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$20 Dinner

Nothing More Punk Than Slinging Delicious Vegan Southern Food at a Greenpoint Dive Bar

You'll find JJ's Southern Vegan at The Drift, in the back room by the pool table.

The Buffalo sandwich, $14. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Jesse Lipper, the chef and co-owner of the terrific and literal hole-in-the-wall spot JJ's Southern Vegan, grew up in Atlanta and, as he put it, spent "pretty much all of my early adult life" cooking in restaurants. He switched over to carpentry as a profession after a while, moved up here to Bed-Stuy, and settled into a life of playing guitar in a bunch of punk bands including Stigmatism and Suffocating Madness

Jolene Mattison, Lipper's fellow chef and co-owner at JJ's and Lipper's partner in life, grew up in upstate New York and, while she had never had a restaurant job before, she told Hell Gate that "I've always really liked feeding people." Mattison continued, "We've been in the punk music scene for so long and friends are always rolling through, crashing at our house, and they're always hungry. So it was fun for me to go crazy making big breakfasts for everyone. That's me translating how I care for people: 'Hey I made you this.'" 

Jolene Mattison, ready to take your order. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

How Mattison and Lipper traded in (some of) their punk rock life for slinging vegan Southern food seven nights a week at the back of The Drift, a divey bar in Greenpoint owned by the Commodore folks, is a pandemic story. Early on, when grocery stores were some of the only things open, Mattison spied some hen of the woods mushrooms and challenged Lipper to make them for dinner.

"He's the fry master," she said. "And he was like, 'I know how to do this, let's make it taste like chicken.' It was amazing, so we started doing pop-ups with it at our friends' bars, because they needed to sell food with drinks back then." Lipper added, "It was a side hustle during quarantine to keep us from going crazy. And now, here we are running a restaurant. It just kind of happened." 

All of which is excellent news for the rest of us, because in addition to being just very cool and decent human beings, Mattison and Lipper also really know how to cook. The menu at JJ's Southern Vegan, which opened at The Drift last October, features about a half-dozen versions of the couple's awesome "chicken fried hen of the woods" sandwiches, including a glorious Buffalo beast, which arrives dripping with hot sauce and homemade ranch dressing, the battered and fried fungi punched up with a pile of pickled celery.  

JJ's vegan hot chicken sandwich, $13. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

The JJ's hot chicken sandwich is, indeed, quite spicy, thanks to the generously applied seasoning and some kicky remoulade. The "Regina," which comes with a bunch of coleslaw on top, and the "deluxe," with fake cheddar, are among the other sandwich options. JJ's sides bring a lot to the party here as well. I had the smoky collards (lovely) and the mac and cheese (creamy and comforting), but the fried pickles and the mashed potatoes with gravy also sound like equally worthy accompaniments.

Mac and cheese, $10, collard greens, $7. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)  

You order from a cutout window in The Drift's back room, right by the pool table, and you get one of those number flags to plant wherever you're sitting. Either Lipper or Mattison will bring your food to you when it's done. The Drift's vibe is pretty punk, music-wise, which fits with JJ's, and the decor is very "is this the 1970s or does it just look like Ohio," to paraphrase Alex Rapine's recent treatise on the subject.    

"It's been really rewarding," said Mattison. "I knew that making food and feeding people was something that I liked to do, but I never thought I could do it in a real-world setting. So that's really nice. It's also nice to use vegetables in a different way, but still respect them as vegetables. It's not 'fake meat,' it's a mushroom."

And, I'll just add, it's also delicious.

JJ's Southern Vegan is located at the back of The Drift, 579 Meeker Avenue, between North Henry and Monitor Streets, and is currently open daily from 5 p.m. to midnight.

(Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)
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