It wasn’t long ago, in December 2018, that Counterpart (then known as Counterpart Deli) opened in Echo Park. The all-vegan daytime restaurant took over beloved former coffee shop Chango, which had operated for 17 years before getting priced out of the neighborhood it helped to reshape. A closing letter from Chango’s ownership discussed gentrification in the community, an issue that remains deeply complex and prominent across Los Angeles, particularly in enclaves from Echo Park to Virgil Village to Abbot Kinney.
The post-opening reaction to Counterpart was mixed, with some writing off the vegan newcomer entirely and others settling in as regulars who found a lot to like in the funky menu of faux deli meats and sturdy sandwiches. But by the end of March 2020, everything fell apart. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has asked restaurants to reckon with closures, sudden reopenings (and closures, again), as well as with permits, sidewalk seating, and business models that shifted overnight. The country, meanwhile, wrestled with the consequences of racism, police brutality, climate change, and systemic economic inequality. Everything has changed since March of this year, including Counterpart.
In this newfound era of personal and structural accountability, Counterpart has found its voice and leader in chef Almitra “Mimi” Williams. The restaurant dropped the Deli from its name and, this week, will debut an evening all-vegan tasting menu that complements the daytime comfort foods and weekend brunch fare that has kept the place in business during the pandemic. Williams has been made a partner in the restaurant and was given creative license to not just oversee the menu, but create a new path forward entirely.
“I learned to just dive in,” Williams says from a sidewalk seat under a pale orange awning. “I’ve been cooking professionally for over 15 years, it’s the only job I’ve ever had.” Williams is a young, Black California native with a decade of plant-based living under her belt and a resume that stretches from culinary school to sous chef jobs at restaurants across the country. She and her seven siblings grew up in rural Mendocino County — “it was basically a commune” — chasing animals and living largely off the land with a few other families. They would partner up on growing produce and share their spoils cooperatively, including, once, a haul of bear meat from her father. It wasn’t until Williams’s daughter was born, a decade ago, that she decided to lean into veganism.
“It was something about consuming animal flesh while I was pregnant with a life,” Williams says of her journey toward a plant-based diet, though she admits that the public face of the vegan movement on social media (largely white, often affluent) can be more complicated to embrace. Veganism has always occupied its own space, and has gained a growing influence in the Black community in recent decades. Williams sees Counterpart as a way to bridge divides between cultures, price sensitivities, and people curious about ways, right now, to vote for change with the money they spend.
“There’s a much bigger conversation to be had,” Williams says about what a casual vegan restaurant with a tasting menu can mean for a community. Forget the usual fine dining trappings that come with a tasting menu; her food will remain “plant-based, comfort food-esque,” a catch-all turn of phrase that allows her to sheet out handmade pastas with vegan bolognese sauce, offer delicate tres leches cakes for dessert, and turn up her vegetable techniques to 11 whenever she so chooses — all without the need to lean on any of those new, complicated faux-meat solutions currently flooding the market. “I produce items that aren’t processed,” she says. “It’s not an Impossible smashburger. People love those, but we can do so much more.”
That doesn’t mean that Counterpart’s new vegan tasting menu needs to be more than just a great meal for a willing neighborhood. Vegan doesn’t have to mean exclusive, and tasting menu doesn’t have to mean expensive. “I want my food to be approachable for people,” she says, particularly because the restaurant will always have a mellow cafe vibe, “but there’s not just Reubens and doughnuts that I can do here. It’s limitless.” The eight-course tasting menu will run $75 per person.
For diners in 2020, doing more has meant a lot of things: increasing takeout and delivery orders for those cherished neighborhood restaurants; supporting Black-owned restaurants across the city; giving more power to employees over (often white, often affluent) business owners; coming to terms with direct consumption impacts on climate change as fires rip through the American West. Counterpart has a role to play in this, too.
“There’s such a movement right now, with global warming, with activism, with people paying attention,” says Williams. Being a Black co-owner, being vegan, and having a platform comes with responsibility, she says, but it also means opportunities for herself and for those behind her.
Williams is hoping that her own unique path, from executive chef hire brought on after opening to business partner with full oversight, is one the restaurant industry starts to embrace more. She credits her cooks with the daily specials they create, and says her overall leadership style is “100 percent collaborative,” a far cry from previous gigs. “I’ve worked in so many restaurants where I’ve, like, lived there, dedicated 16-hour shifts, opened new locations. You see all this success for others, and it doesn’t come for you.”
Williams credits her current situation in part to her now-partner and founder of Counterpart Joshua Pourgol, a serial restaurateur known for coffee shops, burrito spots, and, yes, vegan burgers. “He honored my commitment” to the restaurant, she says, by giving her a stake and getting out of the way. Though, even there, she’s reluctant to take up all the spotlight. “It’s really a representation of the whole entire team, not just me,” Williams says with a smile. “Chefs are so ego-crazed sometimes!”
Ego is the opposite of the point for Williams and Counterpart right now. In a neighborhood still reckoning with gentrification, in a time when many restaurants are given few alternatives but to fail, and during a national moment that’s emboldening people to engage in meaningful social justice work, Williams knows that she and Counterpart are just one small salve for a number of greatly wounded systems. But for her, it almost couldn’t have happened any other way. “2020’s been one of those years,” she says. “I’ve lost a lot, but I’ve gained so much.”
Counterpart Vegan’s evening tasting menu at 1559 Echo Park Ave. launches Friday, and can be booked through Tock.