Sometimes you just can’t choose between listening to heavy metal and finding some vegan-friendly eats — and, at Onion Maiden, you don’t have to.
At the new restaurant, named for the British heavy metal band Iron Maiden — best known for the songs “Run to the Hills” and “Hallowed Be Thy Name” — you can gaze at a framed cover of an Iron Maiden album hanging on the wall while munching on an “Eddie.” An Eddie is Onion Maiden’s very own vegan version of the Twinkie, named after Iron Maiden’s mascot Eddie the Head.
Sitting just 10 minutes south of Pitt in the Allentown neighborhood, Onion Maiden is a punk rock and heavy metal-inspired restaurant that Diana “Dingo” Ngo, Elyse Hoffman and Brooks Criswell own. The restaurant has been offering Asian-American vegan comfort food since it opened in March — but the restaurant caters to everyone, not just vegans.
Whether you’re munching on the “Munster Mash” — sharp cashew cheese plate and pear lemongrass chutney — or the “Kale Satan” — cashew cheese and sautéed kale — each dish is named after the punk rock and heavy metal music that inspires the owners.
The restaurant lies on a street corner, a blue-and-yellow building with a modest sign. When you walk in, the first thing visible is a lit up logo of a large onion printed on the back wall. The restaurant is adorned with punk rock or heavy metal posters and album covers, and various cacti which hang from the ceiling and sit on the windowsills. There are 10 tables and the entire restaurant seats about 36 people.
Dinner at Onion Maiden is busy, but you can get seated right away at Saturday brunch. Music from bands including Bad Brains, Highlords, Graves at Sea and, of course, Iron Maiden plays, but not so loud that you can’t hear the person sitting across from you. By the cash register sits a small glass case with an assortment of vegan donuts and pastries.
Before opening the restaurant, owners Ngo, 32, and Hoffman, 31, were just two friends who liked to cook vegan food. Ngo met Criswell, 32, in high school, when the bands they were in played together. Now, Criswell and Ngo are engaged, and Hoffman is a close friend of the couple.
Criswell said the reason he and his business partners went vegetarian to begin with was because a lot of the bands that they listen to are focused on food politics and animal rights.
“The biggest reason that I was into food was because I just learned from reading the lyrics and looking through CD books and stuff, and that influenced the decision to go vegetarian and eventually we’d go vegan,” Criswell said.
While the three friends always thought about doing something with food, it didn’t come into fruition until February 2015, when they offered their hot “dawgs,” nachos and dirt cake at a local punk show put on by Hoffman’s husband at The New Bohemian church in North Side.
“We got great responses,” Criswell said. “We kind of just kept rolling and things just kind of progressed very naturally.”
Onion Maiden made appearances in 2015 and 2016 at Pittsburgh food festivals, such as PGH Brewtal Beer Fest, Pittsburgh Vegan Festival and Pittsburgh VegFest. The Onion Maiden crew met and connected with other food vendors all over Pittsburgh, many of whom became close friends.
Anna Shaw, a senior psychology and gender, sexuality and women’s studies major and a vegan herself, first saw Onion Maiden at a punk rock show, when the owners served four dishes at a small table.
Shaw said every time she saw Onion Maiden after that, she was sure to get the food. It was always a mystery to Onion Maiden’s fans when and where it would pop up next.
“It was like, everyone was always talking about them, and you never knew when they were going to show up, so they really built up popularity. And everyone was so excited for the restaurant to finally open,” Shaw said.
Onion Maiden eventually served pop-up brunches at Allentown’s Black Forge Coffee House and Lawrenceville’s Belvedere’s Ultra Dive. Their friends who own Lili Cafe in Polish Hill wanted in on Onion Maiden, too, and so they served Sunday night dinners and supplied most of Lili Cafe’s pastries.
Last summer, Onion Maiden bought its first food truck — with no intentions of opening a restaurant. A week later, the truck wasn’t put together yet, and the owners received a call from their friend Bek Hlavach, owner of Allentown’s Sweet Peaches. Hlavach was moving on to a different project, and offered for Onion Maiden to take over Sweet Peaches’ location.
The facility had already been used as a catering service, the kitchen was in place, the structure was set and the place was ready to go.
“It was kind of like an offer we couldn’t refuse,” Criswell said.
With the restaurant now open, Onion Maiden features Asian and American plant-based comfort foods, with menu items varying from hot dogs and tater tots to kimchi and jackfruit tacos.
At Onion Maiden, the Asian influence on its menu comes from Ngo’s southeast Asian and Chinese roots. B52, another vegan restaurant in Pittsburgh, features American and Middle Eastern cuisine for the same reason: it strikes a chord with the owners.
“[Restaurant owners] are doing things that are more personal expressions of the food that they eat that they have a cultural attachment to,” Omar Abuhejleh, owner of B52, said.
In addition to drawing on the owners’ roots, it’s one of Onion Maiden’s goals to smash the stereotypes associated with vegan food. Criswell said Onion Maiden’s menu is meant to reach everybody to show that vegan cuisine can have variety and doesn’t always have to mean settling for a salad.
Eating a vegan diet daily, Shaw said Onion Maiden specifically is making a lot of foods she never gets to eat, like donuts, deviled eggs and cheese. Onion Maiden’s vegan deviled eggs taste just like what Shaw remembers eggs tasted like.
“I hadn’t had a donut in [years], and they’re making donuts,” Shaw said. “I think vegans get super excited when there’s a new vegan place because we can finally eat things that we can’t usually get.”
The word “vegan” can be polarizing, according to Criswell, because some people immediately write off a restaurant if it’s vegan. For that reason, the word “vegan” only appears in one place on the restaurant’s menu — at the very bottom.
Randy Cinski, owner of Randita’s Vegan Organic Cafe in Aspinwall, said she thinks there’s a misconception that vegan food is all rabbit food.
However, the idea is that it’s not vegan food that makes a restaurant successful — it’s tasty food. Cinski said she has customers that aren’t vegan at all, and they just come because they love the food.
“Food has to taste good. I don’t care what you’re pushing or what you’re selling, but if it doesn’t taste good then you’re never going to make it,” Cinski said.
Onion Maiden is focusing on the quality of food that it’s serving, rather than categorizing it. The restaurant isn’t about catering to a certain crowd, but rather uniting all people the only way they know how — through music and food.
“Our goal from the beginning was not really to say ‘Oh, we’re vegan and you have to be vegan to eat this,”’ Criswell said. “Our goal was just to make food that happens to be vegan.”
More than anything, Criswell and his business partners want Onion Maiden to reflect their roots and passions — which includes both music and veganism.
“That’s always been a huge part of our lives — music,” Criswell said. “We just felt like combining the two things that we really love doing was really natural.”