EJ’s Soul Food and Vegan opening in Gastonia.

Dara J. Bess mixing fried chicken wings in her wing sauces.  Courtesy of Denise, Charlotte Five.

Dara J. Bess mixing fried chicken wings in her wing sauces. Courtesy of Denise, Charlotte Five.

CharlotteFive

Fried pickles, baked chicken, mac and cheese and family-recipe collard greens can only mean one thing here in the Carolinas: good old-fashioned soul food. Except there’s a twist: This new Gastonia restaurant also offers vegan options.

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“People need to know that there’s healthy food that you don’t have to substitute the flavor for the health — just because it’s healthy doesn’t mean it doesn’t taste good,” said Dara J. Bess, EJ’s Soul Food and Vegan owner.

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Dara J. Bess, owner of EJ's Soul Food and Vegan, holding one of her specialties, fried chicken.  Courtesy of Denise, Charlotte Five.
Dara J. Bess, owner of EJ’s Soul Food and Vegan, holding one of her specialties, fried chicken. Courtesy of Denise, Charlotte Five. Denise Casalez CharlotteFive

The Black-owned and female-run restaurant in Gastonia is hosting a soft opening on June 17.

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The restaurant pledges a “warm, safe, comforting and diverse” space.

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“It shouldn’t just be about a meal. It should be an experience or an encounter,” Bess told CharlotteFive. The restaurant offers a variety of soul comfort foods such as shrimp and grits, pork chops and adding vegan dishes that have natural, homemade ingredients.

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EJ's fried chicken wings.  Courtesy of Denise, Charlotte Five.
EJ’s fried chicken wings. Courtesy of Denise, Charlotte Five. Denise Casalez CharlotteFive

Inside the restaurant, people can expect an open layout with a bar with a brick pizza oven in the center. The atmosphere is bright and colorful, with blue walls, tall green plants and white and black balloons.

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“When you come in here, you see me. You see colors — I’m vibrant,” Bess said.

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ABOUT THE NAME: Bess, a Shelby native, named the restaurant after her son, Elijah Jace.

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Bess is a foster mom who has a passion for food, sports and people. For 20 years, she was a mental health counselor, and she worked with children.

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Dara J. Bess, owner of EJ's Soul Food and Vegan.  Courtesy of Denise, Charlotte Five.
Dara J. Bess, owner of EJ’s Soul Food and Vegan. Courtesy of Denise, Charlotte Five. Denise Casalez CharlotteFive

This is Bess’s third restaurant venture, after working for four years with her sister, Joreka Bess, creating “The Bess Group,” a soul food catering company in Shelby. Bess wanted something different and upscale, which led her to her own restaurant opening.

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The Christian mom saw the 150-seat space for opening off of I-85, exit 21, and she said she knew the great location had to be hers. “This is our thing here. It’s not just a meal, it’s about ministry — and we need to reach our community,” she said.

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THE SOUL FOOD: The restaurant’s soul food menu includes:

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THE VEGAN FOOD: The restaurant’s vegan menu includes:

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  • EJ’s Yams

  • Southern potato salad

  • EJ Family Collards

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Bess recommends everyone try her personal favorite “HE Creole Red Beans,” listed on her menu as a premium side plus vegan choice. She used a recipe created by vegan chef and author of “Flava My Plate” cookbook, Dawn Hilton-Williams.

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WHEN TO GO: EJs Soul Food and Vegan will have a soft opening with a limited menu June 17-18. The full menu will be available beginning June 20.

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The restaurant will also offer catering, wedding services and birthday parties.

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EJ's Soul Food and Vegan sign on the side of the restaurant.  ”The best of both worlds.”  Courtesy of Denise, Charlotte Five
EJ’s Soul Food and Vegan sign on the side of the restaurant. ”The best of both worlds.” Courtesy of Denise, CharlotteFive Denise Casalez CharlotteFive

EJ’s Soul Food and Vegan

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Location: 501 Cox Road, Gastonia NC

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Menu

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Cuisine: Soul food, vegan, Southern

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Instagram: @ejsoulfood

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