How one black-owned vegan restaurant aims to empower its neighborhood
Oasis Vegan Veggie Parlor is the coziest corner of Four Corners in Dorchester, an island of calm at the busy intersection where Washington meets three other streets. The little restaurant is painted vivid saffron, red, cobalt, green. Potted plants, dream catchers, and a mural of pyramids and palm trees are among the decorations, an assortment of crystals on the counter. A message written above a window reads: “Everything made with love.”
Those aren’t empty words.
Jahriffe Mackenzie and Nahdra Ra Kiros just marked the first anniversary of their restaurant, along with partner Chesterfield Coppin. To celebrate, they threw a free party with live music and invited the whole community. Mackenzie is the frontman for reggae band JAH-N-I Roots Movement and also runs a landscaping company; Ra Kiros is a fashion designer. The couple lives nearby with their five children, ages 9 to 15, whom they home-school.
“We put a lot of love in here,” says Ra Kiros, who is wearing a top hat from one of her collections, a flowing skirt of many colors, and a bright yellow apron, her hair wrapped in a long leopard scarf. The tattoos beside her eyes, enhanced with henna, represent her tribe. “This looks like our home. It’s not a show. This is about healing the community as well as healing ourselves. You do that by sending loving vibrations.”
The vibrations are palpable. The restaurant is filled with music, art, the smell of good cooking: aromatics, complex spices, bubbling coconut milk. Oasis serves soulful, delicious fare that draws from both Mackenzie and Ra Kiros’s heritages. Son of a Jamaican family, dreadlocked and bearded, he grew up in the Bronx and Boston; she calls herself “Ethiopian-Roxburian.” The menu is based around stews, vegetables, and grains: the brick-red Ethiopian spiced lentils called misir wat, veggie korma, curried cabbage, bright green kale, spicy African couscous. It is easy to eat the rainbow in one plate. There are also soups and salads, wraps and burritos, and one of their most popular items: Mackenzie’s vegan take on mac and cheese. Everyone who enters seems to order a smoothie, shake, or juice with a name like Ginger Bomb or Life Force or Mango Moon.
Oasis is one of a growing number of black-owned vegan restaurants around the country; the Baltimore-based nonprofit Afro-Vegan Society lists nearly 50 on its website. Some are new, such as Sol Sips in Brooklyn and Sweet Soulfood in New Orleans. Then there are places like Original Soul Vegetarian, open in Chicago since 1982. Meatless diets have long roots in spiritual traditions such as the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, which runs the Soul Vegetarian chain, and Rastafari, with its meat-free ital diet, emphasizing pure, fresh ingredients. (Last year, British reggae artist Macka B went viral with his delightful and catchy odes to cucumbers, mangoes, and other healthy foods he encourages listeners to eat.)
Mackenzie and Ra Kiros are deeply spiritual, influenced by Rastafari and African traditions. Both stopped eating meat at a young age. They opened the restaurant in part because when Mackenzie wanted lunch in the middle of a long day of landscaping, he would have to drive out of his way, to Jamaica Plain or Allston, to find a vegan restaurant. He needed a spot closer to home. It was about food, but it was about much more: health, education, self-empowerment.
“Going back to the spiritual journey, it’s about building things in our community we need. Being proactive, not waiting,” he says. “Getting this place open, it was: Look, we need a healthy choice in our community. Everyone is afraid of gentrification, but it means opportunity for those who have creativity, for those who have guts. So I’m going to try, and if it wins, it wins. And the reception has just been crazy.”
On a recent weekday afternoon, people begin filtering in early for lunch: a woman in yoga gear, likely headed to the nearby 4 Corners Yoga + Wellness, also opened last year; an editor from The Bay State Banner; a young man with dreadlocks; a mother with her tiny daughter, wearing matching head wraps.
“I come once or twice a week,” says Stephanie Oliveira, a recent vegan living in East Boston whose work often brings her to the area. “If it’s not, I’ll make it my route. The food is worth it. It’s delicious.”
Since Ned Cantave of Milton first visited the restaurant last year, he has built a friendship with Mackenzie and Ra Kiros. “There’s a positive attitude, a positive vibe,” he says. “Everyone here is like family. I’ll be sitting here for four hours talking to somebody I just met walking through the door.”
People come to Oasis from all over, he says: “Natick, Norwood, Wellesley, Needham. There are people from the inner city, people from downtown. Everybody is welcome. I feel like Boston always needed something like this.”
Indeed, the restaurant is aptly named, an oasis in Trump’s America, where everyone is treated with care, respect, and kindness. “The food here is not just food. It’s caring; it’s nurturing. People come in not so happy and once they eat the food here, their energy has switched,” says cook Clyde Castellano, who says his bosses have become like parents to him. When a toddler grabs the glasses of the stranger next to her and tries them on, marveling at her new view, it seems perfectly symbolic.
“It’s work, but it’s a loving work,” Ra Kiros says. “It’s a daily practice.”
“We want this to be a real healing center,” Mackenzie says. “If we can get to people’s stomachs, they’ll be open for conversation. I can go on the corner and say, ‘You need to stop selling drugs,’ but if I can also say you can go to Oasis, we are showing you this can be different. Brother Jahriffe and his family did this. I’m not waiting for reparations. I’m doing this for my children.”
Among the artwork on the walls, above a poster depicting “The Great Kings and Queens of Africa,” hangs a painting by local artist Thomas “Kwest” Burns. It depicts an alternate Four Corners. Oasis Vegan Veggie Parlor occupies one corner; on the others are a temple, a creative center, a health-food store. People embrace, play, and flash peace signs; overhead the sun shines brightly. The street signs at the intersection read “Peace” and “Love.”
This isn’t just a pretty picture. It is the Oasis owners’ vision for the future. They’ve already approached the owner of the market across the street about one day taking it over.
“The world wants black and brown people to get up and start moving,” Mackenzie says. “The world is waiting for it.”
340 Washington St., Four Corners, Dorchester, 617-237-9033