We're so glad that Red Emma's (30 W. North Ave,  602-7611, redemmas.org) moved to its current North Avenue location. The old place wasn't really somewhere that we would consider for a Sunday brunch—it could be a bit of an intimidating space. In their current locale, the high ceilings and tons of natural light make a perfect backdrop for becoming human again after a rough night.
All of the food at Red Emma's is vegetarian and almost everything can be made vegan as well. Every time you see the word "bacon" or "egg" on the menu, it is neither of those things. That said, the vegetarianism doesn't feel restrictive—everything we tried is delicious in its own right, rather than "good, for vegan food."
We started off with a couple of coffees, one hot ($1.75, $1 for refills) and one iced ($3, $1.50 for refills). Their coffee beans are all roasted in-house as part of the Thread Coffee collective, dedicated to paying a fair price to farmers and encouraging environmental stewardship in the growing practices. That's all fine and great and should be encouraged, but more important is that the coffee tastes really delicious. As we cling to the last gasps of summer, the iced coffee is especially pleasant. It's cold-brewed, which brings out the fruity tones and keeps it from being too acidic—it's a very smooth brew.
We were excited to try the bacon, egg, and cheese bagel ($6), a bagel topped with scrambled tofu, tempeh bacon, and your choice of dairy or vegan cheese. When we arrived at 11:30 a.m., we were dismayed to see, on the menu next to it, "served until 11 a.m." We were even more dismayed when the person sitting next to us picked her order up from the counter, and it was that very bagel. We should have asked. It looked really good. (Since our visit, Red Emma's has updated its menu to reflect that the bacon, egg, and cheese bagel is available until 11 a.m. on weekdays and 1 p.m. for weekend brunch.)
Instead, we ordered off the regular bagel menu. It's infinitely customizable, with your choice of bagels, vegan-or-not spreads and cheeses, veggies, and faux meats. The cream cheese/veggie bagel ($4) topped with vegan lox ($2) seemed like a decent runner-up choice.
Once we picked up our plates we were somewhat skeptical of the vegan lox. It's from a company called Sophie's Kitchen, so we looked it up, and the "lox" consists mostly of starch from a Japanese yam called konjac. It's basically just a fiber jelly with some seasoning suspended in it—probably best not to think about it too much. It looked vaguely like a thin slice of sponge, and when we tried to rip off a piece to try plain and it was disconcertingly difficult to tear.
Our fears were unfounded. It had a good chew (that was much easier to tear with teeth than fingers) and the flavor was clean and lightly smoky. The texture was slightly reminiscent of the meat version, but homogenized, lacking any irregularity from vein or gristle that would be present in the real thing.
While purists might balk, the vegan lox was very satisfying when piled on an everything bagel with vegetables and cream cheese (we got dairy, but vegan is available). The veggie game was on point. There was just enough tender baby spinach leaves, sliced red onion, juicy capers, and the perfect slice of tomato—thin enough to not ruin the integrity of the sandwich with goop. The only thing we didn't really understand was the heavy-handed dash of dried Italian seasoning. It wasn't bad, but it was kind of incongruous where you might expect fresh chopped dill or scallions instead. We would have preferred a lighter sprinkle of it.
We also tried the breakfast burrito ($8), consisting of tofu scramble, black beans, and cheese. It was served with vegan sour cream, guacamole, and salsa. The burrito wasn't anything particularly special, but it wasn't lacking, either. The finely chopped fresh salsa, on the other hand, was phenomenal—it was very bright and nicely cut through the relative richness of the rest of the burrito. Unfortunately, there was only about a tablespoon of it spooned stingily on the side.
While we didn't imbibe, it's worth mentioning that Red Emma's has a mimosa ($7.50) and a selection of beers ($5) on its drink menu, in case you need a nuclear option for your hangover.
Overall, Red Emma's is a great spot for a brunch, especially if you have varied dietary needs and financial situations in your party. Everything we tried was inexpensive, but didn't taste cheap.