Dr. Ho is battling constant pain.
The man who started the North Garden* cult favorite Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie and used to own the Blue Moon Diner* has been fighting a crippling disease for 17 years. He calls the ailment “late stage Lyme disease,” and while there is some disagreement among medical doctors about the condition’s veracity, it is certainly very real for Dr. Ho.
But he wanted to fight. He wanted a better life.
Danner got off the couch. He started spending time in the sauna, using an electromagnetic therapy machine, and going to the gym, no small feat for a man in the type of pain he describes. He committed himself to a vegan and raw food diet. He opened a new restaurant, “the smallest restaurant in Charlottesville”: Dr. Ho’s Holy Cow. The cubicle-sized joint on Second Street NW is also the only all-vegan restaurant in Charlottesville.
“Everything here is 100 percent vegan, and we don’t use any plastic at all,” Danner said. “We’re saving the planet one meal at a time, or doing our best to.”
Now, a typical day for Danner keeps him off his couch as long as he can stand it. He pulls himself out of bed and heads straight for Holy Cow. He starts a crock-pot full of his Jackalope Barbecue, which has the look of lightly sauced shredded pork but is actually minced and spiced jackfruit, a tree-borne, nutrient dense Asian fruit that’s growing in popularity. He makes his vegan and gluten-free buns out of pancake and masa flour. He sets up prep for the rest of the dishes on his small menu—doctored-up Amy’s organic chili for topping his Banger ‘n’ a Bun (a tofu-based vegan hot dog on a BreadWorks sunflower wheat roll), Chow-Chow slaw for his BBQ, heirloom tomato salsa for his pot pie (crushed chips covered with chili, vegan “cheddar,” and the salsa), olive tapenade for his smoked mushroom burger, and maybe some rice and beans, braised peppers and onions, or soup, depending on Danner’s mood.
Despite his illness, the 58-year-old’s mood is surprisingly upbeat. He can lapse into laments about his health or slow business from time to time, but Danner clearly has a passion for vegan eating. One day last week, I visited him just after 11am, the down time between opening and lunch. He was chewing on a celery stick and happily moving around his tiny kitchen with the help of a cane.
“Let’s get it on, baby!” he yelled when I suggested we try some food. On the menu for me was the Jackalope sandwich and the Banger, both of which were tasty, even for a meat-loving son of a bitch. No, the jackfruit doesn’t taste anything like smoked pulled pork, but Danner seasons it well, and the slaw helps sell the illusion you’re eating an actual barbecue sandwich. Nor does the Banger taste like meat, but again, the total package is enjoyable, with the beans making for a satisfying plant-based meal.
“I’m known for seasoning,” said Danner, adding that it’s not hard to develop flavor cooking without animal products. “Right now, I don’t eat any of this. I do it all by smell and seasoning and 42 years of cooking.”
The two folks who came to the counter when I was at Holy Cow were satisfied with Danner’s work. Teresa Hermann, a passionate vegan herself, took her meal to go, but she seemed pleased with how fast it came out and said the restaurant is “so needed in Charlottesville.” Brian Geiger said he enjoyed his smoked mushroom burger while seated next to me at the two-stool counter. He’s not a vegan, but he said the sammie was good enough to bring him back to Holy Cow in the future. Would the small lunch hold him over until dinner? He said he’d have to wait and see. (I, for one, found myself reaching for a snack come late afternoon.)
One thing that has always perplexed me: Do vegans want the meat-like experience? Making “burgers, dogs, and barbecue out of fungus, vegetables, and fruit,” as Danner puts it, strikes me as counterintuitive. Why not just do vegetables, legumes, and grains well?
“I think people are pleased with the flavor and the taste of it. It’s fast food, something they never get to have at home,” Danner said.
It’s a treat, he said, that doesn’t give you the heavy around the middle feeling a big juicy hamburger does. And for Dr. Ho, food is all about how it makes you feel.
*The May 14 print article contains several errors. Danner is a former owner of Blue Mono Diner, but Buzzy and Allison White founded the restaurant. Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie is in North Garden, not Batesville, and Danner’s full name is Horace Gerald Danner II.