Vegan Los Angeles: Ten Joints Not To Miss
The Hot Knives Mostly Vegan Cheat Sheet:
How to never eat another avocado and sprout sandwich again
Say what you will about the Los Angeles soul, our celebrity culture and poorly planned sprawl; you can find a vegan bacon cheeseburger in nearly any neighborhood in this city, if you just know where to look.
And believe us, we have looked.
Being both broke and picky about what you put in your body is always a double whammy. Add to that a perfectly American lust for double whoppers and shit gets tricky. Still we find most vegans resign themselves, unnecessarily, to grazing at the same veggie-friendly slop troughs meal after predictable meal at the expense of their own taste buds. And not only is it unimaginative; it’s vegan segregation damn it! Which is why we think there’s something to be said for seeking out those vegan or vegetarian dishes that, like a diamond in the rough, sprout out of an otherwise traditional meat-serving kitchen.
So, here’s a shout out to some of the best vegan dishes we’ve found here in L.A., and the restaurants, food trucks, and beach shacks (whether they are strictly vegan or not) that serve them. And if you really love animal-free grease hit up our new blog section at Hot Knives for postmodern, haute vegan fast food recipes.
Dish: Vegetarian burrito
Why: Leo runs a seemingly run-of-the-gutter taco truck and he’s from Guatemala (where not eating meat can be risky to one’s manhood) but his burrito is still the best we’ve found. A thin but pliable, king-sized flour tortilla gets molded around a steaming brick of spiced Guatemalan pintos, lettuce, tomato, roasted green chile, cilantro and guacamole goop. The result is an insane belly bomb meant to be eaten curbside. It’s also the best late-night drunk food we know and the most authentic truck experience you can get, without getting the gnarly carne asada involved.
Served: Paper plate with wedge of lime, radishes and escabeche.
Where: Glassell Park, near Eagle Rock Blvd./ El Paso.
Dish: Poori (but get it in the Punjab Glory Combo)
Why: Everyone’s been to Indian food before; large bottles of Indian lager, tons of dal, groovy music. Well, you get that at Paru’s but for a much better price and the pleasure of being in the most hospitable hands in Hollywood. The first time we ate at Paru’s we were received like regulars of ten years. That’s how they’ll treat you. The cuisine is southern Indian, which has more of a concentration on rice, coconut and curry (the leaves not the ubiquitous spicy gravy). What’s to die for is the selection of puffed and fried breads: fired in a pan with clarified butter (not vegan!) and stuffed with perfect potatoes. You can dine inside, surrounded by the glorious fragrances emanating from the kitchen and radiant portraits of Psi Babba, which emanate their own intoxicating ether. Dine outside and you’ll feel like you been transported to some haven in Bangalore, or at least outside of East Hollywood. That and there’s no dead animals on the menu.
Served: With a 22oz. of Yeti, and a smile.
Where: On Sunset Avenue right before Normandie.
Cost: $6.95, go for the Glory at $12.95 and get a full four courser.
Dish: Sizzling Squid, Pork, Shrimp and Tofu with broccoli
Why: There’s a novelty to most faux meats (Look at the cute Tofurkey with its little giblets!) that gets old, fast. The solution, as we see it, is stepping it up a notch to scary, realistic versions of extreme meat dishes. Plus, we’re always interested in reliving the danger of gross-outs and potential food poisonings that traditionally come with authentic Chinese menus. So, when we discovered this long-time vegetarian Chinese eatery and fake meat Mecca, we said goodbye to the Buddha’s Delight for good. This dish in particular manages to bind four squishy, blubbery and sumptuous “meats” together with a thick and fiery soy-goo glaze. The dissolving hunks of broccoli and deep fried tofu slabs don’t hurt either. To top it off, the place offers all-you-can-eat lunch buffets of more than 200 fake meat dishes and it’s on the top floor of a strip mall.
Served: On a sizzle plate with white rice.
Where: Monterey Park, 111. Atlantic Blvd.
Dish: Braised Fennel, Roasted Beets
Why: Going to Elf cafe reifies vegetarian food in a wonderful way: unabashed legitimacy. This tiny Mediterranean influenced bistro serves really beautiful food at a really reasonable cost. The ingredients are fresh and the dishes that Elf pushes really let vegetables speak for themselves. Basically what you get at this place is what most of the city/country pays insane amounts of money for and what the mantra of every celebrity chef is: good technique plus great ingredients minus insane flavor combinations equals radical plates. This is where we go to eat food similar to what we love to cook. Which makes us love eating even more.
Served: With greens, grains and port reduction.
Where: In Echo Park, sandwiched between American Apparel and an Abandoned Movie Theater.
Dish: Chicken Fingers
Why: The standard “burger n’ fries” vegan niche is tired. Fried fast food, whether it’s vegetable-based or not, is reliably mediocre and excessively unhealthy. Not to mention, the presentation (grease marks in a brown paper bag) is non-existent. That said, perfecting that cuisine and nailing the niche better than anywhere else is quite a task — one that this beach shack does admirably well. Let’s just say the proprietor is tired of having to assure freaked-out vegans that their chicken fingers are in fact not real. These thickly battered, spongy and rich sticks of fake chicken actually tear apart like a bird. Not only that but the grease that ripples on the crisp skin tastes more like animal fat than anything we’ve tasted in all our years of being vegetarian. Add to that the dash of irony of being located right at muscle beach and it’s the perfect gutter punk anniversary date.
