaurant’s mascot, Coco the teacup poodle, in his tattooed arms.

Brunch at Ras Plant Based. Photo: Jessy Edwards for the BK Reader.
Brunch at Ras Plant Based. Photo: Jessy Edwards for the BK Reader.

He works alongside his wife and co-owner, Milka Regalli, who is holding down the bar during this brunch service.

In recent months, Ras Plant Based started serving both brunch and lunch. And, on a recent Saturday, BK Reader arrived to find the Franklin Avenue restaurant filling fast and soon bursting at the seams.

In Sept. 2022, Ras hired Hector Rivera, aka DJ Chico, to spin tunes for the brunch service. The space began to fill with the sounds of Sade, Toto and Kool and the Gang, along with cool Crown Heights couples, multiple large groups and parents with cute babies.

Milka Regalli designed the drink menu. Here, she works the bar. Photo: Jonathan Mora for the BK Reader.
Milka Regalli designed the drink menu. Here, she works the bar. Photo: Jonathan Mora for the BK Reader.

On the menu for brunch, customers have the option of eating from the “very traditional” menu of Ethiopian breakfast staples or the “kinda not” menu of comfort food classics with an Ethiopian twist.

Everything at Ras Plant Based is, unsurprisingly, plant-based, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it.

Take, for example, the traditional breakfast of scrambled eggs —or enqulal firfir—made with mung bean eggs that rival the real thing, tomato, jalapeno, onion and spices. Or the mac and cheese: a melt-in-your-mouth vegan mozzarella and cheddar version of the dish, sprinkled with crumbled and spice-tossed injera chips for a salty crunch.

Traditional Ethiopian breakfast. Photo: Jonathan Mora for the BK Reader.
Traditional Ethiopian breakfast. Photo: Jonathan Mora for the BK Reader.

Injera is a staple on the Ras menu: A sour fermented pancake-like flatbread with a spongy texture. Regulars were seen deftly unrolling the injera, which comes in cigar-shaped logs, and using torn-off sections of it to pick up food with their fingertips.

Another signature flavor on the menu is the Ethiopian spice mix Berbere, a warm and complex combination of more than 30 spices including red chilis, fenugreek, ginger, cardamom and more. It can be found elevating the fries, in a sauce with the traditional breakfast and on the mac’s injera-chip crumble.

The many spices used at Ras are all sent, or hand-delivered, by Romeo’s mom, who still lives in Ethiopia with his father. Right now, Romeo is looking to open a Ras spice farm in Ethiopia solely to serve the needs of the restaurant, which includes an upcoming expansion.

Vegan mac ‘n cheese with injera and berbere. Photo: Jonathan Mora for BK Reader.

Romeo and Milka are planning some major moves for 2023. The pair told BK Reader Ras is looking to expand to Manhattan — the couple is looking at spaces in the West Village.

“It’s just not about the food, people are connected to our brand, and it’s time to expand,” Romeo said.

It’s an impressive trajectory for the Franklin Avenue joint, which the Regallis opened a week before the pandemic hit New York in 2020.

Groups and couples packed the space, which is covered in brightly-covered murals. Photo: Jonathan Mora for the BK Reader.
Groups and couples packed the space, which is covered in brightly-covered murals. Photo: Jonathan Mora for the BK Reader.

“People were so worried about us,” Romeo said.

“I was the only one who knew nothing was going to happen to us. I’m a very faithful person, I believe in God, and before we opened we had a priest come in and pray on it and holy water everywhere, I knew the place was blessed, nothing was going to happen to it.”

The Regallis had to lay off all their staff at first, and became a two-person team, prepping, cooking, working the line, taking orders and running them to the door when customers arrived.

The pair’s teamwork was built after they met and fell in love when Romeo, who is originally from Ethiopia, moved to New York and started working at Awash Ethiopian, owned by Milka’s parents.

Staff t-shirts read, "Purveyors of Vibes." Photo: Jonathan Mora for the BK Reader.
Staff t-shirts read, “Purveyors of Vibes.” Photo: Jonathan Mora for the BK Reader.

They say their plant-based ethos comes both from how they were raised — eating vegetables from the backyard — and from their love of the planet and the need for sustainability.

They also believe in the health benefits of eating plant-based. Five years ago, Romeo’s father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Romeo flew to his father and cooked for him for three months, a plant-based, healthy diet.

“He’s been in remission for five years and is still eating healthy and living healthy, and I think that’s very important,” Romeo said.

The Ras burrito. Photo: Jonathan Mora for the BK Reader.
The Ras burrito. Photo: Jonathan Mora for the BK Reader.

While the food at Ras may be healthy, it certainly doesn’t leave the hungry customer unsatisfied. BK Reader recommends the Ras Burrito: A take on the Ethiopian traditional dish of kitfo, which is minced raw beef, marinated in mitmita, a spice blend of chili, cloves, korarima (also known as Ethiopian cardamom) and salt.

Ras does its version with dehydrated pea crumble, grape seed oil, mitmita and korarima, to replicate the kitfo experience.

The dish is brought together with homemade awaze sauce — a spicy and sweet concoction that Ras plans to bottle and sell in the likes of Whole Foods Markets soon.

Brunch at Ras Plant Based. Photo: Jonathan Mora for the BK Reader.
Brunch at Ras Plant Based. Photo: Jonathan Mora for the BK Reader.

Another table was seen doing it right with a traditional breakfast each, and Ras French toast to share. The French toast is a delicious blend of chewy brioche soaked in mung bean egg and vegan ice cream, cinnamon powder and korarima, served with blueberries, strawberries, walnuts and lashings of maple syrup.

Drinks are also an Ethiopian fusion experience, with mimosas made with tej (Ethiopian honey wine) and a rosy Mezcal-hibiscus punch on the menu.

DJ Chico spins at Ras Plant Based. Photo: Jonathan Mora for BK Reader.

It’s no surprise Romeo is a James Beard Awards semifinalist for Best Chef in New York 2022.

Just this week, Romeo and Milka were viewing a space at the brand new food hall at Pier 57 in Hudson River Park, run by the James Beard Foundation and soon to open to the public.

Ras has been invited to potentially open yet another outlet there.

“It gives us a lot of exposure,” Romeo said.

Meanwhile, by 1:00pm, a line has formed outside the restaurant, one table is singing along to Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor,” two giant gold birthday balloons are jostling for space and Romeo is filming the packed restaurant on his phone.

“Both my parents are so proud,” he said.

“I was the crazy one growing up; I hated school, I’m the only one who has tattoos. My brother is a CFO; all my cousins are doctors, engineers, and I went to film school — I’ve always been an artist.

“My brother used to make fun of me because men don’t go in the kitchen in Ethiopia. But it all paid off.”

Jessy Edwards

Jessy Edwards is a writer based in Bushwick. Originally from New Zealand, she has written for the BBC, Rolling Stone, NBC New York, CNBC and her hometown newspaper, The Dominion Post, among others.

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