The Taste Chase goes vegan – at Humble Cafe

Fall has finally, ah, fallen, in our strange new world, and like most of you, we here at The Taste Chase have been isolated for most of the year and are looking bleakly at the prospect of a homebound winter. Obviously, our opportunities to get out and taste the “Bounty of the County” have been hampered by social distancing mandates. While this adjustment is difficult for most of us, few have been hit harder than has the restaurant industry. With paired down staff, limited menus and few dine-in options, many of our beloved eateries, watering holes, and sandwich shops face a very precarious future. But, as with any hardship that besets a community, inspiration, fortitude and vision seem to force a ray of sunshine to shine.

On one particularly sunny autumn day, I found myself in the parking-challenged town of Lambertville, perspiring and checking out a brand new cafe that had the audacity to open in the midst of such uncertainty. Humble Cafe and Bakery, on 7 North Main Street, has been open since March 6 and, since then, has been plying the Lambertville and surrounding area with an inventive and amazingly tasty vegan, plant-based menu.

Yes, I said vegan, plant-based. For those of us who wallow in the coma-inducing taste of a good steak, Humble Cafe partners and Titusville residents Annette Earling and Chef Patrick Nolan challenge us to expand our food experience. And, in a world where the carnivore seems to reign supreme, this bacon lover discovered the reward in eating vegan is not finding where and how it is different, but awakening to how imaginative and flavorful it really is.

A welcoming little cafe that is reminiscent of the sitting room in our favorite aunt’s house (currently, indoor dining is suspended), Nolan and Earling endeavor to present a menu that is appealing to both vegans and non-vegans. In other words, they’re more than just tofu, flax seeds and tempeh. 

Nolan, a native of North Arlington, New Jersey, grew up loving to make pizza with his father. “I love pizza. I grew up making pizza with my dad since I was five years old,” he reminisced. “He would make it from scratch and my sister and I would roll out the dough. He was known for his pizza, and people would just flock to it even though he never did it for a living.”

I was curious as to how this self-confessed turophile could forsake pizza, whose main ingredient is cheese, and embrace the vegan lifestyle. 

Nolan explained:, “I was really close to my oldest sister, who sort of took me under her wing and did a lot of stuff with me. She went vegan at a young age and, as I got older, started taking me with her to this pace in Asbury Park called Twisted Tree Cafe. The baker there, Clark Mitchell, was an amazing baker and I found myself saying, ‘Wow. Is this what vegan food could taste like?’

Following marriage to a wife with severe dairy allergies and his own desire to just eat better, Nolan’s interest in veganism simmered until a move to Titusville brought him friendship with his new neighbor, Titusville native Annette Earling. Fast forward to the present where Nolan and Earling aspire to create a very tangible vegan experience, free from some of the assumed pretensions that can be connected with being vegan. 

Earling explained; “If you read our mission statement, that is ‘to make it accessible,’ and by ‘accessible,’ we mean that it is affordable and not scary.” 

Earling’s conviction is to make Humble Cafe and Bakery not only accessible economically and socially, but gastronomically, which is realized by some of the most inventive offerings in a often challenging cuisine created by Chef Nolan. 

When I arrived that warm afternoon, I was greeted with a plate of three wonderful cookies: lemon ginger, chocolate chip and  double chocolate salted pretzel. Those of you who have followed The Taste Chase for a while already know of our passionate relationship with cookies; well played Annette and Patrick! Honestly, I was surprised how much I could enjoy something that didn’t have real butter in it.  I am sure there is a cow somewhere giving me the side eyes. 

One thing to note is that Nolan and Earling are not trying to patronize meat eaters or appear sycophantic to vegans. They just want to create food that caters to the vegan pallet without making the non-vegan feel like an afterthought. “One of my favorite new things that Patrick has created is the Hot Honey Seitan Sandwich. It’s kind of like a Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich.” Earling exclaimed.  

Considering the stir that that particular chicken sandwich elicited, I thought it was a pipe dream for something that didn’t have chicken in it. Though chicken lovers might miss the chicken, spice lovers will not be disappointed and the Sweet Potato Roll adds just a bit of sweetness. Remember, it’s seitan and not chicken. Nolan adds, “I think it’s important to have things that are recognizable. We’re not trying to reinvent the world, we’re just trying to make it more interesting.”

When asked what items tend to sell the best, some of the usual, “safer” that I might order were listed. 

“The kale salad. It sells out. And we sell a lot of cookies.” states Nolan. 

“The mac and cheese” interjects Earling, wide-eyed and salivating. 

An interesting item on the menu that intrigued me was the bagel with cream cheese and lox. Personally, I love everything bagel, toasted hard with cream cheese, lox, capers and onions so Nolan’s vegan interpretation was beckoning me to a quick frolic on the vegan side. Right off, you get that familiar fishy, briny aroma, along with a presentation that is familiar enough to illicit serious consideration from bagel purists. The “cream cheese” was soft and that is where most of the smoky, salty flavor sat. The carrots were interesting and while they did not have that soft give of lox when biting into it, it was not off-putting, just different.   

As we mentioned earlier, Nolan grew up making and eating pizza. I was dubious that one could give up such a food tied to so many memories so easily. While he did confess to cheating in the past every now and again, what he did next is truly a testament to his commitment to that greasy, cheesy disc we all love so much. When I asked Earling what her favorite offering at

Humble is, she unequivocally said, “The pizza, when he does the pizza”. So after chatting about menu items like the mac and cheese, his pizza and, now, the bagel with cream cheese, I was curious as to how Chef Nolan addressed the well known vegan conundrum “the cheese problem.” 