Served: In a fry basket with dill “Ranch Dressing.”
Where: Venice Beach, on the boardwalk
Dish: Vegetarian Roll
Why: If you call yourself a sushi fanatic because you love tempura rolls stuffed with twelve different kinds of tuna, and smothered in mayonnaise and Sriracha, read on. If you ever find yourself looking for perfectly simple Japanese fare at insanely cut rate prices, Mako sushi will be your new favorite haunt, especially if you’re vegetarian. While there are no strange faux fish creations, you’ll revel in the synergy of cucumbers, avocadoes, rice and wasabi in a whole new way. Tempura is light, miso soup perfectly prepared and metaphysically curing.
Served: With soup (idyllic miso) and salad (shredded cabbage, soy dressing)
Where: Next to the Loz Feliz Three on Vermont Ave.
Dish: Vegetarian Bahn Mi Sandwich
Why: Suspiciously, the only place in Los Angeles where you can find Bahn Mi (Vietnamese cold cut hoagies) with any regularity is either Koreatown or Chinatown. Usually to piss-poor results. Thanks to this impeccable Silver Lake sandwich shop, you no longer have to drive to Orange County’s Little Saigon or endure huge vats of duck blood or try to explain in English that you don’t want turkey, just to get a great Bahn Mi sandwich. Here the foot-long suckers are served with the plumpest fake meat loaf (technically called “fake ham” says owner K.P.) and all the fixings: sliced jalapenos, cilantro sprigs, pickled carrot and radish slices (ask to hold the mayo or even replace with Sriracha). The baguette itself is a buttery sesame seed encrusted masterpiece.
Served: Wrapped in paper, split in half, held with rubber bands.
Where: Silver Lake, near Hyperion/Griffith Park
Dish: Vegan Gelato (That’s right.)
Why: Tai Kim, the owner/operator of Scoops, is an ice cream genius. If you haven’t eaten his gelato, or read about his wares from legions of highly respectable bloggers, well, WTF MF? If you’re a strict vegan there is literally no other vegetarian food proprietor in L.A. whose hands you should feel safer in than Tai’s. He meticulously crafts every type of gelato by hand by himself, and takes special pains in creating vegan options that are not even close to a step down from the super-high quality of his regular offering. We’ve tried a litany of Tai’s gelato and among vegan standouts were: Black Truffle, Whiskey Chocolate, Cookie Dough Sunflower Seed… this list goes on. If you have an idea for some gelato this man hasn’t thought up and made, there’s a suggestion board.
Served: In a cup, a cone, or a shake.
Where: Right next to the Bike Kitchen, at Melrose/Heliotrope.
Cost: $2 bucks, 2 scoops.
Orean Health Express
Dish: Chili Cheese Dog
Why: Despite their sloppy appearance, chili cheese dogs are irrefutably irresistible, and for vegetarians and vegans they are pretty goddamned hard to hunt down. The one served at Orean, the vegan fast food pinnacle of so-cal, is simply adorned with yellow mustard, mild soy cheese, diced pickles, and a wallop of a dollop of vegan chili. Said chili, studded with veggie chipped beef and kidney beans, erupts over the sides of the soft bun leaving plenty of excess goo to sop up with any leftover dog-less bread. Or order it alongside their sprout-fortified Salad Burger and let your chili droppings fall where they may.
Served: Wrapped in deli paper, swimming in its own juices.
Where: 817 N. Lake Ave, Pasadena 91104 ( Next to McDonalds, across from KFC and Carl’s Jr’s)
Dish: The 6-foot Vegetarian Sub
Why: There are some occasions when a 5-foot submarine sandwich just won’t do: cheapskate weddings and graduation parties among them. Look no further than this no-nonsense, take-a-number! Italian deli in Glendale. It’s a quintessential market/restaurant that specializes in simple Italian fare at super sizes. The eggplant sandwich is excellent, all mushy fried and stuffed in a crispy white roll, but it’s not vegan and it’s not 6-feet long either. What you’re looking for is the specialty sandwich that the good people of Mario’s will gladly whip up in 10 minutes and wheel out on a gurney, plastic-wrapped to a 6-foot wooden plank. It’s a mess of artichoke hearts soaked in olive-oil, hot and sweet peppers, avocado, tomato, bell peppers, onions, olives and marinated mushrooms topped with vinegar, whole grain mustard and spices (ask to hold the cheese). Remember though, this sucker serves 20 people, perfect for a barbecue or pool party, and once you’re done you can rig it up to act as a plank that those who couldn’t finish their portion have to walk.
Served: As is on a 6-foot piece of wood.
Where: 740 E. Broadway in Glendale.
Cost: $70.00 (plus a deposit for the plank)