Cantina at Old Red Bus Station review, Vicar Lane Leeds - fun vegan food that delivers on flavour
The Old Red Bus Station is, you might have guessed, a former transport hub which closed in 1994 - one of Leeds's many heritage buildings repurposed for the city's thriving food and drink scene.
I'd heard good things about the Vicar Lane site's grub, so a visit had been planned for a while, but I'm glad to say I'll be heading back before too long.
Well, it was a familiar sight, having been here before for a drink or two in the past, but in terms of a dining experience it was a little jarring at first. We tried to sit upstairs, away from the clubby music, which seemed loudest around the right corner of the bar in the most intimate part of the place, but it was closed mid-week.
We settled for the high, long tables to the left of the entrance and took a look at the menu once we were able to squeeze by a post obstructing entry to one of the benches.
The atmosphere was nice and not too hectic - tucked far enough away from the main city centre bars and restaurants - and aside from the seats being a bit far from the table, they've done well to keep the decor sparse. There's a few nods to Yorkshire lingo slapped on the walls, referencing the site's origins, and for the most part staff reflect this proud tradition of friendly cheer too.
What’s the menu like?
Fun, casual, indulgent. The antithesis of fine dining, you might say. Oh, and it's all vegan. Stop any groaning right there. Cantina, which has claimed to be the first all-vegan diner in the city, has done well to make its menu appeal to those who don't want to sacrifice big flavours and full bellies. Hence dishes with names like the Hellfire Burger (£.8.50), a battered seitan (a wheat gluten protein) patty with sriracha sauce, beer battered onion rings, jalapeños and vegan mayo.
There's a limited selection of 'Big Bites' of this kind, which come with fries or sweet potato salad, along with 'Bar Bites' (extras such as deep-friend Oreo skewers), deals, milkshakes and mocktails.
What's the verdict?
I had the Hellfire Burger, which had a really good texture - plenty of soft, crisp and moist elements melding in a brioche bun - and a had big fiery flavour. It was all sunny for my partner, who enjoyed the Mac Got Fat (£8.50), a deep fried mac ‘n’ cheese patty with black bean chilli and salad. Though she said she couldn't taste the cheese, the ludicrous pasta-in-a-burger indulgence of it was a winner.
There is a sense with vegan replicas of traditionally meaty foods that some sleight of hand is in order. Despite the wild claims of an emerging meat-free industry, seitan and vegan cheese will never taste like the real thing, so a bit of initiative with flavour is needed, and they've done it well here. Elements which could fall flat have been lifted with deep frying for crispness or a good combination of sauces. It might lead to a lifetime on the hips, but it's a moment on the lips worth trying.
The fries were fine, a portion of onion rings (£3.50) was a nice accompaniment, but the loaded nachos (£4) could have been made anywhere, I felt. The onion rings also came without the vegan garlic mayo as advertised, annoyingly.
Room for dessert?
Gosh no - but I'm feeling a revisit to try out those Oreos.
My partner had a Raspberry Francais cocktail (£6.50), which was nicely tart.
Certainly worth the £33 for two mains, two sides and two drinks. Just don't go to expecting an intimate, elegant dining experience.
Address: 102 Vicar Lane, Leeds LS2 7NL
Telephone: 0113 345 4390
Opening hours: Tuesday to Thursday 11am – midnight. Friday and Saturday: 11am - 4am