“We have house made mozzarella cheese and parmesan cheese and I have been working on this for about 6 years now.” says Chef Nolan, who studied at the Natural Gourmet Institute, and cut his teeth in such places and Lael Cakes in Brooklyn and Good Karma Vegan Cafe in Red Bank.

I was presented with a round wheel that looked familiar but also different. This cashew based “cheese” was white, like mozzarella and, when touched, has the same smooth, moist texture. But I knew what it wasn’t and wanted to know what, exactly, it was. Not satisfied with most of the vegan cheeselike offerings available, Nolan has made it his personal mission to come up with a convincing vegan “cheese” that would tick all the boxes for former cheese lovers. 

“It melts, it blisters, it stretches. It does everything you want cheese to do and it tastes fantastic.” exclaims Nolan. With this in mind, I tasted Humble’s version of Mac-n-Cheese. It looked appetizing and familiar but before the usual caution flags started to wave in my mind, I remembered my minded need to be as open as my mouth. It was creamy, and the noodles were just how I like them in my mac-n-cheese. There was a flavor I couldn’t identify but it was subtle. Everything familiar was there, the softness of the pasta, the creaminess of the “uncheese”, the warmth of the whole experience. There was a topping of toasted coconut that was seasoned to remind one of crumbly bacon atop the steaming melty mound. 

What I found most intriguing about the story behind this little cafe, is that in midst of a global pandemic with world wide uncertaining and many people trepidatious about attempting any kind of new venture, Earling and Nolan have managed to keep their dream up and running and I wondered how, in this current socially distant reality, that was possible or even viable. 

Chef Nolan bakes it down to one thing. “Our brioche bun is what kept our shop open during the hard times.” he stated. “We do these large ones and when you make them large and as soon as you break them apart, the inside is so soft and gooey, it’s like that amazing, perfect brioche.” {By the way, Humble makes their brioche buns in chocolate, cinnamon, and apple, large and small – so far.) 

Humble cafe opened their doors just two weeks before the pandemic really hit with the wide eye, pie-in-the-sky hopes that any new entrepreneur has. According to Earling, they were off to a great start, watching a dream become manifested. Within a matter of days, Earling and Nolan had to shut their doors for weeks like most of the restaurants and businesses did. The onset of the pandemic blindsided them as plans for reopening would require a rethink and a reorganization. 

“The whole cafe was based on people coming into the space.” Nolan added. “We had a kids area and we wanted people to feel free to bring their families. We weren’t ready to be a strictly take-out establishment.” 

You know what they say about desperate times. Humble Cafe set about redoing their menu and changing their strategy to flow with a take-out reality “ ”Everything has to change” insisted Nolan. “When we came back, the brioche was one of those things that we introduced. We made this chocolate brioche with a citrus gaze.” Surprisingly, this simple (or Humble!) little bun proved so popular, with people coming back over and over again and telling friends about it.  Nolan credits it with keeping their heads above the water. 

“It was the thing that really got us over the hump, I mean, that alone really helped us float until we could get back on our feet and figure out this whole new arrangement.”  So after weeks of the shut down and many trepidations, Humble Cafe & Bakery wondered what and if they could survive. But survive, they did. They reworked and pared down the menu, got their take-out groove on, and now are on the upswing. We do know how these things work, however. Local establishments like this need local support and patronage. The partners get that vegan food may not be everyone’s forte and their mission is not to fool you by pretending to be anything other than a vegan place. They take many dishes, comfort items, and treats, rework them for a meat and meat by-product free dining experience. Chef Nolan confessed to some of the more intricate and time-consuming  aspects of vegan fair. “You really have to consider so many things like time and ingredient sourcing and sources. There is a lot of imagination and creativity that goes into creating a vegan menu and at the end of it all, it still has to taste good.”

My takeaway was pretty simple. Earling and Nolan are not trying to shame anyone into being a vegan, they are simply working their dream, making plant based dining approachable and inviting for everyone including non-vegans, serve their community, and be able to make a decent living doing so.  That’s well worth the trip for me and for any of you. From the kale salad to the mac-n-cheese, it’s all good. If you’ve never considered a plant based diet, come in and dip your toes on the shallow end. There are many things to try before you go deeper. Don’t look for the food to fool you, that is not the point. Appreciate the new, expand your palate, consider including more greens and grain and less meat and highly processed foods. 

Humble Cafe & Bakery, the little vegan cafe that dared to dream, weathered a pandemic and was saved by holding on to a little brioche bun. Amazing. So, I lift my 100% post consumer paper coffee cup in real respect and admiration to the vision and tenacity of the folks at Humble Cafe & Bakery. And if you smell the familiar smoky, spicy scent of barbecued meat wafting from their kitchen, don’t be fooled, it’s only seitan.

Humble Cafe & Bakery,  7 North Main Street(on north Main at Bridge Street) Lambertville New Jersey, 08530 – 609-438-5451. Yum it up. Put your mask back on. Tell all your friends.

Photos by Renata Barnes

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Renata Barnes
Renata is the author of "The Taste Chase," MercerMe's own food review column. She's a lover of all things poetic, colorful, funny and inspiring. A native New Yorker, who grew up in Hopewell Valley and spent the better part of her adulthood back in NYC, currently finds herself in a growing love relationship with “the Valley”. Latin food, Indian saris and mehndi, French perfume, African music, Middle Eastern spices, South American jewels, Asian fabrics and anything from just about any island (maybe not Riker’s Island) are things that remind her to go out and taste the world, live passionately and always wear deodorant. The mother of one rambunctious boy and the wife of a mellow fellow, Renata tries to put her too many years of university and her film and writing talents to good use here in NJ. “I’ve spent too much time trying to fit in some where when I probably belong everywhere. That slow revelation has been freeing.”

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