At Strong Hearts, effortless plant-free dining on Niagara Street


In my tadpole years as a restaurant critic, vegan dishes were as rare as chicken teeth.

Today, most operators have embraced the notion that selling vegan chow is part of an overall strategy to cater to as many parties as possible. The range of vegan restaurants has grown significantly in recent years. It’s not because a vegetable-based lifestyle is healthier for the planet and your body, but because it’s good for business.

Strong Hearts co-founder Joel Capolongo explains why the Thai tofu salad has become one of the vegan restaurant’s best-sellers since it was founded in Syracuse 14 years ago.

Strong Hearts opened 14 years ago in Syracuse, a city not particularly known for its hippie contingent. Over that decade, owners Joel Capolongo and Nick Ryan and their team have developed recipes that satisfy workers’ hunger with green vegetables and laser focus.

A variety of dishes including Thai tofu salad, mac and cheese, chicken wings and a chicken wing burger at Strong Hearts in Buffalo.

Libby March/Buffalo News

Now they have brought their offerings to Buffalo, at a downtown location on Niagara Street that was last known as Ru’s Pierogi. It’s a restaurant where you might look back at the menu as you eat, verify the address, and ask your friends to reassure you that you’re not taking any crazy pills: “This is a vegan restaurant?”

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Go straight to the counter at Strong Hearts Buffalo

The order counter and a suitcase full of sweet treats, drinks and food to go at Strong Hearts.

Libby March/Buffalo News

The first thing you see when you step up to the counter to order is a bakery box. In the old vegan days, that might have meant scones that are dry as Sahara, or Wan tofu pudding, whose main contribution to your life was to make you realize there are worse things than skipping dessert.

Your choice of vegan sweets at Strong Hearts Buffalo

A suitcase full of sweet treats, drinks and food to go at Strong Hearts.

Libby March/Buffalo News

But these Strong Hearts Cupcakes ($4.45) don’t look the least bit celibate. They look just like the cupcakes you might have had as a kid.

That chocolate number with the unmistakable white spiral glaze? Yes, it is filled with vanilla cream. And it’s gorgeous. The Fauxstress Cupcake is a warning that Strong Hearts aims to offer customers the satisfaction of their childhood redesigned for their vegan lifestyle. Then, for more mature tastes, the mocha, chocolate cake, Tipico espresso buttercream and dark chocolate espresso bean.

Vegan baking is a strength at Strong Hearts Buffalo

Vegan Cupcakes available at Strong Hearts Buffalo.

Libby March/Buffalo News

Could I say it was vegan? Let me put it this way: I went there as a professional taster to evaluate a vegan restaurant. In a blind taste test, I wouldn’t bet my own money trying to find out which cupcake was made without the involvement of cattle or chicken.

Before we proceed, a note on grammar: in the interests of brevity, this review is plant-based. Suppose every non-vegan noun is preceded by “vegan”.

Strong Hearts starts with a breakfast sandwich called the Egg Trick Muffin ($6). Unlike your drive-thru versions, this one features an eggy tofu patty, a sausage patty, and melted mozzarella, all stacked into a butter-toasted English muffin.

Sun-drenched seating area at Strong Hearts Buffalo

The dining area at Strong Hearts Buffalo gets plenty of sun when it’s shining.

Libby March/Buffalo News

Tofu at Strong Hearts redeems soy quark with a vengeance. The Thai Tofu Salad ($12) made with maple chipotle tofu and Thai-spiced cashews over a bed of shredded red cabbage, cucumber, cilantro microgreens, peeled edamame, and Thai vinaigrette was an all-time loveable dinner salad.

Even weirder was the thrill I got from the Buffalo Tofu Salad ($12). Grilled Cayenne Pepper Sauce Marinated Tofu, Banana Peppers, Blue Cheese Crumbles and Blue Cheese Dressing on Minced Romaine. Solid chow in Zubaz flavors all around, a vegan choice for the tailgate for sure.

Thai Tofu Salad at Strong Hearts Buffalo

The Thai Tofu Salad features maple chipotle tofu and Thai-spiced cashews over a bed of shredded red cabbage, cucumber, cilantro microgreens, edamame, and Thai vinaigrette.

Libby March/Buffalo News

Loaded fries ($9) at Strong Hearts means fries with chorizo, roasted corn salsa, spring onions and homemade cashew-based cheese sauce. Nachos ($8-13) are home-fried tortilla chips, plus all of the above plus guacamole, jalapeños, pickled red onions, black beans, sour cream, and cilantro greens.

Vegan Wings with Buffalo Garlic Parmesan at Strong Hearts Buffalo

Chicken Wings at Strong Hearts. Watch out for the stick.

Libby March/Buffalo News

“Chicken” wings ($13) come on a bamboo skewer that you eat around, yielding bites of tasty protein that I would have taken as a dark meat chicken if I wasn’t sitting at a vegan restaurant.

Vegan mac and cheese at Strong Hearts Buffalo

Mac and Cheese at Strong Hearts Buffalo.

Libby March/Buffalo News

Now I could have picked the Mac and Cheese ($8) from its milk precursor. It’s still a cozy, delicious bowl of pasta, although it’s more reminiscent of butternut squash than cheese. Not so shabby for cashews, roasted peppers, and nutritional yeast, perhaps the closest thing vegan chefs have to parmesan.

Sides ($4.50) include chipotle peanut pasta and creamy dill potato salad.

Vegan Chicken Wing Burger at Strong Hearts Buffalo

The vegan chicken wing burger at Strong Hearts Buffalo.

Libby March/Buffalo News

The Chicken Wing Burger ($15), chicken breast fillet with buffalo sauce on burger, homemade pickles, onions, homemade blue cheese sauce made me wish I was three beers deep, such was its obvious appeal as a munchie food.

Like the other Strong Hearts burgers, it’s a Beyond Burger served on a brioche bun. Many people like the Sassy Molassy Burger ($15), which features avocado, grilled red onions, tomatoes, chipotle aioli, and a molasses barbecue sauce glaze.

The place does not serve alcohol. But there’s a coffee menu and milkshakes come in 30 flavors, including butterfinger, maple, pecan, and pineapple ($7.50 per 16 ounces).

Vegans who adhere to their animal-free principles in restaurants often have to choose between their ideals and their appetites.

Not at Strong Hearts, which has given plant life forms in Buffalo a special greenhouse to let their hunger blossom.

A vegan oasis at Strong Hearts Buffalo

The exterior of Strong Hearts Buffalo, 295 Niagara St.

Libby March/Buffalo News

295 Niagara St, stronghearts716.com716-635-1777

Opening hours: Monday to Wednesday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m

Prices: Sandwiches and burgers, $6-15; Salads and plates, $8-$12.

Atmosphere: low-key, sunny chatter

Wheelchair accessible: yes

Gluten-free: most menus

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